Grant Morrison is a very smart comics writer who writes very smart comics, a fact that often results in many of his vocal readers calling his more complicated work confusing.
Supergods, his new prose book on the subject of superheroes, isn’t the least bit confusing. It is, however, slightly confused.
While the book eventually earns its self-help book-sounding subtitle of “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human” in its closing chapters, that subtitle is a poor distillation of the actual contents of the book, which are a bit scattershot.
Supergods is partially a history of American superhero comics (and their British reflections). It’s partially a biography of Grant Morrison and his career in the comics industry, which naturally overlaps with the first concern at a certain point. And it’s partially a cultural history of the concept of the superhero in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the Promethean subject of what superheroes can teach humanity shining through here and there.
Morrison is an excellent writer, in prose as well as in comics-scripting it turns out, and the pages of the book are fiercely passionate, vibrating with authority and conviction on their subject, and thoroughly encrusted with often lyrical sentences and clever, even brilliant turns of phrase.
Despite these considerable virtues, the wandering mission makes it a frustrating read, as does the fact that Morrison’s many tics come to the fore almost immediately, and can make for a rather uncomfortable read (perhaps especially for those of us who have heard versions of many of these stories before, and from different perspectives).
Spending so much time with Morrison’s words, without an artist acting as intermediary and without a month or so wait between chapters, Morrison’s tics are here inescapable. He has an unfortunate tendency to slip into talk of drugs, not just the many, many drugs he’s done and his experiences with them (two of the book’s key literal epiphanies come while he’s on drugs, whether or not they were the cause of his visions), but also in his metaphors. These he also tends to repeat quite a bit.
Morrison also has a tendency to look backward at comics history from its future, our present, and claim that comics predicted broad cultural trends or specific pop culture products, which may or may not be true, but feel true, even if it’s easier to spot these things in hindsight (like assigning real-world events to fit Nostradamus’ predictions, for example).
Worse still is his Stan Lee-like tendency to, if not quite take credit for something, to at least point out he thought of it first, or did something like it first, or had a hand in it.
You’ve probably heard of his strange, strained mentor/friend-turned-alienated-rival relationship with Mark Millar; some of that gets mentioned in passing, including that Morrison got Millar many of his original jobs and essentially co-wrote much of Millar’s earlier, better work (Morrison even mentions recommending Millar to Marvel for The Ultimates, and to point out that Millar’s takes on Thor and The Hulk were Morrison’s ideas). He also shared a story with Neil Gaiman that ultimately inspired Coraline, calls Warren Ellis' The Authority his JLA meets his Invisibles meets Kingdom Come, says Ellis' Planetary followed his Flex Mentallo point of view, Civil War his Zenith work (an early Morrison comic discussed at length, but, sadly, not excerpted at all — the book is badly in need of images and samples) and he even wrote an unused screenplay that was similar in basic plot to Batman Begins.
I don’t challenge any of this, and Morrison is obviously ahead of the trends in many cases and his work has inspired other creators, but it seems gauche to keep bringing it up. Perhaps that’s because the many creators Morrison discusses are his peers, rivals, colleagues and bosses — it’s nice to get a book like this that’s unafraid to engage in industry gossip from a working creator, but, at the same time, it makes one suspicious of the writer, who becomes an unreliable narrator of his own career. This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that early on in the book, Morrison says he was acting a part, an invented persona as a sort of demonic, enfant terrible punk early in his career, publicly sneering at Alan Moore’s work and engendering animosity. How does a reader know he’s not still playing a part?
There are comparable weaknesses in each of the major elements. Morrison’s discussion of comics history, particularly before the part where he started engaging it as first a reader, then a participant and then a driving force, is at its best when he discusses it in broad metaphorical terms, like saying National Comics had chained Shuster and Siegel’s original anti-establishment socialist Superman and enslaved him, or implying that the rise of Marvel was a sort of curse from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel placed on National for their suing him off the newsstands.
But the scholarship here is shaky (and unsourced), the handful of "Books on Comics" in the "Suggested Further Reading" section of the back of the book consisting of the work of classic writers on comics history. This lack of sourcing leads to some rather impolitic statements (at least one of which has already been notably aired out in publicity interviews).
When Morrison discusses his own biography and career, however, the only real weakness beyond the occasional discomfort of hearing him diss Moore or praise Jim Lee and wondering whether he means it, is how little detail he can go into.
For example, at the dawn of his interest in the occult, he mentions his performance of his first ritual:
Skeptical but willing to try anything that might improve y luck, I performed a traditional ritual and on cue witnessed the appearance of a blazing, angelic lion head, which gave me quite a jolt when it started growling out the words “I am neither North nor South.”
I would kind of like to hear more about that particular miracle, but Morrison talks more about the sorts of drugs he used, the clothes he wore and how much he and Peter Milligan drank at conventions. Later he states, “I performed rituals of all kinds to see if they worked, and they delivered every time.”
Few of these are given much attention or discussion in the book, even when a voodoo-summoned scorpion entity attacks his aura and almost kills him (until he’s visited by Christ in the hospital and bargains away the deadly bacteria in his body). The most attention goes to his infamous Kathmandu visitation by angels/aliens/entities, which enlightened him (and gave him his own superpower, “5-D” vision).
It’s not as crazy as it sounds in summary, and Morrison acknowledges various interpretations, but what matters most to him is that the effect was real, and it changed his life for the better. He occasionally even slips into a weird, guru-like argument that these beliefs have made him both famous and a lot of money, as if the invisible hand of the free market has validated his shamanic experiences.
Essentially, Morrison narrows his discussion of the occult and his experiences with it to the points where it intersects with superheroes, and his conception of the DC and Marvel universes as real, what his visitation from Superman through a cosplayer reveals about his process (you can’t argue with the results of All-Star Superman!) and what the 5-D aliens taught him about the universe are all fascinating, even important insights — particularly to superhero comics and the creation thereof.
So, too, are his insights into the way in which superheroes seem to be marching toward us (from comics to more realistic media like film to the rise of real-life superheroes) at the same time we’re marching toward them (through technology and worldview).
It’s well worth immersing yourself in the book then, whatever your level of interest in comics and superheroes (and if you’re reading Robot 6, you’re going to get a lot out of this, as you already know all the players), even if it is at times a frustrating read.
It's a frustrating read because Morrison seems to be trying to write two or three different books at the same time, between the same covers, because of his controversial appearance within the story itself and because he suggests dramatic, more exciting stories and events by mentioning them in passing or offering only cursory descriptions, leaving it to the reader to imagine them in full in their own heads.
So I guess it’s not all that different from his superhero comics writing after all.
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison, Spiegel & Grau, 465 pages, $28