Book Review: Supergods

Supergodsby Grant MorrisonSpiegel & Grau, 2011"There are few things more conducive to unChristian mirth," a wise old 19th century Boston sage once remarked, "than the combination of arrogance and inconsequence." If that old sage were still around, he'd need a month of Sundays to atone for the chuckling he'd do while reading Supergods, the new history-cum-autobiography by fan favorite comic book writer Grant Morrison, and his conflict would start before the book's first page: the cover shows three stacked images: an erupting planet, an escaping spacecraft, and a wonderstruck young couple unveiling something. Even non-comics fans will recognize the iconography, and inserted in big bold letters before that final unveiling is the name "Superman" - or no, in this case it's "Grant Morrison."The sub-title of the book that follows is "What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human," but it isn't too many chapters before even the most charitable reader suspects a better sub-title might have been, "Boy, Comics Sure Sucked Until I Came Along, Didn't They?"But since Morrison wasn't born until 1960 and didn't sprout genius until a couple of years after that, the front sections of his book are necessarily long on comics history and short on comics messiah. In his characteristic flashy, sloppy, cliche-ridden, hyper-energetic prose (regardless of how else they might react, readers of Supergods will never be bored), Morrison gives us potted histories and vivid opinions about the beginnings of superhero comics, starting with Superman - and also starting with shoddy analysis, as when he tells us that the dual nature signified by Superman's secret identity was trailblazing: "Hercules was always Hercules. Agamemnon and Perseus were heroes from the moment they lept out of bed in the morning until the end of a long battle-crazed day..." Any Mythology 101 student would be able to clue Morrison in to the dualities in all three characters he names (Agamemnon, the hero?), but he himself is too busy for such minutiae - he's got all of early comics history to relate.So we get the stories behind Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and a host of others - all told with infectious panache and a perfect ear for entertainment. These segments will remind veteran comics fans just how long it's been since they re-read Gerard Jones' Comic Book Heroes, and Morrison is such a winning guide that those fans will feel no urge to switch books.Then in the 1960s Stan Lee revolutionized the comics industry by creating an entire line of more realistic, more identifiable, more socially relevant superheroes for Marvel Comics. And more importantly, Morrison himself slouched toward Glasgow to be born.After that point, the entertaining history of superhero comics is interspersed with vignettes and ongoing narratives from the author's life, detailing his rise to power, guided by Fate and opposed by the Legions of Satan, who gnashed their teeth in rage at the coming of the Chosen One. Or words to that effect:

It was 1978 and I was determined to succeed in the comics business somehow, particularly after humiliation at the hands of my accursed careers guidance counselor, Mr. Shields. Seated in his claustrophobic office to discuss my future plans in that last year at Allan Glen's, I proudly produced my artwork and announced my intention to make a living as a comic-book-artist-slash-writer. The work showed some promise and skill for my age, so I expected him to be impressed and full of praise for my industriousness. Instead, and without the slightest flicker of curiosity, he handed back my lurid Hellhunter pages and told me to stop wasting my time. There were talented professional people in America who did this work, he assured me. I would, Shields continued evenly, be much better off considering a job in a bank.

As readers of Carlyle, Trollope (mother and son), and Tori Spelling will know, this sort of thing is always an elaborate con game. The writer knows that readers will be put off by the unabashed and slavish admiration the author feels for himself, so he has to tone it down - but under no circumstances does he want to tone it down too much, lest one or two inattentive readers mistake his faux self-deprecation for the real thing. Although this kind of autobiographical lying-one's-face-off is not an admirable skill, Morrison has it down cold, as you can see from that excerpt: he positions himself as the Defoe-esque victim of corporate condescension (and colonial condescension! did you catch that bit about professional people in America? Little did those complacent Yanks know what was coming their way ...), charging the encounter with drama by noting (himself) that his work showed both promise and skill, but slipping in that scapegrace word 'lurid' in an attempt to balance things out. Somewhere, perhaps, a reader might be wondering, 'well, if your pages were lurid, maybe your guidance counselor wasn't quite so hateful...' - but that reader, along with the accursed counselor himself, is going to Hell, so it doesn't matter what they think. Morrison follows up his counselor scene with this:

Grimly repeating the "Fuck you" mantra in my head didn't seem to help; I was gutted like a cod. What if he was right, and I was deluding myself?

NO! Scream the countless virginal fanboys who can't stand the thought of the teenage Morrison giving up on The Dream. And they needn't have feared - even a bit later, in the midst of social chaos, our hero is in command of both his destiny and some truly operatic overwriting chops:

Britain, meanwhile [in the 1970s], was in a spiraling social free fall that would bottom out in three-day workweeks, with uncollected refuse piling in bin bag mountains and a nationwide electricity shutdown starting at six in the evening every day.My own life, which had seemed generally golden, carefree, and ignorant, developed an acrid verdigris of cruelty and confusion.

At this point readers, no doubt familiar with just how off-putting an acrid verdigris of cruelty and confusion can be on a weekday, are hoping the dark forces of evil don't engulf our hero before he can fully realize his potential. Not necessarily his potential as a comic book writer, but his potential as an industry game-changer, the gutter-mouthed bad boy autodidact who takes the stuffy world of corporate comics by storm, schools the old-boy dinosaurs in the new ways of their craft, and spends his nights snorting coke off the thighs of nightclub waitresses dressed as Kitty Pryde:

My public persona was punk to the rotten core. Outspoken and mean spirited, I freely expressed contempt for the behind-the-scenes world of comics professionals, which seemed unglamorous and overwhelmingly masculine by comparison to the club and music scenes. My life was rich, and my circle of friends and family was secure enough that I could afford to play a demonic role at work. Reading interviews from the time makes my blood run cold these days, but the trash talk seemed to be working, and I was rapidly making a name for myself. Being young, good-looking, and cocky forgave many sins, a huge hit British superhero strip did the rest and proved I could back up the big talk.

See the con game still in full force? He was mean spirited, but he was crusading against an ossified (and sexist!) establishment ... so does that really count as mean-spirited? He was a punk and a demon, but he had a hit book, so does that really count as being unprofessional (plus, how awful could he have been, with all those friends and family members lovingly by his side?)? He winces when he reads old interviews given by his younger self, so full of trash talk - but we're not told why he winces, since he isn't regretting a single thing that younger self said, did, or stood for. Maybe he frosted his hair. Even messiahs can go through a Vanilla Ice phase.One of the main treats Supergods provides for non-cult members is an updating of books like Jones' - in between the Onward Christian Soldiers bits (and the graphic puke-by-puke recountings of every single physical ailment our author has ever had), we get lively and very knowledgeable discussions of the superhero industry in the 1990s and early 2000s, including some fascinating discussions of such seminal comic book events as Batman: Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, and Crisis on Infinite Earths. There's also a good deal of surprisingly insightful criticism of the superhero movies that have assaulted movie theaters relentlessly for the last decade. Fans of all things superhero will find much to entertain them here.But they'll have to deal with their fare share of that unChristian mirth along the way:

As the first few years of the twenty-first century wore on, I wondered just how badly people, especially young people, were being affected by the overwhelmingly alarmist, frightening, and nihilistic mass media narratives that seemed to boil with images of death, horror, war, humiliation, and pain to the exclusion of almost everything else, on the presumed grounds that these are the kinds of stories that excite the jaded sensibilities of the mindless drones who consume mass entertainment. Cozy at our screens in the all-consuming glare of Odin's eye, I wondered why we've chosen to develop in our children a taste for mediated, pre-packaged rape, degradation, violence, and "bad-ass" mass-murdering heroes.And so All-Star Superman ...