Superheroes 'R' Us

We're all supergods now.


In September, DC Comics, America's oldest comic book publisher, relaunched the series in which its signature character, Superman, made his 1938 debut: Action Comics. DC's updated Action will be written by a bald, Scottish, mysticism-practicing, psychedelic-drug-taking, punk-music-making anarchist named Grant Morrison.

Fans wondering what effect such a character will have on the Man of Steel are in luck: Morrison recently authored Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (Spiegel & Grau), a moving, often poetic history of superhero comics and how they shape the modern world. "Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models?" Morrison writes. "Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become?" The comics published by DC and its main rival, Marvel, Morrison maintains, offer a forum for a dialectical conversation about humanity's future—and, he hopes, a vision of a better world. 

DC began that conversation with what were essentially costumed World War II–era G-men, detectives, and circus strongmen. In the 1960s, Marvel responded with angst-ridden everymen like Peter Parker, a.k.a. the Amazing Spider-Man, and noble outcasts such as the mutant X-Men. DC regained the initiative in the late '80s with even darker characters, such as Alan Moore's Watchmen, who called into question the sanity of the whole superhero enterprise. 

Morrison started writing comics as a teenager, going on to create stories featuring Doctor Who, the robotic Zoids, and satirical superheroes before gaining industry notoriety with Animal Man for DC Comics in the late '80s. He sees his role as a sort of anti–Alan Moore. Although both men sought to interrogate and re-imagine comics, Moore went into the project as a deconstructionist and critic, whereas Morrison approached it as a humble anthropologist, donning a "fiction suit" to visit his long-lived, indestructible, endlessly revisable friends. 

Characters should be given their due, Morrison argues, even to the extent of treating the dream logic of their cartoonish worlds with as much respect as the physics of our own reality. It misses the point entirely to demand that Superman explain why wearing glasses is sufficient to hide one's identity, or to attempt to rationalize the convention that having superhuman powers always seems to lead to long underwear and fighting crime. 

Morrison makes no apologies for treating comics as escapism. Whereas many "serious" comics writers in recent years aimed for realistic commentary on the politics or culture of the real world outside their fictional universe, Morrison chose instead to pit DC's Doom Patrol against surrealist villains such as the Brotherhood of Dada in the 1990s precisely to get away from the wearying, politically correct battles over Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Eventually, he would rise to writing the adventures of DC's core superhero team, the Justice League, in the late '90s.

Morrison's work 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 to simply slay the bad guys, the anarchist heroes instead realize that the evil forces they are combating are 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 Morrison sounds like he hasn't quite come back down to Earth, it is worth remembering the dead-serious troubles from which comics have been his means of escape: the nuclear weapons stationed near his childhood home, long periods of unemployment, a world that stubbornly refused to share his conviction that superheroes are the modern analogs of the pagan gods—and as such, primal, Jungian archetypes reflective of our deeper selves.  

Morrison views history as oscillating between poles of "hippie" and "punk," the former optimistic and transformational, the latter dark, angry, rigid, and conservative despite all the spikes and leather. Where once the darkness to be overcome was the threat of nuclear war, in more recent comics by Morrison and many other writers the question is whether superpowered optimism can trump post-9/11 paranoia. If we keep telling ourselves dark fables, he argues, we will become dark and pessimistic ourselves. The world needs colorful, upbeat heroes—lest the dark ones become self-fulfilling prophecies.  

Two years ago, Morrison brought some of these themes to a conclusion of sorts in a complicated, universe-spanning crossover series called Final Crisis, in which the evil god Darkseid is corrupting the entire world, turning storytelling itself darker while using a mind-controlling computer virus called the Anti-Life Equation to rob humanity of hope and freedom. Ultimately, the series hinges on faith in the essential goodness of DC's oldest hero. "In the end," writes Morrison, "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."

Creating real-world happy endings is trickier. But if the key is treating each other with respect, there is something to be said for starting with respect for the complex, two-dimensional world of comics themselves. With the range of our technological and biological abilities increasing and Hollywood increasingly looking to nerds for inspiration and guidance, Morrison predicts that we will become more like the comic book supergods ourselves in the years ahead, rather than 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 is the author of the essay "Conservatism for Punks" in the anthology Proud to Be Right (Harper Paperbacks) as well as several Justice League comics.