Grant Morrison: The Early Years - Part I: "Zenith" and "Animal Man"

"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 simply annotations to Morrison's work, but instead provides readers with plainly-written and 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 detractors) as well as 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.

In this first part of an in-depth interview with "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" author Timothy Callahan, CBR News discusses with the scholar the seminal Morrison works "Zenith" and "Animal Man."

First, tell me how were you able to actually get a hold of some these old books, especially "Zenith?"

"Zenith" was obviously very tricky. I ended up buying all the "2000 AD" back-issues containing Grant Morrison work.

Oh, my god.

As you can imagine, it's really hard to get those. So what I ended up having to do was getting a few chunks, like 10 issues here and 10 issues there off eBay. I found a guy who was selling a lot of these chunks on eBay and I contacted him and said, "I need these issues, I need all these Grant Morrison issues," and he was able to hook me up with almost all of the Grant Morrison run -- for a reasonable price, except it cost almost $300 to ship all that stuff over to America. It ends up being not too bad, like a dollar an issue, so I was perfectly willing to pay that for all those "2000 AD" issues.

It was great to read "Zenith" after having read everything else by Morrison, because you can totally see the seeds of all his major ideas in "Zenith."

After having examined so thoroughly these early works, is there a kind of overreaching theme or idea that characterizes Morrison's early work, or are the books too different to make that sort of statement?

I actually didn't know the answer to that question until I started writing the book. I would have said there were some overall themes in general, but once I started reading this stuff, it was pretty clear t me that there were some major themes and motifs that kept reappearing. I first encountered the idea of fractal geometry and the Mandlebrot set and stuff like that through Grant's work, specifically through "Doom Patrol" and that one issue of "Animal Man" when the Thanagarians attack and there's the chaos bomb -- it's all based on fractal geometry. I encountered those theories as a teenager in those works, and when I went back and reread all that early stuff, I found so many references to fractal geometry, so much so that I realized it wasn't just an allusion to pop science, it was actually the way Grant was structuring the work.

If you look at something like "Zenith" – one of the main tenets of fractal geometry is that the closer you look at a pattern, the more you see the same pattern replicated again and again. When I looked at the structure of "Zenith," within in each phase and the overall four-phase structure, I saw a very fractal pattern and I realized that's how Grant tends to see his work. Maybe that's how he sees the world. He structures it in a fractal way.

For example, the way phase 1 is anticlimactic almost exactly duplicates the anticlimactic structure for the entire four volumes of "Zenith;" a part that represents the whole. It's very, very clear. The same thing with "Arkham Asylum." One of the reasons that a lot of people have trouble with "Arkham Asylum" is maybe it's too dense or too symbolic, and they don't understand some of the stuff Grant's doing with fractals. He actually has the Mad Hatter explain the fractal view of the universe to Batman at one point in "Arkham Asylum," and that's the another connection, this whole idea of the fractal universe and a small part representing the whole that runs through pretty much all of his early work. I definitely saw that as one of the dominant themes.

The other dominant theme would be the theme of transcendence, or the connection between the mind and the body. He seems to be torn between this. There's the famous scene in "Doom Patrol" where Monsieur Mallah and the Brain attack Doom Patrol headquarters, and it's the scene where the Brain and Monsieur Mallah have a kiss at the end and then they explode. That whole issue was about the mind-body connection and which controls which. That theme is in many of Grant's early works. What's the relationship between the mind and the body? Can the mind achieve a transcendence away from the body? He seems to think that would be the ideal state, but then all of his stories end with some sort of devastation. If the mind ever does reach some kind of transcendence, something bad happens, like at the end of "Zenith" phase 4.

Do you think Morrison was writing in the fractal structure intuitively, or do you think it was something he understood going in?

I think it was intuitive. If you ask him, and I have asked him about how he structures his work, he says he doesn't plan anything out. But he also says when he starts a series, he does know how it's going to end. He doesn't plan out all the beats of a ten-issue arc or anything like that, but he does know, he just senses the overall structure. If you ask him how the structure of "this" is very similar to the structure of "that," his answer is, "That's how my mind works." To him, it's this internal way of looking at the world that causes him to structure his comic books in this fashion. I guess in some writers it could become formulaic, but I'm constantly surprised by what Grant does. Even though he has this overarching structure, he always presents it in an interesting way, as far as I'm concerned.

Just by virtue of the nature of fractals, a story would always be different while always being the same.


When Morrison got on that train to go meet Karen Berger in the '80s, why do you think he took with him a plan to revive Animal Man of all characters? Do you think it was just because of that little appearance in "Crisis on Infinite Earths?"

He says that he had the "Arkham Asylum" thing well worked out; that was his big pitch, and then he realized on the train that he didn't have anything else. And so he quickly came up with "Animal Man," I guess because Animal Man was obscure and he wanted something that would sell; he wanted something DC would buy. Even more than breaking new ground in comic books, which he thought "Arkham Asylum" would do, Grant wanted DC to like his writing. So he came up with the "Animal Man" pitch, which he pretty clearly based on the Alan Moore-style approach to superheroes, and he only envisioned it being four issues. The B'Wana Beast would come back and it would be this dark and twisted look at animal experimentation. I would assume he chose Animal Man simply because Animal Man wasn't being used and he could take a comical and completely absurd in-a-great-Silver-Age-way character and do something that was more serious and had more resonance in the post-modern age, much in the way Alan Moore would take a ridiculous character like Marvelman and update him for the '80s. I don't think there was a necessarily an ambition on Grant's part other than to get work at DC.

And Morrison did end up, as you say in your book, abandoning that Alan Moore-style approach.

Definitely. In issue #5 he said, "Nope, I'm going in a different direction, Alan Moore," and then he went off and into the metafictional realm. One of the things I concluded in the book, which I guess I sort of knew but never actively thought about, was that the main difference between Alan Moore's approach to comic book writing and Grant Morrison's approach is that Alan Moore is an ironist – he's all about the irony underlining everything that happens in comic books and reality – and Grant Morrison is an absurdist. If you look at their work side by side you can see that emphasis. Grant believes that everything is just inherently ridiculous , and he confirmed that when I talked to him. He said, "Yeah, absolutely." He takes things seriously and stuff matters to him, but at the end of the day, the whole planet is just "bloody ridiculous."

Not just comics but the world.

The world, yeah. Not just comics but everything is ridiculous. He sees the world through an absurdist lens, so his comic book writing of course reflects that.

In the book, you say that in a paradoxical way, "Animal Man" is perhaps Morrison's most complete work.

I think because it has the human, personal touch that some of his later work maybe didn't have. What I mean by that is there are parts of "Animal Man" that are very technically impressive. When he's dealing with the whole metaphysical and metafictional realm Animal Man inhabits and the relationship with the creator and the created, that's all fancy stuff. And it's fascinating. But Grant balances that with this really powerful human story about Buddy Baker and Buddy Baker's struggle to get his family back. His family is brutally slaughtered and he's got that great image, where after Buddy Baker and James Highwater are taking peyote on the mesa and meeting the reading audience and talking about the second Crisis and all that stuff, which is all metafictional fun, he goes back home to find his family as been brutally killed and they're bleeding on the floor.

The way Morrison's able to have that sucker punch, that brutal humanity to the story, I think makes "Animal Man" his most complete work. It's got the human element. It's also got the fancy narrative stuff going on. Whereas something like "Doom Patrol," which I enjoy immensely, doesn't quite have that humanity to it the way "Animal Man" does.

That is a common criticism of Morrison's work, that he has amazing ideas and as you say can be technically dazzling, but doesn't really leave you with a character you love, like a Buddy Baker.

I don't necessarily look for that when I read comics, or literary fiction for that matter. I'm more interested in the technical virtuosity, that's what I look for. That's what gives me pleasure. That's what makes me come back to a work of literature. On the same token, Grant is able to make me emotionally connect with Buddy Baker in a way I've rarely connected with other characters in any sort of fiction. I think he's done something maybe a little more sophisticated, but also more instinctual. Maybe he wasn't trying to be so technically impressive back then and was just trying to write a good story. He certainly was much more of an emotional writer back then. Obviously, as a writer, at the end of "Animal Man" he lays his soul bare and talks about his failures. I think he's being pretty sincere there. And also the whole idea of the animal rights stuff and the cruelty to animals, all those subplots are definitely from the heart and I think his interests maybe became more intellectual after that. Maybe that's why some readers are left a little cold by his work.

What do you think about "Crisis on Infinite Earths'" influence on Morrison? I sometimes wonder if that influence is more profound than he lets on. "Crisis" is hugely important to the plot of "Animal Man," and Morrison has returned to it again recently in the form of "52," and in a kind of rebellious way in "All Star Superman." It's kind of a "Screw you, 'Crisis!'" book.

Yeah, it's like, "Okay, everything after 'Crisis' didn't happen. This is the pre-'Crisis' Superman and he's always been around and screw you, John Byrne." I get that sense. And also, "Zenith" phase 3 is the British version of "Crisis." It totally is. In my interview with him, he says "Crisis" was coming out in a time in his life when he was not that interested in superhero comics. He enjoyed it as a superhero spectacle, but he was more interested in the underground, alternative stuff that was going on. He was more of a punk rock kid. He could appreciate "Crisis" as being cool superheroes stuff, but he wasn't really that into it.

However, I think it fits right into a lot of his themes. He certainly has a lot of apocalyptic overtones in a lot of his writing, and "Crisis" fits right into that scheme. The thing that "Crisis" did well just naturally jibed with what he was interested in anyway. And then there's the whole idea of continuity. I think the thing about "Crisis" is "Crisis" is definitely a rejection of the Silver Age, and grant Morrison continually wants to bring back the Silver Age and reinvent the Silver Age. In that sense, "Crisis" is a major influence on him just because of the way it treated all those Silver Age characters and wrote them out of existence. So, I think in that way it is certainly important to his work.

Buddy returned in "52," and it's the only example I can think of Morrison returning to one of his major characters, or at least a character with whom Morrison is inextricably linked.

I wondered about that, because Grant is pretty famous for not returning to characters, although obviously he's done Batman several times but in several different incarnations. He hasn't gone back to the "Doom Patrol" characters or a lot of the characters that he's famous for. I guess that was the deal with allowing them to use Buddy Baker in "52," that Vertigo only gave up Buddy Baker if Grant was going to write those scenes, so he was sort of forced into it in some way.

I felt that even though Grant returned to it, it didn't necessarily do anything new or interesting with the character. One of the things I tried to do when I was reading "52" was play that game with who was writing what parts. It was pretty clear early on who was writing the major storylines, but it always felt like all the Buddy Baker stuff – even though I knew it was Grant's work, based on the context and all the space stuff that was going on – I always felt like Buddy Baker wasn't the one Grant was interested in writing. He'd already had his say; he'd already done what he wanted to do with Buddy. He was just sort of putting Buddy through those paces and paying lip service to the yellow aliens and to the fact that he can step outside continuity and get home super fast. So I didn't think it was necessarily a successful return to the character.

In the second part of CBR's in-depth interview with Timothy Callahan, the scholar will discuss with us that most maligned of Grant Morrison's works --and the most successful graphic novel of his career-- "Batman: Arkham Asylum."

"Grant Morrison: The Early Years" is on sale now from Sequart.

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