Practitioners 9: Grant Morrison

As a catch up for all new visitors to Beyond the Bunker, we’ll be representing the original Practitioners series 1-55 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo and featuring the most influential comic creatives in history). Thoroughly incomplete but featuring legends like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller and Alan Moore already more will be hitting the site every two alternate weeks. For now though, sit back every Tuesday for a run-down of the men and women who created the comic industry we know today. (Or check the full list in the menus above). This week: Global comics megastar and frustrated visionary; Grant Morrison.

All Star Superman 6 (DC, 2006)

Grant Morrison is a scottish comic book writer and playwright born 31 January 1960 who harnesses and embraces the full power of literature, psychology, history, science and mixes it all with an acute awareness of readership and popular culture. Sending Frankenstein to a land at the end of human experience and standing Wolverine and Sabretooth at the urinals of the Hellfire Club in the pursuit of perfect storytelling in comic books, drawing on a bewildering array of sources to bring forth writing that elevates and encourages its readership with rich language and deep, irony laced ideas of impossible futures and near unrecognisable presents, outer dimensions and the end of many worlds. Due to leave comic books at the end of his run with Batman, Morrison’s legacy will be one that lasts.

All Star Superman

Never scared of the poignant or the difficult Morrison has the canny knack of shifting seamlessly from the scientific explanation of a Voyager Titan mentally preparing to be launched into deep space for centuries in All Star Superman to the very real failure of Scott Summers to retain his marriage in the wake of post traumatic stress he is unable to express in New X-Men. It his acknowledgment of the need to ground – at least to the degree required for a readers’ mind if not in real terms – absurd statements and events with less abstract and more concise human situations and scenarios, underpinning everything with realistic and recognisable reactions.

He achieves this while still understanding the bare bones of comic book storytelling – still revelling in the idea of superheroes and extreme science fiction and (occasionally) magic. Elevating the subject matters though he does, he knows at all time who he is speaking to – and speaks as one of them, only with greater authority and verve.

He recognises, as all great writers perhaps do – no matter how many stars and space cannons are exploding around the main characters – that it is the individual humanity carefully identified by the writer that each character demonstrates that pins the story to the ground and allows it to resonate with the reader. In the same way that horror relies on the reactions of the participants, Morrison crafts insane worlds that are either (mostly) wholly accepted by its participants or accepted begrudgingly by them. The level of disbelief is relieved most of all by Morrison’s dialogue in which central, authoritative figures matter of factly describe high end science fiction ideas in lyrical and poetic language that causes the reader to wish it were so and, more subtly, believe it is possible. Using real science, meticulously applied and expanded upon, Morrison creates ephemeral worlds on solid foundations, allowing a degree of believability. The idea that Lex Luthor keeps a trained Baboon dressed as Superman in his cell for instance relies on the idea that reinforces Luthor as a genius, capable of manipulating his environment and the malign patience required to train a baboon and the influence to get the materials required. This falls into Morrison’s third greatest trick; an astonishing array of subtext and context to all of his characters. This is demonstrated beautifully, with the realisation that Luthor has a cavernous escape route available at any time through a trap door in his cell. His character is yet further reinforced as Kent is met at the base of stone stairs by an ambiguously aged girl in mild S&M uniform, piloting a Gondola on an underground lake. The iconography involved draws in sexual ambiguity (what is Luthor’s relationship to the girl – later uncovered as his niece, possibly for matters of taste), themes of power and influence and the mythology of the river Styx, as the innocent Kent is slowly taken back out to the living world. This may seem overly detailed and analytical but Morrison is at least that referential. His notes to his artists perhaps second only to the great Alan Moore.

His pacing and use of character is impeccable as he inhabits the mindset and responses of all of his characters – no matter how peripheral. It is in these reactions as Lex Luthor remains steadfastly oblivious to the possibility that Clark Kent has saved him as a prison riot rages around them in All Star Superman – assuming, naturally, that he has the situation well under control when in fact Kent continues to use an array of powers beyond his notice to ease his passage and even save him from a blundering Parasite. Kent remaining true to the honest and unassuming character of Superman to great comic effect.

Arcadia Byron of the Invisibles (Vertigo)

Morrison’s first published works were Gideon Stargrave for the brilliantly titled Near Myths in 1978 at the age of 17. Soon followed Captain Clyde, an out of work superhero for the Govan Press, a local newspaper in Glasgow, plus various issues of DC Thomson’s Starblazer, the sister title to the companies Commando title and the New Adventures of Hitler. He spent much of the early 80s touring with his band The Mixers, putting out the odd Starblazer and Zoids strip for DC Thomson.

In 1982 he submitted a proposal for a storyline involving the Justice League of America and Jack Kirby’s New Gods entitled Second Coming to DC. It was dismissed but his fascination of the New Gods no doubt formed the skeleton of the enormous Final Crisis saga in which Darkseid launches armageddon on an unsuspecting world in a second age of the New Gods using Earth and its inhabitants as hosts and demonic incubators. His desire to write DC’s primary superhero group was no doubt sated with his long run on JLA in 1996 to revamp the team and bring it up to date which he pulled off with Rock of Ages, Earth 2 and World War 3 (in no particular order).

At every stage he proved time and time again that he expanded the material handed to him – writing for 2000AD with Big Dave, Future Shocks and the unusually superhuman for 2000AD – Zenith under his wing before his tenure at DC.

The Filth with Grant Morrison and Gary Erskine (2003)

Upon crossing the Atlantic he demonstrated immediately his capacity for reinventing fringe characters and enhancing them beyond the original idea – taking the near unknown fringe character Animal Man and not only imbuing his character with the real reactions of a man who could channel the powers and thoughts of animals nearby to him but forced him to look through the fourth wall at the reader – breaking the indefinable rules of the medium in the process to brilliant effect.

Morrison is known for treating mainstream established titles in the same way as fringe titles and this has earned him a status as the great re-inventor in Modern comics. He was the man to make Scott Summer’s cool again as he took hold of the X-men universe and rang the life out of it – a process he tried to make un-reconnable – Killing 16 Million Mutants and giving Professor Xavier an unborn, evil sister who returns as a mind slug and unleashes the Shi’ar navy all over the mansion. Introducing a cavalcade of new Mutants some as hilariously and poignantly useless as ‘Beaky’ the featherless, beaked bird boy who batters in the head of the newly uber-feline and faux gay Beast. Jean Grey dies but for once is given no reason to return – as psychic hyper-bitch and new headmistress of Xavier’s Emma Frost sways Scott Summer’s exhausted heart, filling the emotional vacancy usually left by Phoenix every time she summarily carks it. Magneto is beheaded after destroying half of Manhattan and Xavier’s approaches an actual curriculum and focusses on its students for the first time in its history.

Jean and the Beast (New X-Men, 2002)

Morrison often – whether intentionally or not – represents the discussion boards and blogs of the fans – testing theories that are discussed hypothetically on public pages that no one expected to see them on. Batman is killed and returned and given a son in Morrison’s watch. Jason Todd effectively returns breaking the almighty unwritten rule of comic books – partly you suspect out of sheer bloody mindedness. Morrison finally being characteristically brave to investigate the reality of Dick Grayson under the cowl.

Dick Grayson as Batman (Batman, 2009)

The content of his independent titles have become mainstream – for good or ill – leaving many readers of Final Crisis utterly confused as to what was taking place – an abstract Superman tale in which he passes through multiverses in order to combat an abstract thought form made real in storytelling in an ephemeral world populated by reality vampires via a limbo championed by an indifferent Woody Allen-alike in a jesters outfit in order to save Lois Lane in between her penultimate and final heartbeat borders on the lunatic – but is incredibly detailed and worth the three reads it takes to fully grasp the deliberately overlapping realities thrown at it.

Morrison clearly found a like mind in penciller Frank Quitely, bringing to life the inner workings of Professor X’s mind in New X-Men, the gnarled and diseased but lithely libidoed geriatric in Lust for Life from Jamie Delano’s 2020 Visions (Speakeasy comics, 2005), scraping by each other by two volumes of the Authority – Morrison on Volume 4 with Gene Ha and Quitely on Volume 2 with Mark Millar, empowered the new JLA with a little much-needed modern sheen in the book of the same name in the early naughties and reinvented the greatest super hero of them all in All-Star Superman.

But it was WE-3, the story of three prototype ‘animal weapons’ as they flee the project that ‘enhanced’ them encapsulates the creative partnership. Morrison was meticulous as ever with his descriptions and insisted on consistent and protracted revisions of minute details from Quitely in order to produce a work of rare and fine quality. This certainly was achieved as it was released via Vertigo imprint in 2004 to public and critical acclaim. Morrison’s subtlety and nuance of character supplied each of the fleeing and desperate central characters; a rabbit; a cat and a dog a bewilderingly believable character each recognisable as an individual and the drives and psychology of the animal in question. Morrison’s capacity for invention supplied the narrative with a relatively basic speech pattern simulator for each of the animals allowing them to emote through limited cognitive language in a way not human but beyond its species. The effect is a dizzying, gripping and poignant story of extreme science inflicting havoc and chaos on three innocents’ lives – each reacting in their own very specific way. In many ways WE3 is exceptional and as near perfect as a comic book can get because it uses – perhaps most transparently and as such to best effect – Morrison’s greatest creative methodology – to recognise inherent and recognisable characteristics in vulnerable and capable beings and then inflict seven hells of pseudo lunacy on them – in whatever form seems most fun!

We3 (2004, Vertigo) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Most recently, Morrison has become devoutly lambasted for his incredible work in the Batman titles; killing Batman himself, replacing him with Dick Grayson, who struggles with the responsibility of the cowl. The hardened purists in the DC readership continued to make life harder and harder for Morrison to ply his trade. That, combined with his increasingly bizarre statements about his influence and involvement in the comics industry have begun to slow the genius down. His ideas were beginning to outgrow a perhaps more commercially minded DC as it tries to keep up with it’s Red banner rival, Marvel. Increasingly limited in the titles he has been permitted to write, Morrison announced recently that he will be leaving the comics industry behind, citing specifically the antagonising nature of the hardened fan – who actively denounce any major creative changes in the writing of any major character – irrespective of sales or popularity among the general public. This is an enormous loss to the industry and should not be underestimated. Wild card though he was, Morrison was a comic book loving wild card, determined to bring innovation and broad ideas to a fairly staid and unchanging medium. This is the man who finally killed Batman, deified Superman and killed 6 million mutants in 1 issue. Let his comics epitaph read; ‘went down fighting, but took a lot of characters with him.’

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Practitioners 38: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith was born in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1960 and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he now lives.

The Valley (Bone, Jeff Smith, 1992)

Smith learned about cartooning from comic strips, comic books and animated television shows. He has cited Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts as a very early influence on his understanding of comics, some of the style of which are highly visible in Smith’s tome Bone, now a classic of the medium. He has also named Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which he discovered at the age of nine, as his biggest influence in writing comics. Smith began to create comics with the ‘Bone’ characters as early as 1970, at about the age of 10.

Smith graduated in 1978 from Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, Ohio, where he was a classmate of Jim Kammerud; later on in 1986, Smith and Kammerud would co-found Charcater Builders, an animation studio in Columbus where Smith worked until 1992. After high school. Smith attended the Ohio Stae University where he created a comic strip called ‘Thorn’ for the Campus Newspaper ‘ The Lantern’ which included some of the characters from the Bone series.

In 1991, Smith created his company, simply entitled, Cartoon Books, in order to publish his comic book series Bone. Smith published 55 issues of Bone between 1991 and 2004, blending influences from Walt Kelly, Carl Barks and J.R.R. Tolkien. The black and white tale of Bone, Phoney Bone and Fone Bone into the mysterious valley populated by the Great Dragon, talking mammals,a beautiful young girl named Thorn, her grandmother and a horde of carnivorous fur balls named Rat Creatures, among others proved popular in individual format of 55 issues and 9 volumes were collected to present them. However, its the Bone saga in its entirety that reveals the depth and clarity of vision (as well as the lunacy and oddity) of Smith’s vision. Broad mythical themes play to Warner Bros cartoon physics (the snow falls out of the sky in a blanket in one go instead of as snowflakes and old ladies can outrun cows) in a story of immense scope and no shortage of silliness. Smith dotes on his characters, allowing each one to breathe and develop independently of all others, blending disparate characteristics and even dialogue styles to forma complete, populated and diverse world filled with giant, flat insects, giant mountain based wild cats and mysterious warrior cults (no, seriously).

The artwork begins with luxurious pencil and ink work and develops into fine line and detailed vistas and events, Smith’s style visibly developing over a very personal project.

Two additional volumes, Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails and Rose, collect a number of Bone prequels created by Smith, working with collaborators.

Following from Bone, Smith has developed Captain Marvel series for DC; SHAZAM! The Monster Society of Evil, published in four prestige format issues in 2007 and later collected into a hardcover. In 2008 he released RASL ‘ a stark Sci-fi series about a dimension-jumping art thief with personal problems.’ In 2008, a six issue preview was shown at the San Diego Comic-con, origianlly intended to be released in an oversized format. Onlookers and advisors were unanimous in their warnings about selling an oversized book so Smith, seemingly happy to oblige and accept advice reduced it back down as a black and white, normal sized comic book. However, the first trade paperback ‘The Drift’ is out in the original oversized format.

If anyone had any doubt as to the importance of Bone, Smith’s art featured in a pair of Museum shows during 2008. ‘Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond,’ at the Wexner Centre of Arts and Jeff Smith: Before Bone’ at the Cartoon Research Library of the Ohio State University. That’s right. The Cartoon Research Library of Ohio. It’s real. In 2009, Smith was featured in The Cartoonist, a documentary film on his life and work.

In a new 32-page graphic novel released in 2009, specifically released through the children’s book line launched by Art Spiegleman and New Yorker Art Editor Francoise Mouly, for very young ’emerging readers’ called Little Mouse Gets Ready, Smith noted that it featured another character Smith created in his childhood, ‘a little grey mouse with a little red vest.’

Bone alone won 10 Eisner Awards and ten Harvey Awards. In 1995 and 1996 he won the National Cartoonists Society’ss award for Comic Books. Smith’s 1332 page single-volume paperback was named one of Time magazine’s list of Top Ten Graphic Novels of All Time.

To get any clear idea of comic book history you have no choice but to pick up Bone. It is simultaneously a quiet delight and a seminal work and belongs firmly in the annuls of comic book history as a timeless piece of visual literature and BLAT! sound effects.