GRANT MORRISON Wages War Using Indian Mythology for 18 DAYS

If you’ve seen advance images of Mukesh Singh’s art on 18 Days, then you might suspect that this joint effort from Dynamite Entertainment and Liquid Comics coming August 2010 is going to be something special. Add the fact that the writer is Grant Morrison, and that suspicion is quickly confirmed.  We had the chance to ask Morrison about the project, his interest in mythology in general, and why he chose to focus on this epic war between the members of one extended family.

But first, Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO of Liquid, addressed one of our first questions.  You may recall that the original iteration of this project was described as webisodes.  Of the change to the current format, Devarajan said, “Liquid and our partner, Perspective Studios, are still working closely with Grant on the development of this project as an animated series or film. Since we are still in development, this book gives us a chance to share the amazing world Grant and Mukesh have created, and also allow fans to see the scripts in development and inner-workings of Grant's writing process. It’s a dream for us to share their unique vision to the world in as many ways as possible.”

With that answered, we turn it over to the inimitable Grant Morrison.

Newsarama: What was your first exposure to The Mahabharata ? What kind of impact did it make on you at the time?

Grant Morrison: As a child I was obsessed with mythology of all kinds so I had a very basic grasp of the Mahabharata story. When I was a kid all mythology made a big impact on me. At the time I was starting The Invisibles, the Peter Brook stage version of Mahabharata was being shown on the BBC, so I got into that and I used the Mahabharata story there as a metaphor for the illusion of duality – this immense war between two vast opposing forces was actually conjured by a single person - an Indonesian dalang shadow puppeteer. I’ve visited India many times and travelled there on my own, mostly in the north and in the mountains – New Delhi, Agra and Ladakh – although I’ve also been in Goa during monsoon. It’s a country, a culture(s) and a people that I find endlessly fascinating, overwhelming and inspiring.

Nrama: Outside of being taught in specialized college courses and the occasional airing of BBC programs on PBS, mainstream American exposure to this story is relatively low.  Is that a disadvantage for you with the audience here, or does it open opportunities in the storytelling?

Morrison: A good story is a good story no matter what and this is a great story, up there in the ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ bracket, so I don’t think anyone has to be familiar with the mythology or the culture. Just as you don’t have to be a hobbit and live in the Shire to appreciate The Lord of the Rings, you don’t have to be well-versed in Indian culture to enjoy the Mahabharata. Also, we’ve taken what’s often portrayed as a historical battle and turned it into a mythical one, so it’s far more fantastic and science-fictional than previous retellings. In many ways, it might be more fun to come to it fresh. I think American audiences who are unfamiliar with the myth will find it very satisfying, adult and relevant.

Firstly it’s unbeatable on a level of sheer spectacle alone, involving 10 million combatants with super powers, flying machines, fantastic weaponry and immense battle-formations moving in the form of birds, lightning or flowers.  The cast of characters – from the troubled Yudhish and mighty Bheema to tragic Karna and young, doomed Abimanyhu – is incomparable. The whole idea that the cataclysmic ending of an Age is brought about because Krishna is moved by the smallest of things - the tears on Draupadi’s cheeks – shows us how everything in the universe is intimately connected by the action of karma.

I like it because it’s less about Good vs. Evil in the traditional Western sense and more about dealing with compromise, anger, greed and fear. The very things which make its heroes great are the things which bring about their greatest defeats. It’s an immensely human story that acknowledges the weaknesses and failures of its heroes as often as it promotes their strengths and victories. Unlike the snarling, cackling irredeemable villains of Western melodrama, even the monstrous Duryodhana is a complex, ultimately sympathetic figure, while a character like Karna is quite simply heart-breaking in his inability to achieve the greatness of which he knows he’s capable.

For all these reasons, and more, I hope it will resonate particularly well with the comic book audience and with people who are unfamiliar with the origins of the story.

Nrama: You chose to focus the story on the Kurukshetra War, a conflict that lasts the 18 Days of the title.  Why this approach, rather than adapting the other parvas?

Morrison: Mostly for reasons of time. The Mahabharata is massive and its story could fill ten three hour long movies with very little breathing space. I was originally approached to break the whole thing down into animated segments, which could be collected into a 2-hour movie version, so clearly a lot had to go.

I chose to focus on the 18 Days of the Battle at the heart of the story and developed a technique that allowed us to ‘zoom out’ of characters in the midst of the action and into short impactful flashbacks that would show, in ironic counterpoint, how they wound up there. That allowed me to include important beats from earlier in the story without losing forward momentum.  

While the epic Battlefield sequences stretch across the 18 Day war and grind out the grim, relentless, heroic and inevitable consequences of a cosmic war between supermen, the flashback inserts will reveal the stories behind the heroes, and the heroines they fight to defend or to possess. The more we learn, the less clear cut it all becomes….and that’s the ongoing charm of 18 Days.

Nrama: From preview art, it appears that you’ve opened the lid on science fiction and fantasy as it applies to your interpretation.  What about this particular story lends itself to that kind of flexibility? Do you include the Bhagavad Gita, and was it difficult to decide how to represent that either way?

Morrison: For the 18 Days version, we took the Mahabharata’s descriptions of vimanas and astras very literally as accounts of ancient advanced technology and created a vision of the battle at Kurukshetra which combines traditional images of the Mahabharata with a kind of Vedic sci-fi approach which adds a new freshness and modernity to the story. This version is less about trying to create a historically-accurate representation of conflict in ancient India and more about emphasising a timeless, universal and mythic vision that has as much to say about the world we live in today as it does about the past. The transmission of the Bhagavad Gita at the heart of the story opens the way for a metaphorical spiritual understanding of the conflict as the war between desire and duty, the material and the spiritual, that is fought every day by every human being.

The Gita, with its direct, no-nonsense guide to living in the odd universe we all share, is at the very heart of the story, in the sense that everything else revolves around that moment when Krishna lays it on the line for Arjuna.  

Nrama: What can you tell us about the art?

Morrison: 18 Days is a labor of love made all the more exciting by having a collaborator as original and groundbreaking as Mukesh Singh.  His techno-Vedic superheroes and spectacular scenes of cosmic warfare bring a dazzling new and contemporary dimension to one of the world’s greatest stories. The mind-blowing images of Mukesh obviously lead the way for the tone and feel of 18 Days. His concept work has a distinctively lush, steam-punk-ish, decorative quality. The Battlefield sequences alone, involving endless troops - among them beast-men, fighting dinosaurs, and immense flying machines, add up to the most spectacular, jaw-dropping, over the top super-war myth images anyone’s ever seen before. Ideally, we’ll be retaining the basic shapes and designs he’s created for each of the main characters, machines, creatures and settings etc. as we move to animation or film.

Nrama: If a reader isn’t familiar with the historical or cultural perspective behind 18 Days, what would you say to that person in order to get them to give it a look?

Morrison: No previous knowledge of history or culture is required to read 18 Days. Give it a look if you liked Star Wars, 300 or The Lord of the Rings. It pretty much speaks for itself. However, if any reader gets really into it and wants to know more, I’d advise them to start researching online. For me, the process involved re-familiarising myself with the epic in several different versions, particularly R.K. Narayan’s condensed retelling, Ramesh Menon’s 2-volume ‘modern rendering’ and the short, punchy ‘The Penguin Guide the Mahabharata’ which manages to explain everything in 138 pages and is probably the best book for the newcomer. Also particularly helpful on the spiritual side were Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda ‘God Talks With Arjuna’ and ‘Perennial Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita’ by Swami Rama. These books, along with a selection of Amar Chitra Katha comic books were my main touchstones. Once I felt I’d internalised the structure of the Mahabharata I was able to break it down, re-arrange it in a new configuration and add a couple of new sci-fi twists that give this version a new flavor.

While writing the scripts, I thought of a few familiar Western pop culture reference points as launch pads for grasping the look or body language of various 18 Days characters. This is part of a general reframing and simplification of the story to suit a more sci-fi action Hollywood approach. Although there’s a great deal more to Arjuna than his vague resemblance to the Luke Skywalker young warrior/knight/prince on-a-spiritual-quest-type hero of Hollywood romance, any such connection may help Western minds locate him on their own spectrum of archetypes. And there’s infinitely more to Krishna than his role as Arjuna’s ‘Kato’ but I hope I’ll be forgiven for such a glib comparison as a way of making a point about how their ‘buddy’ relationship can be condensed to fit the expectations of a mass audience.

The War begins with the clash of super-titans, armed with incredible weaponry. The characters are huge, cool, easy to identify with, to cheer or hiss at. The stakes are high, as is the body count. The vistas are spectacular. We think we know who the bad guys are…and who the good guys are… In the Mahabharata, however, a character’s strength often proves to be his downfall or weakness -- This is not a Lord of the Rings or a Star Wars where the good guys win because they are right. The ‘good guys’ in 18 Days are forced to cheat and lie and break rules to win. Although it has fantastic, mythic trappings, this is a very modern story of realpolitik and the failure of ideals in the face of harsh truth. This epic ends with the destruction of a super-race of kingly humans and paves the way for the current Dark Age in which we live. The essential ambiguity, humanity and realism of these characters, set in this incredible world of the imagination, gives 18 Days its unique flavor.  The tone is modern, gritty and emotionally real against a backdrop of techno-mythic super-war. In comic book terms, it does for ‘epic fantasy’ what Watchmen did for superheroes.  18 Days is scheduled to be released by Dynamite Entertainment and Liquid Entertainment in August 2010

 

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