, rockstar graphic novelist Grant Morrison maps the story of the comic book superhero from its earliest beginnings to the present. Blending a lesson on caped crusader history with a memoir of his own life and career, all of this comes together as an incisive look at what superheroes mean to the people living beyond the half-tone ink and paper.
I’ve always been divided on how I feel about Grant Morrison’s work. On one hand, his Batman and Robin
was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had reading comic books. His wide-eyed run is a mad and subtly harrowing ride from start to finish, with truly touching interludes that make you forget these are just fictional characters, instead of living, breathing people whose feelings hold many familiar notes. On the other hand, The Return of Bruce Wayne
was built up for ages and ages, only to come out as a sprawling mess of hasty plotlines and obscure references. I value a pop culture reference as much as the next culture geek but when an offhand comment ejects you completely from the story because you have to research its provenance, whatever charm it’s meant to summon evaporates completely. The author is merely patting himself on the back for being so very clever at the expense of you, the reader.
But with Supergods
, it works. Supergods
details the story of comic books as a reflection of human history itself. Comics began as reactionary, answering a need in the general public to look up to a figure that stands firmly for justice and liberty, proof that good always triumphs over evil. Over time heroes would follow trends, changing themes and growing according to the tastes of the times, turning tricks and struggling to stay relevant and in the public eye. Comic companies rose up and with them came the politics and power plays that echoed down to the costumed crusaders. Things became less about story and more about figures. From veritable spandex gods looming on high, they descended to the depths of society, plagued with problems that were entirely too human. They dredged up our darkest fears and served as a black mirror to our worst fantasies. Over time, comics have moved to the forefront of pop culture, instead of lingering in the back like an incredibly garish set of wallflowers.
Don’t be fooled by the trippy imagery and the rapid, meandering sentences that make up this book’s lifeblood--Morrison is insightful in his deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of the superhero myth. I’d often lean my head back out of the book, rolling his ideas around my head. Morrison’s prose rambles, it ducks, it dives, but its vivid imagery and rock and roll poetry cadence never fails to keep one hooked, though the narrative can be a bit scattered and tends to rack focus. Pop culture references of varying levels of obscurity are liberally strewn throughout the book, but these enrich the narrative rather than tripping it up. At some point, it becomes less like an academic discourse and more like an amusement park ride through the shifting, undulating pathways in Grant Morrison’s head, where obscure references are part of the flavor of the trip.
Sidebar, I would actually pay for a ticket to that ride.
If you want a crash course in comic book history, look elsewhere. Morrison may list the biggest names and influences in the course of the book (some of which I need to look up at some point in the near future), but like his own graphic novel works, this is not an easy book to read. There’s something a bit self-indulgent about his prose, a hint of a man buying into his own myth -- but considering the impact he’s had on comic books (none of it exaggerated), it’s difficult to grudge him his confidence and false modesties.
Whatever else you may say of his work or his style (and as he is one of the most polarizing writers out there, there’s plenty to say), Morrison stays true to the wellspring of (often odd) ideas in his head, at the expense of alienating a mainstream audience. I can respect that. And more importantly, Grant Morrison’s love for superheroes is earnest and resonates throughout the book. Putting politics and personas aside, Morrison is at heart a big geek like you or me, and that’s what kept me reading. He understands superheroes because they’re real to him, as big a part of his life as anything else, and he puts to words what many of us have always felt.