Sunday, October 11, 2015

Superheroes on a pedestal: Grant Morrison's Supergods

Given that parallel worlds and multiple realities are rife in Grant Morrison's work in comics, perhaps it's inevitable that Supergods - to date his only full-length non-fiction - contains any number of possible books.

There's the historical tour through seventy years of superheroes, the serious comics criticism, the autobiographical fragments of Morrison's creative life. Then there's the notes towards a philosophy of living like a superhero that the subtitle points to: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. 

And then there's the digressions into using the principles of chaos magic to affect your personal reality. Not what you expect from your typical comic book writer, but like his contemporaries from the 80's wave of British talent, Morrison is, well, out there.

As I said, Supergods is many books stitched into one like a paperback chimera. And by some miracle, most of it works. It's by turns educational, banal, erudite, bitchy, thought provoking and maddening. In other words, a very interesting book by a very interesting individual.

Morrison's initial focus is a cultural history of the development of superheroes, all the way from Siegel and Schuster launching Superman on an unsuspecting world in the 1930's to the present day. He argues that how those heroes have evolved over the years - think Batman's journey from pulp detective to pop art crusader to dark knight, for example - says fascinating things about the times we live in and the kind of champion each generation wants. 

He is generally also an insightful critic, if one discounts his apparent desire to elevate himself above his contemporaries, and I could have quite happily read an entire book of Morrison on comics.

Part of what makes him such an interesting commentator on the sub-culture, however, where the rest of the book goes. With an earnestness that caught me by surprise, Morrison places superheroes on a pedestal. To him, they are symbols of virtue which we can aspire to emulate, with his first and foremost example being of course Superman. Against the power fantasies, nihilism and deconstruction on display in many comics, his case for the genre is a profoundly ethical one.

And as a writer who's pulled the strings of the Man Of Steel, Batman and the X-Men (as well as more outré affairs like Animal Man and Doom Patrol) , Morrison's well placed to make this argument by reference to his own body of work as well as the contributions of peers and predecessors.

At one point he talks about wanting Jungian superheroes and the reference is an apposite one. Morrison reads heroes as archetypes, mediated by writers and artists to cater for the needs of the contemporary psyche, yes, but also shaping society itself. A higher calling indeed.

Like Jung, too, he tells the story of his own spiritual journey and glimpse of a higher symbolic order that informs these conclusions. For some readers, this section of Supergods will be where the book, always a bumpy ride, goes off the rails into drug-fuelled new age speculation 

I found I could park my scepticism for the duration, not at least because it remained tremendously interesting, covering as it did the time in Morrison's life when he was writing The Invisibles (still my favourite thing he's done). And as the author himself points out, the value of his experience is not in its reality, but in its impact on his view of the world and above all his new-found appreciation of the totemic nature of the superhero.

Supergods covers a lot of ground, not all of it equally riveting. And while a lack of coherency is part of the Morrisonian charm, this is one of those books that I think really would have benefited from tighter editing. 

But, perhaps surprisingly given its subject matter, it does feel like a necessary book. Refreshingly un-nostalgic, it makes a powerful case for the relevancy of superheroes, no matter what an endless procession of tie-in movies may throw at us.

And in these times, who I am to disagree?

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