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Grant Morrison’s Dull Superhero Fantasies

I just finished reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods, which strikes me as a fairly good encapsulation of some big trends in superhero comics, but not a particularly engaging or reflective memoir.

I’m obviously sympathetic to Morrison’s belief that culture in general and superhero stories in particular are important places where we work out big ideas. Or, as he puts it, “We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations.” And I think he’s right that as those fears and longings fluctuate, different superheroes rise and fall in popularity, for example, “Superman began as a socialist, but Batman was the ultimate capitalist hero, which may help explain his current popularity and Superman’s relative loss of significance.” I don’t necessarily agree with the idea, which Morrison spends some of the latter half of the book selling, that these fluctuations are caused by 22-year-long cycles in sunspot activities — I tend to think humanity has a little bit more control over itself than that, and that the patterns in our popular culture are too complex to be reduced to two simple alternatives.

And I think part of what makes Supergods somewhat unsatisfying is Morrison’s conviction that the highest ideal superheroes can help us to aspire to is self-actualization. He’s actively anti-political at certain points in the book, complaining at one point:

As far as I was concerned, the Anti-Life Equation was being rammed down my gullet every day in the papers and on TV, and I was sick of it; sick of being told the world was dying, and it was all because I’d forgot to turn off the bathroom light; sick of Fina(ncia)l Crisis, the War, and the teenage suicide bombers willing to die for the promise of a cheesy afterlife that sounded like a night out with the lap dance girls at Spearmint Rhino.

And insisting later that:

If we perpetually reinforce the notion that human beings are somehow unnatural aberrations adrift in the ever-encroaching Void, that story will take root in impressionable minds and inform the art, politics, and general discourse of our culture in anti-life, anti-creative, and potentially catastrophic ways. If we spin a tale of guilt and failure with an unhappy ending, we will live that story to its conclusion, and some benighted final generation not far down the line will pay the price. If, on the other hand, we emphasize our glory, intelligence, grace, generosity, discrimination, honesty, capacity for love, creativity, and native genius, those qualities will be made manifest in our behavior and in our works. It should give us hope that superhero stories are flourishing everywhere because they are a bright flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be.

But it’s not really clear what Morrison thinks it might be like for us to be “better, more just, and more proactive.” His own arc, for example, follows him through his parents’ divorce, his fear of atomic warfare, and a spot of nasty infection to comics superstardom, a world where his split with Mark Millar is all Millar’s fault, where he’s departed for Marvel Comics because they’re a bunch of squares. An extended mystic — or drug-fueled — visionary session in Kathmandu certainly seems like it was meaningful for Morrison, but it’s not very interesting to read about (it might have played out better visually). And while it’s nice for Morrison that the practice of sympathetic magic and a stint at cross-dressing (which might explain why he responded to Batgirl’s questions about why DC doesn’t have more women on staff by saying that he looks good in a dress) helped him make money, marry an attractive woman, and gain enough power that he can be aggressively dismissive about fans of his work, improvements in his life don’t mean very much to anyone else. It’s just a story of a kid who was initially cool because he saw potential in a medium other people dismissed getting the recognition that he’s convinced he deserves.

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It might be depressing to watch characters we love go through the wringer. It’s depressing to go through it ourselves. And it’s depressing to believe that the world is under threat, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. People who use their powers only to build fantastic lives for themselves and turn away from the world may be making interesting choices — but that doesn’t mean they’re heroes.