Sunday, April 7, 2013

STL #110: Grant Morrison (Supergods and others)

I live in a poor city with an underfunded library. Last year I learned that I could get a card for the wealthier, surrounding county's library system, and well, it has made a difference. On my first visit browsing the shelves, I came across Grant Morrison's prose book Supergods. This was a book I had been excited to read. Supergods is Morrison's peculiar take on the history of superhero comics, with his own work taking a lead role in the later periods. There are two important things to know about Morrison: 1.)as a comics writer he is a genius without peer and 2.) as a prose writer he is not. Supergods focuses some of the themes you can decode from his comics or that he has uttered in various ephemeral outlets like interviews or comics letter columns. As one example, he writes “If this book has made any point clear, I hope it's that things don't have to be real to be true. Or vice versa.” That's a wordy version of his application of magic in his comics: images and words come together as magical spells, that bring things into this world that weren't in it before.

In the last week, I finished his run on Animal Man (his first major work in the American comics world) and Flex Mentallo, a narrative version of the history of comics portrayed in Supergods. The first four issues of Animal Man were one of the first things I read of his after Doom Patrol and Arkham Asylum. Coming off of those books, it was really something of a disappointment. The first four issues read like a mini-series dusting off an old property just to service the copyright of the character, which on one level it was. There are a few signs of things to come, though: the radical animal rights implications, an interweaving of the narrative strands, in which an innocuous domestic scene of the hero at home might comment on the villain's quest (and the villain isn't exactly a bad guy here). With the fifth issue though, things start to take off. Starring Wile E. Coyote as Jesus H. Christ (neither is named as such), this issues starts the journey into metafictional waters that reaches its destination twenty issues later, when Animal Man meets his maker. That is to say, Animal Man meets Grant Morrison. There's a wonderful remembrance in that issue of the author as a boy, flashing a coded message to his imaginary friend "Foxy" in the hills across the water.

Flex Mentallo comes a few years later, after Morrison had established himself as a comics messiah of sorts. As Supergods makes clear, this book is the secret history of comics--each issue represents an era in comics, from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, from the Dark Age to a later Renaissance; in all modesty, Morrison uses Flex Mentallo to mark the emergence of a new age of comics.

Although putatively about Supergods, I see this post has actually become about my more recent reading of Morrison. I'll end with some other recent reading I've been enthusiastic about--Kirby's "Fourth World" comics. These comics, interlocking plotlines from four series were obviously an influence on Morrison, not only for their theogony but their structure, which influenced his finest work, Seven Soldiers. This project was actually a series of mini-series featuring renewed versions of C and D list superheroes. His goal was that each issue would be a self-contained unit, as would each mini-series, but the real story is in the unfolding of the entire sequence. In playing with universes inhabited with super powered beings, the writer might think to become the Super God himself. Morrison is one of the few writers in comics to fully embrace this aspect of what is essentially commerce for an artistic end.