Popular Culture

Are We Not Supergods?

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

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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.