Grant Morrison's book about superheroes never quite gets off the ground

Grant Morrison is one of the most important creators in superhero comics over the past two decades or so, thanks to Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, JLA, New X-Men, All-Star Superman and so on. So Morrison writing a book about superheroes is a splendid prospect.

Sadly, though, Morrison's newly published non-fiction book Supergods is the opposite of a great superhero comic: It's muddled, formless, and not very dynamic. There are hints of a great book here, but it never quite finds its identity.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I'm a ginormous fan of Morrison's comics work — if he had only written We3 or The Invisibles, he would have a small shrine in my house, and I sprang for the deluxe hardcovers of his entire New X-Men run. I've re-read Seven Soldiers a bunch, and always get something new out of it. His weird Final Crisis: Superman Beyond miniseries, with the 3-D glasses, is a work of pure excellence. And Supergods is not entirely a bad book — it's just a book that utterly fails to come together.

The main problem with Supergods is that Morrison is trying to write three different books, which are somewhat incompatible. And thus, he winds up achieiving none of his three goals satisfactorily, although there are enough interesting moments along the way to keep it readable, especially in the second half of the book. Let's take them one by one. Morrison is trying to write:

1) A history of superhero comics. Especially the first 100 pages of the book, in which Morrison is covering stuff that happened before he was born, he tries to summarize a lot of comics history quickly, and he's obviously paraphrasing a lot from secondary sources. (He actually references Wikipedia once or twice.) His observations are limited to things like "early Wonder Woman comics had a lot of bondage." And as the book goes on, and becomes more about Morrison's own life and experiences, his history gets less and less comprehensive. For example, Milestone Comics didn't exist according to Grant Morrison. And so on. He's not really a great comics historian, and he doesn't seem that interested in trying to be.

2) An exploration of the meaning of superhero comics. This is the book the jacket copy seems to promise, but Morrison spends less time on it than other stuff. After reading the whole thing, I'm not sure what his point about superheroes is, other than that they reflect the era where they're created. And they go through cycles of realism and artiness. He occasionally tries to sum up the zeitgeist of an era and fails, like when he says of the 1970s, "The United States snapped out of its post-Watergate funk, celebrating the 1976 bicentennial and its aftermath with a determined confidence that was given its proper mythic expression in George Lucas' Star Wars." Huh? And his attempts at being deep and philosophical often fall flat, except when he's talking about his own personal growth as an artist — like when he speculates that a creature from the fourth dimension could see our organs and insides. (We actually do live in the fourth dimension. Later in the book, he says basically the same thing, but this time it's the fifth dimension.) At one point, he actually writes, "All snowflakes were the same, but every snowflake was heartbreakingly different in the tiniest details." He tries to cover a lot of zeitgeisty ground in this book, and at times it just doesn't work.

3) A memoir about Morrison's own life and how superhero comics have affected it. This is honestly the best part of Supergods!, and you get the sense that this is the book Morrison should have written. Whenever he talks about his own personal journey with superheroes, the book snaps to life. Talking about his coming of age as a superhero reader, Morrison is funny and touching and raw. His wit and cleverness starts coming through, and his self-deprecating humor is worth of Clive James at times. (At one point, he starts a punk rock band in 1978, and his bandmembers have punk names like Awesome Toys and Simply Dimbleby.) And as Morrison takes you through the weird odyssey that led to the creation of some of the most memorable comics of the past 25 years, you gain a new appreciation for Morrison's creative process. The good news is, as the book goes along and Morrison becomes more central to the story of superhero comics in general, the book gets better as a result.

Supergods! has some really great bits, and you can glimpse how it could have been a superb book if Morrison had stuck to being a raconteur, and maybe taken more time to cover some of the bumpy parts of his life that he skates over at top speed. Alternatively, I could see Supergods working as an essay collection, because there are clearly topics here that Morrison feels strongly about, mixed in with the topics that he seems not to have much to say about, but feels obligated to include.

For example, there's an unexpected, fascinating rant about the idea that an aging audience of comics fans in the early 1970s clamored for more "realistic," darker storylines — and thus turned superhero comics into something that no longer appealed to small children. (Particularly around the time that Green Arrow's sidekick was becoming a junky.) This is not a new idea, but Morrison explores it with a lot of gusto, and it's interesting to see someone who's pushed superhero comics in some pretty non-kid-friendly directions lamenting the loss of the all-ages superhero comic. Here's Morrison, explaining how a handful of vocal fans seemed like a huge tide of criticism at the time:

These older comic-book hobbyists — often collectors of back issues, compilers of price lists, and publishers of DIY fanzines — favored work that was edgy and defensibly mature, distorting the scale of the adult-oriented superhero's appeal with passionate and clever letters of comment, fan awards, and relentless rubbishing of everything that didn't fit the strict diktat of a red-faced, teenage fan culture understandably keen to establish the art credentials of its beloved comics with a significant corpus of educated criticism. Anxious to escape the mocking echoes of the Batman TV show and the disrepute it had brought upon the "serious" business of collecting comics, and learning to appreciate the nuances of their artristry, these adolescent advocates were ready to embrace any development that validated their growing interest in politics, poetry, sex, and expressions of emotional pain... Prickly and unselfconfident, the new "fandom" especially liked its stories about powerful men and women in Day-Glo Lycra to come embellished with extended Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot quotes.

Later in the book, he goes into another tirade about haters on the Internet, who appear numerous but are actually just "a few troublemakers" who dismiss everything with "the same jaded, geriatric 'Meh.'"

And at times, Morrison stands back and looks at his own career from a bit of distance, and it's fascinating. Like when he talks about the British invasion of American comics in the late 1980s, and comments: "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." And when he admits that "accusations of pretension stung horribly" when people accused his Arkham Asylum of being "incomprehensible, meaningless and pretentious."

There are also some fascinating glimpses of how Morrison sees his peers, including a lengthy analysis of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen which praises it, but also criticizes it for its "stifling quality; a crystalline narcissism that for my taste was too in love with its own artifice." (He also says Watchmen is too dependent on "conventional Hollywood stereotypes.") Praising the Kree-Skrull War, he dismisses Marvel's Secret Invasion as a direct sequel "without any of the dazzling narrative tricks that made the original so remarkable." He alludes to a "potential for disaster" in his own partnership with writer Mark Millar, but doesn't ever explain what he means.

And then there are the lengthy passages where Morrison talks about his trips — both literally, to various parts of the world like Kathmandu, and figuratively, on various drugs and weird rituals — and the bizarre visions he experienced as a result. This all culminates in Morrison passing out of our reality altogether and seeing the true nature of the universe, which his human brain can barely encompass. One especially entertaining passage goes:

Now there were what I can deescribe only as "presences" emerging from the walls and furniture. Perhaps someone else would call these rippling, dribbling blobs of pure holographic meta-material angels or extraterrestrials. They were made of what might have been mercury or flowing liquid chrome and informed me that I had caused this to happen and now had to deal with the consequences of my actions.

And of course, there's the whole incident where Morrison, writing The Invisibles, causes King Mob to fall into the hands of his enemies and nearly die — and Morrison, himself, nearly died of a staph infection at the same time. Morrison discovered, as a result, that he could write impossibly beautiful, sophisticated women into his comic and they would come to him in real life shortly afterwards.

All in all, die-hard fans of Grant Morrison — by which I mean, all right-thinking comics readers — should peruse Supergods for insights into the mind of one of the great creators working today. Everyone else will definitely find some hilarious insights and fascinating anecdotes scattered here and there, especially in the second half of the book. All in all, though, Supergods leaves you with the feeling that Grant Morrison could write a terrific book about his life and ideas, and it's not this one.

Towards the end of Supergods, Morrison admits that he wrote basically the same book in a much shorter form, in his brilliant (but sadly out-of-print) Flex Mentallo miniseries. You should probably take him at his word.