July 2011

Martyn Pedler


Hyperbole Philosophy: Grant Morrison's Supergods

When Superman: The Movie arrived in 1977, it came with the tagline "You'll believe a man can fly." It was a promise of the then-spectacular blockbuster effects that'd lift actor Christopher Reeve off the ground. It was also an instruction, a demand. You must believe a man can fly. If you won't let yourself believe it, then what are you doing here?  

I've always found suspension of disbelief fascinating when applied to superhero stories. They're so intrinsically ridiculous you never know when a reader's credulity will finally crack. And over the past twenty-five years or so, writer Grant Morrison has pushed superhero logic as far as anyone. His heroes have battled dada-inspired art criminals, explored five-dimensional space, bravely faced their own erasure, and peered out of the pages of their books to see our faces hovering above them.

When Morrison once wrote a scene featuring a Superman from the 853rd century "punching through time," an interviewer questioned him about what the hell that actually might mean. The answer was his Rosetta Stone. "It's just superhero poetry," he said.

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human is Grant Morrison's first nonfiction book: an unpredictable mix of autobiography, comic book history, creative diary, and personal philosophy. It's like a mythological monster with the body of a lion and head of an eagle or -- more appropriately -- like DC Comics' Ultra the Multi-Alien, a goofy astronaut transformed by multiple ray gun blasts into four new species at once.

If criticism were a courtroom, I'd have to recuse myself from this book. I've been buying every comic bearing Morrison's name since I discovered his Animal Man, just as it took its shocking turn toward metafiction. I was just the right age and primed on just the right comics for his deconstruction of poor, animal-powered Buddy Baker to blow my mind open like I was a Cronenberg dummy. Morrison's responsible for many of my favorite comic books of all time, and his obsession with parallel worlds was the subject of my first published academic chapter. His writing taught the miserable teen I used to be, badly armored in cheap cynicism, how optimism could be a heroic act. I can still remember how one line in Flex Mentallo felt like a punch to the chest: "Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism."

(I'll plead the fifth on whether I participated in the Wankathon, the mass magic ritual that was meant to save his experimental conspiracy epic The Invisibles from early cancellation. Let's just say the title continued for years afterward and leave it at that.)

Those who are eager to read the kind of anecdotes Morrison's famous for spouting in interviews -- psychedelic rituals, self-aware fictional universes, bacterial totem animals -- will have to wait through Supergods' opening chapters of comic book history. Beginning with DC's Superman and Batman, moving through Marvel's Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Morrison writes in broad strokes on his highlights, rarely lowlights. Supergods is a fundamentally optimistic work, showcasing "the unexpected, the impossible, [and] the illogical" in superhero stories. It's not blind hero worship, though, and some might be surprised by Morrison's take on the dark impulses underneath the supposed geek utopia of today's popular culture.

The best thing about his description of others' work is how it makes you want to rush out and read the originals. He writes that Superman artist Wayne Boring "slowed it all down, crystallizing single moments into myth." Avengers writer Roy Thomas "gave us an elevated, giddy, 360-degree perspective roller-coaster vision, a phosphorescent synesthesia." Don McGregor's Black Panther conjured up images "of a visionary writer throwing words at paper the way Pollock threw paint." It's dryly funny, too, like when he explains the gritted-teeth heroes of Image Comics as "consumed by rage or grief or rage or sometimes grief..."

This history lesson gives Supergods an inclusive, anyone-can-play ideology -- but there's another reason for it that only becomes clear on page eighty-three. Without warning, Morrison calmly states: "This is where I joined the continuity: born at one in the morning on the last, bitter bold January day of 1960."

When you follow a comic writer for years, monthly issue after monthly issue, across different characters and different companies, you can't help presuming his autobiography. Changes in style don't seem like conscious decisions; they're more like reflections of private lives or inner turmoil. We want to believe in the sympathetic magic between an author and his stories. Morrison, though, means something more than that. He wrote himself into the pages of Animal Man, appearing as a godlike author responsible for all the hero's woes. He wasn't the first comic artist to appear in his own story using what Morrison calls a "fiction suit," but later, in The Invisibles, he also created the suave, shaved-headed anarchist King Mob -- and proceeded to attempt to turn himself into Mob outside the comic book as well.

After shaving his head, Morrison says his reflection in the mirror was "a blank character design, a smiley face. I could now revamp myself as I had Animal Man, the Doom Patrol, and Batman. I was becoming a superhero." But fictionalizing yourself comes with unexpected dangers. When Morrison put King Mob through the wringer, that same sympathetic magic meant his own health failed with near-fatal consequences.

If you're convinced fiction has real power over us, then the fictions we choose to tell ourselves become critical. Morrison explains this was the point of his last superhero epic, the doom-laden summer blockbuster Final Crisis: what happens when bad stories supplant good ones? He attributes agency to characters and stories, not their authors, and finds a moral loophole for Superman's flight from his original creators to his corporate owners. It was Superman's own "immediate need to be real" that forced him to go where he could most effectively transmit his story to the world. Supergods also has a deep suspicion of what some forms of realism means when it infects superheroes. Here's Morrison describing the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show with something like a shudder: "The character born in a futurist blaze of colour and motion had washed up on a black-and-white stage set, grounded by the turgid rules of a real world that kept his wings clipped and his rebel spirit chained. Superman was now locked into a death trap more devious than anything Lex Luthor could have devised. Here was Superman -- even Superman -- tamed and domesticated in a world where the ceiling, not the sky, was the limit."

When we try to make superheroes more real with miserable backstories, awkward perversions, or armor instead of spandex, we ignore the fact that they already are real. They're living happily in what Morrison calls their "paper universes." They're 2-D, tucked away in our comic book fiction, and as real as you or me.

The infamous psychedelic UFO encounter that gave Morrison the ability to see the world in five dimensions is recounted at length, and is less interesting than it should be; it turns out this kind of imagery needs to be paired with a comic book artist to make it sing. And if you rolled your eyes at the possibility of five-dimensional super-vision? Don't worry. Morrison doesn't mind. Throughout Supergods, he's aware of how the reader's suspended disbelief might snap. If it's easier, he says, "feel free to assume I hallucinated the whole thing and went completely, gloriously, and very lucratively mad."

Supergods isn't Morrison's masterpiece. (As I typed that, I could hear Eli Cash from The Royal Tenenbaums asking, "Why would a reviewer make the point of saying someone's not a genius?") Chunks of the book feel quickly written, with words and ideas unintentionally repeated, and there's a long discussion of different versions of Batman on the big screen that's a mistimed tangent when we should be racing toward an emotional conclusion. Morrison's theories on how a "thriving fictional universe simulates the behavior of a 'real' organism" need more pages than Supergods is willing to give.

But don't dismiss Supergods as glib or lazy. Its hyperbole isn't a stylistic flourish. It's a way of life. The ultimate self-help philosophy. The last defense against our world's mundane gravity or Final Crisis's "anti-life equation." That's why it's not death but de-creation that's the worst fate for Morrison's heroes, and why their greatest victories come through imagination and reinvention.

In the end, Supergods' hypothesis is so simple and inspiring it should be four-colored, thick-outlined, sign-posted with speed lines and exclamation points. "Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea," writes Morrison. "Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea."

It's superhero poetry. And I believe.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.