I finished Grant Morrison’s Supergods around Christmas. I’ve been sitting on it since then–I didn’t really know what to say about it, but I was certain that I had things to say, and so I was trapped in the middle of those two things for a long time. The book is part history of comics, part biography of Morrison, and part book on writing. Somehow that all fits into 400 or so pages. To be honest, here up top, I enjoyed the book. Morrison can write well, and is comfortable with his voice, so it was a pleasure to read. All of the anecdotes about comics history are great, and Morrison has no darlings–everyone gets their bruises and their ups, which is refreshing.
But I do have some massive, massive problems with what Morrison has to say. It comes down to his view of superheroes and what superheroes mean. If you don’t know already, and I imagine you might not, Grant Morrison believes that superheroes are real. He believes that Batman is a two-dimensional, living being whose life is controlled by us–essentially, we are gods to comic book characters in the same way that a fourth or fifth dimensional creature might be to us. The magnitude of power that we have over superhero characters is palpable–we can write them into horror or glory, after all.
This way of thinking should fall apart pretty readily to any reader.
In any case, Morrison thinks that what occurs on this second dimension is inextricably linked to what we experience in our reality. The things that exist in comics can function as a kind of magic that will impact our world. You might notice that this is a little incongruent with what I said above, which is true; Morrison doesn’t do a lot to bridge the gap between “comics as magic” and “comics as their own reality” in his grand unifying theory. But I digress.
The problem I have with the book is that it forces comic books to withdraw from any kind of political message. Morrison laments the current spectrum of comic book writing because he feels that it takes a number of problematic things for granted, with corporate and capitalistic ownership being at the forefront. For example, The Ultimates is about a superhero team that works for the government and eliminates “enemy targets.” That’s pretty strange, and I agree with Morrison that it isn’t the way that comic books should be written. He calls on the example of Superman’s original stories. Superman began as a proletarian hero, fighting against injustice, which sometimes meant power structures and even the state.
Morrison loves that Superman, but he also writes things like this:
There is observable evidence to suggest that what we believe to be true directly affects how we live. As the first few years of the twenty-first century wore on, I wondered just how badly people, especially young people, were being affected by the overwhelmingly alarmist, frightening, and nihilistic mass media narratives that seemed to boil with images of death, horror, war, humiliation, and pain to the exclusion of almost everything else, on the presumed grounds that these are the kinds of stories that excite the jaded sensibilities of the mindless drones who consume mass entertainment. Cozy at our screens in the all-consuming glare of Odin’s eye, I wondered why we’ve chosen to develop in our children a taste for mediated prepackaged rape, degradation, violence, and “bad-ass” mass-murdering heroes. (409)
On face, I agree with him. I think the focus on violence for violence’s sake is problematic. However, erasing violence, especially realistic violence, means that we erase the opportunity for reflection on that violence. Morrison, on his All-Star Superman philosophical kick, is comfortable getting rid of all that analysis, what he would call nihilism, in favor of active heroes that go out and do things. He continues a few pages later
We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we all use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in–and we made Superman, after all.
I think this is the best example of how the comics community can bury its head in the sand. Morrison and I agree that comics can have real world implications, but we diverge in that I think that comics are a site for politics to occur. They can educate and create spaces for resistance. They are accessible and fun to read and immediately engaging for lots of readers. I think it’s sad that we have a major player in the field essentially saying that we need to give all that up and act like Superman. Honestly, I don’t know how thinking or acting like a superhero would solve any of the problems that he outlines, and as long as comics that are disengaged from the real world, and real implications for actions,