Supergods could really use an editor

by Alex Hern

By coincidence, I finished Supergods the same day I read Laura Sneddon’s interview with Grant Morrison. (I was on holiday at the time, on the terrace of my mother’s ex-husband’s house in Corsica, if it matters. These things often do. Still not home as I write this, in fact. Though I am as I upload it.) The latter helped crystallise my thoughts about the former. Crystallise, specifically, into this sudden realisation: Grant Morrison’s not a very good writer.

That’s not quite my fully-though-out, final line on the book, of course. Morrison is my favourite author of comics(/graphic novels/sequential art/funnybooks, whatever), and reading his slightly weird views on, say, the ethics of work-for-hire hasn’t changed that. And even in Supergods, the prose is often wonderful, and his take on what many think of as somewhat “closed” subjects (the greatness of Watchmen; the awfulness of the 90s) is interesting and insightful.

But really, and in the nicest possible way, he shouldn’t have written a non-fiction book. He’s just not particularly good at it. His strengths become his weaknesses, and his weaknesses become the reasons why I simply can’t recommend it to anyone without a deep interest in Morrisonalia.

To give just one example of the sort of amateurish weirdness the book contains, frequently the introductory paragraph on a new personality in the book will happen several pages after they first appear. This may be intentional, of course, and I’m certainly not asking for every new face to enter the text with a journalistic description of them, their work and their lives. But there are a number of pages which would simply make no sense if I didn’t already have background information about the person being discussed. Steve Yeowell, for instance, is introduced twice in one page, and at other points, I found myself wondering if I’d missed the first mention of someone. Was he discussing an artist? An editor? A co-writer? He often spills the beans told halfway down the next page, leaving me tempted is to jump back to the top and reread with that new information.

Of course, in Morrison’s fiction, that’s precisely the effect he goes for. Multi-layered stories, twist endings, revelation piled on revelation, what seems like a confusing mass of ideas coalescing into a coherent whole. And if he were trying to do that in Supergods, it would be impressive, even if it did fall slightly flat.

But honestly? It doesn’t come across at though he is trying to do that. It seems he really does just think in a different order to most people. It’s all stuff which ought to have come out in the edit, but I guess just didn’t.

This feeling – that they just printed the manuscript as delivered – extends to other aspects of the book as well. For some bizarre reason, the only images in it are black-and-white versions of the covers to the DC comics he talks about. I can understand the black and white, just (although I really doubt that Jonathan Cape/Random House couldn’t afford to spring the extra pennies per copy for colour printing), but what seems to be excessive paranoia over copyright to the images in question genuinely hurts the book. Not a single image from Marvel is included, for instance, despite Morrison talking at length about his work on Marvel Boy and New X-Men. And these are no mere overviews, either. Just as with the much-excerpted passage about the cover of Action Comics #1, Morrison goes for extreme close-readings of various aspects of these comics; close-readings which simply don’t make sense without the image to refer back to. I can only imagine that nobody even tried to clear the images for use, relying on Morrison to gain permission for the few that were published by DC directly, and passing over the rest. How else to explain, for example, the bizarre failure to include any panels from The Authority, discussed at length and actually owned by DC? And even if they weren’t cleared, such images are certainly covered by fair use/fair dealing, reprinted at tiny resolution in what is absolutely a valid work of criticism.

(Incidentally, if you do want to hear this sort of deep examination of the craft of laying out a page or a cover of a comic, a far better place to turn would be Kieron Gillen’s podcast DECOMPRESSED. For all that authorial intent is bunk, Morrison goes far too far in the opposite direction; the symbology of the appearance of all four elements on the front page of Action Comics #1 is interesting, but also feels unbelievably forced. Far more insightful is Morrison’s explanation of why the first page of Watchmen works so well, but that sort of thing is now done on a weekly basis – with, shock horror, the pages under discussion excerpted under fair use – by Gillen, in conversation with the author(s).)

But looking beyond how the information and arguments are presented, how do they rate?

The most obvious comment about the book – one picked up on by reviewers who were more timely than me – is that it is two books in one, and sold to readers as being different from either. Except for a chapter at the end, in which Morrison discusses the impact of ever more personal applications of technology and branding, very little of the book is a discussion of “OUR WORLD IN THE AGE OF THE SUPERHERO”. Instead, it is firstly the aforementioned collection of close examinations of seminal comics, and secondly Morrison’s autobiography as told primarily through the comics which were important to him.

That first aim is hit and miss. Where it succeeds, we have a master of the craft elaborating on what makes other greats work so well. Where it doesn’t, we have little more than expertly applied pareidolia.

Grant loves his hidden symbology (his annotated script to Arkham Asylum was my first proof of the fact that sometimes, my schoolteachers weren’t bullshitting when they said that authors deliberately included the subtext which we were all so painfully extracting for our GCSE coursework), but not everyone does. At times, the book becomes little more than someone painstakingly elaborating on all the slices of toast in which they have seen Jesus’ face.

As an autobiography, however, the book is far more interesting. Morrison’s chaos magic, alien abduction, and mysticism, despite being presented in as sympathetic light as possible, still come across as a bit mad, but intelligently so – he knows how he sounds to non-believers, and doesn’t really care.

And even taken as nothing more than an excuse to hear Morrison discussing his early life in the Scottish alt-comix scene, the creation of Zenith, and his part in the British Invasion, it’s something I would be happy to read again. Which is good, because much of it I have already read – these are some of the most-discussed aspects of his life, well-trodden in prior interviews.

The strength of the biographical aspect of the book is immediately obvious when considering Morrison’s discussion of the Golden Age of comics (those made, roughly, from the late thirties to the fifties). This section, which opens the book, lacks any personal stories for the unsurmountable reason that Morrison wasn’t actually alive then. When added to the flop that is his over-detailed, underwhelming examination of the covers of that period, it drags by.

In fact, the only reason I made it through was my curiosity to read the much-discussed “betrayal” of Siegel and Shuster. Morrison commits nerd-heresy by suggesting that maybe, in selling Superman for $130, the two men knew what they were getting into, and thought that they’d got a good deal.

The answer is somewhere between the received wisdom of DC’s original sin and Morrison’s near total absolution of the company. It’s certainly important to note that work-for-hire is a trade-off, not a rip-off. It’s how I make my living, for one thing, and while I will lose out if any of my “creations” attains Superman stature, I make up for it with the fact that without the New Statesman promoting my work, I be no-one. (Still am, of course, but a different kind of no-one)

At the same time, the deal DC offered to Siegel and Shuster was more exploitative than most. The work was done when the company bought the creation, which normally entails a higher pay-off (because the purchasers are taking less risk); and there seems to have been less clarity in their contracts than Morrison implies.

In discussing the intricacies of the contracts of the Superman creators, as well as the twists and turns of his own life, Morrison seems to be targeting his book at the faithful; those, like myself, who want to go deep into the mind of a man we already respect. Clearly this aim was against the wishes of the publishers, hence the more mass-market subtitle, trade dress and marketing; but it also seems to be contradicted by some of the book itself. Parts of it are – and there’s no other word for it – shockingly under-researched. For instance, on a chapter on superhero movies, Morrison describes the then-upcoming Spider-Man reboot – which became Amazing Spider-Man, and came out this May – saying:

Oddly enough, and only three years after the Raimi series, Marvel started work on yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin.

It is in fact an rather important aspect of the recent history of superhero movies that the Spider-Man franchise is owned by Sony, not Marvel. It was the former’s success which motivated the latter to create their own studio, which went on to produce the Avengers series of films, culminating in what was, briefly, the most successful superhero movie ever.

Even at the time the book came out, the first few movies in this series had come out, and contained a number of aspects which ought to have been of interest to Morrison – the first genuine attempt to create a cinematic equivalent to comic book continuity, a more mature approach to making “realistic” superheroes than the Nolan Batman series, and a renewed focus on character over plot – which barely get a mention. And as for the “bizarre” decision, it was an entirely reasonable decision, albeit based on commercial rather than creative factors. If Sony didn’t make a new Spider-Man movie, and soon, the rights would revert back to Marvel. With the franchise having been largely killed by Spider-Man 3, they had no choice but to start again.

This sort of thing gives large chunks of the book the impression of having been written of the top of Morrison’s head. It’s an accusation which has also been levied at his fiction; he is an “ideas man” who throws a lot at the page and hopes it sticks. Whether or not that is true for the comics, it feels like it must be the case here.

But the proof is in Laura’s interview with Morrison. The same topics, covered in conversation with herself acting as mediator and translator between us and Morrison, become crackling, flowing and coherent. The bits of his attitude to life which stem from his class – those which he tries so hard to bring out in the book – are made clear as day; and the Siegel and Shuster discussion, which is brought up again, is clarified, contextualised, and made stronger the second time around.

Of course, it doesn’t absolve all problems. Even when parlayed through Laura, Morrison comes off as alarmingly blasé about saying one thing and doing another, particularly for someone who has made so much of his career out of being an ideologue; and, as David Brothers picks up on, he performs a couple of nasty rhetorical tricks to minimise what is in fact real disagreement.

Still, Morrison is at his best when someone else – an interviewer, an artist, or a friend – is telling us what he thinks. If Supergods is a direct pipe to his brain, it allows some of his greatness to come through in sputters and bursts, but ultimately fails to justify its own existence.

Yes, I know I could also use an editor, w/e.