Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2011, 444 pages
I love All Star Superman. I really like The Invisibles. Sea Guy was pretty great. As a matter of fact, I like most of Grant Morrison’s comics. I entered my teenage years reading the best comic-writers from the British invasion: Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and in there with ’em, Grant Morrison. As such, I was curious to read what he had to say about comics–especially knowing that Morrison is into the occult and that some of his theories are echoed in his stories. I also looked forward to learning “what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human” as his book’s title asserts.
Super gods has 26 chapters plus an “outro” and at 444 pages, it’s got some oomph. That said, I think this book could have done with a little more editing. The book begins, rightly so, with the genesis of superheroes Superman and Batman, and the creators which gave them their start. Right off, Morrison begins to describe these characters in magical terms:
The first emergent comic-book universe began with this grand separation of light from dark, is from isn’t, this from that, up from down, in a kabbalistic, Hermetic symmetry. The first light had cast the first shadow.
A kind of alchemy was under way (26).
I was impressed with the balance of fun fact (like the reasoning for Superman’s outfit) with mystical allegory (Superman as Apollonian force, Batman as Dionysian), and was enjoyed learning about the early comic book companies and the associated personalities as well as the creation of the comic code. And I enjoyed the interleaving of Morrison’s childhood in this narrative, but about half way through the book, it becomes less about comics and more about Morrison’s crazy experiences with his shamanic/magical practice, his travels and drug ingestion, and at one point his illness. Along the way, we learn more about his career trajectory, who was there along the way, and come to realize that the book teaches us less about being human than it does about being Grant Morrison. Luckily, he’s had an interesting life that caused me to laugh and think more than once.
If you know anyone into Platonic thought, Morrison is his/her man; he describes his belief that the universe of comic books is another dimension existing alongside ours, and how he has even travelled within it:
I’d already contrived to meet Animal Man in his own environment, creating with the help of artist Chaz Truog what I call the “fiction suit.” This was a way of “descending,” as I saw it, into the 2D world, where I could interact directly with the inhabitants of the DC universe on their own terms, in the form of a drawing (254).
It is not often you have a chance to read an author writing of a fiction suit outside of science fiction, and if you go along with Morrison’s conjectures, the ideas are actually pretty neat. This weird blending of comics and memoir and magic is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but for a few, it’s literally fantastic.
The book spends the concluding chapters outlining the last couple of decades in broad swaths. Cynical books like Alan Moore’s Watchmen ushered in a time where superheroes had Problems and weren’t so super, but by the early nineties people wanted less cynicism and superheroes re-emerged as weirder and much less emotionally fraught. Morrison states:
The comics boom of that cycle gave us Judge Dredd, Frank Miller’s gritty noir, Alan Moore’s harsh logical realism. Nineteen eight-eight saw ecstasy, or MDMA, as the favored drug, accompanying long-form trance, ambient and dance music, Manchester ‘baggy’ fitness wear as street wear, grunge beards, and a return to long hair. In comic books, this was the time of Deadline, Doom Patrol, Shade and Sandman (303).
In his description of cultural cycles, he states that, “the new superhero books are becoming more fantastic, colorful, and self-consciously ‘mythic’” (303). This kind of forecasting is risky because, in just a few years, if this is not the case, it casts much of the book into the shadow of doubt, but I respect, nonetheless, Morrison’s effort. Throughout the chapters he describes where he was at personally and creatively in each “age” and sometimes it is difficult to tell whether he is humble-bragging about how he was always at the vanguard or if he is simply sharing how he reflexively reacted to existent cultural forces. Morrison’s organization of comic history is quite interesting especially when he ties it to music and politics, and proves to be an interesting historical lens. This reviewer is a long-time comic reader, so much of what Morrison describes is familiar, and thus this lens feels comfortable, but for those new to comics, it may prove less useful.
Morrison’s book is not a book for those unfamiliar with comics. He writes to and for the comic aficionado, and makes few apologies. This book is also not for those looking more for an exhaustive history of comics; instead, it offers a Dr. Strange level of weird in its synthesis of memoir, cultural criticism, comic books, and magical theory. Librarians will be happy with his suggested list of further reading and satisfying index. There’s a book for everyone, and this is just the right book for that group interested in comics and performance, culture and rebellion, and intelligent fringe thought.