In myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to bring to the people. In comics, a rocket from Krypton crash-landed in Smallville, Kansas to start a new heroic age. And in our own reality, a somewhat less dramatic but hopefully equally seismic event happens this week: the first full-length prose book from comics writing superstar Grant Morrison.
On sale this week is “Supergods” – Morrison’s over 400-page meditation on the history of superheroes, their humanistic underpinnings and his own personal history writing characters from Superman to the X-Men and beyond from Random House’s Spiegel & Grau imprint. Subtitled “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human,” the book took nearly two years for the Scottish scribe to research and writer, and to celebrate his release, Morrison has been making rare appearances for readings in UK comic and book stores. “It’s always fun to meet the public,” the writer told CBR News. “It’s nice to see people actually standing in line and meet them face to face. I haven’t really done much of that. I usually do San Diego every year, but because of ‘Supergods’ I’ve done a run of store appearances and talks, which has been a lot of fun.”
In advance of another San Diego convention and the release of the book on store shelves this week, Morrison gave CBR a look into how he went from comics writer to comics scholar, what the original “Action Comics” changed about his approach to superheroes in general, which ’70s Marvel epic heavily influenced recent works like “Final Crisis” and much, much more.
CBR News: With “Supergods,” you’d originally been approached about participating in a book reprinting interviews with you, and somehow that morphed into your mission statement on the superhero as a whole. What was it about this project that hooked you in for such a big undertaking?
Grant Morrison: Basically, I did an introduction which was meant to be an introduction to a book of interviews, and I kind of enjoyed it so much that I set out on this lunatic task. It just seemed like I kind of had to do it. I felt I was in the position to do it as someone who’s still working in the proper side of the comics business as it is today. There’s been a lot of academic books and a lot of good historical books, but I felt that what I could add was that personal touch of someone who’s sold their life to comic books. This is what happens to you.
You do a history of superheroes from “Action Comics” #1 on to launch the book. What were the pieces you learned for the first time researching this, and what was the challenge like trying to synthesize so much history down to easily digestible chapters?
It wasn’t so much a challenge. It was a lot of fun because I sat around with a lot of old comic books and book collections and sort of worked my way through stuff. The real exciting thing for me was the fact that I kept discovering new things. “Action Comics” #1 has been the biggest revelation for me because I really took that story apart to understand what the first superhero story really was. I was discovering things all the time, and it really refreshed my comic book collection. [Laughs] A lot of things suddenly were more interesting and exciting, and it also gives me more ideas for where we can go in the future.
One thread in the book is the idea that something has made the superhero last -Â that there’s a reason we still don’t see as many big, new stories with The Shadow or any of the other pulp characters. Something about superheroes is very prescient and present. Was that an idea you had come upon before writing the book, and what is it about the superhero that makes it constantly reinvent itself?
I don’t know. I kind of always knew, but writing the book crystalized it down and made me think about it more clearly. And what makes the superhero more current is the performance aspect. That’s what The Shadow and those other guys don’t really have. Their costumes are not bright, and they don’t have their initials on their chest, and everything isn’t out front and popping like the superheroes. I think we can relate to that about them because in the world we live in, everyone has a constant need to be a star. Everyone’s got their own pages, and they all present themselves as these Rock N Roll people or whatever. So I think superheroes are keyed into that parallelism. They’re performers. They’re rock stars, and they always have been. That’s what separates them from the mystery men – the grimy, shadowy figure in the darkness.
From Siegel and Shuster through later chapters on Kirby or Jim Starlin, you cover a lot of the creative life of the people behind comics and how one informs the other, and you make some particular observations about Siegel and Shuster’s desires as artists as well as professionals. There’s so much chatter over the lawsuits over Superman and what not, but for you, did you feel like the characters transcend some of those debates on their own terms, or is that creative personality something that informs how our whole industry works even to today?
Well, to me it’s never been honestly what’s interesting about this stuff. I think the stories outlast all of those complications. You look at the people who created those characters, and they’re all dead. But the characters will still be around in 50 years probably -Â at least the best of them will. So I try not to concern myself with that. These are deals made in times before I was even born. I can say from experience that young creative people tend to sell rights to things because they want to get noticed. They want to sell their work and to be commercial. Then when they grow up and get a bit smarter, they suddenly realize it maybe wasn’t so good and that the adults have it real nice. [Laughs] But still, it’s kind of the world. I wouldn’t want to comment on that because it was something I wasn’t around for. I can’t tell why they decided to do what they did. Obviously Bob Kane came in at the same age and got a very different deal and profited hugely from Batman’s success. So who knows? They were boys of the same age, but maybe some of them were more keen to sell the rights than others. It all just takes a different business head.
I remember seeing you speak at an event a few years back with Tim Kring from “Heroes” and Jonathan Lethem and Mike Mignola, and you were speaking about Superman’s constant evolution: in the ’30s he was a rebel, in the ’50s he was a dad, in the ’90s he had a mullet and so on. What do you make of the superhero as a mirror? Is the form particularly suited to comment on modern times?
Yeah. It’s been really good for that because the frequency of comics is so fast. There’s a turnover every month, so lots of stories are being told, and the comics are able to keep pace with culture and fashion in a way that movies and TV are too slow to do. It’s kind of always been a really reliable barometer of what we’re thinking at any given time -Â of what we aspire to. I think these things are kind of like nerves. They travel alongside – the stories we tell with the times we live in. Comics are quite direct with no middle man with very little editorial interference, so you’re getting direct impressions from the artist straight in the comic. And not only did it run with it. A lot of the Silver Age stuff was predictive of what would happen with the kids who were soon taking acid in 1960s America. In the same way, there were some very strange pre-9/11 comics that had themes which very much resembled that disaster.
We hear superheroes referred to as “modern myths” often, but again, I get the feeling you view it as distinct from Greek myths or American folk myths even when people try to put them in the same box. In what ways do superheroes work against the expectations of those more classical stories?
Well, the comics are very different because they exist in our time perpetually. That’s why they’re a bit like myths, because the characters never really grow old and die. But while you have the origin of Batman, and then you’ve seen the death of Batman, most superhero adventures are happening at a constant peak in the prime of the character’s life.
The book takes your study through from the Golden Age and ’60s Marvels through to your contemporaries like Frank Miller. Were there any comics you had to reevaluate as a reader because you read them here? Anything that you changed your opinion on?
Definitely. The Roy Thomas “Kree/Skrull War” was the one that really got to me -Â the kind of musical quality of it. Thomas ran so many different voices through it and was constantly changing senses and the sounds of the book in a way that was very musically weaved through it. It was a real revelation to me. I just thought that in that comic and the way the artists approached it, it made me think about the potential for how we can develop comics in the future beyond the current movie storyboard thing.
That idea of music immediately draws your own “Final Crisis” to mind. What were you writing yourself in comics parallel to the creation of this book, and how did the latter inform the former?
God, I guess it would be the end of “Final Crisis” plus the Batman stuff that I’ve been doing, and then I finished the book off when I was preparing to write the new “Action Comics” #1, which was a nice, circular kind of ending to the whole thing. It was pretty much everything I did over the last 16 months like “Return of Bruce Wayne.” Obviously, I’d been studying things like reading up on the histories of the characters, and in that history I’d find propulsion for the story. Particularly in that Batman stuff, I learned a lot from the reading I did specifically.
Who do you see as the audience for this book? Certainly, your hardcore comic fans will be interested, but it seems like there’s a bit of a responsibility to try and open a book like this up for the general reading public.
It’s all in that focus. I wrote it to be commercial, and I incorporated so much of my own person history in there with the hopes that even people who weren’t interested in the history of comics could find that personal dimension in the story.
Check back to CBR later this week for a chat with Grant Morrison on his upcoming DC Comics work including “Action Comics” #1 and the final fate of “Batman Incorporated.”