Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human
written by Grant Morrison
Back in August 2010, I had the fortune of interviewing Grant Morrison about his career and writing process. During that phone conversation, we discussed SUPERGODS quite briefly and he described the book as "part history. It's mostly like being stuck with me on a very long transatlantic flight (laughs), so it is kind of anecdotes and meditations." SUPERGODS is a difficult book to define and categorize--is it history? Is it cultural studies? As such, Morrison's words are an appropriate and apt attempt to classify it. Yet, if the book itself is hard to define thematically, the perplexing nature of assigning a specific audience—comics aficionados versus the general, non-comic reading public—is even harder and calls into question who is Morrison's targeted readership with this text?
As a New York Times bestselling author, Morrison has achieved a notoriety beyond incestuous comics circles and their public relations-driven media, as well as the insularly, almost self-isolationist nature of comics culture. Therefore, there is sufficient evidence to believe that Random House and Spiegel & Grau are banking on his crossover appeal to market the book to more than fans of sequential art and literature. The fact that a non-comics industry publisher with greater resources outside simply the Direct Market has undertaken this publishing effort is perhaps the most significant factor. However, despite the assignment of a publisher with ample credits in producing serious, critical nonfiction, SUPERGODS, like most "histories" written by insiders, suffers greatly from either a lack of historical context or a misinterpretation of historical fact. While this is somewhat easier to dismiss in comics-industry-published "histories," readers with even a cursory educated knowledge of American history, cultural theory, and popular culture may be disappointed by Morrison. In fact, the greatest strength of the work comes when Morrison moves beyond rehashing the well-travelled roads of commercial comics "history" and instead engages in a vivid exploration of memory and his life.
Although Morrison is flexing a different set of muscles with SUPERGODS, his writing reveals a sharp and crisp, flowing prose. In fact, the addition of an introduction to the advance review edition is perhaps the greatest testament to his nonfiction skills as it synthesizes, in some cases better than the chapters themselves, his own personal narrative into the larger theme of superheroes and what they represent. One of the greatest enjoyments of the book though is Morrison's wit, humor, and wordplay as he chronicles the creation of the superhero genre. Already a well-told story to those familiar with the medium, in it, Morrison infuses comedic beats and personal revelations into the narrative that divorce the reader from his omniscient, objective persona, but also serve to break the sometimes disjointing laundry list coverage of world mythologies he employs as evidence for superheroes' relevance in contemporary 21st-century culture. When Morrison sticks with this softer approach or moves instead to the autobiographical chapters about his childhood in Scotland, his passion for writing and pursuit of a career, and his eventual entrance into the profession, SUPERGODS forms an important connection with the reader that humanizes its author and makes for an interesting and entertaining experience.
Time and again, Morrison has proven himself as comics’ reigning idea or concept man when it comes to revitalizing the static, often stale superhero genre. Although many will quibble and argue about his exact ability at execution and conveying these ideas in comics, and rightly so in some instances, Morrison suffers a similar fate when he tries to articulate these memes beyond the comic book pages. While Morrison recognizes that SUPERGODS is only a partial history, he is nevertheless engaging with it and thus responsible in part for accuracy and authenticity. For example, when discussing the birth of Superman and analyzing the 1938 cover of Action Comics #1, Morrison notes "production lines were making laborers redundant across the entire developed world" and that Superman was "a hero of the people…a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism" (6). It was not production lines that were making laborers scarce, but rather the Great Depression. It was a fear of finding employment and a question of who would control the technology and industry that were the promise of labor's future, not the deterrent of it. Not to descend into an American History 101 lecture, but students of history with a textbook knowledge of the New Deal state should recognize the fallacy in Morrison's assessment. Superman is definitely a hero of the people, but he is also the personification of the New Deal state and attempts at curbing exploitation of the working class. Although Morrison reasserts the sound case for the originality and enduring power of the Clark Kent persona, as well as the increasing popularity of the superhero motif in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his reliance on Superman as a modern incarnation of Apollo or Zeus or Moses, Karnataka, or even Christ as a justification for the character's relevance to Depression and World War II era audiences ignores the deepest connection to the culture and society that bore him. It is not Morrison's ideas that are problematic, but the dearth of factual evidence to support them.
When Morrison moves beyond the pop-history interpretation and instead delves into a comparison contrast with DC Comics' Batman, his analysis and argument hold greater value. Also, Morrison's own passion for comics and their characters begins to emerge in Chapter 2 as he discusses his personal affinity for Fawcett's Captain Marvel. Yet, the tenuous nature of his asserted connection between Captain Marvel and Elvis as a "cross-pollination between comics and popular music" or the unsubstantiated statement on Ken Kesey and Captain Marvel may frustrate some readers. Subsequently, his overview of Wonder Woman and Captain America's arrival on the scene retells the all too familiar in Chapter 3.
There is a certain power and potency in Morrison's description, however, of postwar comics and the decline of superheroes that makes the well-trodden and widely known discourse fresh and seemingly anew. And, when he transitions into the Silver Age, Chapter 5: "Superman on the Couch" is superb as is his assessment of the Flash as the first truly modern superhero in Chapter 6. As the "anecdotes and meditations" continue, Morrison raises important points on Marvel's supplanting of DC and the American mainstream's rejection of comics during the 1960s that deserve further attention and serious exploration by comics scholars.
Rather abruptly though, Morrison downshifts into autobiography amid Chapter 8 and the remainder of SUPERGODS attempts to weave his personal life narrative into the larger comics structure he has been crafting. The most successful harmonization of the two strands occurs in his reading of Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, and Steve Engleheart, and their infusion of psychedelia into comics. Although Morrison asserts this move was subversive, he provides no barometer against which to measure it in popular culture when in fact most of what comics did in the late 1960s and 1970s seems an imitation of films, music, and art than an equal cultural innovator. The hybridization does not work as well, however, when Morrison tackles the appearance of social relevance in comics as he neglects any critique of the substance behind those issues. Instead, a summary coverage of Green Lantern/Green Arrow follows as he discusses the inclusion of "Orientals" (155) and other ethic racial groups into the series, yet does not move beyond a brief look at only African Americans. He states that with the creation of John Stewart, "the potential for tokenism was there" but does not exist (156). Morrison points to the character's longevity and popularity but fails to acknowledge that longevity does not equal inclusion nor erode marginalization. There is also little substantive discussion of women's liberation.
The remainder of SUPERGODS follows this pattern. Highlights include Morrison's tight analysis of and reverence for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, his panel critique and breakdown of Watchmen and its author Alan Moore, and the arrival and importance of Image Comics. Morrison also relates a fascinating biography of Frank Quitely's artistic influences and his discussion of Flex Mentallo is the first time Morrison ties his own comics work into the larger context and theme of the book. A similar connection is made later with his JLA series. Yet, awkward transitions between ideas either regarding comic titles and their authors, or comics and films, along with a disjointed assessment of his own Final Crisis, and a somewhat rambling, encyclopedic overview of later comics made into films round out SUPERGODS.
Although Morrison's ideas about what comics teach about humanity are never fully developed beyond the addition of a succinct and tailored conclusion (perhaps a chapter on villains and the notions of good versus evil?), SUPERGODS still holds value for general audiences, comics fans, and comics scholars alike. First, Morrison's ideas are worthy of attention and further exploration. While their execution here is somewhat troublesome, Morrison has introduced concepts and areas that deserve debate and educated, informed discourse. Second, the relationship of superheroes to figures of global, mythic traditions needs development within an analysis of the role of such figures in contemporary societies and cultures—when did these mythic traditions lose their influence and how do superheroes uphold those values? Or do superheroes do more than simply modernize these classic characters for a new generation? Potentially, Morrison's greatest value may be in the unintended audience of the classroom, where such conversations and dialogues could proceed. Like his comics, SUPERGODS is certain to reinforce the already polarized opinions of the comics reading public toward Grant Morrison; however, if his comics, both the successes and the failures, have proven anything, it is that getting people to think beyond their comfort zones is a noble pursuit, and one that SUPERGODS admirably achieves.