Grant Morrison really loves superheroes. That fact is sometimes obscured by the difficult, even willfully over-complicated way he often writes them (at least in the eyes of some readers). Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human presents his history of superheroes. The main focus is on comics–the medium where the characters were created–but film and television also receive a lot of attention. While very personal at times, Morrison also makes an effort to maintain objectivity. His treatment of Watchmen is a prime example: he states at the outset that he did not like it when it came out, but he gives it it’s due as an influential work, and spends considerable space on an appreciation of its technical virtues. He also largely fails to deliver on the book’s subtitle. But he frequently speculates on the social relationship between superheroes and their times: why they were created as they were, and how their evolution reflects changes in society.
The book is organized into four main parts. Part 1: The Golden Age describes the first appearance of superheroes in 1938, which Morrison attributes to feelings of powerlessness brought on by the Great Depression and World War II. He begins with a chapter on Superman and Batman, the first great superhero creations, the embodiment of light and dark. From there he moves on to Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and others. The era was capped by Frederick Wertham’s attack on comics in his book Seduction of the Innocent, and the creation of the Comics Code. This is the briefest section of the book, and apart from comparisons made between superheroes and various world religions and mythologies, there is little that represents a distinct Morrisonian viewpoint.
Part 2: The Silver Age covers the rebirth of the genre, and the creation of the DC and Marvel characters in the form we know them today. Morrison glories in the bizarre twists of the Silver Age, and notes that this is where he first became a comics fan, citing The Flash as his favorite superhero. He also begins to play fast and loose with chronology, mentioning his series The Invisibles (which didn’t begin until 1994), and quoting the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” a bit before it actually came out in 1971. I note that once again a comics writer I admire has musical tastes far different from mine, as Morrison disparages progressive rock as a “musical bywater.” I don’t love all prog by any means, but I return to it far more often than the punk rock he loves so much.
Part 3: The Dark Age details the advent of “grim and gritty” realism, led by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. As noted above, Morrison disliked Watchmen (although he praises Miller’s work). And he regrets the loss of the shiny, heroic superheroes of his youth. Nevertheless, it was a period of great creativity, as the genre expanded with new possibilities. It was also the time of Morrison’s first work as a professional comic book writer. So we finally get some detailed personal history about his career, surely the reason most readers will have for picking up a book with the name “Grant Morrison” on the cover. His British comics work attracted the attention of DC Comics in America, and his breakthrough work on the series Animal Man and Doom Patrol followed. Morrison discusses these at some length, as well as his Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, still probably his biggest mainstream hit.
Finally, Part 4: The Renaissance posits a new age of brighter, more hopeful superheroes. Exhibit A is the legendary Vertigo miniseries Flex Mentallo, which is so important to him that he devotes most of a chapter to it. Flex was a Doom Patrol character, but publication of a collected edition has been held up for years due to a lawsuit by the Charles Atlas company (look here for a good overview). I’ve been waiting to read the series for years, being unable to afford the sky-high collector’s prices the single issues command. So I won’t really be able to judge Morrison’s take on it until it finally gets reprinted in February. His All-Star Superman series is another obvious example. Morrison actually puts his creator-owned series The Invisibles into this category as well, as a kind of bridge from the Dark Age. Fans of that series will be interested to read his detailed account of the famous mystical experience in Kathmandu that played such a key role in the cosmology. Morrison grants that he was a little bit high at the time, but insists that it was as real to him as anything he’s ever experienced. He relates how his life-threatening tropical infection mirrored events in the comic, then shaped its progress. Later, he discusses Iain Spence’s theory of cultural cycles (the Sekhmet Hypothesis), which predicts just the sorts of changes seen in the various “ages” of comics described in this book by looking at sunspot cycles.
For me the book was the most interesting when Morrison described the forces driving his writing. Even the esoteric theories are a part of the mix. You don’t have to agree with them to see their impact, and Morrison leaves little doubt about what he believes. He’s an enthusiastic comics historian, but not a very scrupulous one. Anyone looking for a thorough history of superheroes would be better off with some of the previous books he acknowledges in his “Suggested Further Reading” at the end. If Morrison had limited himself to discussing his influences and the way his work has evolved, this would have been a shorter book, but all the better for it. It certainly would have limited the size of the audience, so I can hardly fault him for going larger. And “going larger” is a good description of most of his creative work!
UPDATE: The Flex Mentallo collected edition finally did see print. I discuss it here.