Grant Morrison made an appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year to promote Supergods and have a Q&A session with the audience. Lots of talk about Wonder Woman, superheroes, the weaponisation of stories, risk taking, magic and the new Superman.
I've published my transcript in its entirety once more. I got a lot of good feedback on publishing the interview full and uncut though a couple of people weren't happy that I kept in Grant's tendency to ramble and his Scottishness. To be honest I feel that editing that out can often edit out the intent of what the person is actually saying (particularly for us fast talking Scots!), and while I am careful to keep my quotes up to scratch for a printed publication, it would be near impossible to edit a full transcript and be confident I wasn't misrepresenting the person.
In all my interaction with Grant Morrison the one thing I'm very sure of is his easy going manner, and that a lot of what he says (regardless of how you prefer to quote it) is both earnest and well humoured. Hopefully my interview with Alan Moore will be able to go up full and uncut too!
As always hit the jump for the full article.
The interviewer on stage was Alan Morrison from the Herald newspaper. Bolding is my emphasis, italics are emphasis of the speaker.
On the format of Supergods, and it being about comics history:
Grant: It was also about how comics had changed my life, because I thought that's what made it meaningful, is the fact that not only is it a history of comics – it's not a history of comics, it's a history of superheroes who mostly appear in comics – and I wanted to show how profoundly that can affect a human life if you let it. If you honestly believe in Doctor Strange, if you honestly believe in Superman and then allow yourself to try and live out those lives, very strange things happen [laughs].
So it seemed that, to write that story was to say what the power of comics actually was, it was the Shazam, if you take this stuff so seriously that you end up doing it as a job, that you allow it to seep into your life, and you allow yourself to become semi-fictional in order to write fiction, then you find yourself in some very interesting territory. And it does dovetail, the history of superhero comics has as I presented it in the book, you know the Golden Age is like being a child where the motivations are simple, the characters are big, good and evil, and Superman stands for this and he's a very simple childlike figure who enacts justice, even if it's against the law. Batman's the same. And so it's kinda like that's like when you're really small and you're getting fairy stories and it's like folk tales, very primitive ideals.
The Silver Age of comics then suddenly you're twelve years old and things start to transform, the world looks a bit sparkly but you can feel the hormones starting in there. And so the Silver Age is all about transformation, you know the Flash is constantly changing into liquid forms, into solid stone, Superman's got the head of a lion then he's got the head of a giant bald guy a little like myself (laughs), Lois Lane is a baby then she's a witch. Characters who were solid, who were quite believable twenty years before suddenly become a constant metamorphosis. So that happened just before the 60s and you get LSD and the whole culture of America actually began to transform in the way these characters had. But I saw it as kinda like, as I say, an eternal twelveness, the time of the Silver Age, the pioneer utopian science fiction era in comics.
Then you've got the Dark Age and people like Alan Moore and Frank Miller and me and Neil Gaiman came in, and that's like adolescence, because suddenly we start asking these really difficult pointed questions about superheroes, and why are you wearing tights? (laughs) How do you finance that? How does that work? Wait a minute, do you do that because it's sexual? So you start to ask all these ridiculous questions, and it almost seems adult at the time but it's not, it's actually quite, it's an adolescent approach, it's quite an angry, like stripping down the idols.
And then we've got this kind of Renaissance Age, which I've kind of... no one's really named before, they've called it the Modern Age or the Bronze Age or something dumb, but I kinda think if you've got a Dark Age it should be a Renaissance after it. And in that time basically comics have grown up a little, they're in their twenties now and they've got their hair cut and they've stopped playing with funny clothes and now they've got this sexy girlfriend called Holly Wood [laughs]. Holly Wood's now telling him, no honestly you should dress like that, you're looking a bit weird you know. The product's become streamlined and quite, you know, Hollywood friendly. The kind of stories that are being told now are probably technically better than they've ever been but at the same time they're quite formulaic.
So I was following that through and just thinking well you can apply this to a human life, and if I'm going to apply it to any life, if I want to impose any human life on the entire history of a medium, then it's gonna be mine! [laughs] So that's what it was about, and also, I kinda, the final part of this, my big inspiration for this book was reading Nick Kent's last book about his, that period in his life where he had his massive heroin addiction and he was friends with Keith Richards and the Stones. And I was so into that book, and I thought well you know, he's writing about himself, and he's doing it really beautifully and he's writing about the clothes that he wore and the stuff he was into and the drugs he was taking, you know what that whole time felt like. So I thought the book really needed that element of personal experience and I figured that since I'm someone who still works in the business at a fairly high level that it was almost justified to include the level of autobiography that I did. A lot of reviewers were so freaked out, you know they got to... they say "I loved this book until I get to page 224 and this guy's in a dress summoning Voodoo gods! Who is this man? How dare he enter my history of superheroes!"
But I kind of thought that a lot of the audience who weren't into the history of superheroes might be able to find something in a human life and how a human life can be bent and twisted and honestly, ennobled as far as I'm concerned, and made more magical by actually adhering to some of the principals in these comic books.
On how superheroes can reflect the best in us, and that comics have a responsibility to show that in a time of financial crisis and Big Brother:
Grant: Have you seen that?! No honestly, we were watching that last night. I don't even understand what some of them are saying! This guy Paddy [makes unintelligible growly noise!]. Aye sure Paddy, okay! I guarantee that in week 2 he's gonna go mad and kill everybody [laughs]. But yeah I mean the moronism in that, that's what you're up against. The abject presentation of, this is what the media thinks we're interested in. You know, this complete idiocy, that we want to watch that, it's like a geek show. So yeah you're up against that narrative.
On how the comic book universe can be a positive role model:
Grant: No definitely, and I think part of, one of the reasons for writing the book was to say that, why are we so interested in superheroes right now, things that for a long time were just very arcane hidden knowledge that only nerds or geeks or whatever you want to call them were aware of and suddenly it's everywhere. Teen titans are on the side of buses, you've got Thor, I mean the most ridiculous characters are suddenly on, you know they've got movies of these things – I'd have died for a Thor movie when I was 8 years old but unfortunately it came too late for me! [laughs]
But no I thought that really, what we were seeing here is some kind of return of the best unconscious response to the fact that we've been sold a narrative of absolute destruction and extinction. You know in the West, and today even in the West when people are better off and healthier and safer than they've been at any time in the past, we're still telling ourselves the story that the environment is doomed and we can't fix it, we're telling ourselves the story that our children are insane and cannot be fixed and cannot be redeemed. There is no hope, our politicians are idiots, our comedians are depressive, they're suicidal, our models are bullimics. Everything has got this dark side. The minute you see on TV they're gonna do some drama about Barbara Windsor or Eric Morecambe, you know he's gonna get his dick out! [laughs] They're gonna always have to show you the dark side of everything and it's a weird obsession with culture that's kinda taken over.
And what we were talking about earlier, in the book as I got to the last chapter as I ramble merrily [laughs], the last chapter in the book, I picked up New Scientist in February and there was an article in there talking about how the US military were now developing what they call counter-narrative strategies. And it's basically the weaponisation of stories. Right? And I thought, this is really fascinating, because basically what they've admitted is that stories have an effect. You know, I mean this is no surprise to anyone who's thought about this for five minutes but they've kinda admitted that yes, stories have an effect. Self hypnosis works, placebos work, nocebos work, if an authority figure tells you they're giving you a pill to make you feel better, the chances are you'll feel better. If the same authority figure tells you the world is doomed, the chances are you will begin to believe that. Your children will start to act as if the world is doomed, so they'll cut themselves, they'll dress in black, they'll throw bins through windows and steal stuff. Because there's no future, you've given them nothing to believe in. I honestly think this is self hypnosis right now, and our culture could do a lot more. We could be building starships, we could do a lot more than we're actually doing, and we're fucking around.
And it seemed very strange that we're telling this very dark story, and I thought the idea of the superhero has arisen as a response to that. Whether it's an unconscious response, whether there were some people deliberately saying well this is all we've got, we don't have Star Trek any more, we don't have a space programme, there is no image of the future that is not dystopian, except for the idea of the superhero. The notion that maybe one day we can pull off these shirts and reveal some kind of inner self that's our highest, our best, our kindest, our toughest, our wisest, our smartest, and actually use that to get out of our problems. Because we created these ideas to solve problems. There is no enemy that Superman can't defeat, there is no enemy Batman can't defeat, these are ideas that cannot be destroyed. And even as ideas, once people like Alan Moore went in there and deconstructed the superhero, the superhero just took it and Alan created one of the greatest works ever in the field but the superhero survived and got up again. By the end of Watchmen everybody thought it was over, I remember the days and they were saying that's the end of the superhero, it's the graveyard of the superhero, but of course it's not – the superhero is made to survive any assault.
So I thought there's something in that idea that maybe we should be latching on to, maybe we should be using this as a counter-narrative strategy, against the one that we're selling people right now, and there's something in this. You know, I think there's a power in it, however crude and however small and... what would you call it.. culturally unacceptable an area that it comes from, it's actually, those are the places we sometimes find the real truths. Where people have been allowed to say things that the rest of the culture isn't allowing us to say, which is maybe that maybe we're okay. You know, the scariest thing you can say to anyone, and try it tomorrow with all your friends, is to say maybe the world isn't going to end! Maybe it's all meant to be like this, and it's all working out just fine! And all those riots and everything, that's just part of the process, that's just something heating up and moving and changing, and that's just how it looks to us, because we're so small and so short-lived that we don't see the longer processes that are involved.
If you say that to anyone they'll go "No! No, no, we're all doomed! Don't you get it? We are doomed!" [laughs]. So I kind of, I wanted to bring that out and to use, yeah there's a manifesto in it to the sense that we have ideas here that were created to solve any problem – let's set them loose on our problems.
On how when Superman was created our enemies (eg Hitler) could be defeated, unlike now when we have the War on Terror:
Grant: Which is a meaningless war, it's like the War on Length [laughs]. Oh okay, I'll become a soldier in that war you know, and again the War on Drugs, what does that mean? We don't even know, they don't even tell you what drugs are or how different one substance is from another, it's one blanket ridiculous war that has never been won. How can you fight drugs? Again, that's like fighting atoms [laughs]. These things are everywhere, they're natural, we have DMT in our own brains, it's a natural neurotransmitter, so what are they gonna do – start coning into our brains to get that out? Probably! [laughs]
So no these are ludicrous things, the idea that you can fight an abstraction, because really there's nothing left. There is no Hitler, there's just an asymmetric enemy that's like a virus, and may not even be an enemy. We're dealing with people that can barely start up a truck in some cases and it's like the West is trying to pretend that these people pose some threat to these powers that wield nuclear weaponry on a scale beyond anything you can imagine. There is no enemy. You know, all this stuff, I honestly think, has just been created to get us all in a state so that the news every night can be this insane manic hyper-accelerated fear creation. There's no enemy, they got one good hit and that was it, you know, and there's been ten years of people trying and we've stopped pretty much everything they've tried to do. Because really, they're working with bananas. And it's not a threat.
On Hollywood and whether the comic book movie boom has had a positive effect on comics:
Grant: Yeah I mean the whole idea... people who are familiar with comics, you'll know that in the last ten years comics have developed this style where it's just like four or five thin panels on each page. And those panels are designed to look like a cinema screen. And a lot of times the background's black so that there is also the feeling of being in a darkened auditorium, but without the heads of the audience. And so you're watching a movie, but movies do it better now. I was talking about this today, the things that comics used to do, the artistic experimentation has disappeared because kind of writers took over. And a lot of the writers, including myself, over the last ten years have kind of been pitching to Hollywood because suddenly okay, Hollywood wants to do this stuff, there's a lot more money to be made, why not?
But out of that what you got was people basically showing off that they could write Hollywood screenplay style comics. And we got ten years worth of that and sales have just gone down and down and down. So my idea now is to let the artist take over again and just, the guys I'm working with like Chris Burnham on Batman and with Rags Morales on Superman, to start just saying, look you guys lay out the page, lets see the things that comics can do, the way they can slice time, the way they can have multiple panels, the way that they can have spreads that are symmetrical, or you know, a whole set of information presented in a way that's not only digital with panels but it's also, you know, you can read two pages all at once or you can read individual panels simultaneously. You can't do that in a movie. So I kind of think we need to bring that back and yeah the Hollywood thing has effected comics quite badly and it hasn't helped the sales. When Spider-Man comes out, the Spider-Man comics don't sell any better when there's a movie. And again that's partly because the only place to buy these comics is in a comic store where a lot of people won't go. If they sold them in the movie theatre right next to the popcorn, yeah I mean people would probably buy Spider-Man when they came out the Spider-Man movies. But there is, it's a very uneasy thing you know, it's drawn people's attention to things, and it's allowed me to write books like this which can be at least seen in the context of movies for some people rather than comic books which most people wouldn't want to talk about. So at least we can say that superheroes are things that exist in movies and on television, and you're allowed to talk about these kind of mainstream things. But it's been a weird relationship with Hollywood, and it's been lucrative for some of us but for comics it's been a not necessarily benign influence.
On the differences between working on existing characters and creator owned:
Grant: It's two different kind of feelings you know, The Invisibles you're creating your own thing and that was like a diary for me so it was a very different type of story. But doing something like Superman or Batman, you're part of a seventy year continuum, and to be able to go in there and tie this little knot in the story of Batman somewhere, you know when I'm dead and gone and forgotten in a couple of generations, my name will still be there on those Batman stories and Batman will still be around. So you know, I've kind of scrawled my signature on his arse [laughs]. It will be there forever. So there's that, I really like that idea, the idea that the DC and the Marvel Universes, I kind of approached them as, it was like environmental art. I saw them as real places, and that was the big breakthrough for me, was to recognise that this was an actual terrain that had been created. And Superman actually exists, but he's made of paper. And he's like seventy years deep and you can go and pick up Superman's first appearance in 1938, with the kind of crude Joe Schuster drawings, and then you can hold it next to a Jim Lee Superman from 2005 or whatever, and those two comics don't know that you're holding them together. You know, you can make 1938 Superman kiss 2005 Superman, but they don't know [laughs]. No really! Go home and try this! And don't stop there, you can make Batman kiss the Hulk as well!
But the creations in that story don't recognise that 1938 and 2005 exist side by side, so there's something really weird going on for me, I saw this as an environment. Superman's created and then the guys that created him die, but someone else does it and then I want to do it – why do I want to do Superman? Who's more powerful in this exchange? Me or Superman? Well Superman lives longer than me, he was around long before I was born and he'll be around long after I'm gone, so he's actually more real than I am. And the chance to get involved with what is basically, like I said they are Supergods, we made these things, these entities that are thought forms and they're drawn out on paper and they have lives and they have continuities, very different from time as we understand it, it's like a kind of cyclical mythical time where the same stories get retold for each new generation. But the character persists and the idea, like I say, people keep coming in and refreshing it. You know and Richard Dawkins talks about Meme Theory, and the idea of what is Superman or Batman as a meme, what is this voracious entity? That started out on paper and has now crawled its way on to the screen and now we're seeing people in real life putting on these costumes and going out on the street and getting themselves beaten up and fighting guys with tasers.
So it seemed to me like here's an idea that's working its way into reality as well, and that was the other strand of the book. That yeah we're using these images as maybe hopeful or utopian ideas of our future, and at the same time they're forcing their way into real life. They're coming off the second dimension on to the screen and then into the real world, and you know, give it another 25 years, let's say even within 5 or 10 years, kids are gonna have radio telepathy you know, they're basically building this stuff right now, you've got a little receiver in your ear and you can talk to people with your head. So think about what those kids will be like when privacy doesn't exist any more, because whoever came up with a stupid idea like that, because we're all connected. Superhumans are coming, and comics and these films have kinda analysed the idea and broken it down and thought about it to the extent that, as I say in the book, I think they may turn out to be the social realist fiction of tomorrow. For these characters who are suddenly bionically enhanced and they have omni-directional internet in their heads, and who live longer than we do because of medical advances, are gonna look back at this stuff for role models, and again, we should give them good role models rather than you know, characters with runs in their tights or problems. We should be creating big ideas that we can live up to.
Going to the audience for some questions now! First up, a question on how Grant got away with writing Final Crisis for DC. The questioner said, “it's like letting David Lynch direct a Transformers movie!”:
Grant: I think DC realised this somewhere round about issue 3! [laughs]
And continuing the question, why can comics get away with such risks?
Grant: Just because they're cheap to make I think. A movie cost £200 million if it's a big movie and a smaller one, even a small one would cost £40 million dollars to make say. A TV show cost a lot of money to make but a comic doesn't cost a lot to make. And because they're hand drawn, you know again, there's something really fascinating, there's guys sit up and hand draw these things and make stories up by taking a pencil and actually drawing the individual frames of a story. I find that quite bizarre, it's like Medieval monks doing all these illuminated manuscripts, it's a really intense magical meditative experience of hand drawing on paper.
So you get away with a lot more, you know if I'd presented Final Crisis to a film studio they'd have read it and then they'd have got in a hundred other people and gone "we like the guy with the red hair" and they'd have pulled that guy out and made it about him and it wouldn't have been allowed. I was deliberately, when I got the opportunity to do Final Crisis, I thought I will deliberately break all these Hollywood storytelling rules that everyone's currently learning, you know and the three act structure, and how things are supposed to fall, and when you introduce this character they've got to have an arc... I thought no, fuck that!
Because comics, as you say, are the only place we can do that. Just to be deliberately destructive to those story structures and just say, what if a story fell apart, what if the whole thing just went to hell because a vampire was draining the narrative. And suddenly the characterisations go, and the plot goes, and people just talk rubbish to each other and characters appear out of nowhere and don't get resolutions. And then bring it all back and kind of wrap it up. But as you say, it would not have been possible anywhere else and it probably will never be possible again to be honest! But most people don't want to go there, they want to prove that they can write the Hollywood structure which is just one way of doing stuff, and it's a way of making stories appealing to a very wide audience. It's quite a streamlined way of doing it. But it's nice to break, it's nice to see what happens when you take it away and remove those props because something still remains you know. Pure imagination on the page can be anything so yeah comics have been, as I said in the book, the last pirate art form but they've kind of swapped the Jolly Roger for the Stars and Stripes. It'll be interesting to see what happens next but we are a time, because the sales are so low, and DC are doing this crazy thing of launching all their books, anything can happen. People are trying anything now, it's quite an interesting volatile time.
Next question is on low sales and new technology and whether the latter can save the former:
Grant: Yeah, I think the iPad and basically electronic delivery of comics will change everything. We're talking specifically about the comic form, the transfer from the page on to the screen will open up a lot of new potential. As I've said before, right now what they've got, they've kind of taken the comic and just stuck it on screen so you flick, and basically it's a con, but the screen can do an awful lot more than that. And I'd like to see comics where you can press it and play a little game or you can press the Joker and get the original Joker origin just by touching it, and there's a lot more connectivity and maybe kind of fractal explosion of narrative. So I think that will happen. Right now what we're seeing is people transferring comics on to the screen, it's like the early days of Hollywood where they just set up a camera and they filmed from, you know it was like a theatre with presidium arch, and they just filmed and everything happened on the same plane. But then they discovered that they could move the camera around. And that's what we're getting with comics, comics haven't made the jump quite yet, but it's a very tentative leap into the medium. I think that's what's going to change everything, honestly. The paper thing will probably have its day and it'll become like poetry, it will become a little collectible thing that only real enthusiasts buy. But definitely, something is going to happen on the screen because the potential for just pulling out panels and explosives and a very different type of storytelling is there on screens, so yeah if anything saves the comic form it will be that.
On Grant's Wonder Woman as a sexualised/fetishised character and how he'd handle her portrayal:
Grant: Ooh I'm sweating the minute you said fetish! [laughs] Well yeah, interestingly the thing about Wonder Woman, I don't know if people know this, you probably all know this, but I'm gonna tell you it again just to bore you, but Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, who was a pop-psychologist and a little bit more than that in the 30s and 40s, and basically he was a kind of proponent of free love and that kind of you know, 1950s post-Kinsey stuff. So him and his wife had a lover called Olive Byrne, a younger, an 18 year old, and they were both sort of professors, and Olive was the original physical model for Wonder Woman. And Elizabeth Marston and Charles [William's pen name] basically created this character, because they felt that Superman represented a kind of blood-curdling masculinity as they said, so they wanted to introduce somebody who was a bit more feminine, but now at the same time Marston also had all these amazing kinks, because he had this idea that basically the world would be better if men would just submit to women's complete instruction. And I'm sure many of you may agree! [laughs] But he took it all the way, not just submit to instruction but get collars on, and get down on all fours, and just admit that's where you belong guys!
So a lot of the Wonder Woman stories had this thread through them, this idea of bondage but it was "loving submission" Marston called it. And it was this notion that, as I said in the book, there's a story where Wonder Woman rescues the slave girls of an evil Nazi villain, and the slave girls don't know what to do, even though they've been rescued they're kind of, they like being slaves. So Wonder Woman just says "Oh, don't worry, you can be slaves on Paradise Island and one of our girls will take over but she'll be really nice to you unlike the Nazi!", and that was seen as, that was the resolution to the story! You've got a nice mistress instead of a crop-cracking Paula Von Gunther.
So Marston had all these ideas and it was very deep, there was a book by him which was hidden in the DC Comics vaults because they didn't really want anyone to see it, and a friend of mine at DC sneaked it out for me one time. And it's this thing, and honestly you can't read it, it's deranged, it's like the guys just done mescaline or something, talking about his sexual theories. And it reads like William Burroughs, it's all this stuff about the luminous women from Venus and how they'll tie something round you and you'll be sorted out! So there was that, the Wonder Woman strip had this weird libidinous kind of element and obviously on Paradise Island, it was this amazing Second Wave, separatist, feminist idea of an entire island where women had ruled for 3000 years and what they did for fun was chase one another! So the girls would dress up like stags and run through the forest and another girl would chase them and then they'd capture the girl, tie her up and put her on a table and pretend to eat her at a mock banquet. This is a typical Wonder Woman adventure! [laughs] In 1941.
But then Marston died, and that energy left the strip, it just disappeared. They were really worried about what he was doing, the bondage elements were becoming more and more overt, but the sales were good! [laughs] This was working! Unlike Superman, as you say, I started looking at trying to do a Wonder Woman that brought back some of these elements but without it being prurient or exploitative.
Superman when he began was, he could throw people out of windows, you used to see him drop kicking guys into the ocean, and obviously that would kill you. You know Batman had a gun and sometimes he would shoot people. But those things weren't intrinsic to the strips, you know, you could take out those elements, you could take out the murder element of Superman and Batman and the strips still worked. But when you took the sex out of Wonder Woman, the thing went flat. And the sales died immediately after Marston himself died and never ever recovered.
So it seemed that there was something about those libidinous elements that were actually fundamental to the concept of Wonder Woman, and trying to find a way to put those back without being William Moulton Marston and not being into what he was into, was quite a difficult thing. But yeah, I think I've found a way, but I'm not gonna tell you what I've done because hopefully the Wonder Woman series will be out next year sometime or thereabouts. But I think I've found a way to get all that back in again but it took a lot of reading. This has been the hardest project I've ever done. I had to read feminist theory all the way through, from Simone De Beauvoir to Andrea Dworkin and apply it to this character. And to try and do something that incorporated those ideas but completely took them in a different direction. So I mean beyond that I'll say, Wonder Woman needs sex definitely because you know, again as I said in the book, they kind of transformed her into a cross between the Virgin Mary and Mary Tyler Moore. This girl scout who had no sexuality at all and the character's never quite worked since then.
In the way that Superman's supposed to stand for men but at least he's allowed to have some kind of element of sexuality, Wonder Woman is expected to stand for women without any element of sexuality, and that seems wrong. I don't know if that answers the question but it shows I've been thinking about it! [laughs]
On whether there is still a British sensibility to comics here or whether the number of UK creators that have gone to the US have diluted that distinction:
Grant: Yeah, I don't think there is as much as there once was; it was very obvious in the 80s when we all came over with a very distinct, kind of punk rock based viewpoint. And then we influenced another generation of writers who are now currently working so the boundaries between what British writers and creators did and what American creators do are completely dissolved. I think that the American writers now, there's so many of them that are as good as anything. But I think what's difficult about now is that there are a dozen comics that are up there with the best, whereas in the 80s or 90s, there were two or three or four maybe. Now there are an awful lot of them, and you become used to a certain standard of excellence. So no, the qualities that made us special have long ago been absorbed and redeployed by others.
I don't read a lot of British comics nowadays, so I don't know what's going on in 2000 AD or the Megazine or if there's a new sensibility or if it's really just the same old punk rock chundering on so I don't know about that aspect of it. But in terms of what we brought to comics, it has been fully absorbed I think.
On whether Grant thinks other writers have incorporated sigils into their work, and a general plea to talk about sigils for a bit:
Grant: I never know whether people are doing things though, I know what I do and the idea with The Invisibles was to create a hyper-sigil as I called it, it was to take the sigil idea... In magic, or in the occult, the notion of a sigil is that you have a desire, say I want to be a championship showjumper [laughs]. I'm sure many of us share that desire! So you write down "I want to be a championship showjumper" and then you take out all the vowels, and then you take out all the repeated letters, and you crush what you've got into one of those weird witchy things that you see in the Blair Witch Project, you know those kind of strange signs, it's a mash up of letters. And the idea is supposed to be that if you concentrate on this hard enough and then get rid of it, forget all about it, that your desire will manifest. Now it doesn't mean that, again as I've said before, if you want the desire to manifest, and your desire is "I would like to win the lottery", then you also have to buy a ticket! [laughs] This is the real world, you don't just write "I want to win the lottery"” and money will pour in. Magic is actually just quite practical.
So the notion of a sigil is to take a desire and condense it and it will happen. What I did with The Invisibles was to take that idea of a sigil and to develop a... a guy called Austin Osman Spare, an occult artist at the start of the last century. I took that notion though, what if you added a dynamic element to it, rather than a static sigil, what if you had something that lasted six years and had plots and characters and all the things that we associate with narratives. So it was the notion of creating a narrative sigil and I figured if also that if you could extend that, anyone could do that. You could do it in dance, you could do it in poetry, you could do it in music, you could do it as I did with writing. And it's basically to create a desire, you know, The Invisibles was this big desire to change the world. The original solid sigil that I did to start the process off, I did a bungee jump in New Zealand, and kind of threw the sigil down as I was screaming in horror towards the Kawarau river in New Zealand. So I kind of launched it with this moment of abject terror, when my mind completely shut down which is the idea, you want to create this "no mind" effect when you're projecting a sigil.
So I did that and then the series itself became the extension of that and it became the working out of that desire as a long term structure. And I found it was immensely effective, it was like really spooky big time Voodoo. Things that I was making happen to the characters that would then happen to me. Like when King Mob got sick, he's being tortured and he believes that his face is being eaten by a necrotising fasciitis bacteria, three months later my face is being eaten. And I've still got the scar - you can see it, wherever it is, I've forgotten. I had a sudden vision of Kerry Katona there and I don't know why! [laughs]
So suddenly there was this weird interconnectiveness happening, and I began to believe that if you create a model or a dynamic sigil of the world and then make tweaks in the sigil or the model of the world, those tweaks will manifest themselves in the larger scale reality that we live in. So there's a weird isomorphic mapping that you create between this object which as I say could be a comic story, it could be a book, it could be a novel, it could be a song, it could be a dance sequence. But it was creating this weird, this stickiness between the fiction and me. So as I say I've got this, I ended up in hospital on this bed, and the character's lung collapsed and my lung collapsed immediately afterwards. So I was in hospital writing the next issue, and it's like, "King Mob's getting up out the bed now! He's really fit! He's doing great, he's running down the hall in fact!" [laughs]
And I found that honestly, I came out of that, and I was convinced while I was in hospital that I was actually participating in this kind of dialogue with the staphylococcus aureus infection that had taken over my body. So I figured that this, you know, it's a living entity, there must be some way of contacting it totemistically, so I kind of started trying to talk to the disease. And I said, look I'll put you in The Invisibles as the bad guys if you let me go. And you can be this monstrous cosmic disease that's eating into the walls of reality and staph aureus said, "sounds great! So we'll let you go." [laughs]
So I was convinced, all the way through, as part of this sigil and these weird exchanges, with the idea of the infection. I had this notion that I could inoculate myself with words basically and tried to do that. And obviously it may not have worked if the doctors weren't also inoculating me with antibiotics [laughs], but at the same time it was giving me this mad magical context.
And that's how the hyper-sigil worked. It was a real, a stickiness between reality and fiction that I just found very bizarre. I don't really have explanations for it yet, I've got a lot of daft ideas and theories but as always, I just say, try it for yourself and see what happens and post the reports. All you can do is that, don't believe a word that I say. But try it for yourself because I was a sceptic who found that these things work, they have effects, strange things happen that don't quite fit our consensus.
On working on both Superman and Batman, and how the former is often changed while the latter is more consistent and why this is. And that in the New 52 Superman is being changed while Batman remains even with all his Robins:
Grant: But they happened in a week! [laughs] I think Batman's just simply been more popular at all times you know, and don't fuck with the billionaire [laughs]. Really Superman is open to a lot of change, Superman has constantly been in flux in a way, and I suppose Batman in each decade is a different person, but the basic history has always remained for Batman. Because it works, and it's always worked for them, and he's made money. Superman doesn't really make money, Superman goes through terrible periods of lack of success and you know as I said in the book, it's because he's a working class hero and people don't like that.
He grew up on a farm baling hay, he works in an office, he's got a boss who shouts at him and a girl who doesn't fancy him. And that's not necessarily a wish fulfilment figure any more. Whereas the idea of the man who sleeps in bed all day until 3 o'clock, then gets up and dresses in rubber and goes out and kicks the shit out of poor people [laughs], and is constantly pursued by sexy women also wearing rubber, he's now a fantasy figure for our culture that's obsessed with wealth and fame and that kind of billionaire success, and that kind of licence that lots of money gives us in this world. So I think that the character who was a champion of the oppressed and the working class and the poor, just gets short shrift you know. There are moments in time when he's in vogue and I think what I'm doing with Superman right now is to take it back to that a little bit. Because I think this is a good time to have a Superman who's kind of a little bit more like us, a bit more relatable, and who stands up against bullies for anyone who's threatened by bullies. And it's as simple as that. No matter how big the bully is, or if it's the President, Superman will go in and slap him around.
So I feel as if there's a chance for that to be back right now. But unfortunately that character fluctuates, and Superman also had the unfortunate problem of being connected to the flag and the government and to the idea of patriotism. Batman was always an outlaw, Batman was quite clearly a self-made man who worked for no one but himself. Whereas Superman was often seen as a government stooge, you know, Frank Miller did him that way, the idea of truth, justice and the American way suggests that he stands for something that is more entrenched and more conservative.
So I think that's been the problem with him and that's why he's always been open to reinterpretation. Batman works, the concept works really well and you know it was quite a synthetic idea, it was built from a lot of parts that already existed. But it was built so beautifully, you know, the thing runs like a Bentley, and they don't need to change it. It always sells. And the Batman comic is what DC comics and what all the sales of comics are usually based around, that's the base level that they calculate everything else around. If Batman's doing okay, which it always is, then that usually represents the higher end of the chart.
Interviewer asks what Grant thinks of how the new Superman film looks:
Grant: I don't know, I'm looking forward to it, I like what Christopher Nolan did with Batman, it will be interesting to see what they do with Superman, what choices they make, and what kind of Superman they create because it will be indicative of where we are right now and what we think about ourselves. Beyond that I've no idea. It looks okay, it looks pretty coo-ul [silly voice].
Back to the audience, and a question on whether comics can tackle political problems:
Grant: Superman's got a little more politics in it I guess but I just don't think that's necessarily how these characters work best. I think the way they solve our problems is to solve them on a symbolic stage. So rather than have Superman up against real poverty in say... there's so much real poverty in so many places that I can't decide where to send him. But rather than having him do that, as in the 70s it would be Superman versus pollution. But he can't solve that problem, the real world pollution will remain. What Superman can do is maybe fight some embodiment of why we create pollution and through that give us an idea, a symbolic idea of what to do in the real world.
These characters operate on the level of myth and of symbol, and I think that's where they can be powerful you know, rather than showing how would Superman solve the housing problem, well he'd knock down all the houses and build some good ones. So we now have to do that. But how does Superman fight grief, how does Superman deal with grief is much more useful to us I think. How does Superman deal with the emotions that give rise to our problems. Because he can deal with all of those things and if he deals with them on a symbolic stage then hopefully we can think how can we use our own resources and our own intelligence and transfer that notion of problem solving to the real problems that we have. I don't think we can expect him to turn up and lift the bridge but, you know, if lifting the bridge is the solution then we have methods that we can do, you know even if it takes a hundred of us to be one Superman then the way he solves problems, the way he looks at things as always problems to be solved and not things to give in to, is what I think is valuable and what we can learn from.
On how Grant has often used the full history of DC characters but not so much with the X-Men which was futuristic and whether that was a difference between DC and Marvel:
Grant: No, I think it was specific to X-Men. It just seemed to be that X-Men was about the future and what X-Men was about... X-Men's a lot of metaphors, it can stand for being gay, it can stand for being any kind of outsider, it can stand for being an immigrant. But I thought really what the ultimate metaphor in X-Men was about our children. And our children are mutants, and the things they do are scary, and ultimately they're here to replace us. No matter how much you love your children, you will die and they will take your place. And deep inside you know that, and that's what the X-Men are. You're all gonna die homo sapiens and you know the mutants, this homo superior will take your place. So I felt that because of that, it needed that kind of forward looking frame.
But Batman was different, I came to Batman with all these archives and I thought how can I make this all into one story because the one story is actually a really interesting development of Batman as a character, you know, how he starts out as this young angry vigilante, then he meets this little working class carnie kid who cheers him up a little. And it's like the emotionally frozen Bruce Wayne whose parents were killed when he was ten years old suddenly meets a twelve year old kid whose his best friend, because he's a kid. You know, but this kid laughs, he's had two parents shot dead and fallen into the sawdust, but he just starts laughing and gets on with it. So suddenly with the Batman stories, it all made sense. It's here's what would happen to an emotionally armoured twenty year old introvert who meets this crazy kid whose like "let's go do it! Let's kick the Joker's arse! Let's have a laugh!" and suddenly Batman's smiling all the time.
Looking at all those stories and watching the development of Batman, and then Robin leaves him and he moves into a penthouse in the city and starts shagging girls and stuff in the 60s and 70s [laughs]. It was actually like the biography of a person, and what that would do to him, and seeing you know how everything then goes wrong in the 90s, and those stories where Batgirl's getting crippled and the Joker's a psychopath again. And thinking, that's the real great story about Batman, is to take this all as canon and say he's lived this life and that's why his head is the way it is you know, and it all makes sense. And it actually works you know, there's no, in that line from 1938 to now there are no real reverses, Batman's character actually evolves in a very convincing way.
And so it seemed appropriate for that one to do it that way. And each story brings with it its own method of telling, you know, in the same way that say Final Crisis is a Ragnarok, so it's kind of that stuff, or with All-Star Superman it's a myth, it's a solar myth, it's a folk tale, so you're trying to do a very specific type of storytelling to invoke that feeling.
So for each character you're trying to find, what's this really about, you know, what's the core of this and how can I express that best?