A plunge into the mind of Grant Morrison is, as Gotham Chopra said during the Comic-Con International 2013 panel dedicated to the writer’s newest work, “a total mind-fuck” — and he’s right. Morrison’s latest project, a motion comic adaptation of Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, combines everything Morrison is known for: mysticism, philosophy, esoteric nuance, gods and heroes. Partnering with Graphic India, Morrison has re-imagined one of the seminal myths of the East with Western influences and his own particular brand of the fantastic. The animated adaptation of “18 Days” has been in the works for years and has finally reached completion. It launched on August 5 as part of YouTube’s Geek Week with weekly episodes to continue throughout 2013.
Morrison was joined by Graphic India co-founder Gotham Chopra and co-founder and CEO Sharad Devarajan in a discussion about the history of the Mahabharata, the blending of Eastern and Western storytelling and the future of superheroes.
The panel began with a clip from the series featuring lush, colorful artwork swirling with cosmic details. Although the Mahabharata spans hundreds and hundreds of years, Morrison narrowed in on a part of the story that chronicles the Kurukshetra War, an 18-day long battle between two groups of cousins — the Kauravas and the Pandavas — for control of the throne. Morrison found the war symbolic for every battle that’s ever been fought, including the day-to-day moral struggles we all face. “By choosing to focus on the 18 days and the battle, we went for what I think is the most exciting element of the whole story,” Morrison said.
Morrison spoke about the origins of “18 Days” and how the concept came about. “[Chopra and Devarajan] came to me and said they wanted to do something with the stories of the Mahabharata. As you know, I’m absolutely into mythology and I’d used a lot of the background of the Mahabharata in ‘The Invisibles’ when I was working on that. I was really excited about doing it, but what that meant was that I had to read the 1.8 million words of the Mahabharata and try to transform the storytelling techniques, which don’t really fit into anything the West is familiar with.”
The density of the Mahabharata was daunting at first, and as Morrison began to research, he learned that others had attempted to create stories from the same source material with mixed results. “People said it was an incoherent work, written by too many people, with so many threads,” he explained. “But I found that they were looking at it through Western eyes. Once you get into the process of translation, it was really fascinating. The characters in this story are some of the greatest characters ever created by human imagination — really powerful figures that do things that are very real and relatable.”
While the Mahabharata is widely known in the East, Western audiences still need some relatable themes to identify with. “In the era of the superheroes, it was an allegory to the atomic age,” Devarajan said of the important of sympathetic characters representing a generational zeitgeist. “It was an allegory to the Civil Rights Movement. The Western archetypical superhero came from a lot of those movements. Great stories are allegories to larger themes. The story of our generation is the story of globalization.
“Wherever we are, even the process by which we’re making [“18 Days”] where we’re bringing one of the most acclaimed writers from the West to take one of the most acclaimed texts of the East — they come together, synthesize and it creates something new,” he continued. “We bring it to a platform that reaches audiences worldwide.”
The goal of “18 Days” is truly about connecting cultures over common desires, challenges and experiences. “Our hope is that its something that sparks some very interesting dialogue and exchange of ideas, the biggest of which is that most of the Asian epics and themes don’t define good and evil in the same very linear way that we see black and white in the West; it’s much more about the gray,” Devarajan said. “We have heroes that are forced to lie and cheat to win; villains that show nobility and truth. It really is about finding that duality in people.”
Morrison continued by commenting on some of the themes that he felt could be unusual for Western audiences to relate to, specifically the motivations of the hero in “18 Days.” “There is free well and pre-destination. In the West, we have divided these as if they’re two different things. You can’t have free will in a pre-destined universe. What Krishna explains to the hero is that you do have free will, but your will is to do exactly what you’re born to do. It’s a difficult thing to deal with: the idea that you’ve been put here to do specific things and you’d better get them done, because no one else is equipped to do them.”
He went on to explain how this inner turmoil creates unity among ancient characters and modern viewers. “We all go through these things where we’re on the verge of something we’ve always wanted to like travel to another country, or something we didn’t want to do, like fight someone on the phone. There’s always that moment where our hearts give way, but we ultimately know we have to do these things. It’s pre-destined and it’s free will. Every moment of the battle can be deferred back to something that happened to you in the past, or will happen to you in the future.”
Morrison was clear that his work on “18 Days” is about adding to the existing myths of the Mahabharata and changing paradigms. To achieve this, he added a high concept twist in the center of his retelling that changes the meaning of the story for the modern world. “Myths,” he said, “should be pliable. They should be capable of changing every generation.”
Chopra spoke about what he feels the heart of the story is: a woman, Draupadi. The entire battle chronicled in “18 Days” began with a single tear from Draupadi, who was dishonored by her enemies thus inspiring Krishna to declare war. In direct opposition to normative patriarchal society, Draupadi was married to five brothers. Morrison describes her as the “Helen of Troy of the Mahabharata,” and a powerful source of inspiration. Chopra admitted that in the writer’s room, the group struggled with how to portray Draupadi’s marriages. “Just don’t show the wedding night,” Morrison laughed.
Chopra asked Morrison to speak on his writing process, particularly around telling stories about iconic Western mythology such as Batman, Superman and X-Men. Morrison explained that the foundation for his writing was finding the shape of the story. “When I wrote Superman, I thought that he was a solar god. The structure for ‘All-Star Superman’ for instance is circular, like a solar journey. It starts in the summer, midway through it’s in winter and it winds up in the summer again,” he said. “With Batman, it was a sprawling thing based around the notions of clues and puzzles. What I did with [“18 Days”] is at the center is the Bhagavad Gita as a revelation of cosmic knowledge. I built this story outward, like ripples, because what is in the middle is an absolute cosmic vision. On the edge of that vision are these semi-divine beings that are acting in archetypal ways. Further out from that central vision it becomes more human. Giant figures fighting in a battle field for the soul of mankind all the way out to what some guy did last night when he was hungry, and you can get closer and closer to people and real human stories.”
With so many influences coming in from other parts of the world to our pop culture and media, specifically China and India, Chopra asked Morrison where he thought superheroes would fit in to our future. The writer explained the he hoped to develop new characters to add to the existing heroes, noting that the direction of comic book movies and current characters had become quite dark. “The imagination in the West and its obsession with death and decay is becoming really boring to me,” he said. “If I see another fucking zombie…” he murmured, laughing.
Morrison continued by expanding on the current state of our culture’s affairs and why America may no longer need superheroes. “Our stars are idiots who are models and bulimic madwomen. Everything about this, even the way we interact with each other online, has so much hate and deliberate misunderstanding. We’re just having a bit of a nervous breakdown in our imaginations, and all we can see is death and disaster. Most of our stories are dystopian — “Star Trek” has to enter darkness; Superman has to kill. We ask the question ‘should superheroes kill?’ and the answer is no. Killing is illegal and immoral; that’s why heroes don’t do it. That’s not relatable, is it? When did any of us have to ask ourselves the question of should I kill that guy?” he said passionately, to a round of audience applause.
Bringing it back to the future of superheroes in America, Morrison said, “It’s a failure to me of the Western imagination; we have no future if we don’t know what to do with it. So we go to cultures like India and China, where there is a sense of the future. Superheroes are much more important for the East; I don’t know if the superhero works so well now here. He’s been broken down and depicted as a solider as opposed to a hero. There’s a real sense that the emergent cultures in the East are looking for a hero figure, they’re the people who can most use them. Those cultures, I think, will have the heroes be more positive than they are in our culture. But that’s just me!”
Devarajan took the opportunity to announce that Morrison is currently working on his first Indian superhero, which will be reflective of our current state of affairs.
“18 Days” is available via Graphic India’s YouTube Channel. An accompanying book is also available in stores now containing behind the scenes material and content.