Grant Morrison is the leading writer of superhero comic books in this universe—and possibly some others. At DC Comics he rebooted Justice League of America into a best-seller. At Marvel he did the same for X-Men. When his magnum opus, The Invisibles—a series about voodoo, time travel and the Marquis de Sade—was in danger of being canceled, he mobilized his fans in an unusual way: He exhorted them to participate in a worldwide magic spell by masturbating on Thanksgiving Day. Yes, he held a “wankathon.” It worked—or at least sales of The Invisibles improved.
If Morrison’s personal history includes magic, wild experiments with consciousness-tweaking substances and reported alien visitations, why does he keep writing about square-jawed guys with capes? “We’re running out of visions of the future except dystopias,” Morrison says. “The superhero is Western culture’s last-gasp attempt to say there’s a future for us.” Sitting in his drafty house overlooking Loch Long, an hour outside his hometown of Glasgow, the 52-year-old writer smiles. “The creators of superheroes were all freaks,” he says. “People forget that—they were all outcasts, on the margins of society.” And then, inevitably, he shifts from the third person to the first. “We’re people who don’t fit into normal society.”
All the more reason comic book writers have offered a fascinating perspective on mainstream society. We asked Morrison to dig deep into his shaved head, where heroes, antiheroes, magic and punk rock make a frothy metaphysical milkshake. Who are these—to use the title of Morrison’s most recent book—supergods? And why have they captured the imagination of the masses, some of them for generations? Herewith, an exploration deep into the psyche of the superhuman.
First appearance: Action Comics #1 (DC Comics, 1938).
Created by: Jerry Siegel, art by Joe Shuster.
Grant Morrison version: His definitive take was in the 12 issues of All-Star Superman (2006–2008).
Morrison: “When Superman was created during the Great Depression, he was the champion of the oppressed and fought on the side of the working man. He was lawless. If you were a wife beater, he’d throw you out the window. If you were a corrupt congressman, he’d swing you from the rooftops until you confessed. I think it appealed to people who were losing their jobs to machines: Suddenly you had Superman wrecking machines and punching robots. But his popularity has declined—nobody wants to be the son of a farmer now. American writers often say they find it difficult to write Superman. They say he’s too powerful; you can’t give him problems. But Superman is a metaphor. For me, Superman has the same problems we do, but on a Paul Bunyan scale. If Superman walks the dog, he walks it around the asteroid belt because it can fly in space. When Superman’s relatives visit, they come from the 31st century and bring some hellish monster conqueror from the future. But it’s still a story about your relatives visiting.”
First appearance: Detective Comics #27 (DC Comics, 1939).
Created by: Bill Finger, art by Bob Kane (disputed).
Grant Morrison version: He’s been writing overlapping Batman series for DC since 2006.
Morrison: “I got interested in the class element of Batman: He’s a rich man who beats up poor people. It’s quite a bizarre mission to go out at night dressed as a bat and punch the hell out of junkies. And then he goes home and lives in this mansion. There’s an aspirational quality to him—he’s an outlaw and he can buy anything. He has a new Batmobile every movie. He’s very plutonian in the sense that he’s wealthy and also in the sense that he’s sexually deviant. Gayness is built into Batman. I’m not using gay in the pejorative sense, but Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay. I think that’s why people like it. All these women fancy him and they all wear fetish clothes and jump around rooftops to get to him. He doesn’t care—he’s more interested in hanging out with the old guy and the kid.”
First appearance: All Star Comics #8 (DC Comics, 1941).
Created by: William Moulton Marston, art by Harry G. Peter.
Grant Morrison version: He’s currently working on a stand-alone Wonder Woman graphic novel for DC.
Morrison: “William Moulton Marston, the guy who created Wonder Woman, was a noted psychiatrist. He’s the guy who invented the polygraph, the lie detector. He was one of those bohemian free-love guys; he and his wife, Elizabeth, shared a lover, Olive, who was the physical model for Wonder Woman. What he and Elizabeth did was to consider an Amazonian society of women that had been cut off from men for 3,000 years. That developed along the lines of Marston’s most fevered fantasies into a lesbian utopia. Although they’re supposedly a peace-loving culture, all these supergirls’ pursuits seem to revolve around fighting one another, and this mad, ritualistic stuff where girls dress as stags and get chased and tied up and eaten symbolically on a banquet table. The whole thing was lush with bondage and slavery. Wonder Woman was constantly being tied up or shackled—and it was hugely successful. When Marston died in 1947, they got rid of the pervy elements, and instantly sales plummeted. Wonder Woman should be the most sexually attractive, intelligent, potent woman you can imagine. Instead she became this weird cross between the Virgin Mary and Mary Tyler Moore that didn’t even appeal to girls.”
First appearance: The Invisibles #1 (Vertigo, 1994).
Created by: Grant Morrison, art by Steve Yeowell. The Invisibles ran on and off from 1994 to 2000.
Morrison: “When I was writing The Invisibles, I thought, If I’m going to be sitting in the house writing all day, then on weekends I want to look like this cool comic character so more girls will like me. I shaved my head and dressed more like King Mob. It was an art thing, and it was also an occult thing. I could make things happen by putting King Mob through certain things in the comic, like a voodoo doll. If he met a certain girl, three weeks later she would turn up in my life. It became hard to tell his life and my life apart. It got out of control—I ended up in the hospital because of it. In the comic, King Mob’s cheek is eaten away by something; within three months, I’d gotten an infection that ate right through my cheek. I was conjuring these scorpion gods, and I got stung by them. That’s not to say scorpion gods are real, but you can make things happen by believing in them hard enough.”
First appearance: Batman #1 (DC Comics, 1940).
Created by: Bill Finger, art by Bob Kane, concept possibly provided by Jerry Robinson.
Grant Morrison version: Many appearances in various overlapping Batman series for DC (since 2006).
Morrison: “I identify with the Joker to a certain extent—at least the way I write him, which is as this cosmic fool. He’s Batman’s perfect opposite, and because of that he’s as sexy as Batman, if not more so. When the Joker was introduced in 1940, he was a scowling homicidal maniac. Then they took out the violence and death, and he became the chuckling clown, driving around in his Joker-mobile. Then he was the giggling mental-patient version from the TV show: Cesar Romero with his mustache covered in greasepaint. Suddenly in the 1970s he was killing his henchmen again. And in the 1980s he was a gender-bending transvestite. I said, Okay, we’ve had all these varied versions of the Joker. Let’s say it’s the same person who just changes his head every day. I rationalized that by saying he’s supersane, the first man of the 21st century who’s dealing with this overload of information by changing his entire personality. I quite like him, because he’s a pop star—he’s like Bowie.”
First appearance: The Invisibles #1 (Vertigo, 1994). Created by: Grant Morrison.
Morrison: “In Kathmandu there’s this temple with 365 steps, one for each day of the year, and apparently if you can go up in a single breath, you’re guaranteed enlightenment. It’s easy to do if you’re young and fit. I just took a deep breath and ran up. Three days later I was visited by five-dimensional aliens. (I’d eaten a bit of hash, but honestly, it wasn’t a drug trip. I ate a lot of things afterward to see if I could make it happen again, and I never could.) I was in this azure blue space, and there were grid lines of silver flashing through it, but the beings looked like chrome blobs. And they were just moving about, plugging into these grids and exchanging information. I saw the entire universe from beginning to end: You had Shakespeare over here and the dinosaurs over here. Time became space, and I was bigger than both of them. Later I put that in The Invisibles and called it the Supercontext.”
First appearance: The Invisibles #2 (Vertigo, 1994). Created by: Grant Morrison, art by Steve Yeowell.
Morrison: “When I was doing The Invisibles, I was spending all my money from Arkham Asylum [Morrison’s hit graphic novel about Batman’s enemies] doing all the things I’d never done as a Presbyterian boy. You freak out, take tons of drugs. It was about the systematic derangement of the senses, as Rimbaud said. So I came up with the notion of an alter ego who was a dodgy, freaky girl [Lord Fanny, pictured]. I can’t smoke tobacco— it hurts—but she could. I created this persona, and I’d contact demons and wander down streets in this ridiculous state. I didn’t look like a girl, but I looked like a good tranny, so it was okay. I did it for four or five years before I got too old for it. I still have some of the clothes, but they mostly got destroyed doing insane rituals and climbing hills in high heels and stuff.”
First appearance: X-Men #1 (Marvel, 1963).
Created by: Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby.
Grant Morrison version: Morrison’s run on X-Men lasted from 2001 to 2004.
Morrison: “Magneto’s an old terrorist bastard. I got into trouble—the X-Men fans hated me because I made him into a stupid old drug-addicted idiot. He had started out as this sneering, grim terrorist character, so I thought, Well, that’s who he really is. [Writer] Chris Claremont had done a lot of good work over the years to redeem the character: He made him a survivor of the death camps and this noble antihero. And I went in and shat on all of it. It was right after 9/11, and I said there’s nothing fucking noble about this at all.”
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA
First appearance: The Brave and the Bold #28 (DC Comics, 1960).
Created by: Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky.
Grant Morrison version: Morrison revived the JLA for DC from 1997 to 2000.
Morrison: “The Justice League is like the pantheon of Greek gods. Hermes made more sense to me as the Flash. Wonder Woman means so much more to me than Hera or Aphrodite. I could make a much quicker connection with the archetype of Zeus in the form of Superman. Aquaman is Poseidon, of course. Batman is Hades, the god of the underworld. People like Aleister Crowley have written down rituals for summoning Hermes, because if you want to contact the spirit of magic, you’ve got to talk to Hermes. But doing magic, I would use the characters from the comics because they meant more to me. Because I do magic all the time, it’s part of my normal life. I know for most people it’s outlandish and impossible. So I tell people that if you are truly skeptical, do the rituals and prove to yourself that it doesn’t work. And you’ll get the shock of your life.”