Popular Culture

Are We Not Supergods?

Comic book writer Grant Morrison's psychedelic history of the medium and its heroes


Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Grant Morrison, Spiegel & Grau, $28

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.  

This argument-by-comic-book between two UK anarchists should be of special interest to those fond of Ayn Rand, not only because she said she looked forward to the day when her ideas trickled down into comics, but because Rand fan and comics writer/artist Steve Ditko created half the heroes who Moore revised to make up the Watchmen—and Morrison plans to revisit those original Ditko characters next year in a worlds-spanning series called Multiversity.  

They'll now have a dash of the Moore darkness but will bend back toward their Randian roots in Ditko—with a psychedelic Morrison twist. The coldly Objectivist-leaning hero the Question, for instance, who was transformed into the homicidal right-wing vigilante Rorschach by Moore, will once more be the Question but will now take his cues from the less-rigid, dialectical philosophy known as "spiral dynamics," in which each era takes as given the contentious ideas of the previous era of human history but then strives to answer new questions and master new forms knowledge.  

Morrison is surely sympathetic to the spiral view himself—and to the view (closer to my own heart) that history oscillates between "hippie" and "punk" poles, the former optimistic and transformational, the latter dark, angry, rigid, and conservative despite all the spikes and leather. He sees comics' fads—swerving from snarling armored zombies in the early 90s to shiny upbeat nostalgia in the late 90s and then back to military-toned post-9/11 realism in the past decade—as every bit as relevant to understanding the changing shape of our culture as music or high art.

Two years ago, to the bafflement of many fans, Morrison brought some of these themes to a conclusion of sorts in a comic series called Final Crisis, in which the evil god Darkseid (an old villain who later appeared as the climactic villain on the TV series Smallville) was corrupting the entire world, turning even storytelling itself darker and threatening to absorb all of reality into a black hole composed of himself, even while using a mind-controlling computer virus called the Anti-Life Equation to rob humanity of hope and freedom—a history-altering "singularity" of the worst kind.  

The epic tale of a downward ride into darkness made passing reference to "sick and sad" sadomasochism clubs—and to the self-mutilating teens about whom Morrison expresses concern more than once in Supergods. "In the end," writes Morrison of the series, "there was nothing left but darkness and the first superhero, Superman, with a crude wishing machine, the deus ex machina itself, and a single wish powered by the last of his own life force. He wished for a happy ending, of course."

Morrison realizes that creating real-world happy endings is trickier, but if the key is treating each other with respect, he thinks there is something to be said for starting with respect for the complex, two-dimensional yet powerful and rich world of comics themselves.

With the range of our technological and biological abilities increasing, Hollywood suddenly looking to nerds for inspiration and guidance, and self-styled "superhero" vigilantes making the news with growing frequency in the real world, Morrison suspects we will become more like the comic-book supergods in the years ahead instead of dragging them down to our "realistic" level. "We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us," concludes Morrison. "We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be."

Todd Seavey has written for various libertarian projects and a few Justice League comics. He can be found online via Blogger, Twitter, and Facebookand in person hosting the Brooklyn Forum events series starting this fall.

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  1. Grant Morrison is awesome. This is a scientific fact.

    1. When he is coherent, anyway. Sometimes, he almost seems like a parody of himself.

      1. I’ll admit that Final Crisis and the latter parts of his Batman run pushed it to far. But Animal Man, Doom Patrol, JLA and New X-Men make him gold in my book.

        1. Oh, he has definitely done some great stuff. The ones you mention. Also We3 and Vimanarama.

          Other times, it seems like he forgets to include parts of the story, and he does not provide the context clues to figure out what happened.

          1. Yes, We3. Even a souless monster like me was crushed by that.

            He occasionally skips steps 1 and 3. Especially the later run on Batman. I was constantly checking to see if I had missed an issue.

            1. He neigther collects underpants nor profits?

                1. Superchunk reference…and from No Pockey for Kitty no less….


                  1. FWIW (nothing), I pretty much agree with everything that’s been said about Morrison. I do look forward to catching up on some of his titles that I haven’t read.

        2. His run on Batman/Batman&Robin;/Batman,Inc was thoroughly incredible. He’s created my favorite set of Batman stories since Contagion/Cataclysm/Aftermath in the late 90s. I’ll give you, Final Crisis takes a lot of rereads of both the main series and the supplemental series before it actually makes sense. Still, Morrison is the best writer at either of the Big Two.

      2. “When he is coherent, anyway.”

        Which he will tell you himself, isn’t that often these days…

    2. Publish your research or it’s not science.

      1. Fuck you, denier.

        1. Morrisongate!

  2. Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become…?”

    We are all Kryptonians now. Uh, I mean, in the future now.

  3. This isn’t Shakespeare.

  4. It’s not so much that Moore represents darkness and Morrison represents happiness. Moore specializes in looking at things through the eyes of the superhero, humanizing them, while Morrison is idealizing the image of superheroes from the viewpoint of non-superheroes (normal people in the story as well as the readers themselves).

    1. This would never happen, but a Moore-Morrison collaboration would be fucking awesome. It could really highlight and juxtapose their two viewpoints.

    2. Moore also focuses on mythopoetic forms (gods) as superheroes, where Morrison is arguing that superheroes are our gods.

      And there is Warren Ellis, who refers to superheroes as “underwear perverts.”

      1. So Ellis doubles down on Step 1?

        1. Actually, he mostly just drops the tights and sticks with the perverts.

    3. Moore also wrote “For the Man Who Has Everything,” a seminal Superman story, which put forth the interesting idea that “the darkness” could serve as a useful defense mechanism against distracting illusions that prevent us from living authentic — and, one must presume, authentically happier — lives. It struck me as being ultimately positive and hopeful.

  5. …growing and breathing in a strange symbiotic relationship with its audience in the ‘nonfictional’ world above it.

    Ummm… why is “nonfictional” in quotes? We’re really here, aren’t we?

    1. Or are we?

      Go derper.

    2. Sounds like Cool World.

  6. Yes, please give us more of this kind of article to reinforce the stereotype that libertarians really are a bunch of comic book geeks.

    1. And isn’t Todd Seavey the guy who had that embarrasing geekoid meltdown on C-SPAN ridiculing his geekoid ex-girlfriend who was appearing on the same panel with him?


      Figures he’d be into comic book critiques.

    2. Comic books are so mainstream now – hell half the movies that come out are based on comic books – love Grant Morrison, great article – thanks!

      1. Well, hell — if MOVIES are made outta them they MUST be super-kewl!

        1. Did a comic-book touch you in your bathing-suit area?

          1. No, but your father did.

            1. Well, that’s a relief. For a moment, I thought you got fondled by The Incredible Hulk.

      2. Comic books are so mainstream now

        Comic books are currently at an all time historic low in sales.

        1. I’d say this is more due to the woes of the publishing industry and not a knock on sequential art and its intellectual properties per se.

          1. “not a knock on sequential art and its intellectual properties per se.”

            “Sequential art”? Is that the latest euphemistic hipster term for comic books that’s supposed to lend them some kind of intellectual heft nowadays? Jeezus.

            1. I thought it was a pretty common term. Also, if you don’t think comics have any intellectual heft, you’re clearly reading the wrong comics.

          2. I’d say it’s because the value proposition is so low. Let’s see, should I spend $4 on 20 pages of newsprint that I will end up reading in less than five minutes? No, I shouldn’t. Interestingly enough, sales of comic trade-paperbacks are supposedly doing pretty well…

    3. libertarians really are a bunch of comic book geeks.

      We resent that slur.

      1. This comment is on Threadwinner Watch.

  7. Comic books suck because they are too expensive.

    The 52 (or is it 58?) will not fix this.

    no one will read them no matter how cool or dark or optimistic they are so long as kids and broke 20 somthings cannot afford them.

    1. Which ties in with what you said about sales. I used to get my comic fix with trade paperbacks from the library and from used book stores. I’ve never been big on buying single issues but at a steep discount.

  8. Also, nice article, Seavey.

  9. I tried to get into comics. I really did. But the top most recommended books inevitably sucked donkey balls, and with a *very few* exceptions, most of the stuff (mostly the stuff that was supposed to be “mature”, like the preacher) came of as incredibly juvenile shit. Comics were, are, and will always be, a medium for kiddies. Shouldn’t be covered in a prestigious magazine like this.

    1. “most of the stuff (mostly the stuff that was supposed to be ‘mature’, like the preacher) came of as incredibly juvenile shit.”

      Which is why I haven’t read comics since I was 11.

      1. Hmmmm. Try Clowes, Spiegelman, Moore. They don’t come off as kid stuff.

    2. Tell that to the tens of millions of adult Japanese that read almost nothing but comics. All of them can’t be hentai loving, socially awkward nerds.

  10. “the former optimistic and transformational, the latter dark, angry, rigid, and conservative despite all the spikes and leather.”

    Ahh stereotypes how reality likes to crush them.

  11. As a libertarian, I’m disappointed in this article.

    Like really? Is that your best? You really think someone as pathetic as Superman is somehow “Randian” or “Libertarian”? Give me a fucking break. Someone like Spawn, Blade, or The Punisher that teaches one doesn’t have to be perfect to do good things – that is far more libertarian/Randian than the stupid ole altruistic “perfectual” good guy archetype bullshit that teaches kids you have to be perfect to do good.

    1. What? Did you miss all the references to The Question and Rorschach?

  12. The article was pretty unconvincing when talking about Alan Moore.

    Basically it took the made up stereotype by Morrison at face value.
    I suspect that there is a great deal of jealousy from him.

  13. love Rorschach. Want a long running comic just with him. Maybe a good, fat novel. Does that make me a fascist?

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