Sunday, 29 July 2007
Final Crisis and Morrison 1
I've been wanting to write about Grant Morrison on here for a few weeks, but have held back. There appear to be two default options for comics blogging. One is to post a panel from a Silver Age comic out of context with hilarious results ("Batman said 'I need Dick!' - he's so gay!"). The other is to wax lyrical about how great Morrison is. I didn't want to fall into either of these cliches. (A third cliche of course is blogging about blogging, which I'm doing here).
However, now that Morrison and J.G. Jones have been announced as the team on Final Crisis, the event to which Countdown is counting down, I pretty much have to talk about Morrison. So I'm going to try to do a series of posts over the next few weeks looking at his recent DCU work, especially his Batman, which for some reason is making no impact at all compared to his other recent work, and try to see what the recurring elements are, both in terms of themes and motifs, and try to figure out what kind of thing Final Crisis will be.
I must say, the announcement and the interviews that have been reported about it have done a lot to reaffirm my faith in DC's current editorial direction. Morrison is the only person (after the original Crisis On Infinite Earths) to have written a DCU crossover that was actually good as opposed to competent (DC One Million, which I hope to look at here some time soon), and J.G. Jones is one of the most imaginative artists in comics today. A reunion of part of the 52 team (and the team behind Marvel Boy, which I'll look at in a few posts' time) has to be an improvement on the incoherent mess that's passing for a line-wide crossover at the moment.
The few statements we've had about the project so far (that it'll begin with Anthro and end with Kamandi, that Morrison wanted to do it out-of-continuity if it couldn't be done in the regular DCU) tend to suggest that this will be a crossover that is actually worth reading.
So, Grant Morrison.
The obvious question when discussing Morrison is why he's so popular among a certain segment of comic readers (especially those with blogs) and so unpopular among many others (especially those who post on superhero-related message boards).
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that he has ideas. The cliche about Morrison that turns up within a page or two of any message board discussion of him is 'mad ideas', usually followed by 'what was he smoking when he thought of that?' or some similar dismissal. The fact is, it is extremely unusual in the comics medium for anything approaching an actual idea to make it to paper. Most superhero comics deal primarily in melodrama and conflict for its own sake, while far too many independent comics are nothing more than the autobiographies of people who have nothing unusual about them other than the gargantuan ego that presumes the tedious details of their life, presented without comment or technical ability, qualifies as art.
With the de facto retirement of Alan Moore, Morrison is almost alone in trying to express any ideas in the superhero genre. To the extent that most mainstream comics have any ideas in them at all, they are, as in Infinite Crisis, ideas about the genre itself, the current state of superhero comics, and not much else. If I never again read a comic in which a symbolic representation of modern comics, a symbolic representation of the Silver Age, and a symbolic representation of fanboy entitlement have a three-way battle to the death, I'll be ecstatic.
Morrison is, of course, guilty of this kind of thing himself - in fact more so than almost any other comics writer I can think of. I was hugely amused in 2005 when Morrison and Jeph Loeb (his polar opposite in terms of fanbase and critical respect) both had Superman and Batman fighting not-at-all veiled counterparts of the Ultimates/Authority in an attempt to show that Violent Superheroes Are Bad. And I was even more amused when it was announced Morrison would be writing the Authority and Loeb the Ultimates.
But Morrison's 'mad ideas' often contain much more than that. There was a storm in a teapot in the 'blogosphere' recently (deliberately stirred up by one writer in an attempt to promote his book on Morrison) about describing some people as 'bad readers'. Without wanting to stir that up again, I would suggest there's definitely an element of truth to this - many people don't like having to interpret a narrative on anything more than a surface level, and even most of those who do like to read things that contain some level of metaphor, allegory or ambiguity don't have the necessary critical tools to comprehend them.
(I include myself in the latter group, incidentally. I constantly think I've got everything there is out of a text, then read what Matt Rossi or Marc Singer or some similar writer has found in it and realise that my reading comprehension has advanced little beyond Janet And John books.)
However, there is also some truth in the claim that Morrison doesn't always give the reader enough information to appreciate fully what he's talking about. To take the first example of one of Morrison's lines to pop into my head, in Shining Knight #2 (part of the Seven Soldiers maxiseries and collected in one of that series' trades), Ystin is confronted by a monster named Guilt, a 'Sheeda level-seven mood destroyer' who kills with words.
Now, this is a good and interesting development in the story for a relatively attentive reader. Morrison is combining the fall of Camelot and Ystin's exile to the modern world with the expulsion from Eden (with a hint of the fall of Satan too). Ystin lived in a prelapsarian, guilt-free state until sin entered the world, but after falling from a castle in the sky is left with the knowledge of guilt and death. There's a lot of resonances packed in there, especially when you consider that the serpentine Sheeda Queen (the villain of the story) is presented in Zatanna as being the Wicked Queen from Snow White (who also caused a lot of problems by persuading a woman to eat an apple...)
Then, on top of that, there's the resonance with Pilgrim's Progress and similar stories. Given that Morrison has essentially been doing a Grail-quest narrative up to this point (later in the series he will mix in other classic folk tales), having his pilgrim accompanied by a monster called Guilt makes perfect sense - you almost expect them to meet up with Mr Worldly Wiseman (which in fact sounds like the name of a Silver Age character - possibly a humorous sidekick).
But the literal reader - and, indeed, many readers who enjoy the series on multiple levels - will balk at the introduction of this character. The rest of the series has been realistic in tone (well, as realistic as a series about one of King Arthur's knights on a flying horse fighting a woman from the future in a flying castle that travels through time can be) and every other element in it works on a literal level. Guilt appears to be purely symbolic, something that has drifted in from another level. He appears in isolation to be intended as metaphor, but in terms of the story as a whole, he really is a giant monster. But the giant monster is given no reason for existing - no-one knows who he is, or where he comes from.
Most readers of both types will gloss over this - just go with it and see where he's going with the story - but it appears a definite flaw in the issue.
However, in an interview shortly after the issue came out, Morrison mentioned The Origins Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. For those who haven't read this book, Jaynes' thesis (now generally considered to be incorrect in a number of details) is that until fairly recently in evolutionary terms, roughly three thousand years ago, the corpus callosum (the body in the brain which connects the two hemispheres) was thinner than it is today, making the brain less integrated, and as a result those ideas which we now know come from our own brain would have appeared to our ancestors to have come from outside themselves.
Jaynes argued that our ancestors lived in a state of near-constant hallucination, with these hallucinations appearing as gods, demons and so on, giving people orders which were in reality messages from the other side of their brain. He also argued that people at that time were not truly self-aware - that there was no concept of introspection or thought generally even as late as the Bronze Age.
Once you know Morrison had this in mind, then the sequence becomes clearer - Ystin is literally perceiving the emotion Guilt as a giant monster, and from Ystin's point of view the scene plays out exactly as it does on the page (in fact Ystin here could easily represent a particular mode of reading). It also adds another level to the Fall resonances - given that Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and becoming aware of their own nakedness/sin, the parallel with the brain becoming integrated and self-awareness coming into existence is inescapable.
It's incredibly well thought-out, a quite brilliant logical extrapolation from a bit of information found in a pop-science book to create a sequence that moves the plot along, expands on the themes of the story so far, brings in allusions to medieval literature to add to those already present, ties in neatly with material in the other Seven Soldiers series, and does so in one line of dialogue. But one crucial link in the chain is missing, having not quite made it to the page.
I think this tendency of Morrison's, to think things out in exhaustive detail and then not quite get round to putting all the detail on to the page (see also his scripts for Arkham Asylum, which are infinitely more interesting and entertaining than the finished comic) is the reason he is both loved and hated to the degree that he is. I also think that when working on the keystone book for DC - the culmination of everything they've been doing for four years - rather than a project being sold on the value of his name alone (as Seven Soldiers was) he'll have an editor who insists on a narrative clarity that might otherwise be missing (I'm not certain of this given the lack of editing apparent in Countdown, but I'm making the perhaps hopelessly optimistic assumption that DC editorial can learn from their mistakes).
With luck, we'll have a story that works on its surface as a universe-spanning superhero epic, but also has something to say and a reason to exist beyond trademark maintenance. Let's hope so. We'll see in 40 weeks.