He killed Batman and inspired The Matrix, but comic writer Grant Morrison has always been out of this world
Taken from the May 2009 issue of Dazed:
“BATMAN KILLED OFF – BY A SCOT!” announced one tabloid last November after DC Comics revealed that Bruce Wayne was to die in a forthcoming issue. The news was probably greeted with puzzlement by the tens of millions of people who saw The Dark Knight over the summer – why get rid of the coolest superhero in the world at the height of his popularity? – but for diehard Batman fans, it was the thrilling culmination of a year of rumours. If there was one writer who could cut down the Caped Crusader and make it more than just a cheap publicity stunt, it was Glasgow-born Grant Morrison – not only the most imaginative writer in contemporary comics, but also one of its most talked-about personalities. “He’s the closest thing to a rock star in the comic book world,” says comics critic Timothy Callahan, author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years. “Even when an actual rock star like (My Chemical Romance singer) Gerard Way works in comics, it’s in imitation of Grant Morrison.”
In fact, Morrison, now 49, cut his teeth in rock’n’roll, playing in a band called Ochre 5 that once supported the Jesus and Mary Chain. While his career as a rhythm guitarist never got off the ground, he got into comics precociously early, after he visited a science fiction convention as a teenager and introduced himself to the editors of a low-budget magazine called Near Myths. “I was a super-straight-edge 17-year-old punk and they were all hippies, but they invited me along,” he says. “I wrote and drew comics and they gave me 10 pence a page, which, at the time, was fucking amazing!”
“There was an explosion of people inspired by punk – the idea that whatever you wanted to say was cool as long as you expressed yourself” – Grant Morrison
Near Myths only lasted five issues, but it also launched the career of Bryan Talbot, creator of the influential The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Morrison remembers this as a time of tremendous creative possibility. “Our generation grew up with moon landings – we were all told that we would be on Mars by 1985. So, coming out of the 60s there was that utopian strain,” says Morrison. “Punk crashed that party, with a cynicism that made the work edgier. There was an explosion of people inspired by punk – the idea that whatever you wanted to say was cool as long as you expressed yourself; even if you couldn’t play, even if you were fucking awful at the guitar. It gave working class people a sense of empowerment. You played in bands, you made art, you made comics. Everyone thought they were in the Velvet Underground. It was an escape from Glasgow.”
Morrison, still on the dole, worked his way up to 2000AD, and soon afterwards moved into American superhero comics as part of the so-called British Invasion, a loose cadre of irreverent young writers which also included Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Garth Ennis (Preacher), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan) and Mark Millar (Wanted). The question wasn’t whether they could beat the Americans at their own game (they did this almost effortlessly, dominating the medium for at least 15 years). Rather, they were striving to outdo both each other and their creative forefather Alan Moore.
Unfortunately, for all the stunning work produced in this period, Morrison and his peers were the exceptions in a mediocre industry. “For a while, it seemed like it was going to explode into the mainstream,” he says. “We were in the NME; you saw people reading comics on the Tube. But by the early 90s it had collapsed – there wasn’t the talent to live up to the expectations.” Arguably, there still isn’t. “Nobody’s come and kicked our crowd out, so we’ve just hung around! Maybe to the detriment of comics!”
Morrison’s first work in American comics was on the obscure title Animal Man. Within a few months, the story had taken a wildly avant-garde turn, with Animal Man becoming aware that he and his family were fictional and Morrison himself making a guest appearance in one issue as Animal Man’s creator and god. It began a preoccupation with the metaphysical nature of storytelling that continues to this day. “A comic doesn’t feel complete if it doesn’t acknowledge the presence of the reader,” says Morrison. “Rather than dragging comics into the real world and exposing them to age and shame, like Alan Moore does, I want to go into their world. After all, to the characters in those stories, everything in those stories are real.”
“With Grant’s work, the medium itself is a major subject,” says JG Jones, an American artist who worked with Morrison on the recent Final Crisis. “He sees the story internally and externally at the same time. I see Grant as one of our modern masters, along with Moore and a few other writers who were interested in form as much as function. But his stories usually have a great deal of heart as well, and the better ones transcend the medium to lodge themselves in the walls of the multiverse.”
In 1989, on the strength of Animal Man, Morrison was given a crack at the Caped Crusader with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which became one of the best-selling graphic novels of all time. His reinvention therein of the Joker as a sort of postmodern witch-doctor was not only a major influence on Heath Ledger’s recent portrayal, but is also a strangely apt summary of the Scotsman’s own creative output. “It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here,” explains the Joker’s therapist at one point. “A brilliant new modification of human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the 20th century. Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with the chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.” Collage, mutation, surrealism, futurity – these are the qualities that have defined Morrison’s work since the beginning.
“If you create a model of the universe and then play with it, you can change the universe itself” – Grant Morrison
Nowhere is this more true than in The Invisibles. This extraordinary series, which ran for 59 issues between 1994 and 2000, remains Morrison’s central achievement. Following a group of glamorous anarchists as they defend time and space from insectile invaders, it’s hallucinatory, gripping and frequently unintelligible. Early on, sales were perilously low, and at one point Morrison demanded that fans participate in a global “wankathon”, in which they would all masturbate at a set time in the hopes of casting a “group spell”. The spell, apparently, worked, and the series was allowed to continue, eventually earning the dubious honour of being ripped off by the creators of The Matrix, who reportedly handed out copies to their crew.
What makes The Invisibles even more notable is the strange blurring of boundaries between its protagonist, King Mob, and its creator. “It was like a diary,” says Morrison, who was once invited by NASA to talk to their physicists about creativity. “I was doing a lot of magical experiments, Aleister Crowley stuff, voodoo. And then I came up with the notion that if you create a model of the universe and then play with it, you can change the universe itself. I found I could put people in the comic and then meet them a few months later. The interactions between me and the text got stranger and stranger. I was living the life of these characters, except that I wasn’t actually bombing government buildings.”
When King Mob got a beautiful girlfriend, Morrison did too; when King Mob was tortured almost to death, Morrison’s own body began to collapse from within. “It got to the point where I was lying in hospital, near death, and as I was waiting to be told if I’d have to have a heart bypass, I wrote the next issue,” explains the writer. “I was convinced that I could write my way out of trouble and make a totemistic pact with the bacteria that were invading my body.”
Just like when Alan Moore talks about worshipping an ancient Roman snake God called Glycon, it’s very difficult to know whether Morrison has his tongue in his cheek here. “I don’t take any of it literally, even though Morrison might,” says Timothy Callahan. “I see all of his talk of philosophy and his notion of chaos magic and transcendence as just another type of story he tells. And since stories are ways of making sense out of reality, I don’t think it’s problematic that some people might believe the stories and others don’t. When (cosmic imp) Bat-Mite says in Batman RIP that ‘imagination is the fifth dimension’, I can’t help but agree.”
But while Morrison was baffling his readers and meddling with reality in The Invisibles, he was simultaneously writing the more mainstream, and best-selling, Justice League of America. Much as Sonic Youth can follow an album of flawless pop hooks with one of atonal feedback torture, Morrison juggles the experimental and the populist with an ease that’s truly unique in his field. And he’s never looked down on tights and capes. “For me it’s easy to express big ideas through superheroes because no one takes them seriously. There’s a resistance to big ideas in the culture – there’s an anti-intellectual bias. But in comics you can play with ideas in a direct and concrete way. Superheroes are Jungian archetypes.”
None of Morrison’s previous superhero work, however, has been quite as high profile as the recent Batman RIP. The storyline follows Batman’s defeat at the hands of a sinister group of villains called the Black Glove – in outline it’s very traditional, but it’s as packed with symbolism, trickery and bizarre surprises as the rest of Morrison’s work. (Of course, it turns out that Batman probably isn’t really dead.) “I’ve got a lot of respect for fictional universes,” says Morrison. “Batman existed long before I was alive and he’ll exist long after I’m dead. That’s what makes me so interested in these things. Every day, I get up and I go to work in another dimension!”
Batman RIP and Final Crisis are published by Titan Books; Grant Morrison: The Early Years is published by the Sequert Research and Literary Organisation