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Supergods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero
Grant Morrison
Jonathan Cape hardcover 17.99

review by Patrick Hudson

This book will either intrigue or infuriate you. It is by turns wise and foolish, penetrating and shallow, honest and self-serving, true and false, black and white, and upside-down and right-side-up. Are you going to love it or hate it? I don't know. Much depends on your tolerance for breathless humbug. Are you happy to entertain patently absurd metaphysical assertions? Do you enjoy the arbitrary sense of purpose that hindsight brings? Do you love Grant Morrison as much as he loves himself? Well, I don't think anyone loves him that much, but a lot of us kind-of love his comic-books and for that reason, I suppose, I'm willing to indulge him a little, warts and all.

Where I might ask some other ranting, drug-addled, 'new age' bullshit artist to step off I'm willing to give Morrison a break because he is perhaps the best writer of superhero comics working today. Whether on purpose or by accident, he has transcended his roots as part of the modish Brit invasion crowd of the 1980s - kicking over the bins and striking Sid Snot poses - to reach down and find the glossy, sticky, murky core of the superhero genre and bring it gloriously to the surface. For that reason, I figure that it's worth having a listen to what he has to say.

This is a book in three halves. The first half is a critical history of superhero comics; the second half is the story of Grant's own life and relationship with comics; and the third, a philosophical contemplation of the metaphysics of superheroes. As that implies, this is a bit of a crowded story, and while it never quite works as any one of those three, it adds up to something very interesting, nonetheless.

The comics history sections are the most interesting, as Grant (he's a guy that seems to invite that kind of informality) has a pretty good idea of how and why comics works. He has an acute eye for analysing the structure and formal elements of the illustrations, guiding you through various famous superhero images - the famous cover of Action Comics #1, or the opening page of Watchmen, with its "steady, constant focus reverse zoom" from the blood soaked pavement to the Comedian's penthouse apartment - and he picks away at them with forensic expertise.

He focuses on the comics he loves, and those he considers definitional in his 'ages' of superheroes, and these sections are great reading. Obviously, he has impeccable good taste, as well, paying tribute to idiosyncratic masterpieces like Jim Starlin's Warlock, Gene Colan's Tomb Of Dracula, and Don McGregor's Killraven. I was particularly pleased to see Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, and Brendan McCarthy getting some recognition here - the profound influence of Strange Days and Rogan Josh on Grant's work is obvious once it's pointed out. His analysis of so many half-remembered classics made me want to reread the ones I had before and to seek out those I had not.

Conventional definitions have a 'bronze age' between 1970, and an 'iron age' starting in 1985 or so, and going to the present day (I assume wikipedia represents the consensus opinion), but Grant takes another view. He sees the period from the 1970s to mid-1990s as a long single neurotic, questioning 'dark age', after which comes a 'renaissance', where the moral core of the superhero is rediscovered and brought to the forefront again.

It's one of those things you can probably cut a million ways, and Grant argues his own timeline pretty well. If you reconsider Alan Moore as the end of a process that begins with Speedy on heroin, you can see a whole lot of influences slowly making their way into the superhero mainstream from American counterculture, euro-fantasy of the Heavy Metal variety, and contemporary pop culture and rock music. He sees his own early work as part of this period - Zenith, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Doom Patrol, and Animal Man, as well as the work rest of the 1980s British invasion. Rather than bringing something new, he sees this period as one that continues the questioning of the role of the superhero that had begun at the end of the psychedelic 1960s heydays.

His dark age also takes in the Crisis On Infinite Earths, and the whole 1980s DC reboot, the first big crossover to turn an editorial shakeout into a plot device. Grant sees this as the culmination of a trend towards making superhero stories more realistic, driving them down to the street level or psychological realism and moral ambiguity in an attempt to make sense of them.

It is funny to think these days that so many of us thought that Watchmen spelled the end for superheroes. What more was there to say? And yet, Grant's clearly right when he says, "Far from killing the superhero, Watchmen had opened up the concept for examination and reinvigorated its potential." This does suggest to me the beginning of a new era, however, even though Grant wants to stick it on the end of the old one; it even comes with a perfect end for the Superman story (provided by Moore) which doesn't get much mention here, something that is a bit curious seeing as how Superman is seen as a bell weather for his different ages. (The Byrne/ Wolfman reboot also gets scant attention, dismissed rather brilliantly as having "the whiff of prefab plastic smugness that characterised a hit TV show." If nothing else, this book is endlessly quotable!)

I'd heard chat on that Internet that Grant does Moore down somehow in this book, but I don't think he does at all. Maybe there's some evidence of personal differences in the tone, and it seems they've never got on, but Grant expends considerable time on what makes Alan's early work so distinctive. He clearly loves Marvel Man and Watchmen and pays them their dues here with lengthy, laudatory analysis. It is true that he's a little dismissive of 1963 ("a water-treading joke aimed squarely at jaded adult comics readers"), and one might even ask why it deserves mention when he doesn't give much space to Alan's own attempts at re-building the superhero through his America's Best Comics titles (Promethea gets some attention due to its hermetic agenda). What he does do is put Alan in context; when understood in the long view, alongside Denny O'Neil and Steve Gerber, Alan seems less like a bolt from the blue and more like the culmination of something that had been brewing for a while.

Rather than blaming Alan directly for anything, his main criticisms seem targeted elsewhere: "A kind of exhausted resignation soaked in as the comics industry tried to deal with Watchmen by stoically failing to recognise what made it great, concentrating instead on violence, sex and perceived realism." If this sounds a bit rich coming from the author of Kid Eternity, he's happy to include himself in this, and he eventually gets fed up with the all the negativity: "Realism had become confused with a particularly adolescent kind of pessimism and angry sexuality that I was beginning to find confining."

While he explores these new ideas in Flex Mentallo, his 'renaissance' really begins with Marvels and Kingdom Come, the masterworks of Alex Ross, written by Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek, respectively. It's a pretty canny choice, I think, and maybe does mark a change of some sort. Grant writes, "By creating images that made it possible to believe in the reality of flying, burning men, Ross was perfect for a generation losing its strength to dream."

There is something incredibly inspiring about these books, a quality that is, suitably for comics, entirely dependent on the visual style. Marvels is the better of the two, in my opinion, as I find the relentless allegory of Kingdom Come a bit wearying, but neither of them would particularly standout, I don't think, without that breathtaking, meticulous art (in fairness, I don't think the best written comic can survive bad art, while great art is rarely completely ruined by bad writing; Mark Millar's done quite well out of the latter phenomenon). I am not sure, in fact, that these stories quite signal the change of mood that Grant accords to them, either, as they read a lot like standard 'realism' stories, of the 'iron age', to me.

Grant doesn't help his case here, in my opinion, by including The Authority in his renaissance, as it is notorious for an almost Pat Mills-level assault on the genre (although my reading is patchy - I was out of supers for much of the 1990s and early 2000s). The big change, though, is the art. As Grant puts it, "Image cartooning was out, and literalism was in." Out went Rob Liefield and Todd McFarlane, in came John Cassaday, Steve Niven and Bryan Hitch.

Maybe it just took the scripts a little time to catch up with the new look - I guess you could say the same about the 'silver age', which allegedly begins with the new look Flash in 1956, but doesn't really kick off until the arrival of the Fantastic Four in 1961. Maybe, in fact, these new ages are defined by changes in art style rather than changes in theme? Perhaps this gap between imagery and content exists every time the mood changes in the comics' world? Seen in that way, Grant's chronology becomes even more compelling.

Since Marvels and Kingdom Come, we've seen a revival in superhero fortunes and a return to a more inward-looking superhero world of the silver age. Encouraged by superheroes in films and TV, the scope of the genre has actually turned back in upon the fantasy, leaving aside ideas of realism and literal credibility in favour of internal consistency driven by the needs of drama and the dominant themes of the genre. The modern superhero movie is the Robert McKee standard-issue hero's interior journey, and the books have changed to reflect that. Grant's Final Crisis for DC is perhaps (we'll see) the pinnacle of this trend in the comics form, a wonderful, complex, rich and many-tentacled work that reaches back into the subconscious of comics history to draw out everything that is true and beautiful and noble in the genre.

I've written quite a lot about the 'dark age' and the dawn of the renaissance here, as I think this is where Grant's at his most interesting. It's studded with those self-congratulatory autobiographical vignettes - he's from the back-slapping Stan Lee school in this regard - which tie his own work and development to the changing mood. They're hard to take at times but they turn this from straight historical commentary to a more personal exploration of the changes in the world and in the author and how these translate into the work.

His treatment of the golden and silver ages is more conventional and less closely connected to his own achievements, so the stuff about himself is less intrusive. The early autobiographical passages exploring his love of golden and silver age heroes struck a chord with me, as my own childhood comics exposure was heavily ballasted with silver and golden age reprints from Australia, and will likely have similar effect on other comics readers of a certain age. There is something that must be said about these sections, though, and this leads us to the second major thematic seam that runs through the book.

Grant has been pretty up-front about his occult beliefs throughout his career, and so anyone who knows about him won't be surprised to see them get an airing here. He sees the creation of the superhero as an expression of the quest for human perfection, an eternal mission that is most clearly articulated (in his view) in the western occult tradition. This isn't quite the revolutionary idea that it might have appeared in 1980s: he and Alan have been banging on about it very publicly for years, and we've two decades of Goth, too, that's been working hard to bring the occult underground overground to go wombling free across pop culture.

There's maybe a germ of truth in it, but I cannot bring myself to believe in it in anything approaching a literal sense, and at points in the text this was a sticking point for me. One's tolerance for this stuff will very much influence how much you enjoy reading this book. It's not any different from reading a book by a fervent evangelical Christian, the sort that spends a lot of time thanking God for all the blessings in their life. Grant may direct his gratitude at four-dimensional alien meta-consciousnesses, but if you take this stuff at face value the effect on the sceptic will be the same: supreme irritation.

When this book was launched, I went to an interview that Grant did at Foyles bookshop in London, where he expounded on his theories. As best as I can paraphrase it, Grant feels that just as he is able to intervene with, and even enter a 2D comics "paper universe" (while wearing a "fiction suit") there are powers at work in the universe that have an analogous view of our lives. Most are readers, but some are surely creators, and these beings can be contacted and communicated with. In the same way, the fictional characters of the comics' universes have an independent existence of a sort, something that is independent of any individual creator, a set of elements that identify them and endure through their treatment under diverse hands.

During the Q&A, I questioned him about this. I wanted to know how literally he meant all this: did he really talk to Animal Man, or was it just an aspect of himself? If we are writing their lives, then are their extra-dimensional creatures literally writing ours? Well, Grant was funny and witty on the topic, but a bit ambiguous about it all. I didn't really come away with any clear idea on just how literally he took it all. I hoped, in fact, to learn that from this book, but to be honest I'm still none the wiser.

We get a few drug experiences, and disquisitions on the insights they offer, but the trouble with drug insights is that they are ultimately rather banal. Grant's discovery that he is able to travel through time in the 2D comics universe by flipping the pages back and forth has a certain metaphorical truth value, but as an insight into the nature of the universe it suffers from the confusion of metaphor and reality that infects occult writing (Grant's experience of a comic is like travelling in time; he is not travelling time at all in any literal sense).

However, in a drug trip, it is the sensation of travelling in time that's vital. Drug experiences are all about feeling, not intellect, the feeling of profundity, rather than anything that is especially profound in itself. That's one of the great things about good drugs: they shut off your interior voice for a little while and let you listen to the world directly.

Trying to articulate this is notoriously difficult; while Grant doesn't do any worse than other writers on the topic, I don't think he does any better either. We get vague psychedelic blandishments familiar from the days of Timothy Leary and Terrence McKenna, struggling to make the ideas themselves communicate the profound sense of truth that permeates the tripper as they go, but as always the meat of it seems rather pallid once all the sensation is stripped away. Indeed, the emotional content is the meat of a drug trip, and the ideas are just the garnish that provides colour but nothing of substance.

Grant sometimes suggests material effects of his meditations, visions and psychic interventions, but I'm not convinced that even he is totally convinced that these are anything but post hoc explanations of the usual round of happen-stance and coincidence that clusters about our day-to-day lives. It all seems closely connected to Grant's astonishing egoism - the universe itself seems to revolve around him, a feeling that is justified by his beliefs in a universe that can be influenced by the power of his will and, of course, his astonishing success. It's an almost puritan view of the world, with success coming as a moral judgement, and the line between this and simply being driven, ambitious and intelligent is not explored (except, perhaps, in passing, in relation to Neil Gaiman who is rather archly described as "A confident and clever young man with a plan, Gaiman carefully polished and promoted his brand while the rest of us were spending our money on drink and drugs").

If you read all this in a highly literal and materialistic (or even 'realistic') way, it can get overbearing, but I think there's something else to it. Perhaps it's not entirely a belief system so much as a creative strategy, both real and unreal, both believed and un-believed, something more and less than a collection of cranky beliefs. It's an insight into his creative processes, a process that is - as it is for every artist - one of feedback between life and art, art and reality, and then reality back into life, a cycle of influence where what you write becomes what you are, and what you are becomes what you write.

I am not suggesting Grant Morrison is Batman. Let's be clear about that! However, as he himself says about a transcendental experience in Kathmandu, "I'd been cursed or blessed with superhero vision." The occult beliefs that Grant espouses are based around mythic attributes and concepts and these themes are also vital to his work. He has beaten characters down to their elements through gradual whittling away of everything else to leave the shining metaphorical core on show. The occult working is the creative working; contact with the archetypal self is directly related to Grant's contact with the archetypal nature of the characters he writes about. As above, so below, as he frequently reminds us, but I think it's more a matter of as inside, so outside, a matter of finding and working with the inner seam that produces the matter of an artists work.

Are you going to love or hate it? I don't know. It depends on how interested you are in Grant's work, and how happy you are to leave literalism behind and take a walk in the subjective life of another. More tellingly, if you can't stand Grant in person, then this book won't change your opinion of him. However, if you can take a broad and generous view on his beliefs, this is a fascinating and insightful book that seeks to understand genre as an internal as well as an external phenomenon and places the creative spirit above the usual priorities of comics history and criticism.

Supergods by Grant Morrison




Grant Morrison's Supergods



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