Supergods

Supergods

‘Supergods’ book review: In his memoir/textbook/countercultural bible ‘Supergods’, legendary comics writer Grant Morrison explores our enduring fascination with superheroes and provides insight into his own journey as a comics guru.

Buy on Amazon: Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

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For his first dedicated comic strip in the late seventies, Grant Morrison invented an unemployed Glaswegian superhero called Captain Clyde. Ten years later, his groundbreaking Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth was published to lasting acclaim and huge commercial success – it remains the bestselling graphic novel of all time and an invaluable addition to the Batman canon. Anyone who can make that sort of jump, one far more impressive than Superman’s original boast that he could leap 1/8 of a mile, is probably worth your attention.

Morrison’s new book Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero is, in its own way, a more complex undertaking than anything he has previously attempted. It combines an extraordinarily nuanced and detailed history of the comic book superhero from 1938’s Action Comics #1 (the birth of Superman) until the present day with a perceptive social and cultural narrative exploring how world events fed into the different ages and styles which cycle endlessly through the comics continuum; and as if that wasn’t enough, it’s also an autobiography charting Morrison’s rise from unemployed punk and art school reject to wildly successful councercultural icon. Irrespective of your background or interest in comics, there’ll be something in there for you.

The first few chapters of Supergods are some of the most entertaining, informative and compelling non-fiction I can ever remember reading. Morrison is obviously a bona fide enthusiast, and his painstaking deconstruction of the first ever Superman and Batman covers is an excellent introduction to the rest of the book – the reader quickly learns that no topic will be too geeky, too involved or too niche. Defiantly imbuing the characters he discusses with all the importance of any other cultural deity, he makes the thrust of his book even more explicit in the first pages than the title; “The original Superman”, he writes, “was a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism.” I suspect many writers would be inclined towards trimming this sort of statement with a wry ‘the geeks’ll love this’ aside, but no such arch attitude is forthcoming from Morrison; he believes what he writes, absolutely and utterly.

In fact, Morrison’s steadfast belief in the paramount importance of the inked, coloured and lettered panel is ultimately the closest thing Supergods has to a cackling nemesis. When writing about the comics he remembered as a child or those that predated him, Morrison’s enthusiasm is tempered with a certain remove – he was still a consumer of comics rather than a creator per se, and his reading of the Golden and Silver ages is correspondingly forgiving and eager. Morrison lavishes pages on half-forgotten series like Jack Kirby’s New Gods, giving a genuine insight into his own favourites which fans will welcome. However, everything changes when he begins to write about the comics scene of which he was suddenly a part.

If the first half of Supergods was the passionate and insightful detective Batman, the second half is his vain and capricious foe Catwoman. While he continues to discuss comics with the same verve and insight, Morrison’s account of the comics scene from the mid-eighties onwards tends increasingly towards self-congratulation – and, more tellingly, character assassinations. Alan Moore and Frank Miller are both put through the mill, although Morrison’s references to their pretensions seem fairly vanilla when compared to his own rambling essays on metatextuality and psychedelia; even hardcore fans may struggle to plough through the details of how Morrison “sampled a fistful of psilocybin mushrooms” and consequently became convinced that he was travelling through time as he flicked back and forth through a copy of Doom Patrol. After the incisive and even-handed analysis of the earlier chapters, it’s a slightly disorientating experience to be thrown into such subjective territory with nothing to cling to.

In a way, it’s deeply unfortunate that no discussion of superhero comics could ever be complete without mentioning Grant Morrison; I’m desperate for more people, particularly comics naysayers, to read his superb analysis of the form, but I wouldn’t wish his self-congratulatory autobiographical schtick on anyone. There only seem to be two possible solutions to the problems of Supergods, each as impractical as the other (and each requiring a time machine, or at least Metron’s Mobius Chair) – either Morrison could have risen to the top of his profession and then written a straight memoir, or he could have stayed out of the game altogether and then produced a coherent textbook from the perspective of a deeply, deeply knowledgeable fan of the medium. Supergods is, unfortunately, not quite close enough to either camp to be a great book. However, this doesn’t preclude it from being an illuminating and absorbing read which will certainly contain new insights for even the most jaded expert. Morrison sets out to demonstrate that the superhero archetype – capable of bending and deforming like a sapling in a gale before snapping back stronger than ever – is as pervasive and important as the gods were in ages past, and on that level he certainly delivers.

Note from the eds: We read Supergods too and we thought the whole thing was bloody brilliant. Including the revealing, witty and self-exploratory autobiographical second half. So there you go – two reviews for the price of one!

Buy on Amazon: Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

Buy Kindle Edition: Supergods


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