LIT To comics cognoscenti, Grant Morrison is something of a superhero himself. He is the scribe behind such subversions of comics convention as the avant-garde super team adventures of Doom Patrol and the confoundingly, sinisterly cartoonish Seaguy. But he’s also taken on the heavy hitters, from Batman to the X-Men, winning new fans and pissing off purists in the process.
In his new venture into prose nonfiction, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Morrison presents what he calls “a personal overview of the superhero concept from 1938 until the present day.” In some ways, it’s a mystifying text, tumbling as it does between cultish history, autobiography, and the pop philosophy suggested by its title. Undoubtedly a labor born of immense passion, Supergods gives the impression of a transcribed walking tour through the Hall of Justice, narrated by an obsessively knowledgeable fanboy-made-good.
The work is founded on the conceit that superheroes are manifestations not only of mythic principles (shades of Joseph Campbell) but of thoroughly utopian humans. Morrison posits this as a reason that the superhero genre has endured decades of changing public sentiment, and he furthermore wholeheartedly endorses it as a metaphysical truth. Stories are real in themselves, he concludes — “the paper skin of the next dimension down from our own.”
Morrison’s text is organized chronologically, taking as its starting point the blistering novelty of Superman’s first appearance in 1938’s Action Comics No. 1. Morrison dissects the subliminal symbolism of its cover with shamanic wisdom, and goes on to contrast Superman with his eternal counterpart, Batman. From there, he embarks upon a whirlwind of descriptions of the editors, artists, and writers who shaped the form, from the rough visionary mythos of Jack Kirby to the psychoanalytic preoccupations of Superman editor Mort Weisinger. Morrison’s accounts of their works are ecstatic, often deconstructing the minutiae of the comics page to get at the effects these sacred texts had on young contemporary readers; the descriptions become weirdly, repetitiously formal as Morrison details each creator’s transcendent improvement over his predecessors.
Woven throughout this historical review are anecdotal references to Morrison’s youthful encounters with superhero comics, as a child of Scottish pacifists living in constant fear of the bomb. But as the narrative catches up to his earliest work as a comics writer and artist, the content resolutely shifts towards his feverish autobiographical account of adolescent displacement and punk-influenced experimentation. Suddenly Supergods is about Grant Morrison, the writer-as-superhero-as-human. From here on out, he is inextricably bound to even the historical portions, as he becomes a major player in DC and Marvel superhero comics.
After Morrison experiences visions in Kathmandu that reveals to him the 5D nature of reality, and writes himself into a comic to become “semifictional,” his perspective changes radically. Morrison definitely gets that each reader’s mileage may vary as to the real source of his “magical” visions, but he insists on their symbolic usefulness in understanding that fictional universes are just as real as ours, and can translate into inspiration for real change.
Morrison makes no effort to separate his personal philosophy from his narration of comics history, tending towards polemic in the book’s second half. The observations about superheroes are generally brilliant, as one would expect from Morrison’s fantastic comics output, but the book’s structural inconsistency and forced New Age-y conclusions are a bit disappointing. The book works as yet another profession of Morrison’s love for superheroes as a form of life-changing magic, but it’s neither a complete history nor a coherent statement of how to make superheroes work for you, self-help style. But it makes you desperately want to read the books he describes, and perhaps that’s enough.
Fri/5, 7 p.m.
51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera
All-ages signing, Sat/6, 2-5 p.m., $28 (includes copy of Supergods)
Supergods celebration, Sat/6, 8 p.m.-midnight, $40 (includes copy of Supergods)
326 Fell, S.F.