[This comic book history/treatise/memoir is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Grant Morrison

2011, Spiegel & Grau

Filed under: Memoir, Nonfiction, Graphic Novel

In Supergods, a nonfiction exploration of superheroes as a fictive phenomenon, comic book writer and artist Grant Morrison argues that Superman is humanity’s greatest accomplishment. From anyone else that might be considered a cynical statement; of all the scientific and artistic achievements, across centuries, nothing scores higher than a gaudily costumed, flying strongman born in a medium that’s not even 100 years old?

But Morrison is absolutely sincere—he contends that superhero comics are not just entertainment for children and fodder for blockbuster movie adaptations, but windows into a separate reality populated by gods that fight intensely pitched battles for good, of which Superman is the best and brightest.

Morrison’s is a delightfully optimistic premise, doubly refreshing when considered next to the daily articles and blog posts about the imminent death of the comic book industry. Those writers worry (rightfully so) about relevance, demographics, and market share, while Morrison knows that the stakes are actually much higher. How appropriate that a book about the history and potential of superheroes aims to save the world.

Writing about Alain Resnais’s notorious experimental film Muriel, critic Gary Giddins states that “a reputation for difficulty is almost impossible to undo.” That’s true of individual texts, like Muriel or Finnegans Wake or Metal Machine Music, but also of entire careers. And perhaps no other comic creator’s career is as obscured by received wisdom about difficulty or inscrutability as Grant Morrison’s.

Part of the “British invasion” of writers in the early 80s that also included Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, Morrison’s interest in surrealism, cut-up narrative techniques, fringe science, and the occult marked him early as a creator whose comics couldn’t necessarily be digested in a single reading. As a result, Morrison is labeled a “challenging” writer, and his work often gets dismissed as “weird for weirdness’s sake,” or deliberate provocations meant to confuse and irritate readers.

What his critics so often overlook is Morrison’s solid storytelling instincts—his characters are never ambiguous, and his plots follow an internal logic that rarely wavers (even if they don’t resemble conventional plots). Supergods is just as readable, perhaps more so considering Morrison has nothing to gain thematically or dramatically by employing unusual structures or oblique dialogue. He keeps his prose light and often quite funny, reflecting the boyish enthusiasm that informs his thesis. Even when discussing difficult concepts like fifth-dimensional beings (more on that later), the text stays lucid and expansive, as Morrison clearly wants readers to follow along.

The structure of Supergods also contributes to that readability. It’s part history book, part treatise, and part memoir, with all three modes braided into a single coherent narrative. For instance, Morrison folds his recollections of childhood and his writing career into the history of superheroes, discussing the cultural impact of the Silver Age Kennedy-era superheroes along with his own first experiences with comic books as a boy growing up in Govan, Scotland.

Later, he breaks down the first page of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic series Watchmen, while expanding on how the deconstructed, realistic approach runs contrary to the very nature of superhero comics and their paper-god status. This structure is also key to the book’s appeal; there’s no shortage of superhero histories, but precious few with such a strongly defined point of view and direct access to a celebrated creator’s life story.

In fact, many of the most interesting passages in Supergods concern Morrison’s take on his own career, particularly his self-willed transformation from wallflower to bon vivant. Directly inspired by superhero comics, Morrison turned himself into the kind of person he often wrote about—confident, curious, open to every possible experience. Of those experiences, the most likely to get attention in reviews of the book is Morrison’s encounter with fifth dimensional beings in Kathmandu. I won’t even try to describe what happened—any attempt to summarize or condense the story inevitably leads to distortion and incoherence—suffice to say that it’s a surreal and highly entertaining tale that requires a bit of lateral thinking to comprehend.

It’s also the story detractors most often point to as evidence that Morrision is crazy, or a binge pscyhedelic drug user, or a fabulist who embellishes his biography to accumulate counter-culture cred. Morrison himself acknowledges that there are a number of ways to interpret what happened in Kathmandu, and doesn’t quibble with those who maintain it’s nothing more than a particularly memorable acid trip—what’s important, he argues, is how the experience changed his worldview and led to a fervid creative period he’s maintained for almost twenty years.

There’s an almost spiritual quality to the Kathmandu story, and to much of Supergods, but it’s a spirituality rooted in creativity. Morrison is aware that superheroes aren’t real people, that they only exist on paper (in fact, that’s a key point in his criticism of Alan Moore’s take on superheroes, specifically Watchmen—sure to be another flashpoint for controversy), but he maintains that those same characters can have a real, substantial impact on our reality, just as we can have an impact on theirs.

You can’t pray to Superman and expect him to save you from a burning building, but perhaps through fiction and storytelling you can interact with him, and draw hope from his example. For Morrison, superheroes don’t just represent warmth and bravery and loyalty and love; they’re a way to directly access to those very same qualities in ourselves, which too often go undiscovered and unexpressed.

Recommended reading: All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely; The Invisibles, by Grant Morrison and various artists; Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.]