"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.
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.
The Sequart guys were totally interested in that approach, my really, really close reading of the work. I started writing and pretty soon we all realized, hey, this could make a book. We thought about what would be a logical end point for the first phase of Grant's career, and when I ended up interviewing Grant he seemed to agree after "Doom Patrol," that was the end of Phase 1 of his career. He went on vacation and came back and started working on "The Invisibles" after that. Really, we ended up with a perfect amount of material and we published a book about it.
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.
But I would say Morrison's early work was full of anti-climax. I think you can take Morrison at his word when he confronts Buddy Baker at the end of "Animal Man" and says that he always expected more; like he wanted a big finale for the "Animal Man" arc but things just didn't work out that way. Grant himself, in our interview, talks about how that represents how he was at that stage. He wasn't a guy who could write that type of traditional story arc. He was a guy who wrote a lot bout superheroes who were pretty weak and got beat up all the time. His superheroes during the entire late '80s and early '90s, they were really bad at being superheroes. They hardly ever won any battles. They're constantly just being pushed around and roughed up by everyone. Even Buddy Baker's wife is tougher than he is.
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.
As popular as Morrison is, there are a lot of comics readers who simply just don't "get it." As your book details, Morrison's work tends to be deeply layered and in some cases difficult if you're not familiar with the literature or philosophy that he's weaving into his work.
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.
So, I just don't understand this thing of things being too complicated or not having any deeper meaning. You just have to be willing to do a little bit of work as a reader. It should have meaning. Going back to T.S. Elliot and the whole "Waste Land" thing, T.S. Elliot's belief in poetry was that life is challenging and unpredictable and chaotic and ambiguous, and if poetry is some kind of reflection of life, poetry should be challenging and chaotic and ambiguous, too. I don't think we should necessarily expect anything less from comic books. If we read a comic book and it means something to us, I think it does have meaning, whether or not it's the exactly the meaning that somebody else gets out of it. That's my take on this whole thing.
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?
I like the Silver Age stuff. I like John Byrne sometimes. I can appreciate a well-told, classic superhero story that doesn't subvert anything. But on the other hand, why do I need to read that every time? I've already read those stories. I can in fact reread them. And now they're more readily available than ever. There are all these Archives and Masterworks and Essentials, and those stories are great to reread. But why not shake up the status quo a little bit? Why not have some progression?
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.
To me, doing something new is always more exciting to read. It's always more fun to follow the series because you want to see what Grant's going to do next. Even if you read a lot of Morrison and you know he's got the same patterns over and over, it's still surprising to see where he's headed next. I don't really see why you'd want anything less. Why would you want something you've seen a million times before? I just don't understand that philosophy in literature, in cinema or in comic books. To me, that Hollywood mentality of just churning out a sequel that's the same story over and over… it just causes everything to feel dead. I'm all about breaking new ground and innovation, and I think Grant Morrison has continually pioneered that.
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 teacher, I have never used his texts fully, but I have used excerpts, especially when teaching about metafiction. Metafiction is really hard to get students to understand because they're so used to the Suspension of Disbelief and pretending that the narrator's a character and pretending that the story's really happening somewhere. When you point out metafiction and say, "well, here's someone telling a story about this being a story," they have a hard time grasping that concept. One of the things that I show them to give an example of that is some pages from Grant Morrison's "Animal Man." Grant shows Buddy Baker looking at us and now all of a sudden he's creating a metafictional space between the reader and the character. And so I've used it in that regard.
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.
Yeah, I know! Even back then, I've always seen my career heading in that direction, as someone who would apply these sort of scholarly techniques to comic books. In fact, when Scott McCloud's book first came out, "Understanding Comics," even though I enjoy that book and I appreciate that book, I don't necessarily agree with most of what McCloud says overall. But I wrote him a letter saying I really want to do that, I really want to write scholarly, analytical books about comic books. I never heard back from him.
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.