Alternate title, Rocky & Bullwinkle style: “Callahan, I’m Callin’ You Out!”
I’m sure you all read “Cacklin'” Tim Callahan’s When Words Collide column over on the CBR frontpage, but, just in case you’re a heathen, this week’s episode was about the ten best– and five worst– Grant Morrison comics. It turns out, despite our shared love of the G-Mozz, that Tim and I don’t quite agree on the Top Ten. Hence, in the comics nerd equivalent of a rap battle, I shall hit back with my own fresh rhymes, in the form of, you know, my own list.
I’ve got some caveats, of course; unlike Mr. Callahan, I haven’t quite read everything Morrison’s written. I still haven’t finished Invisibles, or gotten to Animal Man, and I realize that’s like being the self-proclaimed biggest Kurt Vonnegut fan in the world and not knowing what Slaughterhouse-Five is. Bear with me. I also haven’t read all of Morrison’s JLA run– what I have is great, great stuff, but it doesn’t show up on this top ten due to my personal incompleteness, so let’s just go ahead and nebulize it as an honorable mention, shall we? (Yes, nebulize is not used as an active verb in this type of context, but you know what, I’m the guy with the keyboard here.)
In terms of the Bottom Five Morrison comics, I’m just going to defer to Callahan on this one. I haven’t really read anything he lists there, so they’re probably worthy of being overlooked.
Anyway, you came here for the list, so let’s go ahead and rock it out. And let’s do it countdown style, like Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Grant Morrison Comics or something. Where possible, I’ll link to a 365 Reasons to Love Comics entry I wrote about the book/run (what we call ’em in Pinochle).
10. The Mystery Play – Art by Jon J. Muth
The Mystery Play starts with a simple enough premise– a small town stages a mystery play. The actor playing God is murdered. The actor playing Satan is arrested. Who really dunnit? The bearded detective you see above enters the fray, determined to find out; he crosses paths with your standard intrepid lady reporter. Nothing is what it seems. Mystery abounds, not just in the case, but in the town itself, and in the detective. There’s some allegory thrown in, some metaphysics… it’s an intriguing work to pick apart.
Many comic readers criticize Morrison for being deliberately dense and confusing. This may be the only work of his, however, that is legitimately so. I hope I’m not ruining anything by saying that the mystery isn’t quite solved, that the story evolves into something more. Morrison refuses to explain the story, leaving it up to us– but I’ve yet to see a really strong argument as to the full meat of the comic. The Mystery Play is therefore a lovely mystery, one that’s stuck with me. It’s a revelation… sort of.
9. The New Adventures of Hitler – Art by Steve Yeowell
I much prefer this reunion of Zenith creators to Zenith itself. Incredibly difficult to find– I don’t think it’s been collected– it remains, however, quintessential Morrison. It follows Adolf Hitler in his younger years, living in England with his cousin and going quite mad. Morrissey and John Lennon live in his closet, trolleybuses are following him around, John Bull’s dog is crapping on his lunch table, and he’s searching for the Holy Grail. Morrison writes Hitler’s descent into mania in marvelous fashion, as his little misadventures get more and more bizarre until he finally does find the Holy Grail, elbow-deep in an overflowing toilet, and at last emerges as the Hitler of history, the man who would be king. Half of it’s hilarious, and the other half is truly disturbing, and you don’t know what’s going to come next with each page turn. I dare you to find a more interesting or entertaining comic featuring the Nazi bastard. Except maybe that one where Jimmy Olsen meets him.
8. The Filth – Art by Chris Weston
Morrison described The Filth as a sort of epilogue to his Invisibles phase– and also as the comic that almost killed him, thanks to those magic sigils and stuff, but which made him a newer, better man by story’s end. And that, my friends, is exactly what happens to our protagonist Greg Feely, who finds out he’s actually secret agent Ned Slade of the Hand, sent to wipe the dirty bum of the world, drawn in gorgeous, lurid detail by Chris Weston. The series is rife with weird, Steranko-Nick-Fury-esque (rumor has it this started as a SHIELD pitch) adventures, complete with Russian chimp assassins and giant flying death sperm. There is some deeply bizarre stuff in this series, but in the end, it’s about a guy who just wants to take care of his cat.
As Greg Feely’s life unravels around him, Morrison takes us through his usual metafictional, multi-layered worldview. He drags us through the muck so that we may understand. The entire thing comes to fruition in one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever read in comics: Greg Feely holds the excrement of the world in his hands and says “I wanted an explanation. I wanted it all to make sense but it’s just shit. … What am I supposed to do with this?” The answer? “Spread it on your flowers, Greg.” Like all Morrison comics, it’s about personal transformation, the individuation of the main character, and the self-actualization of the reader. Brilliant work.
7. Seven Soldiers – Art by J.H. Williams, Simone Bianchi, Cameron Stewart, Frazier Irving, Ryan Sook, Yanick Paquette, Doug Mahnke, and all the guys who tag-teamed on Mister Miracle
I made this one #7 just to be cute. Oh, what a wondrous experiment this series was to behold and experience as each issue hit the shelves. Each mini more or less standing alone, but all tied together into a magnificent tapestry, a coat-of-arms of many colors. Morrison doesn’t just tell one transformative epic here, he tells seven– heck, maybe more. “We’re telling stories about human dignity, Jake!” Boys, girls, men and women finding themselves and becoming heroes– legends. Disparate genres working together, unbeknownst to their protagonists, to form a well-oiled machine, seven storytelling engines powering one automobile. Stuffed with fresh ideas, fun new revamps. Any one of these mini’s would have made a great ongoing series– and of course, none came to fruition, and pretty much all the characters and ideas here have more or less laid fallow since, aside from the occasional radar blip.
It was a sprawling, lovely mess that congealed into something great. But don’t listen to me, go ahead and listen to Burgas, what with the 31 posts he did on the series back when.
6. New X-Men – Art by Frank Quitely and a whole lotta other dudes
Ahh, the gateway drug. The comic that turned me onto Grant Morrison comics. This run features similar trappings of Morrison’s later Batman run, a run you’ll note is not on this list. That’s because G-Mozz did it better here, turning the storytelling engine of the X-Men into the actual story. It took all the old X-Tropes and held them up to the light, spun them around, and then broke them. It used its love of the past to usher forth the electric air of the future. It had its ups and downs and its artistic inconsistency, but it also had twists and turns and air-punching moments. It was loved and hated by so many nerds, but it’s the series in which Grant Morrison took hold of my brain and never let go. Wild Sentinels! Xorn! Weapon Plus! Xavier’s as an actual school! And poor, lovely Beak. Good times.
5. Kill Your Boyfriend – Art by Philip Bond
I unabashedly love this comic. I’ve said before it’s the perfect pop comic, and I stick to it– it invites itself into your life like a Britpop song bursting from the radio, and it doesn’t stay past its welcome. I am so happy Vertigo recently reprinted this so more future madmen may enjoy it. Kill Your Boyfriend is a mile-a-minute farce where Boy meets Girl and they go on a crime, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll spree through England like a cooler, sexier Bonnie and Clyde. Every line is quotable, and most of them are hilarious. It’s the definition of the word zany– a relentlessly charming, madcap, joyful romp. Seize the day. Do something clever, or something stupid. Kill your boyfriend.
4. We3 – Art by Frank Quitely
I almost didn’t buy this comic. I didn’t think it sounded that cool. But then Bandit looked up at me from the cover of #1 with those big browns, and I had to have it. We3 is, I’m pretty certain about this, a perfect comic book– all the heart and soul of a Pixar film with all the terror and grit of an 80s action blockbuster. Brilliant in its construction, marvelously paced, redefining the way a comics page can be constructed, all the while tugging at one’s heart strings with all its might. You cannot be a human being and not completely fall in love with this comic. It’s a pinnacle of comics achievement. And yet there’s three more comics on this list.
3. All Star Superman – Art by Frank Quitely
The Last Superman Story. The perfect Superman story. Morrison’s Man of Steel is the ultimate good– always kind, always believing anything is possible, that any man is capable of greatness, capable of being super. He’s a shining example to the world, and he is not alone. As the spirit of Jor-El says in the final chapter: “You have shown them the face of the man of tomorrow. You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl… and curse… and finally… they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.” Morrison holds a mirror up to Superman, putting numerous funhouse versions of him into the tale: Super-Lois, Bizarro, Zibarro, Bar-El, Luthor, the Supermen of the future, and more… but there is only one Superman. The mirror reflects not just his image, but his legacy, and his mythos, and it all coalesces into the greatest of tales. And Quitely draws the crap out of it.
2. Seaguy – Art by Cameron Stewart
Seaguy is a boy’s adventure tale in the form of a fugue. It’s a coming-of-age story– childhood’s end, by way of a superhero tale. His perfect, simple, Prisoner-esque world grows in strangeness and complexity around him, and he’s gotta learn to grow up fast. Mickey Eye’s evil revealed, Xoo’s dark secret, the secret origin of the moon, and more! Superhero tradition meets absurdism as the story goes along, and it all wraps back around again like a moebius strip. We didn’t need a sequel, but I’m glad we’re getting the two follow-ups Morrison intended. We’ll get to see Seaguy’s surly teenager phase and his evolution into a true adult, and I hope the sequels include all the emotion and excitement of the original mini-series, one of my favorite comics of all time.
1. Flex Mentallo – Art by Frank Quitely (boy, that guy gets around!)
But then there’s my favorite comic, period, and it is, of course, Flex Mentallo. You all knew it would be. So impossible to find and most likely never to be reprinted, Grant Morrison himself advocates the illegal downloading of it, just so you can experience it. It’s the ultimate synthesis of G-Mo’s pet themes– personal transformation and superhero metafiction. I’ve run out of positive, hyperbolic adjectives. Let’s just call it great– the work that made me believe in superheroes, wholeheartedly. It’s a love letter to the very concept of the superhero; it looks at each past era of superhero comics and invokes the next. It weaves a divine spell to make those heroes real– and it succeeds. It transforms its characters– and its readers– through the power of belief. It’s the Holy Grail of comic books, and not located in Hitler’s overflowing toilet. Seek it out at your own peril (and expense).
So that’s that. In the end, Tim Callahan and I shared three books in our top ten– and hey, I just think that goes to show how much great stuff Grant Morrison has written over the years. They’re all worth reading after all– those “shitty, amazing comics.” Bless ’em.