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Book Review: Supergods by Grant Morrison

"Too many business people who should have known better began to take seriously the ravings of misinformed, often barely literate malcontents who took revenge n the cruel world by dismissing everything that came their way with the same jaded, geriatric "Meh"." - Grant Morrison on the rise of the internet monster.

Comics are the perpetual teenagers of literature: misunderstood, disrespected, and never allowed to grow up. No matter how many Pulitzers, accolades, or blockbuster sales they amass, the comics - along with their readers and creators - are dismissed as adolescent in nature, only for those trapped in a nostalgic childhood they can't escape. Talk of a DC relaunch across their entire line later this year, with every title restarting at issue one, has seemingly confirmed this accusation, and led to claims of increasingly reductive storytelling. Can comics really survive in a dwindling market by rebooting iconic characters every decade?

The answer perhaps lies in Supergods, and as ever with Grant Morrison, it begins with looking at things from a completely different dimension. Morrison claims that superheroes are part of our contemporary mythology, made to be remade, able to reflect and predict the course of human lives, and all from a universe that is as real as ours. It may sound extreme, ridiculous even, but the Scotsman is keen to stress throughout that you needn't believe as he does, but to simply look at the facts.

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

Morrison is the rockstar of comic creators, a writer as well known for his counterculture leanings as he is for his tales starring Batman and Superman. He was at the forefront of the British Invasion of American comics back in the 80s, and since then he's hit the headlines for his use of magic and psychedelic drugs, his tendency to insult Margaret Thatcher, and a reality bending experience that took him to the fifth dimension and back. Morrison once claimed he would never write an autobiography, because no one would believe it: his life was the stuff of comic books.

As Supergods details, that was no empty metaphor. Weaving comics history and theory with his own story of childhood and career moves, the chaos magician has cleverly targeted Supergods squarely at the mainstream as well as for the stereotypical comic book geeks. The autobiographical aspects are reflective, and perhaps a touch restrained compared with the exuberant tripper of years past.

An iconic cover indeed!"As resolutely lowbrow, as pro-poor, as any saviour born in a pigsty".

From the origins of the socialist Sun God, Superman himself, a "restless, anti-establishment futurist", through to the always popular Dark Knight of capitalism, Morrison tells how comics were a lifeline to him in a 60s Britain paralysed by fear and the spectre of the bomb. With a choice between nuclear terror or immersion in the fantastical, Morrison elected for the spaceship and the superhero. His crushingly lonely teenage years, trapped in a boys school with no female contact, led him to seek further solace in his comic books and to concentrate further on creating his own.

His history of comics shows how superheroes live within a predictable boom and bust cycle, but also asserts the existence of a similar pattern of punk and hippy, dark and light, that bares no small relation to the pattern of solar flares. The 22 year long solar cycle, complete with a polarity shift every 11 years, seems to tie in nicely with the shifts in Western youth culture that occur each decade, from psychedelic and optimistic tendencies, to the depressive and dark. Writers are often described as the barometers of culture, and Morrison suggests that superheroes too are predictable and prophetic.

The bestselling original graphic novel of all time."Drug and alcohol free, I was forced to find derangement in all the old familiar places."

The dramatic differences between DC and Marvel policies and staff are explored, and two fellow UK writers in particular – the prickly Alan Moore, and the controversial Mark Millar – are spoken about at length. While Morrison is careful with his words, he has real bite and is particularly vocal about Watchmen, describing it as technically brilliant but victim to its own rigid logic. He is less balanced in his opinion of Wanted (described here in a chapter named 'The Day Evil Won'); its rape-happy bully of a lead character is met with revulsion at the change in comics and fan reaction the title triggered. Both comics went very much against Morrison's principles; Millar and Moore specialised in bringing heroes down to a human level, whilst Morrison has always believed in raising humans up to meet our glorious Supergods. His belief in the goodness of human nature is surprising but rather endearing.

Morrison heaps praise on the cosmic comics of the late Silver Age, which is a curious departure for such a mainstream title. These writers and artists - Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin - have clearly been his biggest influence on the scale and purpose of his own creations; Morrison purports to detest stories that have no greater meaning. Accusations of pretentiousness within Arkham Asylum in 1989 stung the writer horribly, and soon after he shaved his head clean and set off on a round the world trip of drugs, magic, transvestism, punk, alcohol, and happiness.

Hey, this guy looks kinda familiar..."The day after Jesus popped by, something odd occurred."

Most interesting of all is the chapter 'King Mob – My Life as a Superhero'. The Invisibles was a comic created by Morrison to actively influence the course of culture on to a more positive path, using a hypersigil: an extended piece of art with magical meaning. More than that though, Morrison blurred the lines between fiction and reality, melding himself with the lead character, and using the comic to relay the information he had been privy to during his inter-dimensional experience at Kathmandu. When Morrison became gravely ill, in exactly the same manner that his character had nearly died, he realised the power of words and art to shape events in the real world.

Supergods is part comic history, part magical theory, with a healthy dose of memoir throughout. This isn't the unabashed enthusiasm of the Grant Morrison of ten years ago, but a more mature and settled man, perhaps itching for another hallucinogenic wild adventure. The past is looked back upon with spiky dark humour and wry knowledge, but his ideas and theories remain as mind-bending as his time slicing comics. Incomprehensible to his detractors, fascinating to his fans. Intriguing indeed to those who stand between.

Comments (7) Trackbacks (6)
  1. I have to read this book! I am a big Morrison fan and quite curious about all these things, especially the time after Arkham Asylum and the Invisibles period.

    • I really enjoyed his take on Arkham Asylum looking back, and his overall theories about Superman are intriguing given his upcoming Action Comics!

  2. What a good review. Already tweeted and facebooked the link to this page.
    Grant Morrison’s deliriously optimistic perception of superheroes and the transcendent possibilities of comic books have been an inspiration to me since the my first exposure to his work 22 years ago. I think you’ve captured that in this article.

    • Thanks very much! His optimism is quite infectious I think; reading Supergods has made me feel far more positive about the DC reboot and where comics might lead in the next decade.

  3. This is an awesome review. Much better than that rubbish in the Evening Standard. I’ll need to get my hands on this book soon.

  4. Thanks for the review. I really want to read this book, even though I think Grant Morrison is incredibly overrated. In my opinion, he lags far behind guys like Alan Moore, Mark Millar, and Geoff Johns. He definitely has a lot of insightful things to say about comics, even if he hasn’t quite written anything thats hit me as hard as “Wanted,” “Infinite Crisis” (sorry, “Final Crisis” was pretentious crap), or “Watchmen.”

  5. Lovely review, CBG!

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