Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Grant Morrison, Animal Man, Bible John, And The Post-Modern Limitations Of Comic Book Superheroes

Grant Morrison was sitting in front of the word processor in his Glasgow flat when Animal Man dropped by. Back in the Sixties, life had been simple for the muscle-bound comic character. He was tall and blond, a regular superhero. Lately, though, he'd had problems. Big ones. It was bad enough that he'd undergone a personality transplant and turned into a crusading animal-rights activist. But then his family had been brutally murdered. Boy, was he confused.
"Come on in," invited Morrison, unconcerned. "I'm the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I'm the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. Someone else created you to be perfect and innocent, and then I step in and spoil everything. It's a little bit satanic, I suppose, I can make you say and do anything. I can make you hate your wife and children. I can make you forget you were ever married."
This was not what Animal Man wanted to hear. The blue flash on his red body-stocking swelled. "Murderer!" he roared, lifting Morrison and launching him headfirst through the window. Then, from behind, that voice again. Morrison, intact, a sly smile playing on his lips: "I made you do that too. I thought we needed some action at the start of the story just to keep people interested."
Animal Man clearly hadn't been paying attention. A cursory glance at the comics of the late Eighties - the top end of the market anyway - would have shown him that, these days, superpowers just aren't enough. With dialogue framed by post-modern angst, today's comic heroes are screw-loose vigilantes, their passion for justice a by-product of suppressed guilt, their curious costumes a sign of latent sexual inadequacy.
The above scenario was the kiss-off in Morrison's last Animal Man comic. He has played a large role in the movement that caused superheroes to examine their navels. Most famously, Arkham Asylum, the graphic novel in which he sent Batman to the madhouse, sold 120,000 copies in hardback, with Morrison on a royalty of a dollar a book. He claims the title was suppressed by Warner Brothers, owners of publishers DC, for fear it would undermine the impact of the Batman movie. Nor did his vision emerge unscathed. In the original script he had the Joker dressed as Madonna. "They said I couldn't do it because people would assume Jack Nicholson was a transvestite."
Morrison's latest project stretches comic convention still further. In a strip currently running in Fleetway's Crisis magazine he is retracing the steps of Bible John, the serial killer whose face came to haunt Glasgow. Between February 1968 and October 1969, three women were murdered after going dancing at the Barrowland ballroom. The killer told them Bible stories as they danced. Morrison calls his strip a meditation on the events. "There is no conclusion, because there was no conclusion in the case."
Bible John is written as a stream-of-consciousness essay with illustrations by Glasgow artist Danny Vallely. After studying yellowing newspaper cuttings, Morrison revisited the murder scenes, notebook in hand. "If you go in a certain frame of mind and are receptive to whatever comes up you start to get these ridiculous coincidences." He found slogans and a sense of foreboding - "Catch Me If You Can" painted on the side of an ice-cream van; "The Wages Of Sin Is Death" on a church billboard. "The idea was to do a documentary essay. It's more subjective than that, but we present this set of images and these words and let people make their own connections."
Central to the Bible John scare were the images of the killer issued by police and given huge prominence in buses, taxis and trains. An eerie identikit picture was followed by a painting done by the registrar of Glasgow School of Art, and then by a photofit image. In each instance, it was the first time the technique had been used in a Scottish murder case.
"What interested me was that the police were looking for Frankenstein's monster," says Morrison. "He might not have looked liked that at all. I wanted to pursue the idea that they were hunting somebody that wasn't really there, that Bible John might have been more than one person, as some policemen have said. The Press and the public imagination created this character, who everybody then went out to look for, yet they were actually looking for something in themselves."
Though Morrison's flirtations with Batman and Animal Man have ended, he still writes Doom Patrol for DC, adding surrealistic twists and claiming to do for comics what Twin Peaks did for soap opera. Lately, though, he has grown tired of superheroes and turned away from fantasy. The controversial New Adventures of Hitler, currently the subject of a publishers' auction, showed the young Adolf gleaning the essentials of his philosophy from a short residency in Liverpool.
This was followed by plays about Lewis Carroll and Aleister Crowley - the first of which won two awards at the 1989 Edinburgh Festival. St Swithin's Day, drawn from Morrison's teenage diaries, featured a tortured adolescent planning to assassinate the then Prime Minister. Or, as the Sun put it, "Death To Maggie Book Sparks Tory Uproar". Even Dan Dare came wrapped in political allegory - helping an authoritarian political party to a record fourth term, in a space-age version of post-Falklands Britain.
Unusually, Morrison's interest in comics was encouraged when he was young. His mother and grandfather had been keen science-fiction fans. "When I was at school I went through the phase of getting the school jotter out and cataloguing every issue of Adventure comic. I was one of these quivering aesthetes who stayed in the bedroom and peered through the curtains while everyone else was having a good kick-about," he says.
"My mum used to bring these comics in, and it was just brilliant imagery - people like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. who were absolute masters, really imaginative people. You take all that in when you're really young. Things that really frightened you and got into your head at that time - they form the kind of imagination you've got."
His first incursion into the comics world came with the independent Edinburgh magazine Near Myths. "It was run by this collection of hippies who said, 'Hey, let's bring out this magazine and waste all the money that we've saved', and they did. The good thing was that they were willing to take anybody on, because they were so open. So they let me do anything that I wanted."
His contribution was, he says, "really bizarre, subjective adolescent fantasy world stuff - like sitting down and having a doctor say 'Improvise on the word Mother'. It was completely unreadable, but it was good to be able to do that at the time, to get it out rather than go to hospital. I've spent the intervening time trying to get back to that."
His first brush with syndication was Captain Clyde, which he was commissioned to write and draw for the Govan Press chain of newspapers, "It was possibly the worst-ever name for a character. They had this idea that he should have a secret base below the underground station. I said, can I just do it about an unemployed guy who just happens to have superpowers?"
A rejection from Glasgow School of Art was followed by eight years of unemployment, then Morrison began to submit stories to 2000AD, the traditional blooding ground for aspiring British comic talent. His international breakthrough followed the publication of English writer Alan Moore's Watchmen, which gave wrinkles and moral uncertainty to a group of Fifties superheroes. Along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight, which imagined a pudgy, middle-aged Batman returning to do battle in Gotham City, it remains the keynote comic of the last decade. Moore's fresh approach brought American comic executives scuttling to Britain in search of new ideas, and Morrison was one of the principal beneficiaries.
Despite persistent talk of comics attracting a new adult readership, he has mixed feelings about how they have developed. "After five years of the so-called adult comics revolution there's still not been any big change in what people are buying," he maintains.
"Bible John was an attempt to get away from the idea of comics as some sort of analogy to cinema. That's the general trend - comics as storyboards. The things that are popular just now are taking comics into an area that is closer to the novel or television, but they still work on this very cinematic structure, breaking down actions across pages. I was trying to think in a different way. Rather than saying comics are cinema, say that they are music. If you think of the pictures as the music and the words as the lyrics you suddenly get a whole new way of looking at things."
He feels there are problems with attempts to view comics as enduring works of art. "I'm not entirely sure that it's the best way to look at it. It's the kind of thing where you want Gollancz and Penguin to publish your book and keep it out in hardback format. There are people who think that it would be a good idea for Lady Antonia Fraser to start writing graphic novels because that would legitimise the medium."
Generally, Morrison is downbeat, not to say pessimistic about the future, a state of mind he admits may be due to the solitary nature of his work. And - a serious problem for someone working in a predominantly adolescent medium - he says he fears "becoming mired in the business of being a perpetual teenager". The voluntary incarceration of the writing process has, he complains, left him short of experiences from which to draw inspiration.
"I'm in my last-days-of-Elvis phase," he adds, fingering a crusty cold sore on the comer of his mouth. "I'm getting really ill and depressed and I don't know what to do next. Recently I've been feeling that words get in the way of being alive, and I could do with getting out and doing something - travel about for a while - actually I have nothing in mind. I wouldn't mind writing a book, but it seems a waste of time. Who's buying them? Books aren't selling any more than comics. The whole print medium seems to be heading for obsolescence."
He cheers up at the mention of Virtual Reality Technology, the computer leisure systems being developed in California which propel users into three-dimensional fantasy worlds. "You can look like anything you want. You can fly, you can jump through walls. Once that hits Easterhouse and Castlemilk you'll just never see people again. Videos will be obsolete and everything else will disappear."
Till then, he hopes his writing will start to reflect his own life more closely. "If I thought I'd have to write superhero comics for the rest of my life I'd immediately go and garrotte myself. In the end I'll probably do something about me and be completely narcissistic. I'd try to make it interesting, I'd go for the universal and the particular."
The doorbell rings. Animal Man springs to his feet and opens the door. Standing large as life before him are his wife Ellen, the kids and the dog. In the spandex netherworld all is well. Over the page, a stern-faced Grant Morrison sits before his word processor, still pondering the darkness. The end is clearly nigh.
Alastair McKay, Scotland on Sunday Magazine, 21 April 1991