“Never underestimate the sentimentality of a Scotsman, Clark.”—Batman, JLA #12: “Rock of Ages”
INCOMING: PSYCHOSOMATIC EMOTI-MEMORY TRIGGER
DESIGNATE: MORRISON, GRANT – SEQUENTIAL ART IMAGINAUT –
PASTE-RADIA IS ACTIVATED
NOT A DREAM / NOT AN IMAGINARY STORY
BEYOND THE SUPERUNKNOWN LIES THE FULL ONSLAUGHT OF ALL-ENCOMPASSING SELF-STUFF ::: ALL IS ONE
MAKE READY FOR THE REIFICATION OF MORRISONIAN RANKING LIST
might not be a prophet, but how could we tell? Morrison has been with us for three decades, and has rarely, if ever, been wrong. And so, I dub him our secular Moses. Morrison was part of the wave of British innovators imported by Karen Berger, the greatest editor of the modern epoch. He started appearing in American comics back in the ‘80s, and hasn’t slowed down in 30 years.
Since the Reagan Era, Morrison has put his stamp on every kind of mainstream comic. In a demographic that scorns superheroes, Morrison is unabashedly pro-cape. He has been compared to a griot: a specialized cultural bard who sings ritualized stories about important legends for the benefit of society. Even if you don’t like heroes, Morrison still ought to rank high on your list. The Scotsman is kind of a scout for the discipline of comics: a finder-out and a deep-delver in the field. And so, a list of 15 comics by Grant Morrison, beloved of the Scorpion god.
Pax Americana Cover Art by Frank Quitely
Special Mention: Pax Americana
Artist: Frank Quitely
Publisher: DC Comics
Pax Americana is a stellar pastiche of Watchmen. It uses the closer-to-the-bone versions of the Charlton Heroes that Moore and Gibbons borrowed. Pax Americana takes place in one comic, and is so structured, self-aware and deeply layered, that it’s almost impossible for me to tell the full tale in the space of a blurb. Suffice to say that in an alternate universe, a president with prophetic powers has a long game to play with superheroes—a scheme that involves the salvation of the world. The story is an excuse for Quitely/Morrison to say, “The format of Watchmen, and all comics like Watchmen, is strangling the genre. What do we need the elaboration for? Wagner is dead in opera. Shouldn’t he die here, too?” It’s a fabulous work, a sharp-edged dissection of ‘80s over-constructed comics, and a fitting place to start off the big list.
Seaguy Cover Art by Cameron Stewart
Artist: Cameron Stewart
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
Seaguy is a superhero rigged up in scuba gear, who pals around with a cigar-smoking floating fish, Chubby Da Choona. The series has been published sporadically since 2004. Think of it as a mission statement rendered in panels. Morrison and pretty much every commentator worth their salt has argued for a long-term shift away from the mega-gritty heroes of the present day: what Morrison called “torment superheroes.” Seaguy is one of Morrison’s back-to-basics efforts, but even his easygoing work has the author aiming high. The man doesn’t do casual. Even in the smaller books, there’s a bigger story, an aim. A goal. There’s a line from the Sherlock Holmes stories about how a great mind could take a drop of water and argue for the existence of an ocean somewhere. It’s true of the Great Detective, and it’s true of Morrison too.
Kill Your Boyfriend Cover Art by Philip Bond
14. Kill Your Boyfriend
Artists: Philip Bond & D’Israeli
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
Kill Your Boyfriend is a recycling of the tale of the god Dionysus and his Maenads (or so the schoolteacher in the first 10 pages tells us). The Maenads, he informs his class, were “wild women of the hills who murdered their husbands in an ecstatic frenzy and pledged themselves to the mad young god.” After which our nameless heroine, The Girl, turns to us through the Fourth Wall and says, quite Britishly, “When do we live? That’s what I want to know. What’s the point of all this?” Later, perched high on the Eiffel Tower, holding a gun, The Girl tells us: “People said we were evil but they missed the point again. It was just high spirits.”
KYB is about a thoughtful, middle-class British student, who goes on a sex-’n’-murder spree with an edgy young man who wanders into her suburb. The Girl meets the Boy—here a stand-in for every Dangerous Young Man With Ideas. The two fall in love, proceed to kill the Girl’s insipid, test-taking, spotty boyfriend (there’s the title), then the murder-couple goes full hogshit wild; a pair of art terrorists rampaging across the UK.
Talking to the camera is a hallmark of adolescents in fiction. I suspect it’s shorthand for the self-awareness of young adulthood, and how it falls on you like a sack of hammers. In our teenage years, we finally piece together what story we’re in. KYB is about being young and in a cage—and what might lie outside the walls.
It’s also, as Morrison tells us in his afterword, the retelling of the film Heartland, “which fictionalizes the life of notorious cool kid murderer Charlie Starkweather. The James Dean of serial killing … the chief inspiration for the Boy in Kill Your Boyfriend.”
This is classic Grant Morrison, by the way. Pop culture confession after a discharge of raw emotion.
Every comics creative has 12 angles you can read them from, and some of the perspectives make the writers look pretty nasty. You can read Garth Ennis as a reactionary reaching for the laziest tropes of boys’ storytelling. And yeah, there’s a version of Morrison where he can seem like the comics-writer version of the goddamn Vampire Lestat: all champagne and Red Bull and feuds and celebrity and jumping on whatever’s trending now.
But that’s not him. If you read KYB—read it deeply—you’ll see the story’s about anomie, growing up and the aching uncertainty underlying both.
In addition to being an update of Greek myth, KYB is about youth lost and youth found. I wonder if every maker of popular art is essentially trying to articulate adulthood back to themselves. Spielberg makes E.T. to talk about his parents’ divorce, Sofia Coppola makes movies about privilege-trapped girls… and Morrison tells us about young wild things with heads full of wild Technicolor dreams and bodies stuck in banal modern Britain.
More than any other comic book writer I can think of—more than Eisner or Pekar or Craig Thompson or Clowes—Morrison is a genius of sentiment. Every writer deals in the emotions, but Morrison has an unerring knack for articulating What Everything Feels Like. Stephen King’s particular brilliance is to give you the uncut version of what being scared is. His characters don’t just run into vampires or werewolves: they go through the whole journey of terrors. In King’s work, we are made to experience the lived, almost physical sensations of being haunted or scared or traumatized or in love. Morrison’s comics are King’s peer. When it comes to grasping the immediate, uncool, no-kidding feelings of the heart, Morrison is a poet-prince.
If there’s a message to take home from Morrison studies, it’s this: his stories are never about what they’re about. They’re all coded messages about overcoming the emotional obstacles of adulthood, and the assorted traumas of youth.
KYB’s ending, with rat-poison and suburbia, is an anticlimax and a dodge. But so what? We already knew how the story would turn out. Every childhood story has the same villain lurking at the end: adulthood. The kid always gets it in the end.
Marvel Boy Cover Art by J.G. Jones
13. Marvel Boy
Artist: J.G. Jones
Publisher: Marvel Comics
It’s a good life in the Kree starfleet. Young Noh-Varr is an ensign in the dimension-hopping spaceship Marvel, a Gestalt craft powered by the belief of its crew. Or it was… until the utilitarian supervillian Doc Midas shot the craft down from the sky.
All of Noh-Varr’s loved ones are killed on impact. Only he remains. He swears vengeance and takes up arms against the human race. And that’s how the book begins. “You’re here to destroy our corrupt system, is that it?” says Noh-Varr’s human love interest. And Noh-Varr replies: “There is no system here. There’s nothing but fear and greed and stupidity. As far as I can see the planet is run by primitive primeurban protection rackets called ‘Law’ as the only thing dividing one gang’s methods from another.” As the youths are saying: Folks, here’s me.
Marvel Boy is one of the author’s before-9/11 books. It’s a very late-‘90s (although published halfway into 2000) Morrison work. And how! We use the term “insect in amber” too much. For me, stepping inside Marvel Boy means remembering how 2000 felt. The world was rushing onto something, we don’t know what. His adventures have the frantic, uneasy, over-caffeinated feeling that all of the best Morrison has. There’s too much and never enough at once. Like Kirby, Morrison has 20 ideas at once and throws him over his shoulder in his pell-mell run to get to the next page.
It’s unfair to Grant, but there’s always a parallel back to Moore. If I say Marvel Boy is a very Morrisonian take on the superhero as terrorist, I don’t mean to compare him to V. But consciously or un-, Morrison spends a lot of time telling us to how to do Moore differently. That’s probably not what he’d want to hear—I mean, how would you like to spend your entire career being compared to some other guy?—but it’s inescapable. Moore is the hegemon of my heart, but Morrison is never far behind him. It’s a real Leonardo-Michelangelo dynamic, and can’t be helped. The two greatest modern comics writers happened to be born in the same country, seven years apart. Ask destiny what she was planning.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth Cover Art by Dave McKean
12. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Artist: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics
There’s a riot in Arkham, the prison for Gotham’s mentally disturbed criminals. The authorities ring up Bruce and ask him, oh, won’t he please fix the uprising? Bats enters the labyrinth, and begins a metaphorical trip backwards through the criminal psyche and into the history of the asylum itself. Everything written about Arkham since, including the games, gets pulled up from this central well.
Arkham Asylum is a book of firsts. The first Morrison mega-book. A premonition of the Batman and what he’d become. And a concrete confirmation of what the United Kingdom had planned for the Colonies’ comics. Morrison and his co-conspirators in the British Isles taught us how to use superheroes. The capes became a customs house for the importing of radical, marginal and esoteric ideas. The Brits were Amazon dot com for the splendidly weird.
Say the adventures of Batman are sentences. If Bruce Wayne is the subject, then the institution of Arkham Asylum the predicate. What happens to all of the detective’s strange friends when he sends them back to the Big House? This book tells us.
52 Cover Art by J.G. Jones
Co-Writers: Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka & Mark Waid
Artists: Keith Giffen, Others
Publisher: DC Comics
52 was an experiment DC launched in 2006. A (long) limited series, released weekly, pumped out by a team of writers. 52 told us about the state of the DCU after Infinite Crisis. Keith Giffen did layouts to tie the art together. Written by Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid and, oh yes, Grant Morrison. The conceit of 52 was that every issue was a week apart, chronicling a whole year—a missing year of events that occurred after Crisis closed. It was a bravura feat, and went over so well that DC got the wrong idea and mandated that its relaunched universe would be called the New 52. But that’s a different story.
In fact, 52 is nothing less than an extended tour of, and love letter to, the heart of DC. It’s about the power of legacy—the factor that make up so much of DC’s appeal. For one brief shining moment… that ended up being a whole year long… the Powers that Be and the Powers that Read were on the same page. We consume comics to walk in the worlds of our heroes.
The credit for 52 must be divided. But it feels like a Morrison book. The story is full of the themes of wonder, change and outstretched dread. If I give credit to Grant for the entire setup, it’s not without reason. 52 gave me what I wanted: a daily admissions pass to a world where bottled cities are real. Here’s the delivery of what the Multiverse advertised: finally, there are enough stories to fill the world.
We3 Cover Art by Frank Quitely
Artist: Frank Quitely
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
We3 lasted three issues and broke a million hearts. This miniseries is the tale of three cyborg weapons who also happen to be adorable pets, kidnapped from their owners. Created by the government to be assassins, We3 consists of the dog Bandit, the cat Tinker and the rabbit Pirate. They have a limited ability to speak, and an infinite ability to kill—and thanks to the Pentagon, they’re about to be decommissioned permanently. A sympathetic scientist sets them free. Soon they’re Homeward Bound, and chased by the military-industrial complex who made them. It’s a horror story, a bloody action movie and a heartwarming tale of cross-species love. Every human being I know loves this book, or will one day. It’s the Johnny Cash of limited series. A story with a trio of animals being more human than humans. I like to think of We3 as the logical extension of funny animal comics. There’s so much left to be done in comics, and We3 explains how.
The Filth Cover Art by Carlos Segura
9. The Filth
Artist: Chris Weston & Gary Erskine
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
The Filth began its fictional life as a proposal for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but grew and grew. It’s supposedly Morrison’s favorite work. The book’s about a secret trans-dimensional organization called The Hand. They clean up the world’s messes: esoteric crimes too weird or debauched or disgusting to reach mass consciousness. As PopImage helpfully reminds us, in U.K. slang, Filth refers both to pornography and British cops. Both nouns overlap in the story of Greg Feely, a sad man who loves his cat and self-pleasuring. Mr. Feely discovers that he is, in fact, an agent for The Hand. Greg never actually existed: he was a cover story that became real. And that’s just the start. Consider the issue, “The World of Anders Klimakks,” which has the most unsettling final page of any superhero comic. If I described the story in detail, it would make Paste sound like a mimeographed newsletter about the danger of fluoride. Nobody up here in our mountain hideaway wants that.