…AND SUPERMEN: READING GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERGODS

[This is my 400th post and I want to thank all of you, readers. I feel very embarrassed when someone sends me a message or approaches me with a kind word but it is also a great pleasure. I do hope you also get a little bit of that from reading my raving and ranting. Thanks!!]

One of the most exciting perks of being a teacher is how much one learns from students. Until last January I had no idea who Grant Morrison was and then, suddenly, my doctoral students Angélica and Matteo decided to enlighten me from very different fronts and without even having met. You won’t believe me but I heard the words ‘Grant Morrison’ from their lips on the very same day–serendipity! If you are a comic book lover, I’m sure you must be thinking that my ignorance of Morrison’s oeuvre is simply appalling… and I would agree now that I know that he is one of the greatest new voices in the recent renewal of the superhero universe caused by the ‘British invasion’ (Morrison is a Glaswegian). The Brits, he explains, “dragged superhero comics out of the hands of archivists and sweaty fan boys and into the salons of hipsters. In our hands, the arrogant scientific champions of the Silver Age would be brought to account in a world of shifting realpolitik and imperial expansionist aggression.”

I don’t wish to comment here on Morrison’s long career (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Morrison) but on his essay Supergods (2011). This is an irregular volume both because there are more accomplished introductions to the superhero but also because Morrison’s self-portrait of the artist is too sketchy. The insights into his own career range from down-to-earth financial aspects to his candid report of an out-of-earth crucial paranormal experience. All this, coming from the horse’s mouth is fascinating but, as I say, not fulfilling enough. Guided by Matteo’s interest in the mythopoesis of the superhero and Angélica’s curiosity about Morrison’s approach to scientific notions of the multiverse, I have, nonetheless, quite enjoyed Supergods.

This is the opening week for Zack Snyder’s blockbuster Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, a box-office hit despite dismal reviews venting the same twin complaints: why do we take superheroes so seriously?, and why is Snyder’s bleak film not fun? I have not seen the film yet (I find the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman quite repellent) but I should say that we have been taking superheroes seriously at least since Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, thirty years ago… Here Morrison can help: “By offering role models whose heroism and transcendent qualities would once have been haloed and clothed in floaty robes, [superheroes] nurtured in me a sense of the cosmic and ineffable that the turgid, dogmatically stupid ‘dad’ religions could never match. I had no need for faith. My gods were real, made of paper and light, and they rolled up into my pocket like a superstring dimension.” As ‘supergods’.

As I have explained to Matteo, I believe that we are still missing a much needed explanation about why Western mythology (including Greek, Roman, Germanic, Nordic, etc.) has resurfaced of all places in the United States. As Morrison writes, “Like jazz and rock ’n’ roll, the superhero is a uniquely American creation. This glorification of strength, health, and simple morality seems born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility.” Morrison points out that other countries have superheroes (the UK, France, Italy, Japan…) and offers the habitual explanation that Superman appeared as a fantasy aimed to compensate Americans for the ugly daily reality of the Depression Era and the horrors emerging in Nazi Germany. Still, I’m not convinced.

My husband, an habitual reader of comic books, suggests that I should explore the idea that, lacking the medieval tradition of the knight, America invented superheroes (Batman, remember, is the ‘dark knight’). I quite like his thesis but it cannot explain why superpowers were added to the figure of the hero/knight. If you recall, classic heroes were the hybrid sons of couples formed by an ordinary human and a divine individual, hence technically they were demi-gods. I would agree than when the alien Superman lands on the cover of Action Comics in 1938 America generates a new version of the demi-god, though perhaps Morrison exaggerates by claiming that “Superman was Christ, an unkillable champion sent down by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to redeem us by example and teach us how to solve our problems without killing one another.” In view of the dark night of the soul that many superheroes have been going through since Miller re-drew the campy Batman as a brooding Gothic icon, Morrison sounds certainly overoptimistic when he wonders whether the superhero could be “the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project”. I wish!

Perhaps because of my own atheism I feel far more intrigued by Morrison’s declaration that the superheroes “may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.” It had never occurred to me that superheroes are a prefiguration of what we call now ‘post-human’ and even ‘transhuman’ yet this is indeed what they are. Think X-Men, above all. Nonetheless, as you can see, my student Matteo will have plenty to do in order to explain why myth has resurfaced specifically in the early 20th century comics published in America and how exactly the mythopoesis of the superhero genre has evolved in the past 80 years. The connection with the post-human scientific paradigm might be the missing element…

This brings me to Angélica’s focus on how Morrison’s awareness of current theoretical physics shapes his narrative style (in case I forgot to say, Morrison is a writer, not an artist/draftsman). Here we face two different questions: one commercial, the other personal, as you will see.

In Morrison’s words: “in place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’”. The many storylines owned by American comic book publisher DC “were slowly bolted together to create a mega-continuity involving multiple parallel worlds” aimed at integrating past periods in the life of re-booted superheroes (as we would say today) and new acquisitions. A singularity of superhero comics–possibly their main defining trait–is that DC and Marvel series have become “eternally recurring soap operas—where everything changed but always wound up in the same place”. The problem of how to prolong ad infinitum a successful character or series was solved, in short, by appealing to the idea of multiple narrative universes. This happened just when “string theory, with its talk of enclosed infinite vaults, its hyperdimensional panoramas of baby universes budding in hyperspace” started theorizing the existence of a multiverse (or our ‘multiversal’ existence). In this way, a plain commercial strategy was given an unexpected philosophical depth (I’m really serious about this–just in case…).

Morrison embodies better than any other current writer in any genre the confluence of the mythical, the mystical and the scientific, with an added in-your-face flaunting of his dabbing in the occult. A turning point in his career happened, he claims, one night in Kathmandu when he had an intense vision, courtesy of what he described as “chrome angels”. This experience introduced him to a new sense of time apprehended not as a linear event but as a total simultaneity “with every single detail having its own part to play in the life cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism”. Morrison decided to explore this epiphany in his comic books as he tried to find an explanation for his own new superpower, an ability to see a 5-D perspective of objects and of life “as it wormed back from the present moment and forward into the future: a tendril, a branch on this immense, intricately writhing life tree”.

What is most original about Morrison’s neo-Blakean visionary capacity is that, without doubting its reality one iota, he grants that it could be due to a temporal lobe seizure (“would it not be in our own best interests to start pressing this button immediately and as often as we can?”, he proposes), a lung infection that almost killed him, or his massive consumption of a variety of drugs for a long time. Never wavering for an instant, he concludes that “Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. (…) The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need”. Myth, mysticism and science coalesce, then, in the superhero mystique, at least according to Grant Morrison. And if you’re willing to accept that writing fiction is opening the door to beings coming straight out of the universes in our skulls it all fits. After all, even the gods and God are creations of the human imagination.

I envy Morrison his happy, gleeful fusion of the rational and the irrational and his ability to have turned this exercise in tightrope walking into the very productive foundation of his career. I just simply do not know enough about comic books to test his claim that superheroes are channelling our simultaneous need to a) bring the old gods into a world increasingly sceptical about God, b) maintain our falling ethical standards, c) supply a template for future post-human behaviour, d) connect us with the multiverse and e) inspire us to connect with our inner superhero. A very tall order indeed! I’ll trust Morrison, however, as he seems to know best.

After all, a world with no superheroes sounds, definitely, boring. And I don’t mean that they’re here to simply entertain us (this is just part of their truth) but also to re-connect us with parts of the ‘infinite interior space’ that our trivial daily lives are obscuring. Long live myth!

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