Supergods - Grant Morrison interview
Grant Morrison describes his journey to become one of the world’s leading comics writers
As one of the world’s leading comics writers, with titles including All-Star Superman and Justice League to his name, Glasgow’s Grant Morrison was the perfect man to write a history of superheroes. But his book, Supergods, covers a lot more than the world of pen and ink. He explains how he first became hooked on comic heroes, and what the superhero means to the world post-9/11
When I was eight my mum, who was a big fan of science fiction in all its forms, took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey three times in one month. It was a profound thing to see. The second time I was so freaked out by the Stargate sequence that I couldn’t watch. I made my teddy bear watch instead. Even as a kid I was totally into it. I didn’t mind that there were 20 minutes of apes at the start and guys just talking for an hour and half after that – it was just compelling. It’s up there with the Sistine Chapel as one of the greatest things humans have ever made.
In terms of the film’s influence, the cosmic dimension was what I took from it more than anything else – the idea that there is a state that can be reached and then surpassed that takes us into a much bigger and more encompassing, holistic view of the universe and of life and death. Having that rubbed in at such a young age haunted me. I found that same stuff in Jack Kirby’s work such as New Gods – a real sense of the ineffable and of things beyond the veil. That point of being on the edge of comprehension fascinated me even then. Now I try to embody that in my characters and situations.
My mother was also a fan of comics, though it was my granddad, who was a riveter on the Clyde, who first brought them into the family. My first exposure to the superhero idea was when I saw a Marvelman comic, aged about three. I read comics like every other kid read them; they were really cool but at that age everything is: a flower on a stick or a caterpillar is cool. It was only when I became the classic withdrawn teenager that comics became an absolute obsession.
I loved the old Flash comics, which were very trippy with these bizarre far-out stories. They also really influenced me as a kid. Flash looked the best and represented a lot of cool stuff: lightning bolts and speed and energy and coffee. He seemed like the true hero of modernity. A lot of the superheroes, like Flash, don’t even need a great backstory. If you look back to the early Zorro film, which influenced Batman, Zorro just turns up and starts kicking ass. There’s no indication why he became Zorro or why he chose to dress like that. The modern approach to comic superheroes only came in later, when adults started to ask dumb questions like, ‘Why would he do that? How could he afford to do that?’ These are really stupid questions to ask of fantasy, but people did ask them, and then try to answer them. A superhero doesn’t really need a major motivation, though the best ones tend to have something big going on: Batman’s parents or Superman losing an entire planet so he has to protect this one. And a superhero needs to have a good silhouette; they need to be distinguishable.
After World War II, the popular comics were about crime, war, romance and horror. Superheroes vanished because they had been created for one purpose, which was to serve as heroes during the depression. They’d look after the poor and protect the weak. During the war they became patriotic, but after that they had no reason to exist. We’d just fought a war without superheroes and they suddenly started to look a bit ridiculous. Superheroes didn’t really become popular again until the late 50s, when there was a resurgence of the pioneer spirit. America started looking forward again, with Kennedy and the space race. Superheroes had the ‘right stuff’. They slotted quite nicely into this new optimism.
More recently, there’s been an onslaught of superheroes, starting with the first X-Men movie in 2000. This stuff that was once kept behind closed doors, and seen as the preserve of collectors or hobbyists, now belongs to everyone. What interests me is the way that the superhero is trying to claw its way into reality. There are now people who dress up like superheroes and try to fight crime. As an idea, the superhero seems to be getting stronger and more persistent. It almost demands that we connect with it.
The only way to make things in comic books real is to make comic books about real things. That’s not to have Superman sitting on the toilet or Batman filling out his tax form, but dealing with the feelings we all have. The stories now have to be about grief and loss and joy and hope and things that people feel – something meaningful and not just punch-ups.
The fears are what it’s all about. When I was doing Justice League, the writing was all about how you can marshal these forces of the human imagination against your depression, and against your fears for the world. It was very therapeutic for me. I feel better about life now, but I still use my characters to talk about the way I feel, and we feel, collectively. Moreso after 9/11, in that dark world that followed where kids were cutting themselves and the soldiers were dying.
Through this terrible sense of oppression – in which we’re being watched constantly, we’re stuck on the internet, and we’re scared of everything – the superhero has surged up as an imaginative response; a reminder that there is a future: stop telling kids that the planet is going to die and start using your minds the way that superheroes use their minds and get us out of this.
It’s a positive moment for superheroes, though not necessarily for the comics that they grew out of. They are seen as an old-fashioned way of selling the superhero story. It’s an interesting progression how the concept has evolved and developed its way from two dimensions, onto a moving screen, and then into real life. But for those who have shepherded these characters for decades, the vast number of movies is not necessarily a good thing.
The idea of doing Supergods was suggested to me. Originally we were going to put together a lot of the interviews I’d done over the years on the subject of superheroes and I thought, ‘That sounds really easy, no problem.’ I started it off in that way, and wrote an introduction. But when my agent saw it he said he really liked it, and why not just write something new?
It wasn’t what I’d intended doing, but obviously it’s something I’m passionate about. I just sat down and the whole thing came out without a lot of research. Most of my source material was available to me on the shelves a couple of feet away. I decided I wanted to just talk about the subject in the way that Nick Kent or Lester Bangs would talk about music. I felt that kind of approach would communicate with people who weren’t that into comics, but were familiar with the ideas because of movies.
The superheroes that endure, like Batman and Superman, are modern stand-ins for the old gods. Every culture has its own skyfather like Zeus, so we get Superman. And there’s always a god of the underworld like Hades or Pluto or the characters you get in Celtic culture or voodoo: Batman takes that role. Aquaman is the old Neptune and Flash is Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Those that persist are the ones who are simply those ideas in new clothes. They still mean so much to people and exist in symbolic dramas that teach us how to live.
(As told to Brian Donaldson)
Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 21 Jul.
Extract from Supergods by Grant Morrison
It was 1978 and I was determined to succeed in the comics business somehow, particularly after humiliation at the hands of my accursed careers guidance counselor, Mr. Shields. Seated in his claustrophobic office to discuss my future plans in that last year at Allan Glen’s, I proudly produced my artwork and announced my intention to make a living as a comic-book-artist-slash-writer. The work showed some promise and skill for my age, so I expected him to be impressed and full of praise for my industriousness. Instead, and without the slightest flicker of curiosity, he handed back my lurid Hellhunter pages and told me to stop wasting my time. There were talented professional people in America who did this work, and I, a foolish boy from Scotland, could never hope to join their ranks, he assured me. I would, Shields continued evenly, be much better off considering a job in a bank.
Grimly repeating the “Fuck you” mantra in my head didn’t seem to help; I was gutted like a cod. What if he was right, and I was deluding myself? My premature attempts to get work at Marvel and DC had resulted in polite “Thank you, but …” letters.
After the three-day weeks, the power cuts, the shit music, and the morbidly accumulating years without sex, Shields’s dismissal was the last straw. Hate, that great motivator, kicked in. Nihilistic defiance became the order of the day, and my personal contributions to the ongoing psychological war of attrition between pupils and teachers developed a new guillotine edge of cruelty.
I’d applied to the Glasgow School of Art, convinced that my portfolio, based around comic-style illustrations and black-and-white graphics, would easily see me through. I couldn’t wait to get among girls and start living to draw and drawing to live. Naturally, painting and figurative work were in that year, and graphics were out.
My art school rejection letter arrived as a cold manila fist that closed around my fragile hopes. When I closed my eyes, I saw the title animation for my TV favorite The Prisoner: Patrick McGoohan’s scowling Buddha face inflating to fill the screen before two iron gates closed across it, eternally barring his escape. I imagined the walls of my room extending to the infinite horizon. I’d left a good school only to find myself washed up on the shingles of the dole queue. I was sure to die penniless, ugly, and a virgin. The Fear was practically edible. Nothing would happen unless I got out and made it happen.
Then, as if handing me the keys to the jet pack, my dad bought me a typewriter and taped a message to the inside of its case: “Son-the world is waiting to hear from you.” Whatever had gone wrong in their lives, however oddly I’d been raised in accordance with their pacifist principles, my mum and dad had always given me the praise, the opportunities, and the tools to express myself, and I didn’t want to let them down. And let’s not forget the most basic drive of all: I would die or go mad if I didn’t get laid. Reasoning that rich and famous writers were surely having sex all the time, I resolved to become one as quickly as I could.