Grant Morrison Discusses “Supergods” at Meltdown

Grant Morrison at Meltdown Comics

That's a fine fiction suit you've got there, Mr. Morrison.

Meltdown Comics in Hollywood has been expanding their role as a geek community center in recent months, insuring their business model against the oncoming day-and-date digital-comics reality with a packed slate of D&D games, podcast tapings, and special events. On Thursday night, Grant Morrison stopped by the extremely intimate NerdMelt space at the back of the store to discuss his new book, Supergods. Comics author and My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way, a member of Morrison’s “hippie family” and a longtime fan of the DC author’s work, hosted the discussion with the assistance of G4 host Blair Butler. (Butler has a comic coming out soon herself– the mixed martial-arts series Heart, featuring art by Department pal Kevin Mellon.)

For fans who might have been looking for an in-depth discussion of the upcoming DC reboot, or some exploration of Dan DiDio’s overly-harsh words about female creators during last week’s SDCC panels, this evening wasn’t the discussion they were looking for. Way’s questions led off with Morrison’s childhood in Scotland and went deep into topics like, his legendary drug experimentation (not as gonzo as you’d think), the influence of sunspots on Western culture (prodigious, apparently), and his approach to modern magick (which I’ll get into below). The audience, likewise, stuck to questions about Morrison’s New X-Men run, the next iteration of Seaguy, and whether or not Morrison would ever write an episode of Doctor Who.

(Yes, Xorn was always supposed to be Magneto, in a deliberate callback to the old stories with Magneto in the Savage Land; yes, he’s working on the next Seaguy and has the first issue entirely scripted; as a longtime Who fan, he’d love to, but there are no current plans.)

Way kicked off the evening with some questions about how Morrison came to his current understanding of superhero narratives. Morrison spoke of his father’s membership in the Spies for Peace, an anarchist movement that infiltrated British military installations in the 1960s. As a former soldier himself, Morrison’s father embraced pacifism and activism at the beginning of the Cold War, fearing total nuclear annihilation. His father’s fears formed one pole of the dialectic that would inform Grant’s writing career– the apocalyptic “no future” narrative that infiltrated the zeitgeist during the age of Mutually Assured Destruction and heated rhetoric from world superpowers.

The same American soldiers who brought the atomic bomb to Scotland also brought American comics with them, and it was in those issues of Superman that Morrison found the path to rejecting the fatalistic narratives of the 1960s. Superman, with his invulnerable body and iron will, represented an ultimate refutation of the apocalyptic narrative of the atomic age. In order to move beyond his fear of death and further his own self-actualization, Morrison chose to deny the narrative of “no future” and embrace the narrative power of the superhero. In his paradigm, heroes are created “to save us in case of emergency,” a concept that spans Celtic and British history back to mythical “returned hero” figures like Finn Mac Cool and King Arthur. Just as Finn and Arthur were said to be waiting in the Otherworld to return to Britain in her darkest hour, Superman and other superheroes return in cycles to reflect and refute readers’ greatest fears. Instead of asking “What happens if we all die,” Morrison said, superheroes ask “What if we get better?”

Way broadened that discussion to address the reactionary nature of the basic superhero narrative, positing that the basic approach to telling capes-and-tights stories is encapsulated in a sort of pop-culture religion that discourages provocative new angles on the existing material. Morrison agreed with Way’s premise, but noted that the ongoing work of humanity is to produce mythic narratives (a concept they dubbed “The Human Project”). In service to that project, Morrison fully immersed himself in the anarchic, drug-fueled world he depicts in The Invisibles as he wrote the book; he experimented with shamanism, cross-dressing, voudou, ceremonial magick, and other techniques to summon particular deities, archetypes, and powers he wanted to embody in the comic itself. In so doing, he lived out the book “as an art piece,” identifying so strongly with the character of King Mob that Morrison nearly died himself while writing King Mob’s own near-death experience.

It’s interesting to watch an audience of people who are both Morrison fans and somewhat skeptically-minded confront Morrison’s complete face-value acceptance of the magical workings he describes. Where the average fan might roll their eyes at summoning gods or donning a dress to explore the power of gender transgression, Morrison’s commitment to his own methods remains total and unshakable. At one point, he and Way veered off into a lengthy discussion of Iain Spence’s Sekhmet Hypothesis, a theory about the influence of sunspots on youth culture that informs both The Invisibles and Morrison’s X-Men run. This is a delicious little piece of pseudoscience for folks of a Fortean bent; Spence believes that the 11-year cycle of solar variation creates a corresponding “social chaos” in Western society. In blunt skeptical terms, Spence proposes that low sunspot influences society towards LSD-loving hippie placidity, while high sunspot activity produces a distinct shift towards crank, the Ramones, and Rob Liefeld drawing Lovecraftian human nightmares. It only works on Western society, though, judging by the examples Morrison and Way put forth. (Apparently, the sunspots find it easier to influence white teenagers living in the First World.)

Is it bollocks? Sure. It’s bollocks of the best Art Bell late-night numbers-station kind, the kind that gleefully professes an extraordinary claim without the requisite extraordinary proof. But whether or not Morrison actually believes in it, he firmly acknowledges that he has profited immensely in his personal endeavors by writing books that conform to Spence’s theories. In front of an audience, Morrison’s stated commitment to producing narratives based on utter bollocks is a bit intimidating. You may think you’re hardcore, but King Mob has you beat.

Of course, total, unwavering immersion in one’s own creative work and belief system forms the core of what Western magickal systems call the Great Work– the ability to fully self-actualize, to know your life’s goal and bring it into manifestation. Morrison believes that this power to shape reality through artistic force of will is a uniquely human technology that can be tested, verified, and distributed to everyone. An audience member questioned the ethics of such reality-altering creativity, asking Morrison how he knew when to draw the line as he worked. Morrison responded that all magic is a matter of intent, and that the power of intent is fundamentally egalitarian, available to anyone who puts in the effort to channel it. (This is where you all nod and quote Alan Moore’s encounter with John Constantine, because you’ve been here and you know the drill.) He added that rather than being addictive, the power of focused intent gets “creepier and creepier;” he’d prefer to be thought of as the guy who lives out in the country and watches the crows for omens, and not as some sort of highly-evolved magus possessed of preternatural abilities…

… so it wasn’t more than half an hour later before Morrison blandly mentioned that he really had invoked John Lennon, a ritual depicted in later volumes of the Invisibles, and that Lennon’s glowing, disembodied head had given him a song. The Q&A session and panel ended with Morrison performing that song– “Somebody Loves You”– for the assembled crowd, using a Lennon-branded acoustic guitar Way had given him. Rather like the unexpected five minutes’ meditation at the end of Morrison’s SDCC panel with Deepak and Gotham Chopra, the five minutes’ invocation provided a startling glimpse into parts of Morrison’s work that current-day fans don’t usually see.

Bollocks? Never mind the bollocks, here’s comics’ own John Lennon.

Review: Joe the Barbarian #1

Joe the Barbarian #1 (cover by Sean Murphy)

“chapter 1: hypo”

Writer/Creator: Grant Morrison
Artist: Sean Murphy
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Todd Klein

Before I get into the meat of Joe the Barbarian, there’s a little personal history you need to understand why this comic hit close to home for me. I’m a type-2 diabetic (the kind that doesn’t usually require insulin), the third generation of same in my family. The genetics are pretty clear-cut; there are things I probably could’ve done differently to put it off a few years, maybe even more than a few, but it was eventually going to catch me. Dealing with it as an adult has been challenging at times, but there’s at least a little bit of perspective that age brings that helps offset things some.

It’s hard to imagine being so fundamentally different as a teenager, though. I only know the edges of it, from the outside looking in. I had a friend or two back then who were type-1 diabetics. It wasn’t something you brought up or pointed out in those days. They had enough going on that they didn’t want to people to make a point of treating them differently. It was the sort of thing the mothers would communicate among themselves, through back channels. If there was a birthday party, diet soda would suddenly appear on the drinks table, and no fuss would be made.

Joe Manson’s troubles, at first, seem only superficially connected to the plight of the chronically-ill child. He’s a socially awkward artist, an introspective teenager plagued not only by stereotypical bullies, but by his own awareness that the bullying just makes him a stereotype as well. He has no adult role models to speak of, either; his father, a career military type, was killed in action (the script hints that it was in the Middle East, but nothing is explicitly said).

Of course, as if by some cosmic law, someone so introverted must conversely have a rich inner life. I’d say it’s a cliche, but I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t a true cliche. It’s the place where so much of comics wells from, after all. Joe is no different, and in an amusingly anachronistic touch, his mid-teens tastes really don’t stray too far from ones that will be familiar to any of us in our late thirties. Joe owns a classic Star Wars Landspeeder toy (a particular childhood favorite of mine, too) and a smattering of other familiar items. Sean Murphy has a bit in the backmatter explaining that he made this consciously retro choice because no one told him he couldn’t; he thought it would be interesting to play off his own childhood nostalgia. (That being said on the artistic end, I still think the appearance of Batman was specifically aimed to play on on Grant’s reputation.) After that, it was mostly happy accident that Morrison’s script was able to cohere itself around those images. I don’t think the visual references would distract a younger reader unfamiliar with the toys of the 1970s, but at the same time, the art reinforces older readers’ connection to Joe’s world.

Morrison doesn’t provide any direct evidence of Joe’s diabetes until the issue is almost over, but the clues are there if you know what to look for. As someone who has been dealing with diabetes for four years now, there’s a little more weight to the scene where Joe’s mother reminds him about the candy bar she packed. When the alpha bully later takes it away before he’s had a chance to eat it, there’s a subtle foreboding– those of us who have been there know what’s inevitably coming down the line, even if it’s not set out in the script yet.

Sean Murphy’s art strikes a nice balance between being wistful enough to carry the fantastic portions of the story and being detailed enough to stand up to close investigation. I found myself scanning the larger revealing panels in a way I normally reserve for Geof Darrow’s work.  Murphy’s detail isn’t nigh-infinite, since it wouldn’t suit the book. It did make me happy that I could easily tell that Commander Worf was assisting that trio of NASA astronauts down the road, though.

The driving question as the series progresses will be if what’s happening to Joe is real, or if it’s all delusions from insulin shock. The end of this chapter seems to make the situation pretty clear, but I can’t imagine Morrison making things that simple. So far it looks to be an intimate, interesting little story, and it certainly has the potential to be another I Kill Giants, not something I’d expect to say about Grant Morrison. I’m very interested now to see where it goes.

Also, as a side note, I especially approve of Vertigo’s decision to make this issue only $1. I’d recommend it at $2.99 or even $3.99, but being a buck makes it a total no-brainer.