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Supergods

Longbox Graveyard #18

Grant Morrison’s Supergods promises it will reveal “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” but a better subtitle would be, “What 400 pages of a meandering comics memoir can teach us about being Grant Morrison.” At times sharply-written but ultimately flabby and self-indulgent, Supergods sings when it deconstructs beloved superheroes only to lose drive, relevance, and credibility when it veers into an account of Morrison’s personal drug-fueled vision quest.

I’ve been blacked out like one of the Red Skull’s Sleepers for the last couple decades and have missed most of Grant Morrison’s career. Aside from All-Star Superman and a recent Batman trade I don’t know his work. I had a vague sense that Morrison was a brainy guy with an appetite for biting the hand that feeds, but otherwise came to Supergods with an open mind.

In his introduction, Morrison asserts “Supergods is your definitive guide to the world of superheroes — what they are, where they come from, and how they can help us change the way we think about ourselves.” In his conclusion, Morrison writes, “Here in the twenty-first century we’re surrounded by proof that we tend to live our stories,” and Morrison declares that superheroes have been at the center of his spiritual and emotional development.

Morrison has a point. We citizens of the future fly though the sky near the speed of sound, use Google vision to zero in on any square foot of the earth, and can modify our minds and bodies in ways that challenge the definition of “human.” In a way we do live out the stories of superheroes. It is fascinating to think we may have “believed” ourselves into our present state, following the hidden signposts of some collective unconscious that reveals itself through comic book stories.

Superheroes as comparative myth! I’d like to read that book!

Supergods is not that book.

Supergods is a feathered fish, half history and half memoir, with anecdote masquerading as evidence, and opinions substituting for proof. While Morrison makes a case for the transformative effect of superheroes on his own life — leading him to personal fame, wealth, and professional success — his subjective and intimately personal narrative has little relevance for we poor mortals lacking Morrison’s self-proclaimed magic powers and extra-dimensional vision. If his book is to be a “definitive guide,” Morrison needs to more strongly connect superhero stories to social and psychological trends beyond his own personal experience.

For a man so immersed in comics — he’s in his third decade as a comics creator — Morrison has the gift of seeing superheroes with fresh eyes, a talent that has served him well in developing new takes on timeworn characters like Batman and Superman. His insight in examining one of the most iconic images in comics — the debut of Superman on the cover of Action Comics #1 — is Supergods at it’s best and it’s worst.

Morrison looks at the cover as it may have seemed to readers of the day — an ambiguous image of a circus strong man run amok, smashing a car against a rock, while citizens (?) criminals (?) flee in dismay. There are no captions to tell us who this man is, or if he is hero or villain. It is possible that by smashing a car, Superman lashes out — as Morrison suggests — against an age of industry deaf to the “silent cry of the little fellow.”

It’s when Morrison likens the X-shaped composition of the cover to a metaphorical crossroads and matter-of-factly links it with Haitian voodoo, Odin, and Ganesh that my bullshit valve blows. C’mon, Grant! The cover, like comics, may be profound … but it’s not that profound.

Not for the last time in Supergods, we are expected to accept an extraordinary claim simply because the author wishes it were so.

he wishes it so

These self-satisfied flourishes are as unfortunate as they are unnecessary, distracting from intriguing ideas — like Morrison’s assertion that Superman is an inherently Socialist hero of the people, a god-like, other-worldly reformer who by becoming a corporate trademark is “… transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse: the betrayer of his own creators … (who) flew into the hands of anyone who could afford to hire him.”

Was Superman a Socialist brainwashed by The Man? Who knows? Morrison makes that provocative assertion, bows toward Ganesh, then moves on — fait accompli — to the commercial origins of Superman’s dark clone, Batman, and then in rapid succession surveys other Golden Age greats like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and the Flash. Here Morrison again jumps the fence, linking the Flash to the Roman god, Mercury, and from there to a grab-bag of ancient gods, including Ganesh (again with Ganesh!), reminding in an unfavorable way of master myth analyst Joseph Campbell, who could get away with this kind of stuff, because, well, he was Joseph freaking Campbell.

Joseph Freaking Campbell

Morrison tears into the 1950s with glee, praising EC Comics, machinegunning Fredric Wertham, and lamenting Superman’s fall from sun god to the “fatherly, conservative, and trustworthy” establishment figure played on television by George Reeves. Morrison’s deconstruction of the 1950s adventures of Superman, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen as the foul harvest of Mort Weisinger’s therapy sessions is as far-fetched as connecting the cover of Action #1 to Thoth and Ogma, but Morrison gets away with it here, given his bona fides as an expert on Superman.

His “Superman On The Couch” chapter is buoyed by the book’s strongest writing and is worth the price of admission. Morrison wonders at Jimmy Olsen’s transvestism, and sees 1950′s era Superman as a commitment-adverse, sadistic man-boy who delights in humiliating the husband-hunting Lois Lane with insincere promises of marriage. Every bit as vivid is Morrison’s assessment of Batman and Robin, a dysfunctional relationship Morrison says Robin could only have viewed as “… a schizoid cold war hell where Batman was secretly conniving to betray and dump (Robin) any time his guard was down.”

Almost as sharp is Morrison’s description of the Silver Age, which Morrison says originated with a request from the U.S. State Department that creators of entertainment for children try to cultivate an interest in science and technology in their audience — one of many fascinating but too-tidy claims that mar Supergods for their lack of citation. In Morrison’s narrative, early Silver Age heroes like Green Lantern and (especially) the Flash are New Frontier “Kennedy Men” — cold war science heroes like the Mercury 7 astronauts. When Kennedy was murdered and Camelot destroyed, the way was made clear for Marvel Comics to run rings around DC heroes that overnight seemed relics of a too-innocent age.

Morrison writes movingly of the cosmic importance and sheer, implausible joy of DC’s multiple earths, and damns by inference the modern DC impulse to rationalize and compartmentalize that crazy gush of four-color creativity. With the delight of an inveterate shit-disturber he affectionately regards the anything-goes era when Roy Thomas was Marvel’s editor-in-chief, making special note of Jim Starlin’s cosmic experimentation on titles like Captain Marvel and Warlock.

For Morrison, the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow begins the “Dark Age” of comics, putting paid to the uptight 1950s and the pop art 1960s with a more realistic and legitimized take on superheroes. Morrison acknowledges Dark Knight and Watchmen as twin thunderbolts of 1980s realism, then just as quickly dispatches them, offering arm’s-length affection for Dark Knight, and skewering Alan Moore for the overly structured and inherently ridiculous plot of Watchmen.

Speedy shoots up … what are the odds?

It is here where Morrison comes of age enters his own narrative, and this is where Supergods s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n and loses much of its drive. Morrison turns to his own work: when Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and a deserved but dull victory lap for Morrison’s Arkham Asylum get more pages than Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four combined, the transformation is complete — Supergods is no longer a history. It has become a memoir, where Morrison gets rich, travels the world, practices magic, attains enlightenment, and loses the reader.

Morrison is sincerely committed to his tale. I believe he believes what he believes. Fans of his work may get a real kick from the inner journey that blew Morrison’s mind while writing The Invisibles. Morrison gets points for putting himself out there, and if I’d rather read about imaginary heroes in a space station 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface than a real explorer on a drug trip in Katmandu, then maybe that says more about the reader than the writer. What I found ridiculous you may find profound. But when Morrison says we should not attribute to hashish his vision of “… the Shwayambunath temple rearrang(ing) itself like a Transformer into some kind of chrome lionlike configuration with exhaust pipes and tubular spirit conduits,” the sane man has to say No, Grant — that’s the hashish.

Does Grant Morrison talk like this over dinner? Do his friends let him get away with it?

Insight and nonsense, humor and hooey. The wheel is always turning in Supergods. You take one with the other or you take nothing at all.

Morrison returns to form with his “Image Versus Substance” chapter, chronicling the rocketship rise of Image Comics. Resuming the ironic outsider tone that made “Superman On The Couch” so readable, Morrison doesn’t disguise the suffocating horror he felt at the Image explosion: “At the time, it was a dreadful setback for the idea of ‘grown-up’ superhero comics. In hindsight, it was America’s inevitable reaction to Watchmen, and the only response that could possibly be effective: Fuck realism, we just want our superheroes to look cool and kick ten thousand kinds of ass.”

“… cocaine comics, emotionally dead, creatively limited, and perfectly timely.”

Morrison gets his sneer on with delicious results, offering backhanded praise for Image’s commercial acumen in “… appealing to the lowest common denominator … a huge, new market: bored teenage boys growing up with The Terminator, PlayStation, and Mega Drive who wanted no-nonsense action heroes in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Bruce Willis style.” It doesn’t occur to Mr. Morrison that what may have bored those teenage boys were the arty, metrosexual heroes of the brief British comics golden age he so admires, but no matter — the Image flame-out comes soon enough, and Morrison is there to write the obituary. With the direct market saturated by Image product, Morrison describes the geek superhero glimpsing “… itself in the mirror, standing there in stained underpants and playing air guitar,” then he brings Alan Moore back on stage for a kicking, calling him out for first leaving superheroes because his work left no more stories to be told, only to then sell himself out to The Man with the miscalculated 1963, which Morrison suggests was the beginning of the end for Image.

“… the way engines might dream of themselves.”

Morrison is a superior writer, and in places his words sizzle. He writes that superheroes are “… a uniquely American creation … born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility,” while heroes of the British comic book industry are “a rum bunch” of “cargo cult creations” that “stink of the bargain bin” and “left behind the stale odor of rationing and austerity.” He calls Mort Weisinger’s influence over Superman stories a “Jungian bowel movement.” Jack Kirby’s creations sport “Aztec zig-zags and go-faster stripes,” with his engines looking “… the way engines might dream of themselves.” Image Comics were “… cocaine comics, emotionally dead, creatively limited, and perfectly timely.”

When that voice is present, Supergods is a delight. But Morrison loses the plot when he writes about his own quest for the meaning of life, and his matter-of-fact declaration of enlightenment casts a shadow over the entire work.

The only evidence that Morrison offers for superheroes teaching us new ways to think about ourselves is Mr. Morrison himself, miraculously transformed from comics geek to mystical, world-famous storytelling shaman. But in neglecting to connect the spiritual significance of superheroes to anything outside own biography, Supergods fails to be a “definitive guide” to anything but Grant Morrison. The last step in understanding the significance of superheroes as immortal myth symbols apparently requires traveling to Nepal and getting 5-D vision. There’s no path for me to follow. It’s a travelogue to nowhere.

Morrison’s commitment to his ideas, opinions, and insights is courageous, and that I found him tiresome after four hundred pages does not make him wrong or insincere. Morrison takes himself and his work seriously, and he genuinely gives a shit about comics. And when it sticks to funnybooks, Supergods is a fine read. But by claiming superheroes can “teach us more about being human,” and “help us change the way we think about ourselves,” but then neglecting to prove those points in a relatable fashion, Morrison does a high dive into an empty pool.

The failure of Supergods isn’t so much that it’s mostly nonsense, because Morrison writes well enough that even his nonsense can be entertaining. The problem is that Morrison’s opinion of himself as superhero isn’t nearly so interesting as his opinion of superheroes themselves.

Should you buy Supergods?

Historians should give it a miss — with its lack of attribution and unsupported opinion, there’s nothing here you can use (unless your subject is Grant Morrison himself!).

Students of poison pen character assassination should buy a copy for the Mort Weisinger and Image Comics chapters alone.

Pseudo-intellectuals should buy two copies, and get them autographed.

It’s kind of a coin-flip, but comic book fans should probably accept the good with the bad and add Supergods to their library. I’ve been hard on the book in this review, but Morrison’s opinions on comics are worthy, insightful, and funny. Approach the text with a critical eye and be your own editor — enjoy the good stuff, and skim the nonsense. Though scandalously under-illustrated, the book is bloated at 400 pages, so you can safely ignore half of it and still get a good read for the cover price.

And all of us should see if Morrison walks the walk by checking out the recently re-launched Action Comics, where Mr. Morrison has been tasked with guiding Superman into our new century. Superman as Socialist champion of the working class is a promising take … but as soon as Supes teams up with Ganesh, I’m out.

NOT a Superman/Ganesh team-up, but don’t let Grant see or he’ll add another 400 pages to Supergods

(For a contrasting and positive view of Supergods, check out comicbookGRRL’s review).

(Thanks to Tom Mason and Chris Ulm for their pre-publication review of this article).

NEXT WEEK: #18 Top Single Issue Stories

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About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on October 12, 2011, in Other Media and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. We plan on digging this book during the break between semesters. We have enough book reports to work on until then!

    But guess what? We really don’t get what all the buzz is about with Grant Morrison as a comics writer. Lots of our friends talk about him but when we read his stuff… Dude, what’s the big deal?

    No, we won’t criticize Grant – we are much more interested in sharing about things that totally rocked our world and rocked our socks off than stuff we didn’t like. Just the fact that Grant Morrison is going to recount insanely hallucinogenic drug trips and rap about the history of comic books make this sound like a super fun read.

    So – Paul, did you check out the Warren Ellis series called SuperGod? We thought the set-up and concept were great even if the resolution was a little weak – which is typical of Ellis these days. If you read it, did you like it?

    • Warren Ellis is another one of those guys who entered the field during my Red Skull-like slumber. I think I have a “Planetary” graphic novel on the shelf but I’m not convinced I ever read it.

      Writing this blog has led me to realize how much Alan Moore is a watershed figure. Swamp Thing #21 really changed everything — after Moore was writing mainstream American comic books, it not only opened the door for guys like Morrison, it actually required that every other writer develop their own take on the Alan Moore style. Morrison actually addresses this in one of the more cogent parts of his book.

      Before Alan Moore, I can’t imagine anyone that could have written like him; after, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t. It’s like there’s been this huge explosion of revisionism that has created a rut all its own. We’re a quarter-century past Watchmen. Comics are long past the point where should have been another one of those watershed moments.

      For all that I thought Supergods tiresome and uneven, I find Morrison one of the better post-Moore comic book writers, in that much of his work is optimistic, and he doesn’t seek to tear down the characters that he writes so much as he looks the build them up. The problem is I don’t always like the things into which he builds them. What interests him as a writer and what interests me as a reader have minimal overlap.

      • Planetary is pretty %$#& awesome – especially with John Cassaday’s art. We always recommend the trades because the story develops very s–l–o–w–l–y. But grab a trade or two and the genius becomes apparent in short order.

        We do agree that there’s been a flood of the revisionist style superhero stuff – and it continues to this day. Lots of “superhero in the real world” stuff. Well, some of it’s good and some of it ain’t. We imagine that the market for “Kick Ass” is a younger market than the geezers who got the first prints of Watchmen and Dark Knight right off the shelf, but they’re all essentially taking the same shot at the superhero basket. We do confess to liking something like the first two volumes of Ultimates more than the original Avengers, just because they seem more relevant to our world and life.

        But you’re right – it’s so easy to “tear down” the superhero schtick, because it’s so fundamentally dumb in the first place. What takes real guts and creativity is making it relevant while still building it up.

        • I actually quite liked the whole Ultimate line (at first), but I lost touch with it and now it appears to have spun off into its own confused tangle, well removed from its simplified roots.

          The thing about superhero stories is that readers come to them ready to accept all sorts of nonsense. A creator can do a story about Clark Kent’s glasses not masking Superman’s identity if they wish, but then they throw the whole mythology into question — start tugging on that particular thread, and you lose your Fortresses of Solitude and flying dogs in capes, too. Again, you can do it (Alan Moore made a career of these kinds of choices), but it requires a skill that most comics creators don’t have.

          You risk the franchise when “reality” intrudes on comics — introducing rape and murder to our four-color fantasies should not be lightly undertaken. It’s easy to break things, not so easy to repair them. Senior editorial at the Big Two need to regard these characters as crown jewels, precious assets that have been built up over the last seventy-five years … of course you have to change and challenge the characters, and evolve them over time, but when a creator scores cheap sales by messing with legacy characters, then expects me to admire their genius, well, to me, that’s like being born on third base, and telling me you hit a triple.

          I don’t feel that way about Grant Morrison, by the way — I think the work he’s done on legacy characters has generally been respectful and he’s left those characters better than he found them. And he’s also proven his chops by creating original characters, so his success isn’t entirely down to Superman’s coattails (capetails?).

          But take a look at the way many legacy characters have been handled, and tell me that it was worth it … that it resulted in great stories and enhanced the brand. Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, the Vision & the Scarlet Witch, Sue Dibny (and many others) — all these characters have been thrown on the bonfire at one point or another strictly for shock value. It’s unwise and unnecessary, a disservice to fans, to the original creators, and to the characters themselves.

          • Well said, Paul. And a solid reminder that if you’re not telling a great story, then deconstruction is just a gimmick.

            In other Grant Morrison news, we found a massive run of Animal Man all bagged and boarded on the top secret 50-cent rack this evening. Now, people keep raving about Morrison on Animal Man, so we rescued all of the 26 Morrison issues to see what the hoopla’s about. (We left another 50 or so issues for the next fever-ridden scavenger…)

            Gotta say, they ain’t so bad so far. Plus, the first arc features a gorilla, so we suspect you are holding some in the LBG.

            • You’re going to have to share the location of this secret comic stash with your fellow members of the Legion of Blogging Super-Friends, particularly if it is on the west coast.

              And I sense that a Top Ten Gorilla Comics column is inevitable. Eventually.

  2. A Mercury/Flash compassion seems pretty apt to me. They both travel near instantaneously (unless the story calls for them to get their just slightly too late), Mercury has wings on his feet, Flash has wings on his helmet. I seem to remember Flash himself making the comparison, but it could have been from that short lived, early 90s TV show.

  3. I have a review of <iSupergods on Goodreads that I think mostly echoes your thoughts: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/793735826?book_show_action=false

    • Sounds like we were on the same wavelength.

      It is a shame about Supergods because there are intriguing ideas here, but the execution is lazy. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I call B.S.

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