Sunday, August 28, 2011
In the collective opinion, people who read comic books are geeks, and the lowest of the comic book geeks are those who read superhero comics. The general idea is, if you are going to read funny books at least read gritty realistic ones, refer to them as graphic novels, and salvage at least a little of your dignity. Books that feature guys (and gals) flying around in long underwear with magic powers are embarrassing according to general belief.
Grant Morrison, one of the more prominent comic writers of the modern era, disagrees with this. In his new book Supergods (not a comic book, for the record), he argues that the traditional superheroes like Superman, Batman, The Flash, etc., are important to us for their totemic power, and their sometime unrealistic devotion to a higher moral code is necessary to inspire us. We want to see our heroes soaring through the heavens above us, not wallowing in the muck like an ordinary being.
Supergods is both a memoir of Morrison and a history of the superhero genre, going back to the inception of superhero comics in the 1930s with early versions of Superman and Batman, kicking off the Golden Age, the revitalization of the form in the late 1950s in the Silver Age, and where our heroes stand now in the modern age. Along the way, he discusses his first exposure to American comics, brought to his native Scotland by American sailors, and his personal journey from novice to one of the more acclaimed writers in the field today. Along the way, he does an excellent job in explaining the subtext of most of the major comic storylines, divergent philosophies in writing the characters, and interestingly, the influence of mind-expanding chemicals on the superhero art form. (I got an unintentional laugh when Morrison explained the epiphanic vision he had in Thailand could not be explained by the relatively small amount of hashish he had ingested.)
Morrison discusses past legends of the genre like Bob Kane, Siegel and Schuster, Jack Kirby, and John Broome, as well as the work (and his personal relationships) with creators such as Alan Moore, Mark Waid, and Mark Millar. He is very blunt in his assessment of these writers and artists, even those who are his contemporaries. There is at least a hint of some minor feuds with other writers, particularly Alan Moore, and I do wish he had delved a little deeper into what seems a disapproving attitude toward his former protégée Millar. The book also deals with Morrison’s personal spiritual journey – he is a practioner of a shamanic form of personal religion.
Morrison is best known for his work re-inventing the previously minor DC character Animal Man, his own The Invisibles (which was an inspiration for The Matrix), the re-invention of the Justice League of America in JLA, and an interesting and controversial stint writing X-Men. I think his re-imagining of the moribund Justice League from what had become mostly a joke into a re-telling of ancient myths to be one of the better feats in comic book history. I also enjoyed his take on the X-Men, although the purists were up in arms at the time. (X-fans can be passionate and a little crazy. The other X-writer during Morrison's tenure was Chuck Austen, who was basically hounded out of comics by zealots angry at his take on the X-Men. I thought Austen did a good job, too.)
This is probably a book only for comic book fans, but if you are an aficionado of the gents in long underwear, you shouldn’t miss Supergods.