“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
Grant Morrison 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Flex Mentallo Cover Art by Frank Quitely
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.