As Grant Morrison focuses his efforts on non-superhero work, his new comic Annihilator — which kicks off next week from Legendary — is giving him an outlet to explore questions he began pondering after his mother's death last year.
Annihilator, a six-issue sci-fi adventure that features art by Frazer Irving, mixes sci-fi, adventure and horror, in a story that arose after Morrison's mother died last year, when he started considering what he called "that impulse to try to understand the way we circle nothingness and try to make stories out it, and make sense of it all."
The comic's main character is drugged-out and washed-up Hollywood screenwriter Ray Spass (pronounced "Space") — someone Morrison himself calls a "bastard." After Ray sells his partially finished movie script about a character named Max Lomax and a "haunted house in space," the writer learns that he has a brain tumor.
In a mind-bending twist that's reminiscent of Morrison projects of the past, fictional character Max Lomax shows up in real life and tells Ray that the tumor in his head is a packet of information. The two embark on an adventure where Ray must write the entire story of his script down to not only save his own life, but save the universe.
The title, "Annihilator," refers to a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — but it not only represents the threat to the universe, but is thematically linked to Ray's brain tumor and another mysterious (and creepy) hole in the writer's front yard.
Annihilator, which was announced in late 2012, is the latest in a string of projects from Morrison that lie outside his usual playing ground at Marvel and DC. After his seven-year run on Batman comics ended last year, his only remaining superhero comics are Mutliversity, the limited series currently running at DC, and the graphic novel, Wonder Woman: Earth One.
With Annihilator starting its six-issue run on September 10, 2014, Newsarama checked in with Morrison find out more about his unusual approach and the themes he's exploring in Annihilator.
Newsarama: Grant, at the center of this comic — and the reason for the title — is a black hole, which lies at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. But there's also this creepy dark hole in the ground at the main character's new house. And I can't help thinking the brain tumor the main character has is also a sort of a black hole — although you can correct me if I'm reading too much into that. Why are there so many black holes in this comic, and what do they symbolize?
Grant Morrison: No, yeah, you've got it. I guess it's quite naked, in the same way that the black hole itself is. The whole story goes back to me, like (and I always go to the heavy bit first; we can laugh later), when my mother died last year, I was thinking about death and how we approach it.
And basically, this notion of a hole in everyone's life, and also the hole in the center of the galaxy, and all these different holes, and we try to make stories round about them, but inside is nothing but a void. And a void can swallow a story.
So honestly, it seemed like a timely theme for me.
But because it's so dark and so supermassive, I wanted to express it through these two quite frivolous, almost ridiculous Los Angeles kind of bad boy characters.
So that was my thing. I wanted to play it dark a bit again, but it came out of that impulse to try to understand the way we circle nothingness and try to make stories out it, and make sense of it all.
Nrama: And one of the problems the characters in this story are trying to solve is death itself. But you mentioned that the main character, Ray Spass, is an so unlikable. What was behind the decision to make such an unlikely hero the focus of the story?
Morrison: I wanted characters who were capable of confronting the abyss, because I thought they would find some humor, at least.
Ray was based on a bunch of people that I met in Hollywood, and I wanted to write about a certain way of approaching the world, and a certain kind of man who lived there.
So the character seemed to just really fit the type of stories this is about. And then giving him this hole in the center of his head, like the hole in the center of the galaxy, connecting him to this bigger world of the story where no man comes from.
Nrama: And then you have Max Nomax, with whom Ray has to join forces. Is he the same sort of unlikable character?
Morrison: Really, the two of them, are kind of reflections of the same bastard. [Laughs.]
The great thing about not doing superhero comics is that, in superhero comics, Superman's a goody guy, Batman's always a good guy, but these two characters are not necessarily nice men at all. And a lot of what we find out about them is peeling back the layers of the fact that they're bastards.
Nrama: Maybe it's the superhero fan in me, but I'm rooting for them both, even though I know they're jerks.
Morrison: Well, no, that's good. Because they're also kind of American archetypes. There's a little bit of Fear and Lothing in Las Vegas in there.
By making them at least have a sense of humor, you know, they kind of trade quips a little bit, so it leavens the fact that they're both awful people.
Nrama: I'm also curious, since Multiversity is also coming out right now, and you've explored before this idea of the thin line between what's fiction and what's real, why does that fascinate you so much?
Morrison: It's probably just because that's the material I kind of work with every day. Maybe if I was making chocolate bars, I'd be totally into the nature of chocolate. But I guess because I'm so involved in fiction, I kind of see the gears and how it works, and I can see behind the construction of all these stories.
And that becomes the most interesting part of it for me.
I mean, I'm not really trying to create imaginary worlds. I mean, in the superhero stuff, I'm going to a specific place, like Marvel or DC, and exploring it, and in Annihilator, I'm trying to talk about the real world, but it's very much a simulation of the real world.
I just kind of find it fascinating, that relationship with our stories and how they can affect real people's lives.
For me, the membrane is always permeable. And I find that when I'm writing this stuff that is real, I can't help but acknowledge the fact that the membrane is permeable.
I mean, Mutliversity is much more about fiction and comics. But Annihilator's about a bigger world, you know?
Nrama: But Nomax is a fictional character, isn't he?
Morrison: Nomax isn't a fiction at all. He's actually real in the story. It's about a writer who's in way over his head. He's not conjuring up anything from his imagination. He's actually getting in contact with a higher world.
Nrama: Ah, OK. And then I wanted to ask you also about your pacing, particularly in this story. I saw you talking about how you were interested in writing stories that mimic a movie trailer, taking out the boring stuff. As I read the first issue of Annihilator, it felt like it was just the beats we needed to see — not full scenes, necessarily. Why do you like that kind of writing?
Morrison: I think it works really well in comics. It may just be me, but I do like a comic that seems quite dense, and so I like scenes to be compressed down. I like moments to be smashed into nuggets.
Because comics, you basically only have 20 — maybe 30 if you're lucky, or 40 if you're doing a big one — pages to work with. And that's not a lot, you know. It doesn't move as fast as film or television.
So what you can do is just pack the panels with a little bit more density. And that involves, you know, maybe doing a little more interesting language that can be read, or re-read. Or symbolism that can be broken down, so the comic can be read more than once and studied from 10 different angles.
But I do like to compress a lot of compress a lot of material into one, because it costs a lot of money, I think. So I guess that's my excuse.
Nrama: You've used a lot of artists over the years. Were you aware with Annihilator that you'd be working with Frazer Irving on this story? And did it affect the way you wrote the story?
Morrison: Yeah, this story was actually very specifically written for Frazer. We'd worked before on Batman, and a young adult goth kind of thing called Klarion the Witch Boy. So I knew that he could handle a certain type of neo-gothic thing that we were looking for, with Nomax and all that.
Even though he'd never been to Los Angeles, he really captures the light amazingly, and I like the orange light. The chemical glow of Los Angeles is quite important to the way it all works.
So this one was actually done with him in mind.
I love Frazer's work. I really do think this is a showcase for him. It's really beautiful work.
Nrama: The story is an odd mix of genres, with sci-fi and this Hollywood writer story, but also the horror element. It's very creepy in parts.
Morrison: [Laughs.] Yeah, the horror element builds up as the series goes on.
Nrama: I love the idea of a haunted house in space. Did the horror element of the story become more important when you decided to work with Frazer?
Morrison: Yeah, we wanted to do this sort of sci-fi version of gothic. And we took it all the way back to things like Milton's version of Satan, and Hamlet, and all the black-clad neurotic boy outsiders of literature. So it was about that.
And we wanted it to be in the ultimate lunatic asylum, the ultimate prison, and the ultimate hell, and the ultimate black hole.
It was very much planned on that high scale. It was to take all those things and heighten them, to kind of push up the register. Everything's up to 11 in this story.
But at the same time you have real life, which also impacts on everything.