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4: Poem of Apostasy: Why You Hate Grant Morrison
While All Star Superman was coming out, I wanted to grow up to be Grant Morrison. Not exclusively -- I also wanted to grow up to be John Cale, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Alain Delon, Scott Walker, Auguste Rodin, and a lot of other dudes besides. Morrison, however, was the one cool guy in the endless parade of cool guys whose magic I would try to capture for myself in thrift stores or Sunglass Hut that came from the world of comics, which is where I ended up. Maybe if I had decided to spend my adult life with some other medium I’d feel the same way as I do about Morrison about the childhood heroes of mine who did their work in that form, maybe not. Either way, since around 2008, when All Star Superman took its final bow, I’ve strongly resented Morrison for turning out not to be the version of himself I idolized as a kid. And as I’ve grown older and older, even the untrue image I worshipped so fervently begins to look like a sham, like something I never would have wanted to become even if the chance had presented itself.
Grant Morrison was never a marginal figure, or even an “alternative” one, having done the overwhelming majority of his work for DC and Marvel, the two largest publishers of comics, and the rest of it for companies whose products share shelf space and genre with them. He never self-published a comic, never put his own work together by stapling Xerox printouts into pamphlets, never crowdfunded a project or took out loans to finance one, never had to face the task of distributing his own work to comics retailers, never did an unpaid job for the love of the medium. Morrison’s public image is all but certainly the one to have benefitted most from the low visibility of and difficulty of access to avant-garde, non-corporate comics in America -- comics by people who actually do all the things listed above. Morrison capitalizes on a culture that discourages innovation and progress by telling a captive audience that his own staunchly unadventurous work represents those very values.
It works like this: the vast majority of comics retailers carry no self-published work whatsoever, and few to none of the books put out by the small circle of publishers that represent the forward-looking, artistically motivated side of comics. The consumer, then, is presented with a highly limited spectrum of the medium’s delights to choose from, most of which is comics about punching created by large committees of artists and writers working in assembly line fashion. It’s easy enough for casual comics readers to spend the entire period of their interaction of the medium without ever being confronted by the existence of true comics, the ones created by single artists and released whether or not they’re going to make any money for those involved. And in a world where it’s all too easy to believe that every comic in existence is published by a multinational licensing firm and features work made for hire assembled by a divided-labor team of specialists, Grant Morrison begins to look a great deal more interesting than he actually is. For those who come to comics in search of the weird, the boundary-pushing, the unimagined and the never-before-seen, the sensible destination is known as “art comics”: single-creator works, most often self-published, that privilege individualized visionary expression over more commercially friendly assets like narrative cohesion or the polish of the drawings. As ever with the avant-garde, though, the obscurity of art comics, while not entirely unintentional, prevents the work from reaching some of those who need it most. And it is Grant Morrison whose comics readers hungry for new frontiers but unable to access them end up with.
Putting their many virtues aside for the moment, Morrison’s comics are corporate and unoriginal to the core, always conforming to traditional format limitations, endlessly retreading the well-worn paths of superhero history, and constantly refining and updating the commercial appeal of the properties their stories are about. His basic aesthetic conservatism, however, is tempered with bits and flecks of the revolutionary’s rhetoric: he writes stories that profess to be anti-corporate for corporate paychecks, he writes comics starring decades-old characters that profess to be about change, he writes books that invite readers to admire their transgression and then submits them to the self-censoring organs of DC editorial and the dreaded Comics Code Authority. Basically, Morrison is just weird and different enough to stand out from the pack without ever having to even consider leaving it. On the contrary, for the past few years he has become the leader of it, mainstream comics’ most beloved figure, hosannaed as a genius and set up as the leader of a corporate-funded cult of personality in which telling stories about superheroes is the ultimate act of rebellion. As I type this, the inaugural “MorrisonCon”, a massively expensive Las Vegas meeting of the writer, his most fervent devotees, DC co-publisher Jim Lee, and dude from My Chemical Romance, is a few months away. Of course, if Morrison really cared about the corrupting influence of corporate culture he wouldn’t work for Time/Warner. If he really wanted to change the medium he wouldn’t write superhero comics. If he really wanted to push the envelope of what kind of content is acceptable in comics he’d go without an editor. Morrison’s is the most dangerous kind of retrograde traditionalism: the kind that gives the audience for revolution just enough of it to dull their appetites, then puts them back to sleep.
As a kid, I fell into the same trap that so many other readers do. Unaware that I was missing out on the revolution in avant-garde comics that was going on at the same time (spearheaded by editor Sammy Harkham’s massively influential, visionary Kramers Ergot anthology), I spent the first seven or eight years of the 2000s coasting through the art form on Morrison comic after Morrison comic -- at times there seemed to be a new one every week -- convinced that I was consuming the most forward-looking and imaginative material that the medium had to offer. It is that conviction, that sense of belonging to something special, that gives Morrison’s comics their broad appeal; when and if a Morrison reader discovers comics that go further than his, a considerable bit of bloom comes off the rose. Given the immense profits Morrison’s books have turned for the corporate publishers, there is no small amount of time and money invested in perpetuating the myth that comics’ most popular writer is also its most outré thinker.
The man himself plays this game with an even greater investment than his publishers. Morrison is gifted with a highly charming knack for conversation and an ear for esoteric and intriguing soundbites, making him one of the most compelling interview subjects in comics (corporate or otherwise) -- especially if the interviewer is one of the legion of critics who buy into Morrison’s construction of himself as a modern-day shaman, using comics to create myths for the modern day. The notion of Morrison as hermetic soothsayer is, of course, ludicrous -- true myth is culturally ubiquitous, not the privileged knowledge of a tiny group of cultish devotees -- but it is enough to convince his readers that the stories they are so obsessed with have a legitimate purpose and meaning beyond their ability to entertain for a few minutes and rake in money for the companies. You can feel okay about reading superhero comics despite the fact that they’re build on the bones of their creators if you buy into Morrison’s cultural-studies 101 twaddle, because after all, it didn’t matter who first thought up Aphrodite and Apollo way back when either; they transcended the imaginations of their individual storytellers. Just like Superman transcends Siegel and Shuster, and ends up with Grant Morrison.
The longest explication of Morrison’s theories about superheroes as tomorrow’s deities can be found in his only prose book, 2011’s Supergods, a critical treatise-cum-history-cum-autobiography whose release marked the moment I stopped merely resenting Morrison for not being the true radical I’d figured him for as a kid, and started actively and passionately hating him. The book positions superhero stories as the only kind of comics that really count (or exist, for that matter), the evolutionary triggers for the coming real-life transformation of humanity into superhumanity. Supergods begins, naturally enough, with the story of Siegel and Shuster creating comics’ first costumed crimefighter, Superman. What follows is nothing less than a virtuosic rhetorical performance, as Morrison manages to remove the guilt of working with a property so heinously wrested from its true owners by putting the blame on Siegel and Shuster themselves, who according to the Man of Steel’s eventual inheritor totally knew what they were doing!
“Like so many artists, musicians, and entertainers,” Morrison tells us, “they were creating a product to sell,” and once the ink hit the back of that check any immorality on the part of the buyer was no longer of consequence. To Morrison, Siegel and Shuster seem to be romantic bits of history, not actual ruined lives. Superman clearly matters more to him, and the idea that he might be in the wrong for participating in the continued unethical use of the character is never brought up. Over the course of the book, however, it becomes clear that someone as smart and self-promoting as Morrison is incapable of playing ignorant for too long. As any good writer would be, Morrison sees the tragedy of Siegel and Shuster -- and simply refuses to care. “Leaving his fathers far behind on the doomed planet Poverty,” a memorable passage runs, “Superman… flew into the hands of anyone who could afford to hire him.” This might sound like a call to arms if it was coming from anyone but a beneficiary of the events being detailed, but for Morrison it’s just another dramatically potent tidbit to drop into the latest bestseller. When the fact that the total amount Siegel and Shuster were ever paid for their creation is about as much as today’s big-name comics writers make in a week, it’s cited not as something the industry deserves to be ashamed of, but “an example of how far the business has come”.
There are no prizes for guessing what big-name writer Morrison’s referring to, as the attitude taken seems to be “it’s okay that it happened to them, because I don’t mind a similar thing happening to me”. And indeed every idea that fills up All Star Superman, as well as the reams of other books Morrison has penned for DC and Marvel, no longer belong to him. When the writer discusses the (still hugely problematic, and recently dismantled) royalty systems instituted at the “Big Two” around the time he entered the business, he uses the forced smile of the true defeatist to tell us that from here on, “creative people adding to the DC or Marvel universe would be ripped off with a little more reward on the back end.”
Supergods is an immensely distressing book in its own right, but more distressing still is the way it puts the lie to all the revolutionary rhetoric of Morrison’s previous works, All Star Superman very much among them. Before 2011, it was possible to view Morrison the way he presented himself, as an agent of a better future doing the dirty-but-necessary job of infiltrating the rotten hive of superhero comics in order to change it from the inside out. There may even have been a time when that was really how things were. But as Alan Moore reminded us in Watchmen -- shortly before leaving DC in disgust rather than continue on there as Morrison has -- when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also. And then, at least in Morrison’s case, it swallows you whole and spits you back out to spit out its poisonous creeds and hypocritical justifications.
In one of All Star Superman’s most powerful moments, the hero reminds us that “the strong have to stand up for the weak… that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank… (and) that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does.” These are beautiful sentiments, the kind that stay with you long after the covers of the comic close. And yet when they come from the pen of Grant Morrison they are nothing more than sentiments, empty words with no actions backing them up.
Still, the truth is always more powerful than lies, even when it comes from the mouth of a liar, and that is why All Star Superman transcends the small and miserable man who wrote it. If it were possible to praise the comic without praising or even mentioning its writer, I’d do just that. But I can’t, and beside the ones listed above, All Star Superman teaches us one more important lesson: sometimes, despite themselves, evil people are capable of doing good things.