In the world of comics, writer Grant Morrison is known for mythic grandiosity, narrative complexity, and visionary experimentation. Morrison's prolific work for both Marvel and DC includes defining titles such as Arkham Asylum, All-Star Superman, Batman RIP, the first three volumes of the ongoing Batman and Robin series, Final Crisis, and his own creations Flex Mentallo and The Invisibles.
Morrison is a natural choice for a treatise on the significance of superheroes in our shared pop mythos, and that's exactly what the Scot's new book is about. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human was released recently, and Morrison is making two L.A.-area appearances this week to discuss the book — one at Meltdown on Thursday the 28th and another at Vroman's on Friday the 29th.
In a recent conversation with the LA Weekly, Morrison talked about various subjects, including why we needed superheroes to begin with, why they are so prominent in the public imagination now, and how the comics industry sees Hollywood adaptations.
On how superheroes are our projected selves
Morrison believes that the gods of old, and now superheroes, have a significance that is both eternal and cyclical. “The old eternal qualities of the human experience,” he says, “like love and fear and grief and rage — in the past these were all embodied as gods. These days, in a secular world, we tend not to think of these qualities as god-like.
“A bunch of writers have obviously done the idea of, 'What if superheroes were real?' And they had to deal with filling in tax forms and getting runs in their tights. But I've always thought they are most useful as Jungian symbolic characters. Most of us, in our real lives, feel like superheroes. We're all the heroes of our own stories. So I think that these characters can talk to us at a very deep level about how we feel. You find yourself able to talk about very real things using very unreal and almost ridiculous characters.”
On how superheroes can help us through troubled economic times
When the going gets rough, we call upon superheroes for inspiration — and protection — and the fantasy affords us some sense of how we can be better people. As Morrison points out, now is one of those times.
“These characters are returning to prominence because we're living in a world where we've been told that we're all kind of doomed. An ecological disaster or the ozone layer or something is going to get us, and there is no hope. And usually when there is no hope, we call in the superheroes.
“And I honestly think there's a kind of unconscious rising up of this idea because it's our last great idea of what we might be and how much better we could be if we tried. So I think it's come up as a response to the state of the world, and we're looking for something to get us out of it — some message or some basic idea to build our hopes around.”
On how film adaptations do little for the comics industry
Despite their ubiquitous, money-guzzling presence at cineplexes around the world, comic book movies do not cause an appreciable increase in comic book sales. But Marvel and DC are owned by entertainment conglomerates that also own major studios, so there's little to stand in the way of many comics adaptations.
“To be honest,” says Morrison, “sales don't change much at all when there's a big movie out. I've done Batman books through times when movies have been out. I have to say the one time it did happen is back in 1989 when Dave McKean and I did the Batman book Arkham Asylum, which was a kind of coffee table art version of Batman — almost a European movie-style Batman. And we did very well with that, because Tim Burton's Batman movie had just come out, and anything with a bat logo on it was popular.
“But since then, sales may go up just a little bit if there's a big movie out like Thor or Iron Man, but really it hasn't attracted a new audience to comics at all. I think partially that's because comics aren't available in movie theaters. Because comics have retreated mostly into specialist stores, most people don't want to go there to check [them] out. So it's mostly to do with availability.”
On whether comics are getting back to nature
Morrison began writing comics at a very young age, inspired by Golden and Silver Age heroes including Superman and the UK iteration of Captain Marvel, known as Marvelman. Now that DC has announced a company-wide reboot of all its ongoing comics titles, Morrison is at the helm of Action Comics — the vehicle that debuted Superman in 1938. So in a very real way, Morrison is coming full circle, seeing the “new” Superman comics franchise as a way to return to the character's original qualities — and he finds Superman to be an ideal hero for our time.
“Superman starts off in 1938,” recalls Morrison, “and he's kind of a socialist champion of the weak and the oppressed. Five years later, during the war, he's a patriot, fighting against the Japanese and the Nazis. Then in the '50s he becomes a suburban dad, with a huge extended family of Super-relatives.
“So I've studied the different versions of the character. Each generation does a take on the basic idea, which reflects the society around it.
“We're [at a] moment of transformation, where one generation of comics storytelling is giving way to another. The way I wanted to approach Superman was to go back to that very early Depression-era Superman because we're in a different kind of depression these days. I think for a long time, people have dismissed Superman as basically just a man wrapped in a flag. We really want to get it back to a character who fights for poor people on the street and stands for social justice. As we know, people are struggling these days, so I think a hero who stands beside them, rather than flies above them, is a good idea.”
Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.