Since getting his big break in the superhero comic genre with the 2000AD strip “Zenith” and his subsequent DC revival of Animal Man, writer Grant Morrison has become something of a legend within the industry. He’s currently helming the relaunch of Superman which he has described as a “Bruce Springsteen”-esque take on the character. His new book Supergods is a history of the superhero from 1938 to the present day.
Andrew Williams: What were you aiming to achieve with the book?
Grant Morrison: I was writing about a whole subject of the superhero. There have been books about comics before but they’ve either been quite academic or small press. I wrote it as if I was introducing people to something like cinema or pop music – you’re dealing with a lot of stuff people perhaps haven’t heard about and are trying to point out the good elements of superhero comics and draw peoples attention to it.
Williams: There’s also a strong biographical element…
Morrison: I wanted to show what happens to a human life deformed by the pressure of comic books – what happens if you take this stuff really seriously. You can find yourself way out there dancing between the panels.
Williams: Do you still do voodoo?
Morrison: No, I did a lot of heavy ritual magic in the 1990s but have mellowed out since. I don’t do heavy summoning of spirits these days.
Williams: Why did you do it?
Morrison: When I was a teenager I did magic to try to get me things and I’d help people find lost objects. In the 90s it became more about how far I could take my own consciousness. I wanted to know where these things would take me. The comic I was writing at the time, The Invisibles, is a chronicle of that – of what happens when you treat your life as a comic book.
Williams: Who are super hero comics aimed at now? Is it for the nostalgia market?
Morrison: There’s a bit of that. Since the boom in the 1980s when the adult comics came through with things like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns there has been a grown up audience and my audience tends to be in their teens, 20s and 30s – young guys in black and their even smarter girlfriends. It’s that counter-culture record-buying market that buys my stuff. Comic sales have gone down and superheroes are appearing in other formats like cinema. What’s happening now is an attempt to reclaim some of that mainstream market and whether that can happen or not at this stage remains to be seen. DC Comics are relaunching everything and I’m sure Marvel will have some big initiative too because comic sales have gone down quite considerably even as the quality of the content has gone up.
Williams: Do you think, among non-comics readers, that it’s socially acceptable to go to see a Thor film and socially unacceptable to read a Thor comic?
Morrison: I don’t even know how socially unacceptable it is to read one – they’re just hard to find. If people could pick them up in a cinema foyer or on the news stands then people would pick them up as part of a pop culture diet. Because the industry specialised in the 1980s in the comic speciality shops a lot of people shelved comic shops away along with hobby or model shops and that’s what’s stopped the mainstream audience picking comics up.
Williams: How’s that situation going to change?
Morrison: Who knows? We will see. We’re relaunching the [DC] stuff in September. Because we’ve had so much of it thrown at us in the cinema for the last 10 years the idea of the superhero has become more interesting to people which is what I hope this book will tap into. I’m hoping once people get interested in the history or superheroes and the eccentric people who have worked on and created these characters over the years it will be sucked into the culture in the way Situationism or other art movements have been. It may well be with competition from movies and games and more immersive types of entertainment it might be time for the print medium to be quietly slowing down. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when people use online techniques to make comics – at the moment they’ve got it on a screen and you pretend to turn a page which is really just using the old medium and transplanting it onto the new one. When people use the special qualities of the new medium you’ll get super hero comics that will attract a lot more interest.
Williams: You paint a grim picture of some of the fans. What have you done that’s most upset some readers?
Morrison: It’s just a particular sub section of fans. The Internet fanbase for comics is quite diverse and there’s some really clever people writing some amazing analysis of stuff but there’s also a large wedge of really angry people who go crazy if you change the slightest thing. A lot of those people right now are promising to never buy a DC comic again because Superman’s dropped his pants. They’re the ones who accuse me of murdering their childhoods because we’ve changed someone’s belt buckle or ignored a particular angle of a cape – it’s always the most trivial things that get them apoplectic with anger. If only some of that righteous rage could be turned on poverty or civil rights we might have a better world.
Williams: You say Wonder Woman’s initial success when she was introduced was due to the unusual sexuality in her comics and she became less popular when that was abandoned. Did you have any plans for her?
Morrison: I’d still like to do a Wonder Woman that brings the sexuality back to the character because it’s really been lost. She turned into a cross between the Virgin Mary and Mary Tyler Moore – that American girl scout. In the original stories there was this sense of sex. She was from an island of all women and there was some bizarre S and M stuff in the early strips. [William Moulton] Marston, who created the character, was in a three way relationship with his wife and a student, Olive Byrne, who was the physical model for Wonder Woman. He brought that alternative sexuality to the strip. When he died that sexuality bled away and the character lost a lot of charm. It would be great to do that again but I don’t have his kinks unfortunately, so I’d need to produce some ones of my own. I’d love to get that sexuality back in but haven’t figured out how yet.
did you think of the recent attempted TV revival?
Morrison: I didn’t see it but it would be hard to do something better than the 1970s show because Lynda Carter really captured that version of the character very well. I think she’s probably the origin of the virgin aunt version of Wonder Woman but she did it so well. It’s hard to see how they’d do it live because she looks kind of ridiculous. A lot of these characters look dumb when they try to recreate the costumes on television because the designs are based on 1930s swimsuits or circus wear.
Williams: Did you create the term “supervestite?”
Morrison: I just made that up and I’m hoping it catches on. There are people out there dressing up and doing this stuff. There were people wearing costumes and helping people in the streets before Kick-Ass. This idea is trying to leap off the page, onto the screen and into our lives. That’s also because the story we’re telling ourselves in the West is so bleak right now that the superhero idea has appeared almost as a response to that – it’s our last attempt to imagine a future where we don’t kill ourselves.
Williams: Will we all start dressing up as superheroes?
Morrison: It’s Lady Gaga, that sort of thing, we’ll wear the clothes of our own dream selves. We’re already superheroes – we have Facebook and Twitter and fan pages and we all check out how many people are interested in us. There’s this idea every human has become a star so the next step will be becoming superheroes. That’s helped out by fashion and also by medical technologies and other things that will allow us to be superhuman in the future.
Supergods by Grant Morrison is out now published by Jonathan Cape.