Thursday, October 13, 2011

Grant Morrison's Supergods (With Ultra-Long Subtitle)

Early this morning, I finished up Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison.

Morrison is known mainly as a comic book writer, which makes him rather well equipped to write a book like this. It's part history of superheros, part memoir, and part philosophy lecture. that may sound a bit dry, but the sort of amazing thing here is that Morrison is so damn charming and funny. Amazing only in that, his comic work tends toward the whimsical and bizarre. There's a charm to it, no doubt, but it's not laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is downright incomprehensible.

I laughed out loud several times reading this book, of course, I also had a couple of moments that brought tears to my eyes. I've always been hot or cold about Morrison's comic work, sometimes I found it lovely, sometimes just one step up from random gibberish. The one real discovery I made reading this book is that pendulum swing stems from a sincere, deep desire on Morrison's part to push the concept of the superhero further. Sometimes, it works beautifully, sometimes not.

What is abundantly clear, on page after page, is that Grant is a BELIEVER. A believer in the power of these characters to shape our world, to change humanity for the better, if we'd just embrace their power. He even sets up a belief system wherein Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the others are, in many ways, real. The ink is real, the story is real, and the characters have "lived" and evolved far beyond any given concept that any given creator has applied to them. Invoking string theory, he speaks of looking into 2D dimensions wherein reside the DC, Marvel, and other comic "universes."

Yeah, it's heady stuff, and I don't know as I buy everything he throws at the reader. The saving grace is that he doesn't, either. He positions every strange encounter he's had with other dimensional beings as HIS experience, via his status as a practitioner of various chemical/occult/eastern/Sci-Fi philosophies. Certainly, the ultimate experience he had while in Khatmandu can have correlation in pretty much any belief system, that we are all connected in some sort of mystical/physical/spiritual manner. Morrison's own Sci-Fi leanings and mindset re-interpret that revelation with liquid metal (?) beings from a dimension above ours, rather than Jesus or Buddha. He invites the reader to write off his, personal, experience as some sort of nervous breakdown, but also insists you consider the implications of the ultimate revelation.

When he brings that philosophy back to his comics work, and the super-hero genre as a whole, he reveals something I've long believed. Just like the folktales of Gods and heroes of the mythic past, super-heroes are her, their function is to guide us toward a better world. Morrison also strongly believes in the power of story and myth to do just that. When he writes a super-hero story, he shares with us the exact thought process he enters into, and how he sees his role in continuing the stories of these characters. Even attempting to create an avatar for himself within this 2D world (The Invisibles), or allowing the characters to understand their relationship to the creator and reader (his rightly acclaimed run on Animal Man). It's breathtaking stuff, inspiring, even if, in me, he was preaching to the choir.

Click to enbiggen -a beautiful Morrison Moment
The joy in Morrison's view is that it doesn't mandate an infantile viewpoint. His work is more than willing to embrace drug culture, sex, violence, etc, but always with a implicit mandate to provide some understanding and comfort to those of us reading. He can write "realistic" super-heroes, but he's (and I think rightly) found that to be a dead end. Superman inspires because he is greater than us, a figure to aspire to. His comics are always designed to push the medium, either in form or content, while still holding central and sacred their inherent, important place within our society.

Reading this book actually brought up a memory of attending a panel at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, on which Morrison, as the current writer on Batman, was sitting. One of our typical "make it real" fanboys stepped up to the mic, and proceeded to blurt out the often-heard "Batman should carry guns" theory. The gist of which is, Batman, as a rather dark and driven character, shouldn't be held back by such things as a code against killing.

Morriosn went livid. It was truly inspiring, and shocking, honestly, the man always presents himself in such a serene and contemplative way. "Batman with a gun is just another soldier," he snapped in his thick Scottish accent, and the whole room fell silent. "The last thing we need is another soldier!"

I've always been on the fence about Morrison's take on Batman, it's a bit too "James Bond" for me, but, with that answer, it was clear he understood exactly who and what Batman was, at the core. This book feels somewhat the same way, I don't agree with everything he presents, but he's got an iron grip on the core concept. He also articulates it with excitement and verve.

That's an inspiring thing.

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