Among mainstream comics fans, character counts first. It doesn’t matter who is writing the latest run on Wolverine, just that it stars Wolverine.
The best writers, according to the editorial policy at Marvel and DC Comics, seem to be almost invisible. They will mess around with stuff just enough to make a run of issues marketable, but any changes they make can be reset with a quick retcon or the resurrection of a dead character or the revelation of a previously unknown space-time discrepancy. Superstar writers like Geoff Johns, Ed Brubaker, and Brian Michael Bendis know just how much they can bend continuity without breaking it, and the publishers pay them a lot of money for that precision.
Grant Morrison is not one of those writers.
Initially part of the brash wave of young British writers (along with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) who turned American comics upside down in the late 1980s, Morrison has played both sides of the comics game during his 30-year career. Like Moore, Morrison is a high-concept theorist and auteur, interested in the way that comics work as fictions, and he uses comics to explore the possibilities built into their particular combination of words and pictures. Unlike Moore, Morrison seems to genuinely love superheroes, from the color and spectacle to the interlocking mythologies and the hypothetical moral questions that have sparked the most memorable comic-book storylines. (Compare Morrison’s gushing tribute All-Star Superman to Moore’s cynical Watchmen.) But, as his New X-Men work from 2001-2004 shows, Morrison has no reservations about totally mucking up canonical continuity. He respects the spandex genre at the same time that his most formally daring work—Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles—tears it apart from the inside.
He is, without question, among the best comics writers of the last two or three generations. He is also, on occasion, maddeningly dense and hard to follow, pursuing his ideas down his own private wormholes of superficial postmodernism and chaos magic. Unfortunately, his new book, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, is like a guided trip down one of those wormholes. Supergods, part memoir and part cultural history, is, like Morrison’s comics, bold and personable. But it also reveals him as a bit of a nut. In the book, as in his comics, Morrison’s New Age brand of drug-fueled psychedelic Eastern mysticism and dated ’90s cyberfuturism overwhelm the more interesting philosophical questions (about fiction and representation and the relationship between comics readers and characters) that his work often raises but rarely grapples with in a serious, rigorous way. Morrison is a big thinker, but not necessarily a deep one.
Morrison begins Supergods with an overview of superhero history, starting with Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938. What passes for analysis and criticism is mostly synopsis and sometimes just crackpot speculation. (It is also superfluous after Douglas Wolk’s masterful 2007 critical history Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, which might be the single best book ever written on the form and covers much of the same ground as Supergods.) Here is Morrison’s half-baked take on Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and the significance of Superman’s costume: “Shuster and Siegel had envisaged a future when we’d all wear our own proud emblems of revealed, recognized greatness, when technology would simply be a tool to help us express the creativity and connectedness that was the birthright of our golden superselves.” Huh?
When Morrison’s account reaches the mid-’70s, he becomes a character in the story, weaving his impressions of Howard the Duck and, later, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in among his parents’ divorce and his own fledgling attempts at making comics a vocation. His breathless enthusiasm, especially for the deep-space freak-out epics of the ’70s, is enough to make anyone want to dig up old issues of Killraven, Captain Marvel, or any of Jack Kirby’s far-out Fourth World books. But the second half of Supergods is undercooked; there’s not enough personal detail to make the reader care about Morrison as a character, and his already shaky critical approach is further weakened by too many friendly profiles of colleagues like Mark Millar and Warren Ellis.
By the time Morrison gets to a mind-altering experience in Kathmandu (“I saw in front of me a perfect astronomical vista with three nearby suns of different sizes”), the book has lost its way entirely—and that’s just a little more than halfway in. Welcome to the wormhole. It’s a tour through 20 years of what Grant Morrison thinks about being Grant Morrison. In typical Morrison fashion, it is a potentially interesting idea that Morrison fails to follow through on.