|“Grant Morrison: The Early Years” on sale now|
“Grant Morrison: The Early Years” is the first in a projected three-volume set of analytical texts examining the career of one of comics’ most eminent and influential creators, Grant Morrison. Written by Massachusetts-based literature teacher and scholar Timothy Callahan, “The Early Years” offers not just simple annotations to Morrison’s work, but instead provides readers with plainly-written, hugely detailed studies of every single issue of Morrison’s early works starting with the groundbreaking “Zenith” and concluding with his Dadaist superhero manifesto “Doom Patrol,” creating an invaluable resource to fans of Morrison as well as to those new to his work. The book concludes with a lengthy interview with Morrison himself.
“Grant Morrison: The Early Years” is published by the non-profit Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which is devoted to the study and promotion of comic books as a legitimate artform. “The Early Years” is the first in a new series of scholarly books examining mainstream comics, and will be followed by “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.” Other planned projects include a book analyzing the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Last week, we first discussed the seminal “Zenith,” “Crisis on Infinite Earths,”and Grant Morrison’s beloved “Animal Man” series. In the second part, CBR News discussed with Callahan the tremendously successful yet much maligned graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.” In this final installment, the scholar discusses with us superhero philosophies, how to read, the origins of this enormous Grant Morrison project, and, of course, Morrison’s surrealistic supehero opus, “Doom Patrol.”
What actually inspired you to write a whole book – well, three whole books about Grant Morrison’s work?
I’ve been a Grant Morrison fan since I first saw his American work. In fact, as a teenager I wrote a fan letter in response to “Animal Man” #1, which was published in “Animal Man” #5, the famous “Coyote Gospel” issue. I’ve been following Grant’s career since then and I’ve collected his stuff all along. I reached the point a few years ago where I had all his American stuff, definitely, but I started to track down some of his more obscure British stuff and I realized, this is really more than just me reading his work, I’m seriously committed to this writer. I’ve always had for the past few years an idea in the back of my mind that I would do something with all my knowledge and interest in Grant Morrison.
A year ago when I was at the New York Comic Con, I met the Sequart guys. I’d been reading Sequart a little bit off and on. They were really cool guys and asked me if I had any ideas about a column and I suggested something about Grant Morrison and they were all for it. Originally, one entry would focus on an entire series. For example, 3,000 words on “Animal Man.” I soon realized as I was writing the first column on “Zenith” that I ended up with 20 to 30 pages of notes just on “Zenith” phase 1. I had so much to say about it, I realized that it would be much more than one column per series and that I’d have to expand my idea a lot further than I anticipated.
Grant Morrison is famous and infamous for writing anti-climaxes. You offer some insight into this habit in your book.
That’s something I’ve certainly had to deal with. I don’t know that Morrison’s necessarily so famous for his anti-climaxes recently. As I said, this is the first volume of a projected three-volume set. The next volume will be “The Psychadelic Years” and deal with all the ’90s stuff like “The Invisibles” and “JLA” and “Flex Mentallo.” The third volume will be “The Millennial Years,” which would deal with “Marvel Boy,” “New X-Men” and everything since. I think his “New X-Men” certainly had a climax. You might like it or dislike but it certainly built to a climax, definitely. Same thing with “Seven Soldiers.” Maybe issue #1 of “Seven Soldiers” was too condensed to be a satisfying climax but it definitely built to something.
I think that adds to the whole philosophy of Grant at the time, that he didn’t necessarily have a lot of self-confidence. He didn’t see himself as a dashing, heroic figure, and so his characters tended to be a little bit pathetic, much more pathetic than we’d expect to see from DC superheroes. His stories tended to end with a whimper because that’s sort of how he thought about life in those days. Grant’s life became transformed, mostly by “The Invisibles.” I think his attitude about himself and his attitude of the world changed and he was able to write his more traditional heroic narrative.
I always get really frustrated with people who say “I don’t get it” or “it just doesn’t make any sense.” I just think that people who say that are just bad readers. They just don’t know how to read. To be a reader, it’s not just figuring out the obvious stuff, it’s seeing the underlining patterns, seeing beneath the surface, seeing the symbols and themes, even if you don’t have the background to analyze all those things. There’s no way as a teenager that I knew anything about metafiction or Dadaism or Jungian symbolism, but I understood “Animal Man” and “Arkham Asylum” and “Doom Patrol” at least on some level, and I appreciated them then. As I learned more and received my degree and studied literature, I began to appreciate those things on a deeper level.
It’s funny because I was just listening to some comic book podcasts – I’d never listened to any and wanted to see what I might expect when I was going to be interviewed for this book– and I listened to an interview on Comic Geek Speak with Matt Fraction. It was about how “Casanova” has all this subtext going on but it’s also just a really cool spy story, but one of the Comic Geek Speak guys was just talking about how he couldn’t read “Casanova;” that he just didn’t understand it. He gave it four issues and it was just over his head. And there was this whole debate about whether or not comics have a deeper meaning; whether something like “Casanova” has a deeper meaning, and this guy who hosted the Comic Geek Speak show really believes that there is no deeper meaning. He just says “no.”
To any comic books. His defense was, “Well, whenever you guys play up the deeper meaning of anything, I just don’t think that stuff’s there. I think you’re reading too much into it.” That’s a criticism I hear a lot. “You’re reading too much into it. Those meanings aren’t there.” As a teacher, I face that with students studying literature as well. First of all, I don’t understand that philosophy. But my counter argument is, it is there, because I’ve just shown you it being there. And then their retort is always, “That’s not what the author intended.” I don’t’ care what the author intended, that’s what the effect of the writing is. It doesn’t matter if the author intended it if that’s what’s there.
It’s there whether the author meant it to be or not.
Exactly. In Grant’s case, a lot of it is intended. And the same thing with Matt Fraction; a lot of his allusions and fancy comic book geek stuff he’s doing in “Casanova” are intended, but it doesn’t matter if it’s intended or not. A good example is in my book, when I analyze “Doom Patrol” and I talk about how the three main characters are like “Wizard of Oz” characters. Dorothy Spinner comes into the Doom Patrol. Robotman is totally the Tin Man. You have Rebis, who is a hollow character who’s totally the Scarecrow. Then you have Crazy Jane, who’s afraid of contact with humanity, which is why she created her multiple personalities, and she’s the Cowardly Lion. Grant gives you those character archetypes pretty clearly and when I brought that up to Grant he said, “I never thought about that, but it’s totally there.” So he agrees that the meaning is there, but he didn’t intend it, yet it doesn’t make the meaning any less significant.
It’s interesting that while we’re talking about readers like that, we’ve found ourselves talking about “Doom Patrol.” A lot of people who don’t like Morrison’s work have had a big problem with his “Doom Patrol,” vis-à-vis the subtext and this idea of “creator intent.” It’s interesting because “Doom Patrol” creator Arnold Drake endorsed Morrison’s work, while some Doom Patrol fans have decried it.
The “anti” kinds of sentiments were very loud on the internet recently, when John Byrne worked on a new version of the “classic” Doom Patrol…
… which was a tremendous failure.
In anticipation of reading your book and talking to you, I have been spending a lot of time with those people. I suppose you could call them generally anti-Morrison, people who might be called comics traditionalists – specifically, superhero traditionalists. These are fans who, I’ve learned, feel that in order for a superhero comic to be successful – both commercially and artistically – these comics have to remain more or less unchanged year in and year out. John Byrne actually advocates what he calls “the illusion of change,” whereby an author somehow tricks readers into believing that his characters are growing, that the story is moving towards some kind of conclusion but it really isn’t, and it’s something Byrne seems to think Stan Lee employed and that it’s in the DNA of many superhero mythologies.
In contrast, in your book, you define Morrison’s successes as an author largely in terms of how his work – not only in these terms, but largely in terms of how his work circumvents or undermines or updates the traditional superhero story. I think the question these fans might ask is why is that inherently good?
Look at what Grant did on “Doom Patrol.” He recaptured the essence of the Arnold Drake run in a way that Paul Kupperberg was incapable of doing – and I’ve appreciated some Paul Kupperberg stories in the classical sense, but his “Doom Patrol” was just turgid and stagnant and was just such a blatant attempt to be a late ’80s version of the X-Men with the introduction of the new characters like Lodestone and Karma, who were just ridiculous caricatures of teenagers. That kind of reprocessing of what’s gone before without actually moving forward, without actually having real sense of danger, without any real sense of innovation, I just don’t see the point in that all the time.
You’re a writing teacher and a former English and literature student. Do you use Morrison works in your classes, and as a student did you ever use Morrison work in any of your projects?
As a student back in the old days, I don’t think I could have ever gotten away with bringing in any sort of comic book reference either in my high school or college classes because that was just pretty unacceptable.
You hear a lot about that sort of thing now.
If “Zenith” represents Morrison’s rebellious years and “Arkham Asylum” is his college-age obsessions and “Animal Man” is Morrison’s growth into adulthood, then what is “Doom Patrol?”
“Doom Patrol” is having fun, breaking loose. The gloves are off. He’s experimented through college and he’s reached adulthood. He’s not living at home anymore. He can hang out all night and smoke whatever he wants and watch whatever crazy movies he wants to watch and just throw it all out there. Grant says he never really used drugs at all until about halfway through writing “Doom Patrol,” and you can see that progression because he’s interested in those insane ideas. He’s interested in the boundaries of all art forms, so he brings that into “Doom Patrol” and it gets wilder and wilder as it goes on and becomes much more absurdist. I think that’s just him letting loose. Absolutely.
Thanks very much to Tim Callahan for taking the time to speak with us so extensively about his book. “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” is on sale now from Sequart.
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