The man who reinvented Batman for the modern age tells us why superheroes give us hope in the age of the apocalypse
The ancient Greeks had gods, after we killed all the gods we created and comic book heroes as a replacement. In his new book, Supergods, comic book legend Grant Morrison lays out the history and dissects the social significance of masked heroes and villains, tracing the context that encouraged their creation. Just as for the Greeks gods were seen as embodiments of human traits and not as metaphysical entities, Morrison’s analysis suggests that superheroes came to fill a similar role, representing human desire and anxieties that allow these characters to permeate from their fictional world into our own reality.
For comic book nerds, Supergods is thick with historical detail yet it’s Morrison’s own broader observations and theorising that makes the book so fascinating and, despite its 500 odd pages, drives it forward. Dazed Digital sat down with Grant Morrison to chat about optimism, fetishism and transvestite guerrillas.
Dazed Digital: Why do you think there’s been such a strong revival in contemporary culture of comic book heroes?
Grant Morrison: I began to think of why superheroes were coming off our current emotional response in terms of the constant emergency that we’re told we’re in. It’s not necessarily that there is a real emergency; people are happier, healthier, live longer and have more leisure time than ever, but the current media narrative is one of apocalypse and disaster that paints us all as a doomed species heading toward extinction and it’s all our fault, which I think is a very Christian, biblical endgame assumption.
So for me the reason superheroes cropped up so powerfully again is because they kind of spoke to us about a potential future where we do get up off our arses and make things better. We’ve run out of all utopian images of the future, I think the superhero is the very last, very crude and vital attempt to imagine a human future beyond the current state that we’re in.
DD: Have Superheroes always been beacons of optimism?
Grant Morrison: Since his creation in 1938, Superman has consistently shown us what we wanted to be, coming out of a time of mass unemployment. Ten years later he’s a patriot riding missiles into the Japanese fleet and ten years after that he a kind of 50s patriarch with a large family of people and ten years after that he’s a cosmic seeker trying to help the Indians and sort out pollution. In the 80s he’s a yuppie, in the 90s he’s dead; he’s a dead symbol that’s being examined in a post modern way. That initial socialist guy, the champion of the repressed, is actually not a very popular character these days, but Batman is because Batman’s a plutocrat, Batman’s rich and fetishistic and surrounded by sexy girls and that current dream image of what we all want to be, sadly.
DD: Is there an element of modern day guilt in aspects of this fetishism?
Grant Morrison: Yeah I think so, and I think that’s where the super villains come in handy because they personify those feelings of guilt or of shame or of madness because we do live in a very guilty culture. So I think even the dream people have to have something to fight against and I think the super villains personify that. Again that’s what makes them interesting: you can take the concept of greed and give it form in a comic and set it against the embodiment of hope. It’s an interesting thought experiment, that if you need some hope, then create a superhero and plant it into your head, it’s almost as affective as having a god.
DD: How much of yourself do you put into your comics?
Grant Morrison: With the king Mob character in Invisibles, for instance, I first changed myself to look like him, I wanted to see how far into a comic book a human being could insert himself, it was about trying to create a stickier contact between the comic page and the human life. I became him and put myself in situations that he would find himself in until that kind of reversed and I found I was more like him than he was. I began to meet people who were that kind of underground, fringe people.
I actually got photographs from transvestite guerrillas in Latin America. Some guy was saying there’s no way you could throw a Molotov cocktail wearing a Dior gown. And he sent me photo in like a Madam JoJos outfit, in the middle of the jungle in South America. The more I became like the comic, the more life becomes like the comic and it became harder to tell fiction from fact.
DD: There’s a definite shamanic streak in some of your comic books, has that been an interest?
Grant Morrison: Yeah, my uncle gave me the Aleister Crowley Tarot package, so when I was 19 years old I was really into magic and the idea of trying these experiments. I didn’t believe any of it, but I found that when I followed instructions I did change consciousness to the extent that I believed there was an angel in the room. So I was kind of forced into the fact that there was more to heaven and earth than school had taught me. There’s easily available instructions in every Mind, Body and Spirit section of every book store in the world that allow you to change your consciousness, but people dismiss it and laugh at it. I had to do it to see if it worked, and discovered that it did, now they laugh at me!
Supergods is out now