Before All Star - Grant Morrison on Kill Your Boyfriend
Grant Morrison on Kill Your Boyfriend
“People said we were evil, but they missed the point again.“It was just high spirits.” Because we at Newsarama know you can never get enough of Grant Morrison, we’re following up our long look back at his recent All Star Superman series with a look at one of his older and lesser-known works. First published in 1994 as part of the abortive “Vertigo Voices” line, Kill Your Boyfriend remains one of Morrison’s most fun and quotable books. And by that, we mean there’s a random quote generator online. Featuring art by Phillip Bond and D’Israeli, Boyfriend is violent, hedonistic and extremely funny tale of a girl leading a suffocating middle-class lifestyle who meets a boy offering a way out. It involves…well, see the title. Along the way, they meet some art terrorists, have a lot of sex and wind up in a showdown at Blackpool. You sort of have to read it for yourself. Though it received little promotion at the time of its initial release, Boyfriend earned a cult following among fans and pros, including future Casanova and Invincible Iron Man writre Matt Fraction, who raved about the book at Artbomb.net. The book was reprinted in 1998, but fell out of print for another decade until its recent reprinting by Vertigo. Because little has been written about Kill Your Boyfriend, we decided to talk with Morrison about its hidden meanings (or lack therof) and what it meant to him personally. In the process, we took a trip back through Morrison’s life, the man he was when he wrote the script, and how he sees it today. Our interview contains SPOILERS, so do yourself a favor and read the book first. Otherwise, set back as Grant Morrison revisits a project he considers one of his personal favorite works. Newsarama: Grant, one thing I noticed while rereading the book this time is that The Girl makes eye contact with the reader when she addresses them. Was this indicated in the script, or was it something Phillip Bond brought to the table? Grant Morrison: It was there in the script. I was thinking of the movie Alfie - the good one, the original, with Michael Caine, where he talks to the audience throughout the movie. NRAMA: The Girl’s parents represent two extremes – absurdly strict on one side, trying to hard to be her friend on the other. You also portray the Girl as being the product of her parents’ hypocritical decisions. The Girl seems like this inevitable product of the crap around her, which begs the question – do you ultimately see her little spree as a positive act of rebellion against all this? GM: I try not to judge my characters too much. For the purposes of this story, I was writing from a place where I was totally behind their unlikely actions. Sometimes, when you’re a powerless teenager, the very thought of an anti-social spree can seem like the only sane response to a cynical, world of lying teachers, hypocritical politicians and parents too caught up in their own bullshit. Who hasn’t smashed a few store and car windows, stolen stuff, tormented teachers all the way to the mental home or skipped school at one time or another in their young life? I know I have. NRAMA: You state in the afterward of the 1998 edition that the boy is Dionysus, and Dionysus is mentioned just after the boy appears in the story. While The Boy does spur The Girl on by doing what she can’t he doesn’t meet Dionysus’ fate – he chooses death by his own hand, as opposed to being torn apart by his followers (in a way, he tears them apart). I’m curious as to how you see the myth as influencing the overall story, and whether you see the climax as a subversion of this myth. GM: Actually. I think the Boy is torn apart by his “follower” - the Girl in this case - in the sense that she actually grows beyond him and becomes more of a genuine, empowered threat to society than even he is. She becomes a maenad. The Boy represents the intrusion into the Girl’s life of wild, chaotic, liberating energies, like Dionysus or Tyler Durden in the later Fight Club, only real. NRAMA: One of the things I enjoy about the art us the way Bond uses negative space and non-symmetrical panels, which contributes to the dreamlike nature of the story. Did you two have discussions on the way the book should look, or did you write the script specifically to his style (or both?) GM: I don’t think we discussed it, but Philip is one of my all-time favorite comics artists, and this was written to play to his considerable strengths as I saw them. I can’t think of anyone else who could so effectively capture the special atmosphere of this book. His work was perfectly judged, perfectly poised in the black, fertile gap between humor and tragedy, realism and cartoons. He’s one of the greats. NRAMA: In the afterward to the 1998 edition, you talk about the influence of Heartland (Badlands here in the States). When did you first see the film, and what did you find compelling about it? Do you feel Boyfriend was influenced more by the Starkweather killings or by Malick’s fictionalization of them. GM: It was Badlands here in the UK too - calling the film Heartland was an error on my part, which will be remembered forever in print! I was influenced more by the film, I think - especially Martin Sheen’s insouciant, likeable performance as the killer. I loved his blithe, matter-of-fact attitude towards mass murder. I wanted The Boy to be a force of nature, an uncontrollable, transforming agent of disruption. Unlike Sissy Spacek’s hick own murder belle, the Girl in Kill Your Boyfriend is middle class and well-educated, which gave her reformation into a gun-toting polysexual rebel on the run a particularly British slant. I also wanted to contrast Badlands’ wide-open Dakota spaces and highways with the cramped gentility and dull urban vistas of the English landscape - the motorway service stations, seaside resorts and bed-and-breakfasts. NRAMA: Another thing you mention in the 1998 edition is that when the book came out, it had the misfortune of coexisting alongside a number of films about killer couples on the run. Obviously, your work was independent of that, but why do you feel that particularly storyline was so prominent in the cultural zeitgeist at that time? For that matter, why do you feel that particular story resonates so deeply, from Bonnie and Clyde and onward? GM: It’s that romantic “you and me against the world, baby…” attitude taken to violent anarchic extremes. It’s about being so crazy about someone, you’d follow them into hell with a laugh and a kiss. As I mentioned in the intro, when I was writing the story, I had no real model to work from other than the Starkweather case but by the time Kill Your Boyfriend was released, True Romance and Natural Born Killers had come out with their own wrinkles on the same theme and, indeed, the same film. A zeitgeist thing? Definitely. NRAMA: Since Boyfriend’s initial publication, teen shootings have become more prominent, to the point where they barely make a blip in the media. Would you feel comfortable telling a story like this today, and do you feel the book might have been unintentionally prophetic? GM: Probably not entirely. Real life teen shootings tend to be glum, miserable and sordid affairs. This was a cartoon romp about joie de vivre (joie de morte?), abandoning all responsibilities and trying out new role models. It’s a jet-black teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy, set in what is really only a “version” of a recognizably real world. NRAMA: What did you tap into to write the character of the girl, and how do you feel teenagers are different today than they were when you originally wrote Boyfriend? GM: I tapped into my own feelings of frustration and my own memories of wanting more out of life when I was a no-hope kid from a broken home. The Girl was a stand-in for me at a time when I had just emerged from a long-term relationship and was running a bit wild and trying a lot of stuff I’d never tried before. I wore that dress, and the dancing and ecstasy trips were reflections of the mindbending party/travel lifestyle I’d thrown myself into, in what I saw as an attempt to break down my social conditioning and broaden my horizons. Have teenagers changed? I dunno. I’m an old fucking geriatric compared to teenagers of today and care not for their cellphones and MySpaces but otherwise, generations of kids have been dealing with the same emotional shit since time began and certain aspects of the human experience will always stay fresh. NRAMA: For that matter, I find the panel with the lipstick being applied oddly prophetic for the age of Lindsay Lohan... GM: I am so often oddly prophetic. NRAMA: What reactions did you get to the book when it initially came out? Were you surprised by these reactions, or were they what you had anticipated? GM: It struck a chord and was well received. Arkham Asylum aside, it had a much more diverse readership than the superhero stuff I’d done, certainly. It was the book I always gave away to girls I was dating, and it seemed to have an appeal beyond the conventional comics audience, so I was very pleased with the response. I wanted it to be a kind of Withnail & I, Hal Hartley, Bertrand Blier thing - you know those culty, one-of-a-kind movies that you imagine only you and your friends are into. The comic book version of that. NRAMA: Despite the relatively low profile when it was initially released, Boyfriend has a loyal following. Why do you feel it’s had this enduring appeal? GM: I suppose it’s because it’s a universal story for all the reasons we talked about above. It’s about breaking away from your own notion of who you are; rebelling against everything you’ve been told that you are. It’s about flowering into your own fantasy image of what you might be capable of, breaking your own boundaries, coming out, embracing your strange, living your dream to its gruesome conclusion…etc etc… These themes have tried and tested appeal and immediate relevance to people’s real lives, particularly now in a climate where it seems everybody wants to reinvent themselves as somebody new and “special” to the point where it’s become pathological; where the process of self-formation is often done in public, under the strict control and manipulation of black-hearted devils like Simon Cowell. (Anybody see Cowell’s speech on the British TV Awards this week? “I’ve become more spoiled, and I’ve become more shallow…and I’ve loved every minute of it.” It’s “Greed is good” for the ‘Naughties!) And I know I’m having fun analyzing it a bit here in retrospect, but ultimately Kill Your Boyfriend was written as a laugh, which to me is the important thing in the end. It’s an absurd, sexy comedy about good-looking people and if anything has contributed to its long-term appeal, it’s that. I’ve seen otherwise perspicacious online critics utterly miss the point by attempting to take the book seriously as some kind of “realistic” social or moral commentary, or imagining, in that gently patronizing way bloggers often do, that I, as an adult, might endorse all the daft teenage views about education, society, parents and sex that appear within its pages. It’s supposed to be funny. NRAMA: There’s not much information available on the abortive “Vertigo Voices” line, where Boyfriend was originally published. What can you tell us about it? GM: I think it ended up as just three books - Peter Milligan’s Face, (was Pete’s The Eaters a “Voice” too?), Jamie Delano’s Tainted and Kill Your Boyfriend. Newsarama Note: Research shows The Eaters was not part of “Vertigo Voices,” but rather “Vertigo Visions.” We’re as confused as you are. Along with Neil Gaiman, (who didn’t contribute to this series, which makes me think it may have originated with Art Young), the three of us were the pillars of the Vertigo line, and presumably the idea here was to cut the boys loose on one-shots where we could tell a story that would define or be representative of our individual “voices,” hence the title. The other two books were unconventional, ultra-modern ‘horror’ stories, so I don’t know if that was the brief and I just ignored it, or what. Pete’s story was a typically brilliant, nightmare comedy of manners on the subject of extreme plastic surgery, and Jamie’s was an urban kitchen sink hell thing about a man slowly going insane in a filthy room in ‘90s Britain - all skewed panes of glass and close ups of wasps on tumblers, delivered in that super-droll poet-macabre Delano voice. I’d quite like to read those again. NRAMA: There was talk that Boyfriend might have been released as a double-novel of sorts with Peter Milligan’s Girl, which serves as an interesting compliment to this story. Was this the case of two creators coming up with a similar idea at the same time, or did you have any interactions as to how your stories might reflect one another? Also, what did you think of Girl? GM: I’ve always regarded Peter as the best writer, in the grown-up, literary sense, to have graced the comic book business (as an adult exploration of the superhero concept, I believe his Enigma book is far superior to Watchmen in every significant way). We saw a lot of each other at a time when Art Young was running the short-lived, fondly-remembered, London office of Vertigo as a 24-hour gay acid disco. I liked and admired Pete immensely; we had the same sense of humor, and were into a lot of the same stuff - though I always looked up to him as a much more worldly and sophisticated man than I ever felt. Girl came out later than Kill Your Boyfriend, and may have been a response, but is more likely to be Pete’s riffing on his own extension of perhaps not-so similar themes. Girl’s characters and situations were definitely more naturalistic and less broad than in Kill Your Boyfriend. Girl has a working class protagonist, Kill Your Boyfriend’s Girl (the characters are never named in the story, and appear only in the script as “The Girl,” and “The Boy,” which should be a clue towards some of the major differences between the two books) is middle class, comfortable and playing with rebellion in a very different way. Kill Your Boyfriend is inspired by films and fantasies, laced with real world details and enlivened by my own e-dazzled, bedazzled entry into a world of fizzing uber-hedonism. I can’t speak for Peter’s intentions with Girl, but Kill Your Boyfriend was an attempt to capture the specific, eternal feeling of being young and starry-eyed, strutting through town in your finery on a Saturday night and feeling “all of this is mine.” It’s about a state of mind I knew I‘d probably lose contact with as I grew older, and perhaps that’s why people still like it, and also why some critics can’t wrap their head around its refusal to engage with social realism.
The two books are more unlike one another than they are similar. I’m glad they didn’t stick them together: I don’t really think it would have done either story any particular favors.NRAMA: The boyfriend – the, um, killed one – seems like a parody of the stereotypical comics fan….actually, he made me realized how many prominent fantasy authors are named “Terry.” That’s unnerving.
But anyway, what were you trying to say with this character – were you taking a poke at comic fans to get up and be a little more active, or were you just making fun of fans of bad fantasy? You’ve also got the collection of stereotypes on the Double Deckers bus…GM: I was making fun of myself as the very serious, hypocritical teenager I had often been. I was and still am a comic fan. In the darkest days of my adolescence, I was also a huge fantasy fan and collected every turgid and crappy elf-ridden trilogy I could lay my hands on. The Boyfriend’s comments about the Scripture Union, his pompous half-formed opinions, his endless prevaricating “next time will be good” attitude, his talk of maps and morality, and his secret obsession with porn were ways of mocking my own least favorable teen characteristics, although at least the loser in the story has a Girlfriend, which is more than I had at his age, the bastard! Now that I’m talking about it again, and looking back at something I haven’t thought about much for a while, it’s clear to me how the whole story expresses the honest sense of excitement, liberation and possibility I was feeling at the time when I wrote it, and that may explain some of its effervescence. I wrote a lot of the book on top of Ben Lomond in Queenstown, New Zealand, the day after flinging myself off the Kawaru River Bridge on the end of a bungee rope, for instance. The “art collective” in the Double Deckers bus represent another cruel caricature of myself and the glammy, art school bohemian rock ‘n’ roll crowd I hung around with. Full of big talk, achieving little ( I hasten to add that I was emphasizing the most negative aspects of my scene not necessarily all the good stuff and real creativity that went on). The Boy and Girl are the only two characters who seem pure and uncritical. They appear to express themselves a little more honestly than everyone else and that’s why they’re likable.
I think it also recognizes the inevitable ending of such a fierce period of self-recreation…and I like the 10 years later coda with the girl in the kitchen. And the acknowledgment that somewhere deep inside us the spirit of revolt lives on.NRAMA: Do you agree with the POV of any of the characters in this story? All are shown to be either hypocritical or at least forced to compromise to survive. It’s hard to argue that the girl’s rebellion is a positive thing, but it’s also depicted as being more alive than the state she begins and ends the story with (rat poison aside). GM: I was an enthusiastic part of the first punk wave in the ‘70s having grown up a well-mannered, well-educated little boy in a strongly anti-establishment, left wing, radical working class home. I developed a cynical, anti-authoritarian and rebellious attitude, and was encouraged to be suspicious of the police and other authority figures, mainly because they were usually arresting my dad during some protest march or sit-in. Yes, there’s always been part of my soul which responds warmly to chaos, disorder, confusion, bare-faced cheek, taboo-busting, PC-baiting and general downright unpleasantness so yeah, as I say, the wild, “blow it all up” anti-everything part of my personality was reveling in the gleeful cross-country kill spree of my mixed-up kids, fully aware that such thrill can only ever stay pure in a fictional setting. Fiction allows us to get away with anything and can express unacceptable or shocking ideas without the spilling of innocent blood.
I’d like to think the book is too ridiculous and comedic to seem to be condoning real life teenage delinquency. Instead of a moral compass in Kill Your Boyfriend, we have ‘is it a laugh?’ and in that, I was very much influenced on this book by the brilliant Joe Orton.There is a seductive sense in which all illicit, forbidden activity can seem to be exhilarating in the right frame of mind and I wanted to capture the voice of the little devil in us all. But do I “agree” with the characters in the book, or with the real life likes of “Foxy” Knoxy and the Trenchcoat Brigade? Of course not. I’m a goddamn pacifist! NRAMA: Boyfriend seems thematically closest to St. Swithin’s Day, though Swithin’s is based closer to reality and is more about the thought of violence as an act of rebellion. How would you, personally, compare the two works? GM: As you say, St. Swithin’s Day is much more grounded in real life and comes to the same conclusion The Invisibles come to: ideas are more dangerous and, in the end, way more effective than bombs or guns (in the long run, of course: I wouldn’t advise taking on a gun-totin’ madman armed only with Derrida; the Complete Works). Kill Your Boyfriend can best be compared with plays of Joe Orton, as I mentioned earlier. If you like the snappy, smart-aleck dialogue in Kill Your Boyfriend, you’ll love Orton. Try to see his work performed if you can but if not start with Loot or What the Butler Saw…and enjoy. NRAMA: A couple of odd resonances to The Invisibles – you have the girl being transformed through the power of drag, much like Lord Fanny, and you have the “art anarchists” waving around a grenade, much like the pop art image on the cover of issue #1. Had you started writing The Invisibles before Boyfriend, or did this book influence the themes in your series? GM: The ideas were being developed simultaneously. At the time Kill Your Boyfriend was being written, I had the notion that all my work would tie into The Invisibles in some way. Kill Your Boyfriend was originally conceived as the story of a girl living in The Invisibles world and finding her own form of rebellion. It was to been a more riotous, raucous sideways take on The Invisibles world, which was always meant to be the real world, the world on the news. The “art terrorists” on the bus, as well as being loosely based on characters from The Double Deckers - one of my favorite TV shows from childhood - can also be seen as an ineffectual parody of an Invisibles cell.
I suppose I saw drag as a good visual stand-in for the whole process of transforming identity using props and mannerisms to become what you want to be, hence the Girl in KYB, Lord Fanny in The Invisibles, and my own forays into the tranny scene.NRAMA: To sort of end this interview where it should have begun, how have you changed as a writer and as a person since you wrote Kill Your Boyfriend, and where do you personally rank it among your works? GM: It’s probably in my top five personal favorite pieces of work, but I haven’t looked at it for a while until (this interview). I still love it. Phil’s art is so brilliant, like your favorite pop single. As usual with everything, I’d love to do one more edit; there’s a page near the end I’d like to tweak a little to make it better, but otherwise I’m, still very fond of this book, and it’s reminded me how happy I feel doing my own kind of stuff for Vertigo. As for me, I’ve changed immensely. When I wrote the book I was a newly-single, newly wealthy, globetrotting hedonist on the verge of complete personal transformation, and now I’m a happily-married man who sits in a tower in a big house overlooking the sea, writing superhero comics, doing internet interviews and waiting patiently for the day when Kristan’s had enough of my bullshit and finally unscrews the lid from that jar of merciful rat poison! Kill Your Boyfriend is back in stores now.