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.


Carl Walker said...

Great post, I feel that you read on Morrison is pretty dead on. I was also pretty excited when I heard he was on Final Crisis, and although I missed the ComicCon panel in which he and DiDidio (sp?) revealed this, I saw the so-called "DC Big Guns" panel (apparently there is a "big 5" now and not just a "big 3") on Sunday which featured Morrison and Dini, among others (Johns, Simone, Busiek) answering mostly inane fanboy questions about team-ups and whatnot.

Morrison didn't offer much more than a repeated promise that everyone would appear in FC, but Dini did let slip some incrimating admissions, such as the fact that he doesn't even know what's in these so-called Countdown tie-ins until they hit the presses, and that he's not really aware of what's going on in the books that he's crossing over with (Flash: Fastest Man Alive specifically). I suppose it's possible that you might actually take heart from the first admission, as perhaps there's no guarantee that an interesting-sounding "spinoff" will be tainted by (or even that connected with) Countdown. It was actually too bad that someone didn't press Dini a bit more, as those two admissions came without that much pressuring.

Baal said...

I'll judge Final Crisis like I do any comic, Morrison written or not. Does it work on the first time through as just a good read? If it's almost indecipherable without outside info or dgging deep for clues as to meaning, then it's a failure as a comic.


In spirit with this post, Carl you really hit the nail on the head about something there.

7,000 fanboys have some of the most accomplished and skilled writers in the world right in front of them... And the most important thing they can think to ask is if Thor is coming back.

Many of these guys want to be writers themselves and no one thinks to ask about structure?

Looking forward to Final Crisis. Still skipping the Countdown.

Andrew Hickey said...

Johnny, I think the thing is that most of those people don't want to be writers at all.

I would like to write comics. Not as a burning passion consuming my every waking thought, but I think it could be an interesting thing to do. As a result, in what little spare time I have, I've been writing a comic, which someone I know will illustrate. We'll put it up on the web and then maybe self-publish in paper form if it works out. That's what someone who wants to be a comic writer would do (if they can't draw - the easiest way into the business is still through art). I also write, regularly, whatever I can (fiction, essays, blog posts, the odd song lyric, whatever).

What most of these people *actually* want is to have control of the lives of their favourite characters. I've seen writers and editors post on message boards explaining slush piles and how to get noticed by smaller companies and so on - what format to put your script in - so you can then work your way up to the big two.

Whenever I've seen this, there are howls of protest. How *dare* the big two not be looking for new writers right now? How can they possibly expect writers to have experience before becoming the new writer of Batman? I've seen many people who 'want to be writers' saying "I only want to write The Flash, I don't want to write about any other characters or create my own".

And as for judging manuscripts based on whether they fit submission guidelines - I've seen people argue that every company out there has an obligation to read every scrawled half-thought-out bit of drivel they get in case it's the best idea ever.

These people actually believe they have a God-given right to write stories about The Flash or whoever, and that the rules just shouldn't apply to them. They have no idea that being a writer is actually a *job* - something that requires work, study and experience.If they thought it was a job, you can guarantee they wouldn't want it...

acespot said...

Although Grant Morrison and JG Jones would, indeed, make an excellent pairing, that will only be true if Grant is heavily edited. Otherwise, we'll end up with storylines which are non-linear in the extreme as The Invisibles was, or nonsensical - especially when considered in the framework of the greater universe - as Marvel Boy was. Both of these series require the reader to hold an advanced degree in Philosophy (or the equivalent thereof) to even begin to make sense of.
I'll admit openly that after reading the full series of The Invisibles, I still had no idea what it was about. I did not like it, Sam I Am.
Likewise with Marvel Boy. The series makes no sense, since it occurs in what is quite obviously NOT the mainstream Marvel Universe, yet Noh-Varr shows up in Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways. Either that's a dfferent person, or somebody seriously dropped the ball on that one.
Morrison's work on Batman has been spectacularly disappointing - and nowhere near the readability of his Animal Man stories, which I consider a classic by any definition.

It all boils down to the editing. If Morrison is given Carte Blanche, we're bound to get an indecipherable mess.
If, however, the editors force him to more or less obey the established constraints of Superhero writing, we may very well end up with a classic.

Regardless, it will certainly be pretty.

hilker said...

Here's a thought - what if Ystin's perception of Guilt is accurate in the context of the series? Self-reproach is a recurring theme in Seven Soldiers, especially in Zatanna and Manhattan Guardian, and to a lesser extent in Bulleteer and Mister Miracle. What if the guilty feelings these characters struggle to overcome are manifestations of a Sheeda weapon deployed eons ago that's metastasized psychologically and culturally?

Also, I have to disagree with your dismissal of people that "actually believe they have a God-given right to write stories about The Flash or whoever." Of course they do! Imagination, creativity, and storytelling are part of the human race's patrimony. What they don't have a right to are a publisher and an audience. (This doesn't change your overall point, of course.)

Andrew Hickey said...

You are of course right. I meant "write The Flash (the monthly comic)".

I suspect you're right about Guilt, as well... there's some fascinating stuff in that series.

Jordan said...

Hey did you get the latest Detective Comics (about the Scarecrow?) I thought it was amazing.


Marc said...

"...Likewise with Marvel Boy. The series makes no sense, since it occurs in what is quite obviously NOT the mainstream Marvel Universe, yet Noh-Varr shows up in Civil War: Young Avengers and Runaways. Either that's a dfferent person, or somebody seriously dropped the ball on that one."

How is that Morrison's problem? More to the point, how does it impact the readability of Marvel Boy if some other writer uses the character seven years later?

The incomprehensibility of Morrison's comics is greatly (though not completely) exaggerated, and overstated claims like this one certainly don't buck that trend. For all the whining that happens online, you don't need an advanced degree in philosophy to read them--at most, you just need to be willing to read with more attention than the average monthly continuity-maintenance project demands.

None of which is to say that Morrison doesn't occasionally drop the ball or shortchange his own ideas in his rush to get the next one on the page. But at least he has ideas. He is absolutely the only writer working in superhero comics right now who could get me excited about another goddamned DC crisis.

ATOM HOTEP said...

"It all boils down to the editing. If Morrison is given Carte Blanche, we're bound to get an indecipherable mess."

Yeah, like the indecipherable Seven Soldiers and All Star Superman!

"If, however, the editors force him to more or less obey the established constraints of Superhero writing, we may very well end up with a classic."

Yeah, like the messy, circumscribed New X-Men run!

Jordan said...

I just want to say last night I had an unbelievably elaborate dream that I was reading a Grant Morrison issue of Batman, where Batman, Joker, Riddler, and others (both good and villains) had to go to the moon. Something goes wrong and they are stranded there. Suddenly the comic goes across the scope of years and years...There are bad incidents (I think Joker tries killing someone) but mostly they all stick together like a family.

I was completely immersed in this comic and reading it obsessively...Sometimes my dream becoming inside the comic, like acting it out. I was telling all my friends about it. And it was just like a Grant Morrison comic...really unique but confusing and out of left field.


Cliffy said...

Coming to this discussion late (and BTW Andrew, that is a great post), I have to disagree with baal. Easu understandability on the surface level is not the only possible virtue of art. (Even tho' I agree with you that it is a virtue.) Now, that's not the same as me saying **you** must change what you like about comics. But you're wrong that the only possible arbiter of quality is the dimenion you describe, just as I'd be wrong if I said the only arbiter of quality is that its got lots of naked chicks in it. Some people want different things from art, and they may find a particular work lacking, shake hands, and say fare the well.

Part of the reason I loved Invisibles is the sense of accomplishment whenever I figured out some new thing about it -- Hilary didn't climb Everest because it was easy to do.

John Seavey said...

Y'know, I've gone on a huge (and I mean huge) Silver Age jag lately. I've spent the last eight months or so reading the Essential Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, Spider-Man (both Amazing and Spectacular), Ant-Man, Ghost Rider, Spider-Woman, Nova, Tomb of Dracula, Super-Villain Team-Up, Man-Thing, and Son of Satan (among others, I'm sure.) And Showcase Presents Batman, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Haunted Tank, War That Time Forgot, Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice League and Metamorpho (again, among others.)

And it's taught me that Grant Morrison doesn't have nearly as many ideas as people think. He's just cribbing from sources you probably don't remember. Marvel Boy isn't filled with tons and tons of crazy, big ideas...or rather, it is, but they're all from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and you just haven't read those issues. :)

The more Silver Age I read, the more impressed with it I am, and the less impressed with modern comics I become. (And no, it's not nostalgia--I never read this stuff until now.)

Jumaan said...

"And it's taught me that Grant Morrison doesn't have nearly as many ideas as people think. He's just cribbing from sources you probably don't remember. Marvel Boy isn't filled with tons and tons of crazy, big ideas...or rather, it is, but they're all from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and you just haven't read those issues. :)"

Well, the thing about Marvel Boy is that it's a twist on a bunch of different elements from 60's Marvel. He's Kree, but the twist is that this Kree's religion is Zen Fascism and they have ships that run on imagination. He's Captain America, but cloned three times and serving the U.N. instead of the U.S. And he can turn into the Hulk. Yes, Dr. Midas looks like the original Iron Man. But, he also goes into space on purpose to get all of the Fantastic Four's powers. That was kind of the point of the whole thing. I don't know that anyone was claiming that Morrison came up with this stuff from whole cloth. All this stuff is supposed to be easily recognizable for a reason.

Besides, Seaguy is right there if you want to see cool, big ideas on every page, practically.

Marc said...

Believe it or not, John, your recent spate of Essentials and Showcases does not make you the only person to have read Silver Age comics.

And Marvel Boy makes too convenient an example. It's hardly Morrison's most original work (although you won't find stuff like Hexus, the Living Corporation in those reprints of Ant-Man), but it does show his knack for recombining and reenvisioning older concepts... which is what Fox and Broome and Lee and Kirby were doing in those Silver Age comics in the first place. It would be a mistake to assume that ideas are only ideas if they are completely without antecedent--by that standard, almost nothing in comics qualifies. (Or film, or literature...)

Andrew Hickey said...

Marc, exactly - in particular, what I love about Morrison's work is the way he replaces the 60s pseudo-science with newer scientific concepts and actually makes them work - there's a *lot* to say about his use of entropy in Seven Soldiers (I know entropy isn't a new concept but it's been a defining one for much of the most interesting work of the last 50 years).
Morrison has always freely acknowledged where he takes plots, characters and so on from. It doesn't make him any less imaginative, any more than it does when Alan Moore does the same, or when Shakespeare did...

Cliffy said...

Indeed -- the fact that Morrison channels Kirby is part of what makes him great, not a lessening of it.

(But I will agree with John that Marvel's Silver Age was the bee's knees. Which I didn't understand until I started reading Essentials some years ago.)