Tim Callahan: Into the Mind of Grant Morrison
Into the Mind of Grant Morrison
If you’ve ever had a question about Grant Morrison …Timothy Callahan is the man to turn to. In the second edition of his book Grant Morrison: The Early Years, Callahan gets inside the themes and ideas behind such projects as Doom Patrol and Animal Man, finding themes and ideas that even Morrison himself didn’t know were there.Callahan’s also headed back to the future with a new collection of essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes, Teenagers from the Future. The book, which Callahan both edits and contributes to, features in-depth looks at both the different eras of the LOSH, and at the unique fan base that the team enjoys. We chatted with Callahan about Newsarama: Tim, Why did you want to do a second edition of Grant Morrison: The Early Years?
Timothy Callahan: The publisher, Sequart, wanted to do a new edition for Diamond. Diamond didn't carry the first edition, and, in fact, the Sequart didn't even submit it to them because they had trouble getting an earlier book approved by Diamond and wanted to wait until the book line was a bit more developed before taking another stab at the Previews catalog. But one of the Diamond reps picked up a copy of the Morrison book at the New York Comic-Con this past April, and after reading it, not only wanted to have Diamond distribute it, but she wanted to make it a featured selection for the month of July! Since the book has been available for the past year via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, Sequart's Julian Darius wanted to revise the book a little—as a perk for comic shops who will finally get a chance to order it, and as a way of fixing some of the errors we noticed after the first edition hit the shelves. NRAMA: Now, how is the second edition different from the first edition? TC: The second edition is revised and expanded, but most of the obvious changes are cosmetic. Both the front and back cover have a slightly different design to match the new Sequart trade dress, and the images should be enhanced inside as well. I've also gone through and fixed all of my bonehead mistakes from the first edition—the several times when I relied on my notes instead of the comics themselves and misattributed a line of dialogue here and there, and we added a brief appendix in which I write about Morrison's first work for "Future Shocks" in the 2000 AD magazine. It's an edition I'm more proud of, and one that has the corrections a book like that needed to have. NRAMA: What's the biggest misconception you feel people have about Morrison's works? TC: There's a lot of weird fan reaction to Morrison's work. There are obviously tens of thousands or Morrison devotees, and plenty of people who enjoy his work, but there's also a strong backlash against him—and there always has been. People who dislike Morrison seem to say, "Oh, he's on drugs," or if you praise his work, they'll say, "are you on drugs too?" Or they'll say his comics "don't make any sense." First of all, as Morrison himself has told me, he didn't take any kind of drugs until he was 30 years old, so much of his early work was written while he was a complete straightedge—no drinking, no drugs involved at all. Much of the work I write about in the book was created by a drug-free Morrison. But even if he did take drugs, as he admits to doing during the middle of Doom Patrol and throughout the 1990s, saying "he's on drugs" isn't a helpful reaction to the work. It doesn't add anything to the interpretation or analysis, and it's just the kind of thing that's meaningless to say. So I hope people can read my book and see that the drug factor is basically a non-issue. And if you don't think his comics make sense, then perhaps my book can help with that too, because I think his work not only makes sense, but he's actually repeating the same themes and motifs again and again. So, if anything, perhaps it's too easy to understand, and people are looking for hidden depth that they think they're supposed to find. Arkham Asylum is more challenging than an average Batman graphic novel—far more challenging—but it's all there on the page. And the Mad Hatter even tells the reader what it all means, if the reader is having trouble. In my book I go deeper than that for my analysis, but to instantly disregard the work of a writer because a comic isn't literal and direct seems insulting to me. I think Morrison deserves better, and I hope readers who give up easily on his work will look at what he's done over the years, maybe with the help of my book, and see the patterns that emerge in his writing. Morrison's an extremely important writer—pushing the boundaries of the medium—and, no matter how popular he is, I'd like to see even more readers give him a chance. NRAMA: What's your take on Morrison's most recent works, and has reading them affected your understanding of his earlier work and vice-versa? TC: I was a bit unimpressed by his first Batman arc, but ever since issue #663 I've been completely obsessed with what he's been doing on that book, and after rereading the first four issues in light of what developed later, I can see what Morrison has going on here. The Batman he's doing now is different than the one he showed us in Arkham Asylum and "Gothic," but he's using some of the same patterns and themes again. Morrison's always been fascinated by the connection between the mind and the body—both in his personal life and as a comic creator—and that has taken center stage in Batman. And the apocalypse motif was a major part of his first major work, Zenith, and he's returning to it this year—big time—with "Batman R.I.P.," the death of Superman in All-Star , and, of course, Final Crisis . Many people don't realize that Morrison has already written his version of Crisis back in Phase Three of Zenith, because that comic isn't readily available anywhere, but it's fun to see him play with apocalyptic themes in major DC books, considering how much of his early work was a commentary on that same kind of stuff. I think, out of the three recent DC books, All-Star Superman will have the longest shelf life, and the deepest resonance, but his Batman has continued to impress me more and more each month. NRAMA: As you've reviewed the work again, have you encountered any recurring themes you hadn't noticed before? TC: Not really, no. Morrison has been playing with the same four or five major themes since he began his comic book career, and he's still revisiting them and looking at them from new perspectives. Which, by the way, doesn't make his work stale in the least—it makes it consistently interesting, I think. NRAMA: Now, you've talked with Grant — have you ever seen anything in his work that he hasn't? TC: A few things. I interpreted the Cliff Steele, Rebus, Crazy Jane trio (in Doom Patrol) as an analogue for the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, and Grant admitted that he didn't consider that at all, but it was so obvious once I pointed it out. And he hadn't considered the connection between Arkham Asylum and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," but admits that the poem could have been lodged in his psyche from his school days. His take on all of that stuff is that there are certain cultural narratives the reappear again and again. (With Morrison patterns in his own work—and throughout all history—are important.) So he's just tapping into the same stuff that Baum tapped into. Or Eliot tapped into, or whatever. It's not necessarily him sitting down and thinking, "aha, I'll do 'The Waste Land,' with Batman," but it's those powerful Jungian symbols that emerge whether he's consciously planning it that way or not. NRAMA: Aside from the typical answer of "the weirdness," what, in your opinion, really makes Grant Morrison unique as a comic book writer? TC: I don't even think of Morrison as being particularly weird as a writer. He's weird from the perspective of someone who's used to simple, straightforward comic book stories about Spider-Man punching Doc Ock, but even if you step back and look at Spider-Man punching Doc Ock, there's a lot of weirdness going on there. Comic books, especially superhero ones, are really weird. Morrison just brings a different kind of weirdness—draws upon different sources—than the guys who write comics and were raised on Stan Lee and Star Trek. And I guess that kind of makes him unique—not the supposed "weirdness"—but the depth and range of his influences. Anyone who can bring Borges, Albert Hofmann, Jung, Maya Deren, Shelley, Coleridge, Joe Orton, and a dozen other influences to bear on superhero comics is pretty unique in the industry. And because of those influences, his comics don't have the tone and rhythm of anyone else's comics. (He's also quite good at writing dialogue, too—a trait which almost nobody gives him credit for.) NRAMA: Do you plan to do a third edition, or additional volumes in this series? TC: I had originally planned three volumes of critical study of Grant Morrison's work, with the second volume covering The Invisibles and all of his work from the 1990s, and the third volume covering the major work from Marvel Boy until today. But here's what happened: I decided that to do The Invisibles justice, I'd have to read/watch/listen to everything Morrison alluded to in the series. I reread all the issues, and went back and started taking notes on the allusions. For just the first twenty-five issues of The Invisibles I had over 125 allusions I needed to immerse myself in. I realized that I'd have to, in a weird way, become Grant Morrison—read everything he read, watch everything he watched, etc.—in order to write about The Invisibles. At least I felt that way at the time. And I just said, "no way. I ultimately have no interest in doing that." So even though it was a scenario I set up for myself, I just realized that I had too many other interests—too many other things I wanted to do, and so I walked away from that project. Will I return to Morrison's work in the future? I think so. I think I'll write another book about his later work, maybe focusing on just his superhero comics. Or maybe I'll put everything into perspective and come up with a way to tie The Invisibles and JLA and Batman and All-Star Superman and The Filth together—that could be a book. But I don't want to be just "The Morrison Guy," and if I come back to that stuff in a book a few years from now, it will be after exploring other avenues as well. NRAMA: Let's talk about Teenagers from the Future. Tell us a little about this book and how it came to be. TC: I wanted to take a break from Morrison, even before I tried to put my head in Morrison space and ultimately walked away from the second Morrison book. So, yeah, even before that I thought, "What can I do to take a short break from Morrison's work—something that won't be quite as time-consuming as my first book, but something that I'd really like to read myself?" I thought a collection of essays about the Legion of Super-Heroes would be perfect. First of all, I was in the middle of reading every Legion comic in chronological order—since I picked up the Archive editions, I had become a bit obsessed with the team—and the 50th anniversary was coming up. I pitched the idea to Sequart, with me as the editor of the project, and they thought it would be worth doing, so I began to outline ideas for the book—knowing that I would write whatever I needed to, but thinking that I'd be able to enlist a variety of writers to cover different aspects of Legion history. It was designed to be a book that looked at the Legion from a variety of critical perspectives but also tried to cover all of the major aspects of Legion history—all the major runs and reboots, etc. And that's exactly what I got. I had writers of all types send my ideas and eventually I was able to get over a dozen high-quality essays, written in a variety of styles. When put together, the combined essays addressed pretty much everything I found fascinating about the Legion: the revolutionary narrative approach of Edmund Hamilton in the Silver Age, the "Marvel-ization" of DC via Jim Shooter, the structural approach of Paul Levitz, the themes of gender identity, the architecture, and so on. The project ended up taking far more work than I ever anticipated, and the "something that won't be quite as time-consuming" actually consumed much of my time for almost a year, but I'm very proud of Teenagers from the Future. NRAMA: Who are some of the writers you got to contribute to this volume, and what are some of their essays about? TC: We have the inimitable Chris Sims on "The (Often Arbitrary) Rules of the Legion; James Kakalios (of The Physics of Superheroes fame) writing about "The Legion's Super-Science"; Sara K. Ellis on "Architecture and Utopia"; Matthew Elmslie on "Generational Theory and the Waid Threeboot"; My chapter on "Thomas, Altman, Levitz and the 30th Century," Barry Lyga on his love for the Legion, and even Matt Fraction writing about why he's not a Legion fan but always wanted to be one. And more. We have 20 writers contributing to this book! NRAMA: The Legion has proven to be one of the most enduring concepts in DC's stable, despite its many incarnations. Why do you feel it has such a following, and what is unique about this following? TC: I'm definitely on the periphery of Legion fandom, and even though I've read every single Legion story, I still can't answer most of the trivia questions Michael Grabois posts on his Legion Omnicom site. But I think there's definitely a hardcore Legion base in fandom who care more about the team than they care about anything else in pop culture, and I think that's awesome. But here's the thing—almost all the hardcore Legion fans I've met are only hardcore about one particular era—usually the era from Edmund Hamilton in the 1960s to Paul Levitz in the 1980s. They aren't insanely devoted to the Legion as a concept, no matter the version. They are insanely (and I mean this only in the most positive way) devoted to the Legion when it was at its best. When it was one of the few comics in the world that had fantastic ideas, complex subplots, and actual, real character arcs. People in the Legion died. And sometimes even stayed dead! That just didn't happen, and still doesn't happen, in superhero comics. The Legion in many ways—at its best—fulfills the potential of the superhero genre by blending the wish fulfillment with the science fiction and the operatic emotional heights. And sure, there are some fans who buy anything just because it's got the word "Legion" in it or it has a Legionnaire appearing in a panel, but I think that devotion is spawned by the greatness of the Legion during a long, nearly sustained, height. I don't know if a new generation of Legion fans will rise to take the place of the previous generation, but I hope so. The animated series might have been just a sampler and the youngsters of today might learn to love the Legion too. (Hell, if you can't learn to love the Legion of Super-Pets, then you might as well give up on comic books.) NRAMA: Despite the loyalty to the different eras, the Legion has maintained a consistent following over the years. Why do you feel fans have stayed loyal to the Legion throughout the myriad reboots, and, along those lines, why do you feel that people have felt it necessary to reboot so frequently? TC: That's just it. I'm not convinced that there's such a huge loyal base that will automatically buy anything Legion-related. I think maybe 10,000 fans might buy any new Legion series, but that's not nearly enough to sustain a comic book. And the vast majority of readers—Legion fans and non-Legion fans—don't like the reboots at all. For new readers, the reboots weren't as accessible as they needed to be, and ultimately, what did the reboots accomplish? New costumes? A slightly different tone? Reader apathy? You can only reboot so much before the fans think, "what does it matter? It's all going to get rebooted again anyway." And that kind of complaint might seem silly on the surface—after all, no comic book story is "real." But for Legion readers who grew up on stories that did matter—that seemed real because the consequences had real meaning for future stories—reboots have taken the life away from the Legion. They've stolen the heart and maintained the corpse. Now, with that said, I think the reboots make the Legion more fascinating for critical study, because we can look at how the reboots reflected cultural trends. Seeing various iterations of the same characters and plot points is interesting in and of itself. But as a reader, I'd prefer it if the Legion had never been rebooted, and I'd prefer it if the outcome of "Legion of Three Worlds" is an all-encompassing Legion where all past stories "count" and everything has meaning again. NRAMA: How has working on this book affected the way you perceive the Legion? TC: I've become far more protective of the Legion than I would have been. I never really care about characters as characters. In my mind, a character is only as good as the writer at the time. There isn't a "Batman," there's just Grant Morrison's Batman or Frank Miller's Batman or Doug Moench's Batman or Denny O'Neil's Batman. That's how I read comics, and although I appreciate some attempt at consistency from writer to writer, I'd rather that each writer exploit his or her own unique voice through a character. But I don't feel that way about the Legion—at least not as much. I am protective of Lighting Lad as a character, of Saturn Girl, of Karate Kid. Perhaps working on the book has made me think about the team as a concept first and look at the creators second, I don't know. Or maybe it's just the strange allure of teenagers who can eat metal and talk to plants. It's hard to say. Maybe I've lost my mind reading so many Legion comics in a row. I sometimes fear that I've been replaced by Proty. NRAMA: What's your favorite incarnation of the Legion, and why? TC: I'm most fond of the Levitz Legion from the Baxter run. Those first few issues feature some of my favorite Keith Giffen artwork ever, and I started reading the comic as a teenager sometime during the Baxter series and quickly went back and picked up the back issues of just that run. I had never really read the older stuff—even the "Great Darkness Saga" until the past year or two—so that Baxter Levitz incarnation is my sentimental favorite, and after reading every Legion story, it remains my favorite. Levitz expanded the Stan Lee/Roy Thomas approach of the subplot-laded stories and added some complex relationships to superhero melodrama but he also had some immediate threat in every issue. As Levitz himself will admit, he was pretty bad at coming up with brand new villains, but his versions of classic villains were menacing and wonderful. Maybe I'm just in love with Sensor Girl's costume, though, and that's all it takes to make me happy. NRAMA: What else do you have coming up, and is there anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet? TC: I'm working with some artists on a couple of creator owned comics that we're shopping around, and I'm still writing essays about comics here and there and everywhere. I'd really like to turn my attention to creating narrative more than just analyzing it, but as long as people keep hiring me to write about comics, I can't imagine I'll ever stop doing essays and reviews. I am trained in literary analysis, even if my love is creative writing, so I'll probably always balance the two. Look for me in the July Back Issue magazine, at CBR every week, at Sequart.org, and at my blog: http://geniusboyfiremelon.blogspot.com. I don't have any definite plans for my next book, but I'm sure you'll see something from me in the next year or two. For now, though, "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" is available in the July Previews catalog, and Teenagers from the Future will be available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble sometime in August. That should give you enough to read for a little while. Grant Morrison: The Early Years 2nd Ed ships in September; Teenagers from the Future is available for order on lulu.com.