It should be an easy question to answer, a simple topic to elaborate upon. I love comics, and I love talking about the medium. And despite the fact that some of the best, most literate expressions of this artform have nothing to do with superheroes, I can’t ever deny the deep-seated passion I’ve had for capes-and-tights adventures since my first Avengers so many decades ago. But – why superheroes? What is it about this mythic cross of science fiction and fantasy that had not only enthralled me from a young age, but has also turned into huge business, dominating popular culture in movies and video games in the twenty-first century? Should be simple to answer. Shouldn’t it?
Grant Morrison, one of the most renowned and respected comics writers of our day, is far more equipped to tackle this subject than I. Thankfully, at least, as his new book Supergods shows us, I wasn’t wrong in thinking that there is no simple answer to the question. I’m just as thankful that the exploration of superhero culture, in his capable hands and guided by a life similarly captivated by the genre (as well as being twisted through years of genuine chaos magic and intense psychedelia), is a tremendously fascinating and rewarding one.
Supergods explores the history of superheroes, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman in 1938 through the modern era and the infusion of superheroics into the “real world,” both in Hollywood’s forays into more realistic portrayals, and the advent of real world superheroes, like Portland’s Zetaman and Atlanta’s Crimson Fist. As each decade and each era is explored, Morrison beautifully connects current events with the responses of popular culture, demonstrating how the world of comics, and superheroes specifically, became both accurate reflections of the times as well as prescient oracles of developing fears, dreams, and ideals.
The Marvel comics revolution, announced with the iconic and groundbreaking covers of Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15, came courtesy of the combined visionary genius of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko.
The golden walls of Camelot collapsed, flimsy as any stage set, to reveal the bloody screaming mires of Vietnam beyond, where two million potential astronauts, artists, poets, musicians, and scientists were being lined up to die in the sacrifice of an American generation… the time of men as gods who bore fire in the palms of their hands had come. And with that recognition of the superhero’s Promethean dimension came the acknowledgement of punishment, Fall, retribution, and guilt — themes that would resonate through the experience of a very unusual generation of children. From now on, having superpowers would come at the very least with great responsibility and, at worst, would be regarded as a horrific curse. (pp. 87-89)
Marvel’s new pantheon, beginning with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and growing by 1965 to include characters such as Daredevil, the X-Men, the Hulk, and Iron Man, is offered as a response to the changing times, “transforming the isotopes of fear into fuel rods of wonder and possibility” (p. 96).
As stories, artists, and writers are studied, Morrison provides just enough detail and analysis to enlighten readers completely unfamiliar with superheroes, breaking down cover images or art styles with a straightforward precision that might surprise fans of his comics work, which is often steeped in allusion and symbolism. Trends in comics storytelling are often compared to popular music, films, or literary periods, effectively underscoring the cultural connectedness of superhero tales, but also providing meaningful analogies for readers who are strangers to Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, and Peter Milligan.
For the comics fan, however, Morrison provides new insight into comics we’ve read and loved a dozen times over. A chapter on Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, for example, casting “Moore as comics’ fire-flecked prophet of apocalypse and Miller as its sensitive would-be tough-guy” (p. 206) offers panel-by-panel breakdowns that beg for yet another visit with these masterpieces. I find myself eager to seek out works like Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel, Milligan’s Enigma, and Steve Gerber’s Defenders, armed with a new sense of social commentary and significance.
Perhaps most impressively, and what makes this book stand out as more than just a history of four-color heroics, Morrison weaves in an autobiographical narrative that is both moving, enlightening, and downright fascinating. Knowing that the author has earned himself the title of “chaos magician” and then reading about his experiences and ideologies are two different things. After describing his revelatory trip from Kathmandu into the fifth dimension and back, it would be easy “to assume [he] hallucinated the whole thing and went completely, gloriously, and very lucratively mad” (p. 278). But these are not the opinions and memories of a madman. This is the story of a brilliant writer and singular human being who will unabashedly attribute certain works to drugs and psychedelic mania, but will also present a clear picture of themes, expressions, and concepts in the vast majority of his works, breathing new life into everything from Doom Patrol to Final Crisis.
In his fourth decade in the industry, Morrison is able to illuminate many major developments in the comics world. He was there, he knew the prominent players, or he felt the influence. For a generation of comics fans, this is like a backstage tour, or a behind-the-scenes documentary detailing the birth of so many of our cherished stories. In the chapter “Feared and Misunderstood,” Morrison talks about the (other) British Invasion, the one that introduced us to visionaries like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.
And so we arrived in our teens and twenties, in our leather jackets and Chelsea boots, with our crepe-soled brothel creepers and skinhead Ben Shermans, metal tattoos, and infected piercings. We brought to bear on the ongoing American superhero discourse the invigorating influence of alternative lifestyles, punk rock, fringe theater, and tight black jeans. We rolled up in anarchist hordes, in rowdy busloads, drinking the bars dry, munching our hosts’ buttocks (artist Glenn Fabry drunkenly assaulted editor Karen Berger’s glutes with his molars), and swearing in a dozen or more baffling regional accents. The Americans expected us to be brilliant punks and, eager to please our masters, we sensitive, artistic boys did our best to live up to our hype. Like the Sex Pistols sneering and burning their way through “Johnny B. Goode,” we took their favorite songs, rewrote all the lyrics, and played them on buzz saws through squalling distortion pedals (p. 186).
Despite undeniable personal connections to many editors, publishers, and productions, Morrison presents each development in the superhero saga with an admirable objectivity. A period I remember vividly as a teenager was the Image revolution, a stable of creator-owned projects that I despised from the outset for saturating the collector market with gimmicks, killing off decent storytelling, and forcing a shift in all major publishers towards the same. One dark New Comics Day during this period I had to listen to the proprietor of Haight Street’s Best of Both Worlds exclaim to one of his clerks that the issue of The Avengers in his hand was “trash! Toilet paper even!” I had the same comic in my hand, waiting to fork over my allowance cash for what I knew in my heart was a bland story with half-ass art. I still bought it. But I blamed Liefeld, McFarlane, et al for what I assumed was the death knell of superhero books. Morrison, however, has given me a different perspective on the movement, one that I can better appreciate given the modern superhero renaissance and the advent of the “Heroic Age.”
While the Brits remained foolishly intent on creating comic stories worthy of review alongside the latest novels in the Guardian literary section, a group of young American artists were preparing undeniable proof that comics would do much better business if they just looked cool and stopped trying to be so goddamned clever. At the time, it was a dreadful setback for the idea of “grown-up” superhero comics. In hindsight, it was America’s inevitable reaction to Watchmen, and the only response that could possibly be effective: Fuck realism, we just want our superheroes to look cool and kick ten thousand kinds of ass (p. 243).
The full title of the book is Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. This isn’t a defense of the medium, or even the superhero genre, against the new technologies and visual media of the twenty-first century. Nor is it some kind of allegorical treatise on the hero inside us all, as I had feared initially. Morrison’s book is an exciting exploration of popular fiction and the enduring power of superpowered storytelling. “Stories can break hearts or foment revolutions. Words can put electricity into our hearts or make our blood run cold. And the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God” (p. 415). For the uninitiated, it’s a perfectly concise and informative history, spiced up with the life and times of a renegade artist. It might even inspire you to read some comics. For a comics geek like me, it’s a satisfying answer to the question, why superheroes? And inspiration to keep loving their comic book adventures.
Supergods begins and ends with Superman. The Smallville “Sun God” with his origins in the minds of two kids from Cleveland is now prepped for the spotlight once again as a key component of DC Comics’ universe-wide (and highly controversial) relaunch. A brand new Action Comics #1 hits shelves this September. And it’s being written by Grant Morrison.