Author: Grant Morrison
By Rhys Tarling
“We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.”
By putting forth this gut-wrenching existential thought before chapter one, author Grant Morrison sets the stage for him to preach the virtues of the superhero, and how they’re informed by what’s preying on the collective psyche. For instance, in 1938, when production lines were making labourers redundant, there was the first image of Superman adorning the cover of Action Comics #1. The drawing depicted a gaudily dressed muscleman lifting a car with his bare hands, an elemental response to fears of cold industrialism; an exciting assurance that mankind could not be replaced by machines; a crude imagining of what the next stage of humanity could be once it shed its neurosis and dependence on the laws of nature. And so the superhero was born.
Morrison, one of the star writers for Marvel and DC Comics, and a writer who, along with Frank Miller and Alan Moore, dragged the superhero into the modern age, weaves a meta narrative that is part unsettling, sometimes grotty stream-of-consciousness memoir, and part wildly entertaining history lesson. But even that description, though accurate, doesn’t entirely do Supergods justice. It can be said that it’s more like an eccentric religious transcription of these cultural symbols and their historical and modern day mythic significance, though transcribed with an appealing art-punk prose – no dull piety to be found here, thankfully.
It’s the historical sections of Supergods that captivate the most. From the birth of Batman and Superman as responses to the economic devastation of the Great Depression and the rise of urban violence; the sense of unease and uncertainty beneath the sun-bleached suburbia of 50s America; the British invasion of the 90s that he was a part of (the Brits brought their own distinct flavour of literary cool and ambiguous sexuality, an interesting component to add to a medium aimed squarely at straight young men), and the fetishistic militarisation of superheroes post 9/11, he covers it all. When he writes about the absurdly grungy and regrettable period of 90s American superhero comics that seemed to be largely informed by the cultural wasteland overlords of MTV and Hollywood action movies, he does so with lyrical, weaponised contempt. “This was noir condensed to jet-black absurdity. Alone in its bedroom with overblown fantasies of grand agency, the adolescent comic book was about to glimpse itself in the mirror, standing there in stained underpants and playing air guitar.” Morrison writes with such flair that he can make the most vapid era of comic books seem worthy of intellectual consideration and humour.
The personal parts of Supergods are where it goes a little off the rails, which, depending on your point of view, is either a good thing or simply intolerable. Though it begins comprehensible enough – a young man in working class Scotland, raised on pacifist ideals and science fiction – it veers into strange and druggy terrain when he expounds, or, more aptly, rambles, on his drug-induced creative process and encounters in the ‘fifth dimension’. Although he gained insights that no doubt led him to great financial and artistic reward, one can’t help but wondered if the effects of his consumption of hallucinogens left some permanent impression. But even when it’s not making a lot of sense it’s still fascinating and alluring. After all, poetic humanist kook (kook being the operative word here) is Morrison’s personal brand.
Affectionate, educational, and utterly engrossing, Supergods is a must read. It’s difficult to resist its mad, grand vision of the intertwinement of fiction and reality.