This September, DC Comics has decided, the company relaunches all of its series from issue #1—including Action Comics, the flagship title in which Superman, the founding American superhero, got his start in 1938. Now that series will be written by a bald, Scottish, mysticism-practicing, psychedelic-drug-taking, punk-music-making anarchist named Grant Morrison—and he has written a moving and often poetic history of comic books and his own role in the industry.
The drugs don’t hit you on the first page. Indeed, Morrison starts off with a description of the original Action Comics #1, full of gangsters and traditional fisticuffs—but he soon makes clear that superheroes are no mere pop fluff for him: “Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian roles models? Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become...?”
And Morrison suspected that even before a trip he took to Kathmandu during which a mystical experience—whether induced by drugs, philosophy, temporary insanity, or actual extraterrestrials—left him convinced that multiple universes are being cradled like eggs in a multidimensional incubator, with a few gifted storytellers like him meant to help the process of gestation along using fifth-dimensional vision.
With an enthusiasm part childlike, part messianic, and part born of his days as a punk musician, Morrison describes superhero comics forming a dialectical conversation over the past seven decades about where the culture is headed, with the companies DC and Marvel the main debaters.
DC kicked things off with what were essentially WWII-era G-men, detectives, and circus strongmen, so Marvel responded in the 60s with angst-ridden everymen like Peter Parker and noble outcasts like the mutant X-Men. But DC responded in the late 80s with even darker characters who called into question the sanity of the whole superhero enterprise: Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Morrison describes being on psychedelic mushrooms around that time and rereading one of the issues of the DC comic book Doom Patrol that he wrote then, realizing as he did so that the ability to turn the pages backwards in a comic is like having the power to time-travel through a lower-level reality, a reality deserving of respect, not mere mockery and dissection: “They were living characters, and their reality was pulp and ink. What real world was this paper slice of the living DC Universe? A 2-D universe, hidden in plain sight, growing and breathing in a strange symbiotic relationship with its audience in the ‘nonfictional’ world above it.”
Seeing his role as that of a sort of Anti-Alan-Moore, Morrison explains that though both he and Moore sought to re-imagine and interrogate comics, Moore went into them as a deconstructionist and critic, whereas Morrison went as a humble anthropologist, donning a “fiction suit” to visit his long-lived, indestructible, endlessly-revisable friends (sometimes even writing himself into the stories—and bringing back wisdom gleaned from the locals).
Give the characters their due, even to the extent of treating the dream-like logic of their seemingly-ridiculous world with as much respect as the physics of our own higher-dimensional reality. It would be rude to tell Bugs Bunny that rabbits can’t talk. And it would be inappropriate, despite Moore’s cynical insights, to demand that Superman explain exactly why wearing glasses is sufficient to hide one’s identity or why having superhuman powers always seems to lead to donning long underwear and fighting crime.
Strange as it sounds, there’s a somewhat conservative element to Morrison’s thinking. Too, Morrison says he pitted the Doom Patrol against villains such as the surreal Brotherhood of Dada back then precisely to get away from the wearying, politically-correct battles over Thatcher then dominating mundane reality (it was through those comics I first learned of Morrison, when I was looking for escape from the politically-correct campus political battles at Brown University, just as the Berlin Wall was coming down and the world was being transformed). Eventually, he would rise to writing the adventures of DC’s core superhero team, the Justice League in the late 90s: “I hoped to show how the superheroes pointed to something great and inevitable in us all.”
Despite the endless battle scenes, Morrison displays an almost Taoist, moderate desire to find balance and overcome the usual good-vs.-evil, order-vs.-chaos narratives, even in stories about brightly-garbed men beating each other senseless.
His millennial series The Invisibles depicted two rival, mystically-empowered, time-traveling conspiracies sparring across history—one anarchist and one authoritarian. In the end, despite the temptation simply to slay the bad guys, our heroes instead realized that the evil forces they were combating were just a projection of their own worst fears. Armed with that knowledge, everyone ascends to a higher plane of reality (from which the series itself is visible as fiction) in the futuristic year 2012 A.D.
If superhero comics were escapism in Morrison’s youth, or if he sounds like he hasn’t quite come back down to Earth, it is worth remembering the dead-serious things from which he needed to escape: the nuclear weapons stationed near his childhood home, long periods of unemployment, a world that failed to share his conviction that superheroes are the modern analogues of the pagan gods—and as such primal, Jungian archetypes reflective of our deeper selves.
In his youth, the looming darkness to be overcome was the threat of nuclear war. In more recent comics by him and many other writers, the unspoken question is whether optimism still trumps post-9/11 paranoia and the gritty realism of comics that attempt to capture that paranoia, including Warren Ellis’s The Authority, about militaristic superheroes willing to topple governments and invade foreign nations in their pursuit of justice and order.
If we keep telling ourselves dark fables, argues Morrison, we will become dark and pessimistic ourselves. The world literally needs colorful, upbeat heroes lest the dark ones, in vogue since Alan Moore set the tone in the 80s, become self-fulfilling prophecies.