Grant Morrison’s has long held a reputation as one of the most imaginative (and occasionally surreal) creators of comics out there. This week, readers get a chance to understand what made Morrison the man he is with the release of his new book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.
Equal parts history and autobiography, Morrison takes us through the history of superhero comics from the Golden Age to the present, incorporating his own life history in the process – from growing up as a comic fan to being abducted by fifth-dimensional aliens in Katmandu. In the process, he examines the fundamental themes and aesthetics behind particular books, looking at how they tie into their respective eras – and further looks into how comics will affect human development in the very near future.
We had a chance to call Morrison up in Scotland for what turned into a rollicking two-part interview filled with weird tangents and geeking out. In part one, we talk with Morrison about the evolution of comics, how superheroes tie into the much-discussed technological singularity, and the bit in the book where he disses Watchmen. And if you’re going to San Diego, be sure to head to the bottom for a list of panels where you can find Morrison this week!Newsarama: Grant, what made you decide to write the book at this time?
Grant Morrison: I kind of got talked into it. It wasn’t actually supposed to be this book; it was supposed to be a book of interviews that I’ve done over the years. But I wrote a new introduction, and my agent in New York liked the introduction so much he suggested I write a completely new original book. And that’s how it happened – I like that it happened, but it wasn’t what I’d originally intended at all!
Nrama: What’d you learn from putting all of this down on paper?
Morrison: Oh God, so much! So many comics we see as these historical curios or artifacts of the past really came to life for me in new ways. It was like a reevaluation of a whole section from my entire comic book collection.
So many books revealed a new depth I hadn’t noticed before and became very exciting for me again – things like Action Comics, or the Kree-Skrull War, so many books I hadn’t looked at in forever revealed a whole new way of reading them.
Nrama: What’s the biggest challenge of presenting material in a historical context, while also looking at it in the autobiographical impact they had on you in your own life?
Morrison: Well, I thought it was all I had to offer. Not being an academic and not being able to talk about comics in those terms, what I had to offer was the kind of life story of someone who’s been completely affected by comic books and has allowed comic books to rule his entire life. I thought that kind of personal dimension would make the book slightly more appealing and interesting to people who weren’t as interested in the history of comics.
And I thought it could be a way to look at the history of comics like a child growing up – the Golden Age is like a young kid, with basic morality and very bright colors. The Silver Age is like ages 10-12, where everything’s changing a bit and there’s that sense of transformation at play.
The Dark Age is adolescence, where power and sexuality and politics comes in. And the Renaissance right now is comic books in their 20s, which is all about smartening up and getting a haircut.
Nrama: You’re very revealing about yourself and your own life in this. You’ve always struck me as a candid person, but did you ever feel like pulling back on something like your family’s experiences or your own dealings with drugs and such?
Morrison: No, I wanted to talk about stuff that I thought was of direct relevance to the book, and I kind of eliminated things that weren’t. You know, I obviously left out all the normal bits of life that aren’t as exciting (laughs) and focused on a very specific time in my life where I was doing certain things, about 20 years ago.
There wasn’t a lot of autobiography in there – it might seem that way, but it was all very specifically selected to reflect the themes of what was going on in comics and in my life in a way that felt interlinked.
Nrama: Well, when you’re talking about things like staying up 50 hours straight to induce delirium to write Batman: Arkham Asylum or the Katmandu experience ending in alien abduction…I have to ask, for aspiring writers, do you have a word of “Don’t try this at home?”
Morrison: No, aspiring writers will always choose their own paths to ruin! (laughs) And I’m certainly not a role model and wouldn’t want to be for anybody. My characters are role models, but I’m not, you know?
I want to say I wanted to present certain aspects of my life in relation to comic book reality, of abandoning a normal life for something quite strange and colorful. I don’t advise anybody to do whatever I did, but certainly I think everyone should travel!
Nrama: There’s also a few bits in here where I was curious if you were worried about burning bridges – you’re not afraid to take some shots at Image, at Rob Liefeld, at Watchmen, which – gasp! Horror of horrors! How dare you, sir! (laughs) And you talk movingly toward the end about your encounters with the negative aspects of fan culture…Morrison: Yeah. Well, it’s true, and I felt all those things had to be addressed, and I had to be as kind as possible to everyone, but Rob can take it when someone describes a Rob Liefeld book as somewhat eccentric (laughs). I think Rob can handle it! And I said some nice things, I compared him and the Image boys to the Ramones and said he was that kind of punk.
Even things like Watchmen – Watchmen has had so much praise over 20-plus years, and back when it came out and I was 25 I was kind of disappointed in it, having read Marvelman, or Miracleman as it became. And I think it’ll survive, of course. (laughs). It’s a brilliant book, but the things I loved about it as a kid are still there, but so are the things I hated.
The plot still doesn’t do it for me, and I wanted to be honest about that as well. I really loved Marvelman and I talked about that in the book, so I don’t want it too seem like I’m having a go at Alan Moore again! (laughs)
I think for me it always had to do with the specific plot things. I just couldn’t buy into the idea of the world’s smartest man and the world’s most powerful living being wouldn’t just get together and effortlessly change the world.
I was never sold on the idea that the world’s smartest man would somehow be the world’s biggest idiot. (laughs) It asks you to accept that and I can’t buy into that logic because either he’s the world’s smartest man or he’s not.
I always thought that Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan would get together on day one and exchange ideas, and then Dr. Manhattan would get rid of all the bombs and go on TV and they’d ask, “Is there anything you’d want him to do? We’ve eliminated the nuclear arsenals of the world, so let’s start negotiating.”
I kind of felt with the plot, that logic was broken, and the realism didn’t seem real any more, and that didn’t sit well with me.
Nrama: I got to read the advance reader’s copy of Supergods – have you added new material or thoughts as the publication date came closer?
Morrison: Oh yes! The advance reader’s copy isn’t worth reading! (laughs) The finished book is a very different book, and it’s got a whole conclusion and several chapters at the end. If you’ve gotten an advance reader’s copy, I’d prefer you read the final version, as the advance copy’s more of an idea of what the book is in a rough form, and has mistakes on every single page. I’d rather have people read the real thing!
Nrama: Well, now I feel really cool about all the notes I took before this interview…but to continue that thought, the impact of comics on popular culture is a continuing thing. In the last couple of months alone, we’ve had the Thor and X-Men and Green Lantern movies, there’s the new show Alphas on SyFy, there was The Cape, whatever the hell that was…
Morrison: Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of them! And there’s Misfits over here on TV!
Nrama: Where have you seen trends in comics, both on the page in other media, going in the past few months, just off your gut reaction?
Morrison: The conclusion I reach at the end of the book is basically is that this idea is trying to make itself real – it’s clawing its way into the real world like some kind of H.P. Lovecraft monster. It started off on the page, as words on paper and drawings of superhumans. And then it went to the screen, and because technology’s so good now, the films are as good as the comics.
And from there, we’ve seen people dressing up as superheroes, the kind of DIY superhero phenomenon. And soon bionic technology and medicine will be able to create actual superhumans within the next few generations.
And what it seems to me is that this is an idea that’s coming to life. Comics are one of the few art forms where we’re willing to talk about where we’re going. Comics have been talking about these ideas for a long time, and looked at these ideas in terms of destruction – what would a Nazi superhero look like? What would a benign superhuman dictatorship be like? What would a psychopathic superhero be?
We’ve kind of created the social realist fiction of tomorrow. And that’s why comic books are worth looking at now.Nrama: There’s been all this talk about the Singularity, where technology and humanity will eventually merge. What you discuss now sounds like that, only the idea of culture and humanity merging to an unrecognizable extent.
Morrison: Well, technology and humanity, there’s definitely something going on. Look at the way the phone system has evolved. The telephone system is an emergent phenomenon, just like the human race and every other living thing.
And the way that it’s worked is that it’s insinuated itself deeper and deeper into everyone’s daily life, to the point where little kids are given phones. That’s an example of technology bonding with flesh. And give technology a few years and you’ll have radio telepathy through implants and all kinds of stuff.
And so it’s quite clear that something is happening with telephone communication and the human body, they’re becoming one thing. As you say, it’ll create a radically different society, with a human race that’s got access to an entire library of a planetary database.
It’ll be like having a tiny little Mother Box in your pocket! (laughs) And that’s going to be a transformation for society that no one’s seen before apart from comics and sci-fi.
So yeah, we’re approaching a kind of superhumanity, but it might seem a bit scary. I’m sure if people like us could see into the future, it might seem very mysterious and different from what we have now.
Nrama: There’s something exciting and scary about that. On the one hand, I like that reach of knowledge, but on the other hand…the Internet as it is now has created this incredible violation of privacy, like a consensual Big Brother. What’s going to happen when we network human brains?
Morrison: Yeah, well, the seeds of the previous generation – my generation, the Cold War kids, the big terror was Big Brother, the eye in the sky, the idea that someone’s watching you. Now, kids want to be watched! They want to be stars, they want to be famous, they want to be in movies.
That’s a completely different approach to the idea of being watched – that you have to perform, that you have to be something special. And that’s something that very few people anticipated would happen. People found a way to play with it, and yeah, privacy is disappearing, and who knows what that’ll mean? It seems a bit frightening to people like us who grew up with privacy being very important, but I don’t know how important it’ll feel to people in the future.
Nrama: Going back to the concept of the book – it’s strange we live in a society where people are more physically isolated than previous generations, but entertainment is more about making the world seem bigger and bigger.
Morrison: Yeah, people are more connected, but one of the problems is that like-minded people are connecting. Instead of outsiders coming together in the dark, where I think they should be, creating their own universes, people have been exposed very early to the normalizing effect of the Internet, where they organize themselves into societies around rules of what you can and can’t do.
So it normalizes things quite clerically on the Internet. And you know, these things have both positive and negative benefits, which we need to start thinking about.Next: Morrison on his favorite comics, working on the new DC relaunch, and more!
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12:45-1:45 DC Comics: Grant Morrison (Room 6DE)
3:15-4:15 DC: Batman (Room 6DE)
3:00-4:00 DC: Superman (Room 6DE)
10:00-11:00 From Buddha to Batman: Deepak Chopra and Grant Morrison Discuss The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes (Room 6A)
1:00-2:00 Comics Arts Conference Session #11: Psychology of the Dark Knight: How Trauma Formed the Batman and Why He’s Got a Thing for “Bad Girls” (Room 26AB)
5:30-6:30 The UK Invasion Room (Room 7AB)Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!