When you spend a good deal of time discussing work with alternative comics creators, the subject of superhero books is broached on a fairly regular basis. After all, most of us in the scene grew up on costumed exploits, and as far removed as we might consider ourselves from the genre, we all seem to harbor some manner of obsession with these American gods.
Ask your average alternative cartoonist whether they read any DC or Marvel superhero books, and the answer is often something along the lines of, “no—except for certain creators, like Grant Morrison.” The only thing is, while handfuls of copycats have sprung up in the wake of his successful runs on books like All-Star Superman, New X-Men, and Justice League, no one’s really like Grant Morrison, and while a few notable names like Alan Moore and Frank Miller deserve to stand alongside him, given their propensity for genre-defying works, with few exceptions, they’ve largely abandoned the world of supermen for their own creations.
Morrison, for his part, while continuing to issue mind-expanding original series like The Invisibles, The Filth, and WE3, has always come back to the heroes on which he was weaned. Over the past two decades, Morrison’s occult sensibilities have left an indelible mark on universes of comics’ two major publishers, particularly DC, which has seen the author take the helm of both lynchpins like Batman and Superman and long-forgotten characters like Animal Man. Morrison’s forthcoming Final Crisis will serve as something of a culmination of all of the seeds he’s planted across the universe, during his tenure as one of mainstream comics’ most innovative minds.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Morrison for a few minutes at this year’s New York Comic Con, to discuss the artist’s immeasurable impact on the oft-dread (at least around these parts) world of capes and tights.
Do you ever get sick of doing all of these cons?
No, because [in the comics industry] mostly you just sit in your little room, working, so it’s nice to come out and talk to people, because the Internet gives you a false, distorted view of what people are really thinking.
When you were on the fan side of the equation, would you come out to these sorts of events?
Yeah, they’re lots of fun, obviously. I used to wait for Brian Bolland, to touch the hem of his jacket [laughs].
Were you raised primarly on superhero books?
Yeah, pretty much. I grew up on The Flash and those 60s comics, when I was a young kid, and then I really became a comic fan in the 70s, when I was a teenager. I was a bit obsessive, at that point, a typical teenage fan reading comics. So yeah, I grew up reading DC superhero comics.
Were you aspiring to work with these characters when you first started in the field?
Yeah, I wanted to do it, but also, as a writer, I was interested in all kinds of work. I liked all kinds of weird things, and I wanted to write for television and I wanted to write novels, but comics were the first thing I ended up breaking through in, so I ended up getting really into them. And I’ve done other things since then, of course. But comics are the best, because there’s lesss editorial interference, and you can say what you want to say—really get the ideas straight on the page and get them onto the streets within three months. You just can’t do that with other mediums.
Was it difficult initially to get that aforementioned weird message across when you first started working with established titles?
I don’t think so. This was just the meat and drink of my life—superheroes, fashion, British television, because there was some really great British cult TV from the 60s and 70s, so all of that was influential to me, and I would have put that material out, wherever I found it. So if it’s Superman, I’m trying to think of the character as if he were a British television drama, what he would be like. So I wasn’t basing it on all of the comics, but the other influences that I was absorbed with, at the time.
When you’re working on a script for Superman, versus, say, The Invisibles, how much are you taking into account the average Superman reader? Do you censor yourself?
Well, you have to think a little bit about them. Superman is such an iconic figure. The whole world understands Superman, so for me, it was kind of a way to take him out of the superhero context and represent him more as a science fiction idea—the story of the perfect man, and what it would be like and how it would affect the plant—people might hate him or love him. So it had wider implications.
Things like The Invisibles—that was my real life. I was doing the diary, I was doing the drugs, I shaved my head, I caught myself up in the character, I traveled the world, did all of the weird stuff that’s in the book, did the magick, summoned the voodoo gods. So those things are obviously a lot more personal. And because they’re my characters, no one can say, “oh, you got that guy wrong.” With the superhero book, you’re always running the risk of offending someone who loves a certain portrayal of Batman that may be a little bit different from the one that you’ve done. I enjoy doing both. I like the populist thing, where I can bring some of the weird things down into a much wider, more populist arena.
So, are you still King Mob at all?
I don’t think so. I was a bit younger then [laughs]. And it takes a lot out of you, dealing with voodoo gods, but I still do some magick—I’m still interested in that stuff, and it’s still part of my life.
And you’re still applying those ideas to some of your work.
Yeah, well something like Superman, if you want to look at it in a mythical context, it’s the story of a dying sungod. Again, right now a lot of my work is about the feeling of western civilization being in decline, feelings of fear and trying to deal with that, using some of these big imaginative symbols that everyone understands, that people can talk about.
When you have a story that you want to tell with an established superhero, do you approach DC and tell them that you’d like to use Superman to tell it?
No, in most cases they come to me and suggest it. They say, “do you want to do Doom Patrol?” and then it’s a case of reading through the stuff and finding what about the project appeals to my sensibilities and then taking it from there. I kind of like that as well, because the other stuff I’m generating from my own imagination, but it’s nice to be given something that has parameters—do I bend that, do I break that, or do I stay within it? So again, there are two different ways to work.
When I was 17-years-old, the first job I had was selling really bizarre sci-fi stuff that I was doing myself to a magazine called Near Myths. It was a really underground magazine, but at the same time, I was working with D.C. Thomson. They were the big comics kids publisher in Britain. They do Beano. So I had all of this trained, disciplined rapping on the knuckles, if I didn’t get something right, at the same time I was doing the real weird underground stuff, and it’s kind of just gone through my whole career, the two sides. It’s always been like that, and I really like it, because one feeds into the other. The skills that you learn on the disipline side come back into the crazier stuff, and the imaginative freedom that you have on that stuff feeds into the more mainstream.
In terms of your own sanity, do you feel it necessary to alternate between the superhero and non-superhero stuff, regularly?
Yeah. Particularly now. Final Crisis is kind of a big combination of a lot of strands of work that I’ve been doing since Justice League in the 90s. After this, I really want to take a break and do some creative work and rethink superheroes again. I do want to come back and do it, again, but I feel that this is the type of think I had in the 90s, and it comes to an end with Final Crisis, so when I come back, I want to have rethought the entire genre.
Are there any big name heroes that you’d like to work with, but haven’t gotten a chance yet?
I’m not sure yet. I haven’t really thought about it yet. Again, it will take a lot of time, because I’d have to decide what I want to talk about, and figure out what’s going on in the world and what character best exemplifies those kinds of field.
But if you were approached and liked the character, but didn’t feel like it could tell one of these sorts of stories, you would skip the project altogether?
Yeah, pretty much, but if someone comes to me and says, “would you like to do Aquaman?” and I’ve got a really fabulous idea for Aquaman, then I would certainly do it.