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 8: Chris Weston

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: British Genius, Master Draftsman and flag bearer of old and more traditional comic book art, Chris Weston.

Chris Weston – one of the more understated and unreknowned master draftsmen of English comics – was born in January 1969 in Rintein, Germany and lived in various countries as a child. Things changed for him in 1987 when he came to be apprenticed for a year under Don Lawrence, one of the first generation of UK comic book artists and reknowned for meticulously detailed work that is said to have inspired Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons. Under Don Lawrence’s tutelage Weston gained an insight into the skills that would make him a quiet mainstay of the UK comics scene securing himself a position on the high beam of Judge Dredd under John Wagner in ‘ A Night at the Circus’ in 1988. His arrival in the British comic circuit was complete.

An assured, meticulous and precise artist he appears at first glance a draftsman before he can be considered an artist. The clarity and realism of his images denoting a controlled and technical skill in advance of most other people in his field. However, perhaps more so than his two counterparts – Bolland and Gibbons – Weston has a wry humour that spills out of his panels and a fierce and aggressive imagination that is enhanced by his realism and precision. As a result he has managed to keep up with some of the sharpest and most consistently abstract minds in the medium.

Predominantly working within DC, Wildstorm and DC Thompson titles he has crossed the atlantic several times to team up with Mark Millar on Swamp Thing, brought the hyper-abstract to life acceptable to the Human eye with on the critically acclaimed The Invisibles with Grant Morrison. His ability to imbed real human feeling to the exceptional has since seen him tackling the most popular fringe titles be published in Starman (DC), JSA (DC), Lucifer (DC) and The Authority (Wildstorm) – in which he had the chance to kill the Pope with a train carriage, consume Manhattan Island in a Super-Tsunami and send a gay pseudo Super-man to the centre of the Earth.

The Filth with Grant Morrison and Gary Erskine (2003)

Arguably, one of his greatest works was when reunited with Grant Morrison on The Filth, a 13 Issue Limited Series inked by his regular inker Gary Erskine. Within the run Weston brought to life Human Size Super-sperms rampaging on the streets of San Francisco, super intelligent scuba dolphins, landscapes made of porn and Human skin, a microcosm super Earth, pseudo maniacal Filth uniforms, vehicles and architecture including a precise and beautifully well realised Gilbert and George running things behind closed doors.

Panel after panel of awe inspiring back drops and mindblowing lunatic spectacle that few artists have managed to create. The intention of The Filth was its blending of both real world and super-states that most Super-hero or other comic books aim to create and illustrate the inner mind of Morrison something only the most adept of artists could begin to cope with. It attacks the idea and it is hard to imagine any other artist who could draw you in to the protagonist injecting his cat, pained at causing it discomfort in a non-descript and run down semi detached somewhere in South London and a Super Intelligent Chimp taking pot shots at the President of the United States – now with bitch tits – on the deck of an enormous city-ship the size of thirty city blocks (a scale he realises in one of the most impressive double page spreads in comic book history in which the aforementioned super-ship is docked in Venice – all decks accounted for and surrounded by the city itself, helicopters and boats and ships.

It is in this that Weston illustrates beautifully the disparity between the work of the artist and work of the writer. While Morrison is highly detailed in his descriptions with Weston if you say ‘a building in the background’ you will get a building correct for its geography and setting, period and price and you’ll get it with every brick visible. Weston rests his feet firmly in both fields of draftsmanship and illustration. Realising ideas most artists would struggle with for page after page within a single panel, succinctly, incredibly accurately and always entertainingly. Absurdity and reality as bedfellows in the mind of a true artist.

A scene from The Filth (2003)

Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 1)

Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in New York City. His parents, Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg, were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. Growing up on Suffolk Street, Kirby was often involved in street fights with other kids, later saying that “fighting became second nature. I began to like it.”

Throughout his youth, Kirby wanted to get out of his neighbourhood. Knowing how to draw he sought out places to learn more about art. Essentially self taught from a very young age, Kirby was by comic strip artists Milton Cariff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond as well as editorial cartoonists such as C.H. Sykes, ‘Ding’ Darling and Rollin Kirby, the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. In the shadow of the depression, people had found the capacity to improve their circumstances and those who looked were beginning to find them again. It was the American Dream certainly. But it was Kirby’s dream too.

Steve Canyon by Milton Caniff, in a style very close to that developed by Kirby in later years

Kirby claims he was rejected by the Educational Alliance because he drew ‘ to fast with charcoal’. He eventually found an outlet for his skills by drawing cartoons for the newspaper of the Boys Brotherhood Republic, an astonishing sounding ‘miniature city’ on East 3rd Street where kids ran their own government. This no doubt inspired the Newsboy Legion, a hustle of likely kids that have been repeated several times by both Jon Bogdanove in Superman for DC and Grant Morrison in the Seven Soldiers crossover event in 2009.

Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, one of the leading undergraduate art schools in the United States today, at what he says was the age of 14. He left after a week, dismissing the factory line nature of the teaching at the time. Speaking about that time Kirby said, “I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done.”

According to Kirby’s occasionally unreliable memory, Kirby joined the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate in 1936, working on comic strips and single-panel advice cartoons such as Your Health Comes First!! This he did under the pseudonym Jack Curtiss, the first of a great many name changes throughout his career. Kirby reacted angrily at any suggestion that it was an attempt to cover up his Jewish heritage throughout his career. He began to work for movie animation company Fleischer Studios as an inbetweener (an artist who fills in the action between major-movement frames) on Popeye cartoons. This was something Kirby couldn’t tolerate, seeing at understandably as a menial job. “I went from Lincoln to Fleischer,” he recalled. “From Fleischer I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn’t take that kind of thing,” describing it as “a factory in a sense, like my father’s factory. They were manufacturing pictures.”

Fliescher Popeye Inking Chart, reinforcing Kirby's opinion that his work at Fliescher animation was factory-like.

At the time the comics industry was booming. Today the sales figures of the early 90s are considered impressive if they hit 500,000. In the late 1930s and early 1940s companies could expect sales figures in their millions. This was the industry Kirby stepped into as young man, starting at Eisner & Iger, one of a handful of firms creating comics on demand to publishers. It was here that Kirby remembered as his first comic book work, for Wild Boy Magazine. Wild boy, Jumbo Comics and other Eisner-Iger clients gave Kirby the chance to work on numerous titles something we can only assume he achieved admirably. He used the various strips to test out any number of pseudonyms such as ‘Curt Davis’ for The Diary of Dr Hayward, or as ‘Fred Sande’ for the western crime fighter strip Wilton of the West, he returned to ‘Jack Curtiss’ for the swashbuckling Count of Monte Cristo and for the humour strips Abdul Jones he drew as ‘Ted Grey’ and with Socko the Dog simply as ‘Teddy’. Ultimately though, he settle on the pen name Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney.

In the summer of 1940, Kirby and his family moved to Brooklyn. There, Kirby met Rosalind “Roz” Goldstein, who lived in his family’s apartment building. The pair began dating soon afterward. Kirby proposed to Goldstein on her eighteenth birthday, and the two became engaged. However, there was one other partnership that Kirby would enter into that would change the face of popular comic books forever and provide the world with one of it’s most iconic figures.

Working with comic-book publisher and newspaper syndicator Fox Feature Syndicate, earning a then-reasonable $15 a week salary, Kirby began to investigate the superhero narrative with the comic book Blue Beetle, published January to March 1940, starring a character created by the pseudonymous Charles Nicholas, a house name that Kirby retained for the full three month strip. During this period, Kirby met and began collaborating with cartoonist and Fox editor Joe Simon, who worked freelance as well as his staff work. In 1988, Simon recalled, “I loved Jack’s work and the first time I saw it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He asked if we could do some freelance work together. I was delighted and I took him over to my little office. We worked from the second issue of Blue Bolt…”

It was then that Kirby and Simon met what-would-be Marvel Comics, then Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics. Joe Simon had concieved the idea of Captain America and made a sketch, writing the name ‘Super American’ at the bottom of the page. Simon felt there were too many ‘Supers’ around but very few Captains. Presenting it to Martin Goodman the go-ahead was given but trying to fill a full comic with primarily one character’s stories, Simon did not believe that his regular creative partner, Kirby, could handle the workload alone. Two young artists from Conneticut had made a strong impression, Al Avison and Al Gabriele having worked together regularly and proven they could adapt to each others styles.

Simon recalled, ‘The two Als were eager to join in on the new Captain America book, but Jack Kirby was visibly upset. ‘You’re still number one, Jack,’ I assured him. ‘It’s just a matter of a quick deadline for the first issue.’

‘I’ll make the deadline,’ Jack promised. ‘I’ll pencil it [all] myself and make the deadline.’ I hadn’t expected this kind of reaction … but I acceded to Kirby’s wishes and, it turned out, was lucky that I did. There might have been two Als, but there was only one Jack Kirby.’

You can imagine the dull thunder of New York outside somewhere as the image of Captain America was formed at the hands of Jack Kirby, the bombs of the War in Europe also audible to him. A full year before Pearl Harbour was attacked both Kirby and Simon were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organised. We wanted to have our say too.”

Aware that he was creating a political figure, Kirby generated an iconic figure, broad shouldered and powerful, incorporating the red, white and blue, the stars and stripes, the eagle wings (however small) and the bright red boots that have survived almost unaltered for 70 years. The first Captain America comic in early 1941 saw him punching Hitler squarely in the jaw at the heart of a Nazi headquarters.

Simon negotiated 15% of profits for both he and Kirby as well as salaried positions as the company’s editor and art director, respectively. The first issue sold out in days, the second print run set at over 1 million copies. This enormous success established this creative team as a formidable creative force in the industry. After the first issue, Simon asked Kirby to join the staff as Art Director.

With the success of Captain America, Simon felt that Goodman wasn’t paying them the promised percentage of profits and so found work for them both at the National Comics (later to be called DC). Kirby and Simon negotiated a deal that would secure them $500 a week, compared to the $75 and $85 they respectively earned at Timely. Keeping the deal secret, fearing that Goodman wouldn’t pay them what was owed if he discovered their approach to National, both Kirby and Simon continued to work on Captain America. Goodman in fact did become aware of their plans and both of them left after Captain America #10. Kirby and Simon were leaving behind the highlight of their partnership, though Captain America wouldn’t return fully for some years yet.

The first few weeks at National were spent trying to devise new characters while the company sought to figure out how to utilise the pair. After a few failed editor-assigned ghosting assignments, National’s Jack Leibowitz simply told them to ‘just do what you want’. The pair then revamped the Sandman figure in Adventure Comics and created the superhero Manhunter. Not the Martian Manhunter, Kirby and Simon created a character that became adapted, represented by numerous alter egos and finally depersonified throughout the decades, Kirby’s original design returned nearly completely unaltered with the Manhunters, creations of the Guardians of the Universe as a forerunner to the Green Lantern Corps, most prominent in the recent Blackest Night saga. The ongoing ‘kid gang’ series Boy Commandos was to be their biggest hit, launched in the same year to become a national feature, selling more than a million copies a month and becoming National’s third best- selling title. They also scored a hit with the homefront kid-gang, the Newsboy Legion in Star Spangled Comics.

Kirby married Roz Goldstein on May 23, 1942. The same year that he married, he changed his name legally from Jacob Kurtzberg to Jack Kirby.

The war had been brought to American shores. Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japan and the US, after several years of tacit support to Britain through supply could no longer remove itself from armed conflict. Jack Kirby was going to war.