Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Travels with Grant: A Reader's Journey

Words: Jared Gniewek


All Star Superman 1-12
Animal Man 1-9
Batman and Robin 1-4
JLA 1-15
JLA: Earth 2 1-4
New X-Men 114-130

This year, I was gifted with a comic collection through a family friend, of all super hero books. Up to this point, I never really caught up with the contemporary super hero in my comics buying habits. I don’t get that excited about most of the stories. Too often, I feel like I’m just reading ten-minute excerpts of bland Hollywood spy thrillers.

I love the genre and defend it often but it’s pretty hard for me to find the right balance of whimsy, adventure, mind-bending action, and sentimentality that makes those books work best for me. Couple my persnickety tastes with a three dollar cover price and long- decompressed storylines that stretch over half a year, and it’s a wonder I ever read any at all.

I started working my way through the gifted collection. Some were a chore, some were entertaining…little else. Some were very good but a little stiff. Some had great art and terrible scripts. Some were too talky and others too punchy. Some thought they were smart and some knew they were dumb. Nothing really clicked for me. I was feeling glad in a way that I had been largely ignoring men in tights for years. It’s nice to know that you aren’t missing much.

But then, I got to All-Star Superman and everything changed.

It was like the first time I heard The Ramones or saw a Ray Harrryhausen special effect. The first time I had smelled good coffee or tasted an artichoke drenched in butter. This was distinct. This was an awakening. This was special.

I own a few reprint books of Weisinger era Superman stories and enjoy the ageless quality of them. The innocence in them is so sharp that at present it almost reads like a “fuck you” to the mopey mopers of the world. I take them as a call to arms for positivism and mirth in a landscape of bleak joyless costumed adventures. The entertainment value of them is very different from contemporary stories. They have a charm about them. A whimsical take on heroics not bogged down by unnecessary things like verisimilitude or post Campbell shoe-horning of the hero’s journey. All those meaningless trappings that the newer books seem to need and the modern readers seem to expect. After having read a few Showcase collections I couldn’t help but feel as though something truly wonderful and magical had been lost as comics became more “sophisticated” from the sixties on.

There was no way for me to reconcile the types of stories I loved from the past with the modern need for cinematic hard-edged excitement. I had felt that there was something singular and magical that was missing from all the rows of glossy computer colored slugfests. Stories of transformation and winks at the reader as Lois gets fooled again. Stories of cities in bottles and strange Kryptonites of all different colors, Bizarro planets, and Ghosts of Great Ceasar. I truly believed that that old time magic was lost to the ages. Time and time again I would wander the aisles of comic shops hoping for something new only to buy more reprint books.

So if you’ve also read All-Star Superman, you understand my absolute joy to see the past and present of comics fused together seemingly effortlessly by Grant Morrison. He used the tropes of the classic Superman books and melded them with an understated understanding of fantasy and generated a twelve issue run that hits the mark right in the sweet spot (at least for me) and delivers time and time again.

I guess my first impression of Mr. Morrison’s work was from the late eighties when he was brought over from the UK as part of DC’s British Invasion. I read his Animal Man book at the time but didn’t follow it religiously. I initially saw him as a slightly muddier Alan Moore. He lacked focus at times but made up for it with sheer audacity. Less of a formalist and more of a character builder, it seemed.

On rereading the first Animal Man trade, however, I have noticed that his use of juxtaposition is far subtler than I gave him credit for initially and his structure is far loftier than I thought.
There’s a lovely scene where Buddy Baker is discussing feeling like he is being “reeled in” by forces outside his control and he is silhouetted behind a spider web to nice effect. The constant repetition of the animal motif keeps the theme constant and the goofy awareness of the inherent hilarity of ludicrous costumes makes the book self-reflecting, smart, and fun.

Grant Morrison has a wicked sense of humor. Black as pitch, really. His story for issue 5 of that run, “The Coyote Gospel” is as great a comic story as you will ever read. It is tight and self contained with a one-two punch line that leaves you laughing and grimacing. A wonderful melding of the tropes of Looney Tunes with a men’s adventure story.

This brings up another fascinating note: many of his stories, when viewed from a storytelling perspective seem absolutely mad. I have pitched comics to editors in the past and I have practiced with many other small time comic book writers and we’ve all thrown suggestions back and forth on how to make a decent and concise pitch. I can’t even imagine what his pitches look like.

There is no clear and simple way to convey what it is he is doing. Describing the plot of “The Coyote Gospel” (or “Rock of Ages” from the JLA book for that matter) is like building a moebius flip inside a geodesic dome under the water of a planet being bombarded by microscopic light creatures that the populace thinks are a type a radiation.

His superhero work definitely follows a post-Watchmen method. It is self-aware in a way that mainstream comics simply weren’t before Moore and Gibbon's seminal book. The costumes are laughed at even as they are being put on. The strangeness of the lives the characters lead are constantly being referred back to in dialogue. It’s like they can’t believe that they really populate as crazy and mixed-up of worlds as they live in. I wonder if characters in Grant Morison comics dream of waiting in lines at fast food restaurants or having a spilled coffee ruin their day.

Animal Man and JLA never feel “grim and gritty” (though they get plenty dark, it never feels forced or that the tone is unwarranted) even in the face of the ecological nightmares of the modern world or the Universe-threatening dangers the JLA faces. It’s interesting that the art in these books looks so bright and colorful and the superheroes rendered with such delight. The books would have suffered if there wasn’t the balance between joy and pain.

His work with Frank Quitely seems to drift into even darker territory (outside of the bright and surreal All-Star Superman) but his sense of design and composition serve as well as the coupling balance between light and dark. New X-Men has a darker look to it but there is so much fun in the interplay between characters that the look of the book is countered in the opposite direction.
Grant Morrison’s work, when at its best, succeeds as multiple simultaneous balancing acts between the absurd and the realistic… light and dark… good and evil.

To reflect the nature of balance, he tends to use doubling metaphors via “evil twins” or robot duplicates or extra-dimensional doppelgangers which underscores the dualistic nature of his art. Using mirrored characters (B’Wana Beast to Animal Man, the entire cast of JLA: Earth 2, Cassandra Nova to Professor X) keeps the fulcrum of morality (and his books, despite their often dark themes, have a clear and strong moral center to them) firmly at the junction of the lever. By showing the extremes of villainy that he is willing (and allowed) to put forth (genocide, mass extinction, torture, drug addiction, etc.) it serves to ennoble the heroes in these stories, flawed as they are.

Grant Morrison super heroes never get an easy go of it. They are bloodied struggling ridiculous creatures typically at wit's end trying to get through whatever machinations their enemies have cooked up for them. He uses illness to great effect in All-Star Superman and New X-Men, an area where very few comics writers have gone. It feels somehow almost transgressive to give Cyclops the flu but he does so, anyway. His psychic combats in New X-Men have an immediate and potent feel to them. He literally uses words as weapons and shields, where many other writers would have the artist creating rays and force fields to approximate a battle in that plane.
His characters (hero and villain) very often have an enhanced perspective that belies their intent. These extra senses are often left unnamed and are alluded to in the text but it helps to influence their actions. Sometimes it is something like being connected to the collected consciousness of the animals and sometimes it is something as simple as “sixth and seventh senses” (also an excuse for great synasthetic dialogue). Comics are an approximation of times passage and having characters that don’t see time or the world in our way is one the tropes that comics are most suited towards.

At the end of the day, though, his books really leave you feeling giddy. Fun… I guess that’s what I take from Grant Morrison’s work. A joy in creation. A “look…I made this” kind of pride. I find the breadth of his knowledge fascinating and the way he can shoehorn real world science into a comic story about superheroes to be seamless and inspired. He makes it look easy. His scattered Snapple cap factoids make the adventures seem all the more plausible, and his plots definitely make that a chore. In many of his books one will find references to all sorts of animal facts, diseases of the real world, physics, and genetics.

Conceptualizing super hero stories is a fine art...especially with today’s expectations of more literary and cinematic (SIMULTANEOUSLY!) storytelling. How someone can ignore the constraints of audience expectations to the degree he does and still leave them wanting more is a testament to his skill. If someone told me a contemporary book had Superman arm wrestling Atlas with the winner getting a date with the newly superhuman Lois Lane I would find it hard to believe that comic readers would embrace the series, yet time and time again people gravitate to his work and walk away from it feeling engorged with wonder in the way only the very best superhero comics can do.

All stories work if you let them. He has no filters and will extrapolate any and all whims to their final conclusion. He will wrestle the most ludicrous idea and allow it to emerge as a fully developed plot that fits nicely together. When he fails it is usually because he is juggling too many elements at once and something gets missed in the extrapolations. I can accept that. I prefer confusion to boredom.

Isolating elements and recombining them would have to be Grant Morrison’s greatest strength. He weaves horror elements into the New X-Men, JLA, and Batman books as seamlessly as he works domestic melodrama into Animal Man. Like a sommelier, he understands subtleties of tone and flavor and how to combine notes to create unexpected flavors. He understands genre in an instinctual way and understands that there are no real lines or boundaries to story except the restrictions a writer places on him/her self.

I would call the man an alchemist.

Jared Gniewek has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre for which he is also the story editor. Jared’s blog, Die By The Pen, outlines his philosophies and personal quest as a writer.