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 25: Mark Millar

We here at Beyond the Bunker hope to list the greatest and best creatives in the history of comic books. In a continuing series (available every week on Tuesday) the most innovative, inspirational and important comic book visionaries will be appearing here. Check on the link below to see if one of your favourites has been included yet.

Mark Millar (born December 24, 1969) and is a Scottish Comic book writer. Millar was the highest selling comic-book writer working in America in the 2000s.

Millar was born in Coatbridge on Christmas Eve, 1969 in Scotland and now lives in Glasgow. In case you figured that this goliath of writing formed at the writing desk the beginning of his career was as a teenage fan. Millar was inspired to become a comic book writer following a meeting with Alan Moore (creator of V for Vendetta, Tom Strong, Watchmen and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) at a signing session at AKA Books and Comics when he was a teenager in the 1980s. It was not until experiencing financial problems after his parents died that he chose to leave University and become a professional writer. This tragic turn of his life and the introduction to writing as a result presents evidence of what made Millar different from many creatives. Upon suffering financial difficulty he understood that for someone determined and capable enough, writing of comic books could potentially represent a career.

His first job as a comic book writer was while he was still attending school, with Trident’s Saviour with Daniel Valley on art duties. Saviour was one of the most popular titles produced by Trident, mixing, even at that age a postmodernist blend of religion, satire and superhero action in the mix that Millar would become known for on later titles.

During the 1990s, Millar joined the creative team on 2000AD, Sonic the Comic and Crisis. In 1993, Grant Millar, Grant Morrison and John Smith presented a controversial 8-week run called the Summer Offensive in the pages of 2000AD. Morrison and Millar created a street pugilist in the chaviest sense in the pug faced Big Dave, xenophobic, ignorant, thug like man mountain who pummelled and battered his way through absurd and uniquely British threats to civilisation not the least of which a replacement boot-leg robot royal family which he battered blithely into submission to save the British isles. The first part (prog 842) saw Big Dave go up against Saddam Hussein trying to take over the world and turn everyone into ‘poofs’ with the aid od some scary aliens. Terry Waite helps him.

This mental blend of faith in your readership to get the joke, populist WAM BAM and whip crack satire and lack of fear of diving unceremoniously into the draker side of the human psyche (frankly where we are more interesting) is what set Millar apart from all the rest. Even Morrison can often loop back away from pure cynicism but Millar sees the scars in society and picks at them making him a gritty, brave and challenging writer. Which may be why he finally converted Captain America into a soldier who doesn’t kill to a one man weapon of mass destruction with a moral code firmly fixed on the defence of the weak.

Millar’s British work inevitably caught the attention of DC Comics and 1994 Millar was offered the traditional proving ground of new talent and Moore’s most sentimental character tenure some years before, Swamp Thing. Morrison aided with first four-issue run of the title to settle Millar into the title. Predictably however, while Millar’s work on Swamp Thing gained critical credit it continued to perform poorly and the series was cancelled by DC not long after Millar’s introduction. Millar continued to work on DC titles (aided occassionally by Grant Morrison – an unusual arrangement for an established writer – on titles such as JLA, The Flash and Aztek: The Ultimate Man) and working on unsuccessful pitches for the publisher. In the same period, Millar was speaking publicly and candidly about abandoning comics and had begun to mention a horror series named Sikeside for Channel 4. Sikeside was cancelled in pre-production and has recently been optioned by Crab-apple productions for a planned theatrical release.

However, with the ’90s closing down behind him, unceremoniously and with little advancement the decade in which Millar will find his niche and launch Millar into the limelight began. In 2000, Millar recived his big break replacing Warren Ellis on The Authority for DC’s Wildstorm imprint. Assigned with Morrison cohort Frank Quitely to the title, The Authority launched into a more polemic style while continuing Ellis’ original big screen, broad and boundless ideals for the title. This was a team now that wouldn’t tolerate the small minded or the morally dubious powers on earth traditionally ignored by other Superheroes. Now – under Millar the Authority truly represent exactly that – unforgiving, resilient and willing to absolutely do all that is necessary to stop that which they see as wrong. The more severe and militant characters were now brought forwards as the main focus, the Midnighter even more savage and militantly cold, contentedly torturing through electrocution the former Doctor while mysteriously managing to present an entirely different image to the passing guards in a super villain prison at the end of time.

In one short scene, the newly empowered Doctor, having been handed elemental powers over creation in return for restoring the Earth to its former self overwhelms one of the female characters, the Engineer in one of the darkly subtle and emotionally affecting ways ever written in comics. The Engineer is capable of morphing technological acroutements to deal with almost any situation and presents a difficult physical threat to overwhelm for the Doctor. Until the Doctor reminds her of a medical professional at her school as a young girl who kissed her on the back of the neck while they were alone in the school nurse’s office. It is the Doctor, having travelled back, killed the nurse and planted his lips on a vulnerable and undressed little girl – leaving her with ‘a funny feeling you’d carry around for the rest of your natural life.’ This is achieved in three panels. The effect on the reader lasts significantly longer than it does on the Engineer, as a character already referred to as a genocidal maniac tips over into a more insidious and familiar evil. A hero is only as impressive as the enemy he/she overwhelms and Millar is uniquely ambiguous enough in his writing to allow his enemies to represent the worst kind of evil.

He takes this to one hell of a conclusion; because if the threat is overwhelmingly total and unremmiting what need is there for soldiers, warriors and heroes to maintain outdated and realistically outmoded perceptions of moralism in the face of global or personal threats. For thousands of years – as civilisation has prospered and gained increasingly ethical and moral positions, it has always been defended by those willing to push through the boundaries of acceptable conflict. The Second World War heroes were not made from pacifism or saving cats from trees – they were born sadly by meeting carnage and horror with strength, bravery and a willingness to push back just as hard as they were being pushed. From this idea, what would a Captain America realistically forged in the battlefields of Northern Europe and the Pacific be? A pacifist believer in all Human rights or an efficient and exacting defender of the American way. With the creation of the Ultimates – a modern and frankly more realistic interpretation of Marvel’s most iconic American hero would step to the front of the fray, at the forefront of one of the most popular series in the history of comic books. The Avengers everyone has been waiting for.

Step aside for… The Ultimate Universe.

CONTD IN PART 2 (THURSDAY)