Flex Mentallo Cover Art by Frank Quitely
8. Flex Mentallo
Artist: Frank Quitely
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
Every great comics writer has a perfect artistic match floating out there in the professional ether. For Mark Waid, it’s Alex Ross. Neil Gaiman has Mark Buckingham. For Grant Morrison, that artist is Frank Quitely. With all apologies to Phil Jimenez, Morrison’s words match Quitely’s technique perfectly. The sharp line which edges towards the creepy, the illustration style which dances between the mundane and the alien. They were born to work together. And this series is a perfect example of why.
Flex Mentallo hit the world in 1996. It was perfect time for a pushback against dark heroes. Flex first appeared in ‘91, during Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol. He’s a Charles Atlas homage; Flex stretches his muscles, the metaphysical weave of reality shifts, and stuff happens.
The surface story of Flex Mentallo involves the good-hearted Flex investigating a conspiracy to save the world, involving a mysterious man in the moon, a cabal of sinister agents and a rock star who might be hallucinating the entire story. During the plot, we take a mini-tour of comics history and learn about where the superheroes disappeared to. Like half of the narratives on this list, Mentallo is really a tour of Morrison’s big themes: dark fiction is overrated, and depression can be overcome through imagination. This story’s about the lodged hopes and submerged longings of superheroes: why we love them, and why we still want them to save us.
New X-Men Cover Art by Frank Quitely
7. New X-Men
Artists: Frank Quitely, Phil Jimenez, Others
Marvel snagged Morrison in 2001 for their X-Men title. This run sees the arrival of a new mutant culture, the utter destruction of the mutant island of Genosha and the deconstruction of Scott Summers. Along the way, 9/11 happened. Morrison’s run is partially a reflection of that trauma… and of the endless recurrence of X-Stories: Magneto arises, the heroes fight him, he loses and on and on it goes.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the hinge of the X-books, and maybe of Morrison’s career. Before his great run of the 21st century, Morrison had to work through issues of aging and mortality and the cyclical nature of cape-tales.
I rank Morrison as the most definitive X-writer since Claremont. Which leads me to this point: I humbly suggest that, whatever ranking we give him as a writer, Morrison deserves an additional title. He is, simply put, the greatest Reader of Comics that Ever Lived. His authorship is not an accident of his readership, but it is intimately connected. Only a Constant Reader would plant the Batman of Zurr-En-Ah in the dead center of the winning hand that is “Batman RIP.” Only a Constant Reader would compose his grand unified theory of comics that our world is a 2-D grid. And only a truly great reader would write “Riot at Xavier’s.” Morrison’s strength is to look into the seeds of continuity, and see what blooms will grow. This is a masterful skill, and he’s demonstrated it time and again during his career. New X-Men is the sexy, sleek book we all wanted: the piece of tomorrow we were promised that finally arrived.
JLA Cover Art by Howard Porter
Artists: Howard Porter, Others
Publisher: DC Comics
I love, love, love Morrison’s JLA run. He has written better, and he has written weirder. But to me, it remains the crown jewel of his superhero work. I can’t give it top billing, because the top five are almost traumatizingly good. Each one of the books above JLA broke new ground. Saying JLA is the sixth-best comics on this list is like saying penicillin is the sixth-best medical breakthrough of the last century. Nothing is diminished. His Justice League run is what we talk about when we talk about superheroes. He took this C-list book and made it a bestseller. Under Morrison’s guidance, JLA became what it once was and always should have been: the ultimate crossover book for the ultimate superhero team. The Avengers have always been the JLA’s second cousin, and they know it.
Of course, we can quibble about which creator did better justice to which individual heroes. Do we choose Waid’s Flash, or Broome’s Flash? Which version of Kal-El is definitive: Byrne’s Superman, or Moore’s? Do we embrace O’Neil’s Batman, or Miller’s?
But Morrison is the man who got all of the heroes right at once. Coming at the end of the neurotic Modern Age, JLA is a return to form. The Justice League of America isn’t the story of pasteboard cut-outs or childish fantasies. Nor is it a weird fascist power fantasy, or whatever other cheap, boring slams people have lobbed against heroes. Morrison’s JLA featured Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman and Plastic Man (with a few rotating guests) as the team of heroes they always should have been. Here were your cool, nice older brothers and sisters… who were so self-actualized they could get on with the business of saving the world 20 times over. JLA was the Reconstruction that every Deconstruction was waiting for.
Doom Patrol Cover Art by Brian Bolland
5. Doom Patrol
Artists: Richard Case, Others
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
The Doom Patrol began life as a DC team from the Kennedy era. A collection of gifted weirdos, the Doom Patrol were dragooned into service… by a plotting mastermind in a wheelchair. No wonder they got labeled as an off-brand X-Men. The original lineup consisted of a Robotman, a Negative Man, an Elasti-Girl and an ever-updating showcase of unusual heroes. Morrison dismissed Elasti-Girl—instead he introduced an ape-faced child, a superheroine with multiple personalities and a sapient avenue named Danny the Street.
As has become my habit, let me say once more that an outline cannot give you the flavor of this series. Look, this is probably Morrison’s oddest show, and that’s saying something. Doom Patrol is what it’s like when Morrison tries to be weird. Doom Patrol is arguably the first moment Morrison came into the completely possession of his awesome powers: the first appearance of the fully-realized Avatar of Pop.
Morrison’s Doom Patrol are the alternate-universe vision of what the pre-Claremont, pre-Wein X-Men could have been, if the wind had blown in a different direction: a team of randos in a chaotic world bound together by surprising affection and hard bands of mutual aid.
Comics are best thought of as the word “Yes,” printed over and over again, panel to panel. To be specific, Doom Patrol is the comic that said “Why not?” This comic is the brand ambassador for neither giving nor trafficking in many fucks. What happens if an angsty collection of oddities fights Scissormen and secret societies? Why not? Oh, what’s that? You need a plot involving millions of butterflies, and a story where an ape-and-brain romance reaches a shocking conclusion? Why not? Step right this way.
Batman Cover Art by Alex Ross
4. Morrison’s Batman Run
Artists: Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Chris Burnham, J.H. Williams III, Others
Publisher: DC Comics
Morrison loves collected sets, and his Batman run (extended across several titles and volumes) is of a piece with Arkham Asylum and his Batman in JLA. Bruce Wayne has always been the crutch for lazy grimdark writers: whoa, what if Batman but dark? Twisted! Morrison got the memo: the edgy game was done. To the extent that anything was going to be dark, it had to have a reason. After 20 years of soot-stained stories, the medium was ready for something new. Morrison figured out Batman before the rest of us.
A man as advanced as Batman—as prepared as Bruce is—would not be an angry adolescent. A hero who can figure his way out of a hundred deathtraps can escape angst. So Morrison’s Batman was a Zen Crusader: a dude who had the angle on every possibility. He had it figured out, and there was literally nothing that could trip him for long. Morrison’s Batman opens with this reveal: Batman and Talia al Ghul have a son, Damian. That was the warning shot. Morrison’s run took the Batfamily through a long character arc of death, life, growth, change. When the story begins, Bats has cleaned up crime in Gotham and is slightly bored. By the end of it, there’s a cow involved—and it makes perfect sense.
Here’s the thing. Batman is a simple series of notes played over and over again: the Cowl, the Gun, the Butler, the Robins, the Villains, the City, the Mission. Morrison’s run is a series of virtuoso variations on those notes. Bill Finger made Batman real, Denny O’Neill made him serious and Frank Miller made Batman “adult,” but Grant Morrison made Batman immortal, a symbol not bound by one person or one time.
Morrison made clear what had always been implied. Batman endures because Batman embodies our power to endure and heal. Batman doesn’t hunt criminals. He hunts our fears, our neuroses, our obsessions. Batman doesn’t symbolize vengeance. He symbolizes our will to power, our ability to triumph over desperate circumstances and fearsome odds. Whatever we’re facing, Bruce can handle it. If his friend from Krypton is the embodiment of hope, Rich Orphan Wayne is the incarnation of drive. What could we do, if we were willing to? Batman shows us.
The story of the Dark Knight, then, is a conversation about what’s possible for driven, decent human beings. And so, in the first decade of the 21st century, Grant Morrison decided Batman was ready to take on his own history. As Gordon asks Batman in one scene, “Why’d you take on an enemy older than time and bigger than all of us?” Batman replies, “Just like you, I thought I could take him.”
That’s the thing about Batman. He thinks of everything. Morrison’s masterstroke was to say that Bruce’s crazed ‘50s adventures, all of his ‘30s pulp adventures and strange drug trips were part of continuity. The Morrison run marks the signal turn from “Batman, a canvas of Gothic Tragedy,” to “Batman, a kitchen sink of every exciting idea you’ve ever had.”
We never got the full Morrison run, thanks to the New 52 relaunch. We’ll never know where Grant could’ve gone. Wayne, Interrupted. But in some ways, maybe it’s better not to know. Morrison proved that Batman will never truly die.
Maybe you knew that already. But re-proving obvious truths isn’t wasted time. It’s the job of a writer. Bruce Wayne is caught in a circular story that never ends, as are we. The circle takes the loss in Crime Alley and turns it into meaning and victory. Batman is the story of one crime and everything good that comes afterwards. The enduring relevance of this strange dark pulp god is one of the genre’s defining mysteries. How fortunate, then, that we have the World’s Greatest Detective.
All-Star Superman Cover Art by Frank Quitely
3. All-Star Superman
Artist: Frank Quitely
Publisher: DC Comics
A space mission to the Sun is sabotaged by Lex Luthor. Superman arrives in the nick of time, and receives a megadose of yellow radiation. Good news: he’s stronger than ever. Bad news: his body’s cells look cancerous. The Man of Steel has one year left. Supes tells Lois who he is, and the story moves on from there.
Clark spenda the next 12 issues—12 months of a solar year—engaged in a series of Olympian labors. That’s the McGuffin.
There might be greater Superman stories than All-Star Superman, but at the moment it’s hard to think of one. If we are all unconsciously waiting for a Superman, well, then this is the series Superman was waiting for. This is the story where Kal-El saves a goth teen from suicide. You’re on the Internet. You’ve seen the panel I’m talking about. How do you even write a review of this comic?
All-Star Superman is a discussion about Superman. And what he means. Not just to comics, but to us.
That’s the embroidery, get to the diamond, as the impatient girlfriend said during the proposal. You’re not talking about Superman when you talk about Superman. You’re talking about goodness and elemental beliefs that Americans have about their heroes and their stories.
So doing a great Superman book is like doing taxes in a straitjacket: you admire the daring involved in the attempt. To do it decently is applaudable. To do it well is astounding, and to be great at it is a miracle.
Morrison doesn’t pull off a Siegel and Shuster here. But he gets close.
If Superman is corny, then so are all superheroes. If Superman matters, than the entire enterprise of comics and capes matters. The Man of Steel drags meaning along behind him, like a comet picking up satellites in his wake. Whatever you think about superhero comics, Superman embodies it. You’re not just talking about one character; you’re talking about a hero our grandparents loved, about 80 years of fermented history. About the superhero concept itself.
In 1938, right about the time we split the atom, and started wondering if the world was a good place, Superman appeared. Isn’t it just like him, to arrive in the nick of time? An unbeatable, unstoppable symbol so strong that not even deconstruction can break him. We made him, and he made the rest of his costumed friends. We were afraid of our power overcoming our goodness, and suddenly here’s the man to remind us what goodness and power actually look like. “Is virtue a thing remote?” Confucius asked. “I wish to be virtuous, and lo! Virtue is at hand.” Faster than a speeding bullet, you might say.
All-Star Superman is another promised payment on the debt of wonder we signed nearly a century ago. A reminder to ourselves of what should never be lost. He’s all the good we sometimes are, and all the good we could be. All-Star Superman is about the humanity of the people who read it. Clark Kent of Smallville is a mirror built during the most brutal part of the century, to remind us of the part of us that no war or Depression could take away. In the darkness of 1938, two hidden engineers in Cleveland made an idea that could love us back. I believe this man can fly—but Superman believes I can fly, and that’s the secret.
Animal Man Cover Art by Brian Bolland
2. Animal Man
Artists: Chas Truog, Tom Grummett, Others
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
If a creator’s work goes on long enough, the reading public will eventually see the writer or artist reduced to their bare bones. Sometimes it’s at the beginning of the career, sometimes later. In those moments, all of their extra tricks are thrown out, for whatever reason. Maybe the creator’s going through a rebuilding period. Maybe they’re trying minimalism for a time. Whatever the reason, in those periods, we see what the creator is, and what she or he does. The Fourth World was raw Kirby, without editorial control. Mr. A was Ditko, broadcasting with no interference. And Animal Man is Morrison to the sinew. What remains is an emotionally grounded postmodern existential drama. One of Morrison’s obsessions—what is like, to be a character in a comic?—is center stage here.
The protagonist Buddy Baker is the Animal Man of the title. He can, surprise surprise, take on the powers of animals. Buddy understands a DC Universe which contains an Animal Man is absurd, but what can he do? Buddy is also husband, father, vegetarian and an odd paragon in a world of Kryptonian gods and cave-dwelling billionaires. But that’s okay.
Animal Man isn’t Morrison at his wisest, cleverest or deepest. The art is keen enough and the plot’s excellent. So why second place? Because Animal Man is Morrison’s heart, the best proof that for all his outrageous spectacle, for all the tricks and all the postmodernism and all the striving for cool, this is a creator of staggering insight and profound feeling. Why do you think these writers, who could write anything, keep writing comics? Same reason the Superman sticks around Metropolis: they care.
Among Morrison’s protagonists, the ones he invented and the ones he merely adapted, Buddy endures beyond his popularity and his influence. Buddy’s not cool, or clever, or grim. He’s earnest and he’s good, and when he confronts his god, he yells, “It’s not a joke!” And he’s right. Baker is the ancestor of every ordinary Morrisonian man that would arrive later; the great-grandfather of Greg Feely and Joe the Barbarian, of Klaus and Jonathan Kent, and Jack Frost’s best friend Gaz. That’s why Animal Man deserves its spot. It’s a self-aware cosmic fantasy about human feelings. That’s the Scotsman’s business, at the end of the day. It’s not a joke.
The Invisibles Cover Art by Brian Bolland
1. The Invisibles
Artists: Steve Yeowell, Phil Jimenez, Chris Weston, Others
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
I interviewed Morrison once for my radio show. Most interviews run too short; you never get to ask all the questions you want. Morrison exhausted us. A team of five fans, and we couldn’t drill deep enough to empty the well. No matter how far we went, Morrison was waiting there for us. We ran out of questions before he ran out of time. But that makes sense. Greatness is not emptied out by space or time. A small, bounded point can contain all the information that ever was. Joyce’s Ulysses is about life, the universe and everything. It’s a comic cosmic vision, and it’s restricted to a single day in a single place: June 16th, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland.
By contrast, The Invisibles is 59 issues long. I’m positive the entire world is contained inside its pages.
Morrison’s great masterwork is a thriller about an underground group of postmodern revolutionaries, the Invisible College. The series focuses on one cell of that network, featuring bald action hero King Mob, time-traveling telepath Ragged Robin, trans magician Lord Fanny, martial artist and ex-cop Boy and the street-start and probable future Buddha, Jack Frost. They war on an extra-dimensional conspiracy of alien overlords, the Archons. Every conspiracy, by the way, is true. Every single one. Yes, even the one you’re thinking about right now. The Archons currently rule over mankind; the Invisibles aim to set them free.
Except everything I just told you is a lie.
Nothing is exactly what it appears to be, there may not even be a war, there may be no individual “you” reading this passage; there may not be any sides.
Welcome to The Invisibles, the little series that could, then did. Over six years, Morrison and his artists told the story of a charming terrorist cell surviving double-twists, fake-outs, extraterrestrial abductions and meta-meta narratives. There are prayers to the Amida Buddha, invocations to Ganesh, a Bruce Wayne expy, a time-travel suit inspired by origami, exploding mansions, appearances by God and the Devil, the true history of Robert Oppenheimer, the Hand of Glory, the poets Shelley and Keats, a recurring role for the Marquis de Sade… and an issue where Starship Troopers is discussed as a man relieves himself off the side of a skyscraper. The Invisibles isn’t a comics on drugs; The Invisibles is the drug.
The Invisibles is one of the most important books in my life, and in the life of practically everyone who reads it and makes it out the other side. And if that sounds like exaggeration, go ahead, try me. Ask anyone who’s read the series from start to finish: who were they before and after?
With its quick-change narrative, millions of ideas and ridiculously convoluted plot, this is the story Morrison was born to write. The Invisibles also contains my single favorite issue of any comic, “Best Man Fall.” I’ve read God knows how many books and comics in my life. With The Invisibles, I can literally remember where and when I was when I read every trade paperback of this story. Every single one.
The Invisibles is a rescue mission about consciousness. At the risk of spoilers, most of the book is about how each member of the Invisibles defeats their own dark impulses and becomes a better person. King Mob throws away his gun. Jack Frost backs off from nihilism. Boy stops believing in the martial cult. Lord Fanny defeats her demons. And Robin frees herself from the future.
Try and remember, it’s only a game. The Invisibles is the story of how we make stories, and draw meaning from them. We imagine stories are outside of ourselves. But there’s no story-molecule. Stories come from the emotions, and emotions live inside of us. The point of The Invisibles is that Barbelith, the center of meaning, is inside us all the while. We put as much into The Invisibles as we take out.
The Invisibles is like a ladder without a final step. You climb to the top, and wonder why the author failed to do his job. Then you realize: oh yeah, this is where I come in. The final leap is all you. As another magician put it, “I open at the close.” The Invisibles draws you in, sponge-like, until you don’t know where the story begins and you end. Read it, be read by it: what’s the difference?
Notice how slyly I shifted this discussion about a comic book by using the magic words “You” and “I.” So here’s a true story about me. When I was 19 years old, I saw President Bill Clinton in Wrigley Field. That same summer month, in an Evanston comic shop, I read the last page of the last issue of Morrison’s Invisibles run. That’s the one where Jack Frost talks directly to the viewer. That was decades ago, but I’m there right now, as I type these words.
I made this list of Morrison books, because that’s how we insist on seeing everything. We made lists to rank the world, to distinguish then from now, high from low, the beginning from the end—when really, you can start where you like and when you like. There’s no list, there’s no start, no stop: just a series of words on a screen. You can come in and leave as you please. That’s life, and that’s Grant Morrison: the man who gave his audience a choice.
And, here’s a trade secret: When I say “Morrison,” I don’t even mean a writer. He’s a series of panels ready to come to life. Just like these words were waiting to be read. You deliver the meaning, not me. This is a story you’ve agreed to tell yourself. You are reading these words. These words are on your screen, not mine. You’re the storyteller, not me.
Don’t take my word for it. Who is the voice talking in your head? You. You are The One who gives this vertical set of words meaning, and
Jason Rhode is not the reviewer of your fathers. This is the hidden list and breaks all hearts. Nice and smooth.