Monday, 6 January 2014

Supergods - Our World in the Age of the Superhero

Continued from here.

Grant Morrison Supergods - Our World in the Age of the Superhero (2011)
I've had this one for a few months but haven't quite been able to face reading it for fear of coming across some point so annoying as to drive me to a reaction like that lorry driver who famously kicked in his television set when the Sex Pistols used some of those street-credibility words on the Today programme. Grant Morrison has written at least two of my all-time favourite comic books, and at least one that I've loathed almost more than anything else I've ever read. From Zenith to Doom Patrol, the boy could do no wrong in my view, and although I'd read the tripe he'd had published in Near Myths back in 1978, that was clearly early material produced before he'd learned how to stop being a tosspot which could thus be dismissed as uncharacteristic, or so I believed. Unfortunately when The Unreadables was published, it became suddenly and painfully obvious that Morrison himself hadn't regarded Gideon Stargrave or Time Is a Four Letter Word as clumsy formative fumblings so much as the purest, undiluted strain of what he'd really been trying to say; and what he'd really been trying to say was look at me - I'm weird and a bit mysterious. See me walking to school with a Gentle Giant album under my arm. I could have put it in a carrier bag, but then you wouldn't have been able to see what the album was, or to appreciate that I'm not like other boys.

For sake of further contrast with Alan Moore - returning to the theme of the supposed eternal duality of two comic book writers - I briefly encountered Grant Morrison at a comic convention in London in 1990 or thereabouts. My friend Carl and I were crossing a road outside the hotel at which the convention was held when we ran into Rian Hughes, designer turned comic artist for Morrison's version of Dan Dare. Carl knew Rian fairly well and all three of us had worked for Million Dollar, a company set up by Trevor Myles who had sold the Let It Rock store on the King's Road to Malcolm McClaren. Accompanying Rian was a weasely looking person in black clothes and sunglasses who stood at a sulky distance busily sucking his cheeks in. 'This is Grant,' announced our mutual acquaintance, and the penny immediately dropped. We said hello, but he gave no reply. He didn't even turn to look at us. I couldn't tell if he really wanted to be elsewhere or was simply effecting studied indifference, and I found it peculiar to come face to face with a writer whose work I admired with such passion and to find myself unable to get over the impression of him being a complete tosser.

It was a first impression of course, but then so was that of Alan Moore a year earlier, and both encounters, regardless of whatever behind the scenes details had shaped them, now seem consistent with other aspects of the work and conduct of these two very different writers. In particular it seems telling that whilst Morrison has publicly made an issue of his having hit the big time as a comic book professional back when Moore was still drawing cartoons of Elvis Costello for the NME, the point seems dubiously made given the quality of the work. I haven't seen whatever masterpiece Morrison wrote for Starblazer, but the Near Myths material was frankly fucking shocking, particularly when compared with Moore's lumpy yet enthusiastically witty Roscoe Moscow and The Stars My Degradation drawn for Sounds music paper only a year or so later.

Furthermore, it might be argued that the supposed parallels expose the futility of drawing such comparisons between the two writers in the first place. Alan Moore has always been essentially an underground comix artist in the tradition of Robert Crumb, Bill Griffiths and others, albeit an underground comix artist who dabbles with the mainstream. Morrison on the other hand has only ever really aspired to the mainstream, to produce superhero and similarly operatic material which occasionally borrows from counter-cultural sources. To suggest that he either works in Moore's shadow, or conversely that his work is in some way artistically superior to that of Moore is bollocks, and meaningless bollocks. Whilst Morrison's attempts at subversion are no doubt sincere, he appears to miss the irony of so much of his yappy counter-cultural bleatings being owned and distributed by Time Warner. His supposed narrative subversion serves as window dressing, a stance which walks the walk in pursuit of a particular aesthetic, and his poor judgement is revealed in Supergods by, amongst other things, the apparent inability to distinguish a William Burroughs novel from a 1960s Batman comic.

Anyway, let's start at the beginning.

Supergods is two or maybe three different books seamfully woven into a single stream of consciousness of the variety that most would classify as thinking aloud. It isn't really about our world in the age of the superhero, and nor does it explain what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville can teach us about being human, or at least no more so than any book purporting to relate ancient wisdom ever contains much that is old or in any meaningful sense wise. It's a selective history of superhero comics mashed up with Morrison's autobiography and some sort of peculiar self-help thing, presumably for the sake of a sense of narrative progress. As a history of superhero comics, it's reasonably engaging up until the publication of Watchmen providing you don't mind its being written from such an obviously subjective perspective and can overlook the occasional excess of editorial bullshit - the four colour printing process likened to alchemy, Captain Marvel's origin described as Shamanic and so on, the sort of thing one begins to imagine read aloud by Peter Cook:

As distinct as they were, Superman and Batman would eventually become friends. This future meeting would inaugurate the dawn of the shared DC comics universe—an immense virtual reality inhabited by fictional characters, spanning decades and hundreds of thousands of pages, with its own rules, laws of physics, and alternative forms of time. The first emergent comic book universe began with this grand separation of light from dark, is from isn't, this from that, up from down, in a kabbalistic, Hermetic symmetry. The first light had cast the first shadow.

A kind of alchemy was under way.

I read this passage out loud to my wife as we sat in bed one evening with our respective books. She had asked why I kept sighing.

'Jesus,' she exclaimed. 'How can you read that shit?'

Morbid fascination I suppose, and the most mystifying revelation is that whilst Morrison weaves prettily descriptive metaphors around his analysis of superheroes, he doesn't actually understand them as well as he seems to believe; and his understanding, such as it is, is hardly of sufficient complexity to warrant four-hundred pages. Morrison's superhero is an Olympian ideal to which we aspire, Godlike, something nice and bright with which to illuminate our thoughts as we live in the shadow of the atomic bomb, civil unrest, cancer, and ELO reforming to record a new album. He seems to miss the point that what makes our fictional superhuman interesting is not that he or she is super but that he or she is human, a mirror of ourselves which is able to overcome that which is otherwise beyond us. This goes right back to Gilgamesh who can be defined not by his supernatural heritage so much as by the fact of his being human and therefore very much like the rest of us. Ancient Gods were depicted as anthropomorphic figures rather than the disembodied forces they represented because it allowed our ancestors a better means of understanding them. The front cover of Action Comics issue one - as discussed by Morrison at such length as to yield the suggestion that even the whitewall tyre in the bottom right is trying its best to get away from the destructive muscleman - is significant not because some powerful force is destroying a car, but because that force resembles ourselves.

Much of what follows on from the dissection of the cover of the first ever issue of Action Comics relies heavily on Morrison's interpretation, which is fine in the context of autobiography, but can be irritating whilst the book seems unable to decide quite what it wants to be when it grows up. The author superimposes his own agenda upon the history of comics, which works providing we're all agreed upon the genius of the Beatles, John Lennon, Timothy Leary and others employed in service of dubious comparison, but for those of us who aren't agreed, it comes across as lazy, even slightly inane in a few instances. Allen Ginsberg, for example, I seem to recall as being the beat poet who wrote Howl, proudly homosexual, a big fan of the old space fags and a pal of William Burroughs. Maybe he did write a few issues of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen but I definitely don't remember his having done so, and I would suggest comparisons may be stretching a point at least as much as all those hey, comics aren't just for kids articles of the late 1980s. It seems almost like excuses, like Mystic Baldy needs a more profound reason to be writing about what are mostly no more and no less than comic books aimed almost exclusively at young children, as though he fears that we view him as a grown man reading something frivolous and juvenile, on which note...

I get the impression Grant Morrison has given a great deal of thought to how he is perceived by others, even that this may be his main motivation - the presentation of an image concordant with how he would wish to see himself. His own comics are, in my estimation, at their best when they're all surface - Doom Patrol, barely mentioned here, is essentially a series of surreal gags without any particular strong message. The star of Zenith seemed to take pride in his own lack of substance. Even Seven Soldiers, for all the panoramic scenarios into which we may read meaning was a series of reference points which worked in so much as they served the illusion of satisfying depth, inspiring but not necessarily answering some meaty questions. There's nothing wrong with liking the Ramones more than Jethro Tull, but there's a lot of contradiction here, not least being Morrison's understanding of Alan Moore's Watchmen which I read as a quest for flaws made in order to support a hypothesis of Watchmen as inferior work. Morrison dubiously attributes to Alan Moore that which he has himself done on numerous occasions, and nothing like so well because his own counter-cultural credentials run no deeper than David Beckham wearing a Crass T-shirt. Most of his career has been a Gentle Giant album artfully placed in the crook of an elbow as he heads out of the door to school, hence The Invisibles, a stupid person's idea of deep and meaningful.

For the purposes of Supergods, an additional problem is that whilst Morrison may be prone to inspired bursts of raw poetry on the page of a comic book, he writes the prose of a complete cunt. Much of this reads like the autobiography of some footballer or Katie Price, and as such might as well be retitled Grant Morrison's How I Done It. This becomes particularly apparent during numerous paragraphs in which he desperately explains to us how cool he is or aspires to become, for example describing Zenith who shagged page three girls and pursued a vapid, style-conscious, utterly vacuous existence of the kind that I was still convinced I coveted. As juvenile aspiration this is probably no big deal:

Reading interviews from the time makes my blood run cold these days, but the trash talk seemed to be working and I was rapidly making a name for myself. Being young, good-looking, and cocky forgave many sins, a huge hit British superhero strip did the rest and proved I could back up the big talk.

Know what I mean, Harry? Unfortunately he doesn't seem to learn from any of this and continues to measure success in terms of space-age bachelor pad music and the latest CDs from Paris and Tokyo DJs played in my house of magic, swirling lights, and designer chairs. He revels in the friendship of cartoonists from the more self-consciously hip end of the spectrum, becoming drinking buddies with Philip Bond, Jamie Hewlett and other cutesy Camden-based peddlers of twee illustrated lists of fave bands, men who had, like, done it with real girls and everything; which must have been well weapon, yeah?

I'd also just met my wife, Kristan, a stunning, brainy blonde who dressed like Barbarella to go to the pub, worked as a corporate insurance broker, and read Philip K. Dick.

Oh wow, Grant, and a blonde too! If nothing else this proves that even if you do spend weekends filing your Superman comics in strict alphabetical and sequential order whilst wearing underpants bought for you by your mum, you're definitely not saaad and clearly have no trouble getting fit birds to nosh you off in cool clubs and that. How we envy and admire you, you complete fucking cock.

Worse is to come as he morphs from Katie Price, to Bez out of the Happy Mondays, to Deepak sodding Chopra, somehow having missed the memo that lengthy accounts of hallucinations experienced whilst off your tits on acid are invariably pure arseache for anyone other than the person who did the actual tripping, and that one should probably try to avoid taking drug-fuelled encounters with God too seriously. Grant of course regards his own visions as revelations on the grounds that they occurred specifically to him, thus allowing such mind-bending insights as:

I felt sure that in some way what we call consciousness would turn out to be the long-sought unified field.

Yeah, that's probably it. Typically and annoyingly so for one who spends so much time banging on about a wide-eyed sense of child-like wonder at colourful costumed characters unsullied by the dark, cynicism of that Alan Moore, he seems convinced that events or ideas have genuine significance by virtue of their specifically having occurred to him - basically the worst sort of religious thinking by which nothing is conceded value on its own terms: the Grand Canyon is not a spectacle due to geological factors, it is a spectacle either because I'm here to see it or because Jesus is love:

Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. Superhuman cyborgs, we plug into cell phones connecting us to one another and to a constantly updated planetary database, an exo-memory that allows us to fit our complete cultural archive into a jacket pocket. We have camera eyes that speed up, slow down, and even reverse the flow of time, allowing us to see what no-one prior to the twentieth century had ever seen—the thermodynamic miracles of broken shards and a puddle gathering themselves up from the floor to assemble a half-full wineglass.

Sure that's amazing, but so are pussy cats, the night sky, planting and growing vegetables in your own allotment, reading a book about rocks, putting on a clean shirt, chicken fried steak at Jim's diner, a good night's sleep, and all the other less glamorous daily experiences. It's the guy who whines that books are booooooring, who is able to understand the profound only when it is saturated in novelty, garnished with explosions and flashing lights, who has not yet learnt to find wonder in anything, instead insisting it must be delivered to him in a fucking sippy cup designed by Philippe Starck. It's the clueless tosspot Doctor Who fan sneering at Mike Leigh because real stuff is like y'know, it's like boring and shit, yeah?

Every man and every woman is a star, wrote Aleister Crowley, little suspecting how literal those words might become in his prophesied new Aeon of Horus. With cameras everywhere, even on our personal computers and phones, we may as well be actors, performers, and stars in some filmic archive of the microscopically commonplace—every gesture, every frown recorded, filed away in some CCTV surveillance central AI that might as well be Braniac, recording us down to the last byte and love bite before he shrinks Las Vegas into a jar and routinely demolishes Earth on December 21, 2012.

Just because there's a resemblance, doesn't mean it's the same thing, or that the resemblance is meaningful. It has remained a source of surprise to me that people continue to take this sort of recycled Robert Anton Wilson material seriously, and I say that as someone who believes that the subterranean Mexican post-mortem realm of Tlalocan is real in all senses that matter; but of course, as stated at least once, it isn't so vital that what Grant Morrison writes is cool, as that we regard it as cool, yeah? In terms of sheer poetry of imagination, he may well be the greatest comic book writer we've ever had, but as to whether any of it means anything is in the eye of the beholder.

My theory is that Grant, I would suggest a possibly insecure individual, wanted more than anything to achieve fame by means other than anything reliant upon possession of a personality in which he did not have full confidence. He wished to be admired in the same way he had admired Moorcock or the members of some fucking awful psychedelic band, and so he worked at presenting the same mystique in both comics and music. Perhaps perceiving what he interpreted as a kindred spirit in Alan Moore, he reached out, hoping to find his praise returned by someone whose work he deemed genuinely inspirational. Alan Moore, possibly a little creeped out by the attention of someone he understood to be a bit of a goon - and perhaps with some justification - told him to piss off; and the rest has been butthurt all the way.

I'll really show that Alan Moore this time, as he rolls up his sleeves and writes another hilariously ironic tale of a wisecracking superpowered acid casualty buggering a suspiciously bearded kiddy fiddler from the town of Northapmtno.

Supergods would be a decent read if it were written by someone else - Andrew Hickey for example, but Morrison's strengths are to be found in his fiction, which is probably ironic on some deeply tedious level.


  1. I loved Grant Morrison's early writing, probably because I read Animal Man and Zenith at just the right impressionable age, although to be fair they still hold up pretty well today.
    Reading this unlikable book though, I got the impression that beneath the bluster, Morrison knows he's been writing superhero comics for way too long, during a period when the industry's shrunk so much, to the point where he's now a big fish in a very small pond, trapped writing for middle aged blokes who he doesn't seem to like very much.
    He's still fun to read in interviews but I don't think he's written anything much worth reading since We3. I'm not usually so rude about people, but he did make his name by slagging off various comic creators so I think he's fair game...

    You don't like Garth Ennis? For what it's worth, when he plays down the toilet humour, I think he's one of the best writers in comics. His Battlefields war stories were great, especially his trilogy about the WW2 female russian fighter pilot and, if you haver the stomach for it, the original series of Crossed is one of the most moving powerful things I've ever read

    1. To be fair I think the most recent thing I saw was up to about #20 of Preacher which I stopped buying when I realised I'd pretty much hated the entire run, and as suggested hadn't liked anying I'd read by him since For a Few Troubles More, particularly Hellblazer which I (possibly incorrectly) remember as being one story over and over - John Constantine drinks Guinness in an Irish pub, sings songs, has amusing hangover and wrestles with inner demons again. It all seemed a bit obvious, even aside from Judge Dredd stories suddenly resembling one of those Tarantino scripts in which character is indicated by conversations about hamburgers. I gather he's improved since, as you're not the only person to make such observations. I know I should investigate, but the stuff I disliked just left a really bad taste in my mouth that seems to have lasted.