Sunday, October 2, 2011

Grant Morrison's "Supergods" (Steak Knives/Cadillac)

Supergods.  This is a highly appropriate term for the place of comic book super*heroes* in our collective hearts and minds, and Morrison's account of them from the early 20th Century forward is a great exploration of their shifting role and place in culture.

The full title - 'Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human' - pretty much sums up the intended implication, but promises a richer sociocultural study than it delivers.  I picked this up thinking it would be an insider's study of superhero myth and archetype - which it is, in a sense, but only in small proportion.  Its emphasis was on tracing the evolutionary arc of superhero history, which was well told, more than making up for the perceived 'bait and switch.'

Morrison weaves his own history into the broader narrative of the comics industry, and he's well positioned (and entitled) to do so as a masterful writer himself.  He's had his hand in some of the most memorable and remarkable works of the last 25 years or so [at least IMHO, as a casual reader of notable collected editions rather than a month to month comic book enthusiast - certainly not an 'aficionado.']  He's expanded the potential for superhero storytelling/mythmaking profoundly, I think.  In part, it's because he's able to recognize the full scope of that potential, and the real weight of the raw materials (characters) he's using.  To come full circle, this is also what makes him a great documentarian of the industry's ongoing evolution.

He's also an interesting character himself.  Cross dressing for 'chaos magic' rituals, enough drugs to choke several mules, 'interdimensional' and world travel for junkets and/or escape, and a host of bizarre/unique world views have him come off as a bit of a batshit loonball at times, but if that floats your boat and allows you to tell great stories, carry on, Grant... Carry on...

He's written himself into his own stories - which, while not new, is done with a seriousness and determination that make it qualitatively different than other authors showing up in their own works.  He refers to his comic book rendering as a 'fiction suit' (analog to an astronaut's 'space' suit, for instance).  Hey, that's kinda cool and fun...  How can you not like that?

Morrison - Exploring the 2D universe in his 'fiction suit.'
Despite such enjoyable craziness, the history and analytical pieces are so artfully and lovingly rendered that you're reminded that genius often comes to us in exactly the form of a Grant Morrison. It takes such explorers of the mental fringes (psychonauts and shamen) to more insightfully report back on the forces that shape and shift our world.

Again, I'm a casual reader, returning to comics as a 38 year old, left untouched since my grade school days.  Still, I was able to 'place myself' at a number of the genre's memorable turning points, and recognize along with Morrison how they shaped/were shaped by the other cultural goings-on around them.  Superman and Batman are used as magnificent examples of this throughout Morrison's text.  They shift, evolve, and even regress, to meet the needs of the day - be it the campy, pop-art Batman of Adam West to the dark, realistic imagining of Christian Bale's Dark Knight, or Superman as an early 20th C. working class hero to his yuppie manifestation in the Lois and Clark series with Dean Cain.  Same recipe, different proportions.  This is how archetypes work - how they continue to resonate over time.

To extend the Supergods metaphor a bit further, consider the history of Jesus Christ's role in the popular imagination.  At the time of the crusades, his depictions often had him dressed in a suit of armour, complete with sword.  He can just as easily play the part of protector of the most meek and down-trodden (JC at his best, and as intended, I think), even as he's evoked and bandied about by hypocritical rich and privileged zealots like Pat Robertson.  WWJD Pat?  But I digress.  The point is, archetypes are flexible and fluid, bent to the needs, politics and culture of the day.  They're mirrors.  When we 'read' our heroes and saviors this way, we learn a little more about ourselves in the process.  Conversely, for writers like Morrison, how we 'craft' those metaphors can lead our collective consciousness to new territories that are amazing, but also potentially problematic.

One case recounted in Morrison's 'Supergods' is a textbook example of this in inverse.  He speaks to the challenging response to September 11, 2001 of an industry that markets heroes larger than life.  How can you write the next issue of Superman or Spider-man without addressing their absence and failure to save the day or at least lend a hand in a parallel New York?  Marvel Comics' controversial response included Dr. Doom weeping at ground zero, alongside Magneto and Dr. Octopus - characters that themselves had visited destruction and death on the same skyline 1000+ before times in fictive form (and would do so again).  How many times had he blown up the Baxter Building, skyscraper headquarters of the Fantastic Four in NYC?  His name is DOCTOR DOOM, for god's sake.  The very archetype of hate-terror-megalomania, re-imagined based on the needs of the moment.  To see this 'done right' is to read Brian K. Vaughan's 'Ex Machina' series, though it uses a character/archetype built post 9/11.

Not buying it... The random death of innocents has kinda been your calling card for several decades.

In short, Morrison's is a great story told by an entertaining and amazing personality.  Not quite a full blown Cadillac, but time will tell.  It's a fantastic read nonetheless.

Grant Morrison.  Seriously, why do comic book writers all seem to look like super-villans or crazy people?

Note: Coming across this was an accidental by-product of walking into a Burlington comics shop trying to track down Ellis' 'Supergod', a graphic novel. I'll get to Ellis' text shortly...

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