"Who wouldn't want to see people – young and old – marching out and proud in their superhero and manga dream-costumes, all friendly and upbeat, rather than hunched and screen-tanned in the dark spitting venom? Only a bastard, that's who."
Amidst a hectic schedule of book launches, signings, and his usual writing commitments, the lovely Grant Morrison set aside some time to answer some of my own questions in his own words. I asked him about his latest release, Supergods (reviewed here), a mind-bending history of superheroes, as well as his upcoming take on a younger Superman, internet fan culture, mainstream comic appeal, and women and diversity in comics. It is hard indeed not to be infected by Grant's boundless optimism.
Additionally, I also have a signed copy of Supergods to give away. Leave a comment on this article (competition now closed!*) to be in with a chance of winning a copy of the book signed by Grant Morrison on the title page!
Hit the jump to read the interview in full.
Supergods describes the way Western culture has a polarity shift every decade towards the light or dark, with comics responding to the trends. You write that Superman began life as a socialist Sun God, but he has perhaps been the biggest slave to these changes, with his morals bending to popular will. Is the solar Superman himself then perhaps the real barometer as to the general mood of comics and even culture itself?
Grant: Superman has been around long enough to have been particularly good at registering the zeitgeist very accurately but then so has Batman in his own way. The shifts in tone of the Wonder Woman strip have much to say about changing cultural attitudes toward women in general, and so on. The whole history of superheroes is a barometer of our changing tastes, fears and aspirations.
Batman remains one of the most popular superheroes of all time, on the one hand representing the everyman with no special powers, and on the other a capitalist hero with money to burn; very much the opposite of Superman. As a writer of both heroes, do you feel that Batman represents the hero we wish we could be, and is it perhaps time we started looking to the less cynical Superman instead?
Grant: I don’t think I can tell anyone what they should do but these things have a habit of changing in their own good time and it may well be that a new generation starts to see through the fog of artfully-engineered disillusion and cynicism that defines our current shame-faced resignation in the face of the promised apocalypse! When we're absorbing their paranoid, hysterical vision of the world in constant crisis we should never forget just how much coffee, alcohol, Red Bull and cocaine is consumed by incredibly stressed-out workers in the media industries.
Pendulums like to swing. Who would have believed flared trousers would come back after punk mocked them out of existence? And then you got the Stone Roses. We could certainly learn a lot from trying to think like Superman. My attempts to put myself in the head of a genuinely good man who wishes only the best for everyone elevated me considerably. Right now, as I come into the final furlong on the Batman stuff I do have the feeling that Superman may have more to say to a young mainstream audience as we approach the teen years of the 21st century.
Over the decades, continuity has become more and more integral to the comic universes, and is certainly what causes the most fan hysteria. Supergods describes comics as chronicles of alternate histories, but you also have a real love of reshaping and reimagining forgotten characters, not to mention your own experiments with descending into your 2D worlds. Is the role of writer that of Supergod to these universes themselves?
Grant: No, I’m a human tourist into their world. Relative to the DC Universe characters, I’m not a Creator figure, more of a demiurgic power in the Gnostic Archon sense. I can send in my little avatars to interact with the natives but I'm also subject to certain of their laws which stop me from doing long-term damage. The characters are the Supergods. The Flash is an actual representation of the same state of consciousness the Greeks personified as Hermes and the Vikings called Odin. The quicksilver mercurial quality of a mind possessed and enthused by language has traditionally been represented by a swift messenger god, a scribe, a magician, a trickster. The Flash is Hermes is Thoth is Nabu is Language, or if you prefer, Information. When you look at the design flourishes on speedster superheroes - lighting bolt emblems, and winged heels -- you are seeing basic representations of how the concept of Language transcends time and distance.
You are known as the rockstar of comics and the greatest comic writer of your generation, but in the past your public persona was constructed to be outspoken and mean-spirited, completely unlike your real self. Is there still a performance element to your public appearances, and was it difficult to lay yourself bare in Supergods?
Grant: There has to be a performance element to interviews and public appearances or they wouldn't be entertaining. I didn’t really lay myself bare in Supergods. I selected a few flowery elements from my life experience that seemed to fit and reflect the book's purpose and structure. I can also talk about the mad "imperial" years of the '90s with a bit of ironic distance now that they're twenty years in the past. I knew that a few people would read Supergods and be apoplectic over the fact that some drug-taking, skirt-wearing, loony-talking central figure had hijacked "their" comfy history of caped crusaders, but I also knew that many other readers would be fascinated by the potentially more interesting and relatable story of an otherwise ordinary working class kid's total life-bending immersion into a living comic book reality.
Supergods really pushes the importance of stories on the world we live in, with the Invisibles having drastic effects on your own life, and the reality warping experience you underwent at Kathmandu influencing your own writing, which then influenced others in the real world with real consequences. Not to channel old Spider-Man, but doesn't this heap huge responsibility on the shoulders of writers who may not take the power of words as seriously?
Grant: The power of words, or of stories in particular, is the main theme of Supergods and it should be taken seriously. As I point out at the end, the US military is currently developing the idea of 'counter-narrative strategies' or stories designed to undermine the scripts that drive terrorists or other enemies. We know that medical placebos work along the same lines and that hypnosis is effective so why not assume that the often nihilistic and despairing stories we tell ourselves are having a big impact on how we feel, how we live, and on the art that we create to make sense of it all. And proceeding from that, it seems only sensible to look into intelligently deploying counter-narratives that suggest exit strategies from the howling existential extinction void, perhaps using ideas we created for the specific purpose of saving the world in emergencies…i.e. superhero stories?
On the flip side, there are those who perhaps take comics far too seriously: the particularly venomous diatribes from die-hard fans that only seem to exist on the internet. Warren Ellis has cultivated himself as somewhat of an “internet Jesus”, with a huge Twitter following prepared to defend him to the end. Is the whole internet culture something that interests you as its own part-fictional world, or is it better just to steer clear of it and the death threats it inevitably brings?
Grant: I don’t feel comfortable with it all. Every time I do an interview or open my mouth in public I shudder in the corner waiting for it to be misrepresented, sensationalized or misunderstood. The whole thing's become a complete cringe. The thought of acolytes or disciples hanging on my every word seems like too much responsibility.
In the early 70s, comics made a huge leap away from the mainstream in response to fan demand for darker and more mature tales, and resulted in a move to direct market sales. The young audience has never really been recovered, but with the last decades huge comic book film successes, can superhero comics once again entice the bright and inquisitive kids in Britain?
Grant: The really bright inquisitive kids are already there. I met a few of them at a signing in Glasgow the other night. Others are checking out all this stuff for free, auguring a lo-fi era in which entertainment ceases to be created by highly-paid experts and becomes instead the work of hobbyists…but that’s another story for the future to play out. If the question is "can mass market print comics attract a young mainstream audience again?" I doubt it. If comics are to survive as a popular form, they'll have to adapt more seriously to the immense multi-dimensional possibilities of the computer screen. That's where we'll see the next big innovations in comics as a form and in superhero comics in particular.
You describe the "mainstream myth" of women in comics looking like Playboy models, which was certainly true at the dawn of the Superhero with the fearsome Ma Hunkel and brilliant Etta Candy, but as comics continue their skew towards a young male adult audience, female fans are feeling increasingly left out. Do you think with the success of Smallville and the X-Men films, mainstream comics should be looking to rebuild that long lost audience, particularly the younger girls?
Grant: I’m all for it although I'm often surprised that female fans should feel left out of superhero comics considering the range of characters and role models available.
Off the top of my head and without looking at any comics, there's Stargirl, whom Geoff Johns based on his beloved sister; fashion-conscious, provocative, witty Emma Frost; ass-kicking powerhouse wife Big Barda; excitable, talkative upbeat Maxine Hunkel, grand-daughter of Ma; murderous pre-pubescent Hit Girl; geek girl librarian Barbara Gordon AKA Oracle; Clever, Goth-y showbiz girl Zatanna; chunky little kickboxing computer genius the Squire. None of these characters are eye candy tokens or bimbos or subservient housewifey types. And there are many more. Warren Ellis' smart-talking chainsmokers like Jenny Sparks, as well as his brilliant, cynical and pragmatic supervillainesses-cum-heroines from Thunderbolts. Brian Bendis' Avengers women. Gail Simone’s entire oeuvre. Alan Moore and J.H. Williams’ Promethea, in her various incarnations. The list is varied and grows longer all the time. Crazy Jane in Doom Patrol was inspired by Patti Smith circa "Horse". My recent take on Kathy Kane, the original Batwoman cast her as Maya Deren, a real-life genius who ought to occupy a place among the patron saints of any young lady of alternative disposition. All of these characters have not only a range of different body types but a full spectrum of different personalities. I’d go so far as to suggest that there’s actually more natural diversity in body shape among female superheroes than among the male characters. Additionally they’re all pro-active, neither sex objects nor pure angels without flaws, and are as richly-developed as the form allows. If I can be optimistic again, I'd suggest that the portrayal of women in superhero comics has been improving steadily and is likely to continue to do so. There's always going to be good girl art and sexy swimsuit stuff but it goes hand in hand with good guy art and always has.
Obviously in superhero stories about idealized humans, it should come as no surprise that a high proportion of characters are portrayed as musclemen and supermodels. Look no further than Second Life for another demonstration of the same thing. However, it should be considered for debate how the alleged lack of relatable, realistically-proportioned physical role models among the superhero set that so often seems to bother female readers rarely troubled young male comics fans. Even those who were obese, underweight, ugly or shy tended not to be offended by the magnificent physiques of Superman or Thor.
The first degree in the UK studying comics has been announced at Dundee, making our small country once again a pioneering force in comics history. Supergods is very mainstream friendly, sitting comfortably next to other histories of pop culture. Do you think comics, and the impact the stories have on our culture and counterculture, are finally being taken more seriously by the literary establishment? More importantly, does their opinion really matter?
Grant: If you got a special gold writer's key that gave you the freedom of every city in the world or something I'd probably take it but otherwise I'm not sure how acceptance by the literary mainstream might manifest in the real world. I'm not sure I could trust a literary establishment that had so tragically run out of other things to take seriously!
I do, of course, find it odd and irritating that the broadsheets will happily cover all manner of godawful video games but none of the great, entertaining comics that are published ever make the review pages.
Supergods discusses the recent overall success of comic book films, but with every blockbuster released there follows much hand-wringing from comic fans about the imminent death of this mass-market fad. As Supergods details however, superhero icons have existed outside comic books for decades in the mainstream. Is this unfounded fear then perhaps wishful thinking from those who want their personal heroes to return only to the geek hinterlands?
Grant: I think so. Superhero stories are here to stay on the big screen but I think we may see less of the traditional costumed characters and more superhero ideas created specifically for the screen like "The Incredibles" "Misfits" and "Super".
In the last decade there has been a real culture of conformity and mistrust, and you mention in Supergods that new blood and experimentation were discouraged at the big publishers. Female fans in particular have been disheartened by the shortage of female creators in the upcoming DC line-up; do you think this is something likely to change in the new period of restoration?
Grant: It would change if more creative women were drawn to mainstream superhero comics publishers like Marvel and DC as an outlet for their imaginations. There's a wide spread of female comics creators but only a few of them of them have chosen to work in the corporate superhero arena. Given the success of Harry Potter, I'm not quite sure why women shouldn't be expected to excel in the creation of boy's adventure stories. If JK wrote a Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman comic the sales would be the biggest ever seen.
I'd also like to see more new blood in the creative pool, including more non-white, non-American, non-middle class creators alongside more women of different ages. Right now, with sales plunging, craft high, and comic art creativity comfy and becalmed in a Hollywood storyboard paradigm that could use some refreshing, periodical comic book adventures are wide-open to be transformed by new perspectives. Let's see more comics written by children, for children, for instance. Who cares about child labour laws? There must still be a few Victorian orphans out there who'd give one black lung for a chance to write Blue Beetle. Jim Shooter was thirteen when he started professionally and his work was brilliant! Diversify! I think it would provide a massive transfusion of mainstream interest too. We really do need to let more bright-eyed and fiery young enthusiasts of all races, creeds and genders loose on superhero books if they're to remain even remotely vital.
The spectre of the bomb has been a big influence on you and your work, and ensured that you always steered clear of casting your superheroes as frail and futile. The last decade has seen some dark times indeed; are the superheroes ready to step into the light once more? You've been announced as the new Superman writer in this autumn's DC relaunch; will the poor guy get to be happy?
Grant: He's happiest when he's running around saving lives, protecting the world and fighting various monsters and madmen, so there's likely to be quite a lot of that going on, which will certainly brighten him up. As I've said, this is an optimistic young Superman who believes anything is possible.
You once said you'd never write an autobiography as no one would believe it, but Supergods is a very personal history of the superhero, with memoir scattered throughout; is this the closest we'll get to a Grant Morrison autobiography or is there more to come in the future?
Grant: Obviously there's a bit of autobiography in there but there's not much about my relationships or my social life. There's nothing about living in Los Angeles. The magic stuff is scarcely touched on. There's nothing about the extracurricular collaborations with other writers, musicians, and artists of all kinds over the years. There's not a lot of family stuff or any indication of the immense influence my sister has had on my life. There's hardly anything about the band or about the travelling or my last decade selling as-yet-unmade screenplays in Hollywood. There's nothing about Uncle Jimmy the millionaire boutique owner and part-time porn baron! There are lots of real life stories to be told but I think I prefer to use them as raw ore for my fiction or, as in Supergods, as demonstrations of the power of comics to shape a human life.
Your career kicked off at the first ever Glasgow Comic Con which was resurrected this year for a new generation of fans. Mark Millar stated there that DC and Marvel were in a "boring period" and that the higher profile creators had left to do their own thing leaving only the “smaller personalities” hanging around. I think obviously you'd disagree with that, but is it important to you to keep a balance between creator owned projects and working on moving around in the big comic universes?
Grant: I like the opportunity to be able to participate in and add to a massive decades-long quilt of narrative, so it's a real charge for me to write characters like Batman, X-Men or Superman and to freight them with personal feelings and ideas. In a couple of generations when my name is forgotten, there will still be a little part of me clinging to a dusty corner of the enduring stories of Superman and Batman. In addition to that work, my collaborators and I still own a complete library of "creator" work from things like "St. Swithin's Day" or "The New Adventures of Hitler" through "The Invisibles" and "The Filth" to "Joe the Barbarian" and everything in between, with new work to come all the time. I've been doing "creator" material consistently since 1978 but I’ve enjoyed keeping a foot in both camps over the years along with most of my colleagues in the industry: a list which would have to include Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Warren Ellis, Joe Casey, Scott Snyder, and many, many others I’d be hard pressed to describe as "smaller personalities". It strikes me that, at a time when DC Comics is re-launching its entire line of titles, and general sales of comics are so low we're entering a new anything-goes period, "boring" isn't necessarily the first word that springs to mind.
When you made the jump to mainstream comics you had to choose between being a writer and an artist; are you ever tempted to follow in Jack Kirby's footsteps and do some inking yourself, or do you prefer the collaborative method?
Grant: I would quite like to do it but right now I don't have the time. When I do have the time my hand to eye coordination will probably be gone.
You describe the upcoming annual San Diego Comic-Con as a big rehearsal for tomorrow, and it's an experience that most UK comic fans can only dream of. With the controversial DC relaunch still sending reverberations around the internet, and Comic-Con often being covered by the mainstream press, do you think the convention is really of great importance, or is it more of an overblown irrelevance?
Grant: I don't think either of those things. It's definitely something worth seeing but is it important, and wouldn't the money honestly be better spent on improving military hardware technology? It's probably not all that important at all but it's certainly impressive which is about as much as you can say for – inset your own inflammatory religious spectacle here - .
It's heartening to watch a whole city strip off its khaki shirt to reveal the superhero suit beneath if only for a few days. I always liken it to a Fellini film but with an added sci-fi twist to the liberated, carnival atmosphere. It's a much more positive experience of "fan" culture than the internet tends to offer (although some kid stabbed another in the eye with a pen last year, a particularly geeky crime that could easily be the start of a "Lord of the Flies"- style wave of tribalistic mob violence). You can still come off a sun-shiney San Diego weekend buzzing with excitement and good feeling, then read about the same event online and it sounds like a funeral in Trondheim on a black January afternoon. Who wouldn't want to see people – young and old – marching out and proud in their superhero and manga dream-costumes, all friendly and upbeat, rather than hunched and screen-tanned in the dark spitting venom? Only a bastard, that's who.
Thanks very much!
Grant: You're welcome!
*(Competition now closed!) To be in with a chance of winning a copy of Supergods signed by Grant Morrison, add a comment to this article and make sure you use a valid e-mail address. The winning e-mail address will be chosen at random, multiple comments won't help! I will send out the winning copy to any world location. The signed copy of Supergods has the UK cover design. Incidentally, the difference in US and UK cover design is simply down to two different publishers in each country making the decision independently.
The winner will be contacted by e-mail for address details. Competition will close in about a week (now closed!) and if the winning commenter doesn't respond within a week we'll move on to the next chosen. Best of luck!
Photo of Grant in Glasgow courtesy of Kenny Mathieson, please do not reproduce without his permission.