Thursday, July 31, 2008

Grant Morrison

Hard to say what Grant Morrison's greatest contribution to super-hero comics is. But if I had to...

Part of what's great about DC's Silver Age comics is their imaginative mythos. Weisinger's Superman Mythos and Julius Schwartz's Justice League of America Mythos are more than just "continuities" (like the serials that made up the Marvel Universe): they are works of art in their own right, creations that have the same kind of inetegrity as P.G. Woodehouse's Jeeves stories or Lewis Carroll's Alice books or the Ellery Queen mysteries. They are finely wrought - intricate - like clockwork. (I'm influenced here by Mike Grost's informative, interesting, and in-depth criticism of these comics.)

Bronze Age comics placed elements of the Silver Age mythos in a dialectical relationship with "real world issues". The Adams/O'Neil Green Lantern/Green Arrow run is my favorite example. IMO, a lot of the power of these Bronze Age comics comes from the contradiction between "realistic" and "super-hero" NOT being resolved. However, for other people, this contradiction is a major problem.

(Bronze Age Marvel is different from Bronze Age DC because of the difference between Silver Age Marvel and Silver Age DC. For one thing, part of Stan Lee's original strategy was to add "real world" elements into his super-hero comics. For another thing, the Lee/Kirby Marvel Universe was a shaggier beast - much more ad hoc - than the Mythoi crafted by Weisinger and Schwartz. So in Marvel's Bronze Age comics, "the real world" isn't opposed to the Marvel Universe: rather, the comics just continue to add more bits of "reality" to the Marvel Universe. These bits are never fully digested, but they aren't set up against the fantastic elements of the comics in the same way. GL/GA is explicitly about the fanastic encountering the real world.)

Much of DC's "Modern Age" of comics represents an attempt to resolve this contradiction. The Crisis on Infinite Earths invokes a science-fiction premise (multiple worlds) in order to do so. John Byrne and Roger Stern's Man of Steel re-boot attempts to update the sci-fi underpinning of the Superman Mythos.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this project, in theory, but in practice it seems to have lead to a cycle of diminishing returns. The "reality" goal posts keep moving putting the Mythos under more and more stress: hence the necessity for more Crisis-like events. The original Weisinger/Schwartz clockwork became the central cog in an unwieldly, patched-together machine, always on the verge of flying apart.

Grant Morrison's great contribution has been to ignore all of this and return to the kind of comics done in the Silver Age. Morrison's comics are New Silver Age comics, cousins of the New Space Opera sci-fi novels.

In Doom Patrol and Seven Soldiers he crafted his own Mythoi; his JLA existed in its own little New Space Opera pocket of the DCU; his All-Star Superman is a New Space Operatic recasting of Weisinger's Superman Mythos.

The point here is that in none of these works does "reality" play any part. Morrison gives them their own internal logic and integrity.

So that's my suggestion: Morrison's greatest contribution to super-hero comics is to save the DCU from collapsing under the weight of those lingering, unresolved Bronze Age contradictions between the Mythos and the real world.


Anonymous said...

A very powerful insight into Grant Morrison as an auteur [as well as author] of tales told both within the DC mythos but operating on a different vibrational frequency, the Silver Age "explanation" of the co-existence of Earths 1 and 2.
His books are at a remove: a Microverse within the regular continuity with their own integrity.

Anonymous said...

Overall I agree with this post, but there's another side to this, too.

During the brief time I worked at DC, it was interesting to contrast Morrison's proposals to others'.

Morrison's proposals were always driven by economics and re-establishing brand identity. This is what DC Comics are good at; this is an untapped market need; these characters are valid trademarks and can perhaps be rehabilitated into spin-off children's cartoons.

I'm not clear whether Morrison can take this approach because of his high level of authority within the DC creative structure... or whether Morrison attained his high level of authority because of that economically-minded approach.

But for all of his reputation as a madcap, drug-addled sentimentalist, his approach is extremely mercenary. Nobody else apparently gave any thought to such matters in pitching new series, and it shows.

P.S. I wish Morrison would stop screwing around with these Crises and write the sequel to Seaguy, which is the best, and most quintessentially Morrisonian, work.

Jon Hastings said...

James -

Very interesting!

Morrison, like Neil Gaiman and Stan Lee, seems to have a very good audience sense.

I think two Seaguy sequels are on the way. It's a work I "just" admire (it's too "Morrisonian" for me), but I should probably read it again.

(Doom Patrol and Animal Man are still my favorites. Of the new stuff it's We3.)

Expos 1983 Blog said...

very well put sir!

(I am confident that Seaguy will be right up there with Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Filth and We3, once it is done!)


Scott said...

Good post.

Minor correction: Man of Steel was entirely a John Byrne affair, although the overall Superman reboot was done in conjunction with Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway. Roger Stern wasn't involved, as far as I know, until later, when Byrne left.

Jon Hastings said...

Scott -

Thanks for the correction. I definitely did not mean to mush Stern and Byrne together like that. Meant to mush Byrne and Wolfman together.


Gene Phillips said...

Excellent piece on Morrison and his debt to the Silver Age. I've always wondered when one might mark the shift in DC books as going from the one-note puzzle stories (which never entirely went away) to the "universe-building" stories. I guess I tend to think Weisinger led the way-- in part because he had such clout at the DC offices-- and that Schwartz followed suit. The "world-building" of Krypton certainly predates Justice League, anyway.

Strangely, though DC always claimed to aim at younger readers, historically this looks like an attempt to reach an older reading-crowd, if only because the scripts for Schwartz and Weisinger are so word-heavy.

Jon Hastings said...

Gene - I agree re: Weisinger. I talk more about his Superman stuff on this thread at the nerdnyc boards.