Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books in 2013: #17 Supergods by Grant Morrison

As I've joked on here before, despite spending the last 15+ years writing about fandom, and several years before that engaged in it, I've always seen three major obstacles to me obtaining my full Geek Cred card. (They have cards, right?)

1. I didn't know all 11 Doctors in Doctor Who.
2. I don't know how to play Dungeons & Dragons, and despite seeing it played on many TV shows, have never watched a live game, nor do I understand it. (Does the Dungeon Master stay up for several weeks ahead of time writing an entire story for everyone else to act out?)
3. I don't know a lot about superheroes other than the dozens of movies and TV shows I've watched. OK, let me rephrase that: I don't know a lot about the original comic-book versions of the superheroes that I know so well through the movies and TV shows I've seen.

Last year, I dealt with #1 and can now name my favourite Doctors from one to 11. (But because of the hatred that would be thrown my way if I actually did that, I will refrain.) Still don't have #2, though I now have offers to come and watch a game. And as for #3, I'm working on rectifying that.

Supergods, by comic book writer Grant Morrison, goes a long way to helping me, and it's the reason I bought the book a year ago. This is one I've read slowly this year, starting it in January and reading it through til May, taking it in slowly so I'd remember more of it. This was my first exposure to Grant Morrison, though while I was reading it I'd occasionally mention it to a comic book fan, and the reactions ranged from, "Take everything he says with a grain of salt" to "Yeah... Morrison? I'd find a second book to back up that one" to "I LOVE Grant Morrison, have you read Arkham Asylum?" to "Wow, that book sounds great!" I was glad to get all of those reactions while I was reading it, because it made me read it with a more critical eye.

I think many people believe he's pretty self-centred, and reading this book won't help to assuage that, but there's a reason the book reads the way it does: Morrison was asked to write his autobiography, so he started. Along the way, however, he began researching old comics to make sure he was remembering his discovery of comics correctly, and as he did that, he got caught up in the history of them. Having written the outline of his memoir, he now decided to weave the history of comics throughout, so you get the complete picture: the start of the rise of comics in the 1930s, and him first discovering them in the 1960s, and from that point on the back-and-forth between the two. What he felt about them as a kid, and where the ideas were coming from historically. What you get is a rich story of the 20th century as reflected through its comics. Yes, Morrison has some kooky ideas, but I found them fascinating and amusing. And yes, there's a section in there where he goes on a vision quest and it's totally fucking insane, but when you get past that you have this at times uproariously hilarious retelling of the history of comic books ("Perhaps there remains to be written the great gay Batman story where he and Robin, and potentially Alfred too, are going at it like trip hammers between Batmobile cruising scenes..."), both American and British, and the story of how one boy who loved comics grew into a man who began working in the industry, eventually becoming one of the bestselling comic book authors of all time. I loved Morrison's writing style, and thought it was funny, breezy, and academic all rolled into one. It's an easy read, but a high-brow one, where you get not just the major DC and Marvel characters explained, but many of the small one-offs that perhaps caught a young Morrison's eye as a boy.

This is a fantastic book, and perhaps my favourite part comes right at the end, when he talks about how comic books are an accurate depiction of their times. Look at world events happening at the time, and you'll see why comics are either dreary or trippy or profound or sad or dark and desperate or tongue-in-cheek and joyful. Comics are a product of their times, and visualize what is happening around us. Morrison takes that idea and goes back through the 20th century and into the 21st, bringing the two together. And, when it was time to read the Superman comics for my June graphic novel book club, I felt better armed to understand who the character is, his background, and how he became a reflection of the time in which he was written. (See books 21 and 22, to come.)

Highly, highly recommended.


Austin Gorton said...

I'm definitely in the "grain of salt" camp when it comes to Morrison. I've read a lot (but certainly not all) of his stuff, and while most of it is decent enough, very little of it gets me as excited as it gets most of the comic book reading internet.

So as a result, I haven't checked this book out yet, because for me, a little Morrison goes a long way (the vision quest section you mentioned strikes me as being exactly the kind of thing I can't stand from him). But your recommendation definitely has me thinking of giving it a chance, as the non-kooky vision quest stuff does sound appealing.

Nikki Stafford said...

Teebore: Please let me know if and when you read it, and your thoughts. I'd love to hear them! I ended up skimming the vision quest stuff after a while, and luckily it's most of a chapter and then gone, and immediately after it is some of the best stuff in the book. :)