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Grant Morrison:

Supergods


Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman with artist Frank Quitely

Supergods by Grant Morrsion has been garnering lots of column inches, mild misgivings but generally praising critiques, including this advance review from me, but something has been nagging at me about it so I wanted to write about it further.

How did this book come about? Someone in marketing must have decided that, compared to his fellow ‘Brit Pack’ comic-book scribes Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison was not enough of a household superstar to sell his 400-plus-page autobiography. That said, Morrison has been the ‘revamp guy’ on high-profile, comic-book characters, no more than briefly at Marvel (notably on post-movie New X-Men) but doggedly at DC. So these tenures qualified him to recast his autobiography as ‘the first true chronicle of the superhero’. But how ‘true’?

Enough of the genre’s American evolution has been incorporated here, ordered into four ‘Ages’ - Golden, Silver, Dark and Renaissance - and so too are Morrison’s obsessions with the genre, from fanboy thrall and teenage imitations to professional breakthroughs and shaved-headed, sleek-suited success. In many ways, this blurring of history and his story works because, as he admits about his life, “All of it went into the comics”, specifically those he wound up writing himself. Equally, it becomes obvious that many of the comics he grew up with and now continues have continuously shaped his own experiences, attitudes, even his chameleon-like self-image on and off the page.

In his analysis of their roots, however, Morrison’s basic premise that superheroes are akin to gods is hardly revelatory. Their predominantly Jewish creators clearly tapped into myths and religions to devise their origins, powers and villains. Nor is it any surprise to learn that their neverending sagas have reflected their times, though some may balk at Morrison’s belief, adopted from Iain Spence’s theory, that the zeitgeist lurches in 22-year cycles back and forth between conformism and rebellion in tune with sunspot activity. Where Morrison goes still further, spurred on by drug-induced visions and magic rituals, is in his faith that these “supergods” can serve as attainable blueprints for humans to become superhuman ourselves, and that through technology we already are.

In contrast to the flawed, all-too-human guardians in Watchmen or the farcical, hormone-driven thrill-seekers in Kick-Ass, Morrison embraces the superhero as “something that gave me power over my fears”, as an atypically optimistic vision of humanity’s potential. As a boy, he needed that optimism, born an “uptight Presbyterian” in 1960 in working-class Glasgow, living with the Cold War and in the shadow of the Bomb, the son of a radical pacifist father and science fiction-loving mother. His parents’ illustrated literature filled their home and young Grant’s head with futuristic vistas of radioactive decimation and alien galaxies. No wonder the four-colour saviours in imported American comic books proved so alluring to him, then and now.


Siegel & Shuster’s Action Comics #1 in June 1938

Of the book’s four sections, The Golden Age is the shortest at 56 pages, and the least personal, mainly because these foundations date from before his time as a reader or writer. While he brings some fresh readings to the birth of Superman in Action Comics No. 1 in 1938 and the rest of the Forties pantheon, his version of how 23-year-old Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold all rights to their creation Superman to National Comics (now DC) for a mere $130, or $10 per page, seeks to downplay any injustice. He asserts they “were creating a product to sell” and “imagined they’d create other, better characters.” In his original unedited draft which I read some months ago, Morrison asserted “...they wanted to be bought” (the italics were his), but this got pruned.

Morrison goes on to suggest that “by 1946, they realized how much money their creation was raking in”. In fact, as revealed in the fascinating study of Creators of the Superheroes by Dr. Thomas Andrae (Hermes Press, 2011), as early as September 1938, Siegel was already requesting a raise in their rates to take on an extra syndicated Superman newspaper strip and being fobbed off. DC publisher Jack Liebowitz replied intimidatingly to Siegel on September 23, 1938, insisting, “Our company has very little to gain in a monetary sense from the syndication of this material… Also bear in mind that we own the feature ‘Superman’ and that we can at any time replace you in the drawing on that feature.”


Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) and Joe Shuster (1914-1992)

Which is exactly what DC did, when Siegel and Shuster filed a lawsuit against them in 1946 and their contracts were not renewed. Creators’ rights were little better when it came to Batman. Andrae again points out that young Bob Kane‘s father was a union man who worked in the printing department of the New York Daily News. He and his son fought hard to secure rights to the hit character. The snag was that writer and co-creator Bill Finger was left out of the deal, kept invisible by Kane, who made sure he secured sole credit. He could have done so much more for others, but never did. Kane finally landed a one million dollar buyout from DC in 1967 and an ongoing percentage from Batman subsidiary income. You can imagine how much moolah that meant. In contrast, Siegel and Shuster were reduced to poverty, and only after a campaign publicising this injustice were granted in 1975 their credits on the character and a pension of $20,000 a year. Morrison does mention this but curiously, comparing the proof to the finished book, has put the whole sorry affair inside parentheses, like a footnote. He also mentions, “Today a prolific and popular comics writer could make the same amount in a week.” No doubt DC makes that same amount in a day, an hour, maybe less?

How easy is it for fans and pros today, so hypnotised since childhood by these ubiquitous, constantly repromoted properties, to ignore their tarnished histories? I’ve talked recently to some fan readers who are troubled when I mention this horrific, disfigured portrait lurking beneath the polished profiles, masks and capes, hidden in the attic, but who can’t seem to help themselves from still wanting to follow these perfect-looking, super-powered Dorian Grays, no matter what. Morrison prefers to elevate the superhero as an indestructible concept, almost an independent, self-actualising entity, acknowledging only slightly its murkier commercial side, but glossing over the exploitation rife in this business, then and now. Unlike earlier ‘public domain’ gods and goddesses from antiquity and religious faiths, Superheroes are as much Superbrands, properties that must make profits for DC, part of Time-Warner-AOL, and Marvel, bought by Disney. While Morrison and his ilk earn tidy sums from endless, spiralling makeovers of these franchises, both publishers are aggressively fighting lawsuits over ownership against the estates of Siegel and of Jack Kirby, joint architect of the Marvel Universe.

So I urge everyone to read this last letter sent by Jerry Siegel’s widow Joanne shortly before her death to Time Warner’s CEO Jeffrey Bewkes. Do it now. Right now. Please. And then decide if you want to give DC any more of your money. So much for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Comic Book Way’.


Jerry Siegel’s wife, Joanne (1917-2011), was the inspiration for Lois Lane.

There are other less serious skews and errors in Supergods. For Morrison to extol the dynamism of Superman’s debut in Action Comics as something truly distinct from newspaper strips belies the fact that the first 13-page story was made out of newspaper strips with a few panels extended. Geeky factual errors which I alerted the publisher to have stayed in, such as describing Hangman and The Fly as Harvey superheroes when they were actually published by Mighty Comics, the former a revived Golden Age MLJ character, the latter a Sixties Spidey clone. Naturally, any history is a story and Morrison shapes his through selective de-emphases and omissions, for example acknowledging Steve Gerber‘s wonderfully bizarre Defenders only in one paragraph, perhaps to avoid revealing how much they clearly anticipated his later Doom Patrol efforts. Or omitting entirely Alan Moore’s post-Watchmen optimistic renewals of the genre in Tom Strong, Top Ten and others for America’s Best Comics (apart from a nod to Promethea). Even his own works can get short shrift with only one quote and three sentences on The Filth‘s baroque anguish. 

Still, Supergods is siginificant as a viewpoint on American superhero comics by someone who writes and rewrites them, someone close-up and personal, inside their heads, or theirs crowding inside his. But for all his entertaining allusions (“Bob Kane gave Batman the look of a Prague potato print”, for example), beneath his maverick prose and pose, beneath the metafictions and metaphysics, the trips and philosophising, Morrison is a DC company man. That is why the only interior accompanying images here are from DC (it’s true the US edition shows little circular portraits of 10 DC and 5 Marvel characters on the back cover). And oddly, the four chapter divides use greyed-out illustrations of ‘generic’ Golden Age superhero pages, presumed out of copyright, even for the later chapters, which in fact are uncredited extracts from Silver Streak, Green Lama, The Flame and Atoman, wannabes, could-have-beens, who were never ruthlessly marketed and so are all but forgotten). That’s why Morrison takes a detached perspective on the legal travesties and greed and why he wants to distract us by extolling the wondrous, techno-mystical indestructability of these totemic icons. That is why he chooses to sideline or ignore the reason they must survive - the need for them always to generate more and more money for their corporate owners and stockholders, with a percentage hived off for the loyal workers like him who can somehow keep them selling. That is why Supergods need their flock, their faithful, unquestioning worshippers, their all-believing purchasers.

I have a Superman oddity in my collection. In gold on the black cloth spine is its title, The Superman Brand, a stylish little DC hardback book, “not for sale”, published in 2005, a year ahead of the 2006 movie Superman Returns, not meant for civilians like you and me to see, but designed by Minneapolis “strategic design firm” Little & Company to rescue and re-market the character all over again to every vital licensee they could find. Alina Wheeler in Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team writes: “The brand book needed to demonstrate that the brand was far greater than the Superman logo.” The book is flip-covered, the red half entitled “Indestructible” and pumping up “The Hero” in soundbites and comics images, with pitches like “A hero for modern times, no matter how often those times are reimagined”, and “An example for all mankind” next to some panels from a Chinese translation.

More interesting and sinister is the other half in blue, called “Inspirational”, which shamelessly hypes “The Brand”, mainly by using feel-good patter alongside staged photos of toddlers to seniors sporting and supporting “The Brand”: a child in Superman pyjamas; a black boy in a Superman T-shirt; a black young man, arms outstretched, next to the line “The dream of power”; a cute red-headed little girl in a red cape overlaid with “Celebrate Strength” in capitals; a sultry young woman revealing her lilac, low-cut Superman top, next to this cringe-worthy adspeak: “When I wear the S-Shield, I have the power to be my own person. The power to control my destiny. The power to be my very best. The power to make things happen. When I wear the S-Shield, I am a hero.”; a surfer with a Superman logo tattoo (temporary?); a soaring roller-blader, an old man with a balloon, and finally a black father lying on the grass and lifting up his little daughter as if she can fly, with the line “Continue the legend”. The penultimate spread shows a lunchbox and oppostie the single word “Create”, followed by a list of products, from toothbrushes to boxer shorts, bleeding off the edge of the page. The section ends with “The ultimate brand. Use it wisely.”

This made me start wondering: might Supergods be the next evolution in subtle, sophisticated re-branding?  After all, it is more than coincidental, and a perfectly timed advertisement, that Morrison’s story and Superman’s story come full circle by the book’s end, as Morrison is hired by his Desperate Corporate paymasters to relaunch their Superbrand, their ‘Man of Steal’, this September in a new Action Comics No. 1. And just like The Superman Brand book, Supergods comes out one year ahead of “visionary” director Zack Snyder’s reboot and the next movie-related merchandising drive. I used to love superhero comics, and I still do, when I look back to the much-read copies I bought out of the spinner-racks. Morrison loves them too, but seems to have settled on being less an innovator than a perpetuator, reviving, revising, revisiting, retconning, relying on resurrections, role-reversals, exponential convolutions, multiverses and referentialities, anything to impress his fully immersed fans who read his work religiously, and to keep DC’s flagging flagships from floundering.

At the San Diego Comic-Con/Love-In last Thursday, Morrison hinted at the more mischeivous direction he’s taking his Superman in: “He’s a social reformer, and Clark Kent does as much work as Superman basically uprooting corruption and exposing corruption, so the two of them are working in tandem.” Maybe both characters could start by tackling the corruption behind the Siegel estate’s treatment. Maybe Morrison could give us one of those good old morally grounded endings, like Siegel and Shuster started out doing in their earliest Superman comic books. That’s some rebranding I’d pay to see.


Grant Morrison’s 2011 Action Comics #1 with artist Rags Morales

Posted: July 24, 2011

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