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.’

Practitioners 52: Osamu Tezuka

Kyoto station is a monolithic, grand and impressive structure, latticed with metal and steel pillars in a gun grey cathedral to industrialism and travel. It is impressive to say the least. Outside, however is a small camera stall looking out over the main entrance. On top of it is an icon as famous, if not potentially more famous and certainly more recognisable across Japan than the enormous building behind him. His name is Astroboy, and in terms of fame and influence he matches up to any celluloid mouse. Built from the premise of cheerful, less gritty story telling – Astroboy’s creator is considered the instigator of the ‘Golden Age of Manga’. The name of the man who brought hope to Japan after the Second World War through a new age in Manga is Osamu Tezuka.

Born Tezuka Osamu on November 3, 1928 Tezuka was a Japanese cartoonist, manga artist, animator, producer, activist and – at one time – medical doctor, though he never practiced medicine. Born in Osaka prefecture, he is best known as the creator of Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion and Black Jack.

He is often known as the ‘Godfather of Anime’ and enjoys the reputation as the Japanese Walt Disney. Inspired very much by his namesake, Tezuka adapted much of the western idealism of Disney to the Japanese Manga, transferring ideas seamlessly that still now permeate modern Manga. Though his creations have moved far beyond the initial inspirations that spawned them.

Starting to draw comics in his second year of elementary school, he found a bug named ‘Osamushi’ in his fifth year. Fascinated by the similarity to his own name he adopted it as a pen name. He came to realise that he could use Manga as a way to convince people to care for the world. After World War II and the devastation that Japan itself had suffered during the conflict, Tezuka created his first piece of work – at the age of 17 – Diary of Machan and Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). These works launched the Golden Age of Manga. Their popularity and style offering people a new – and popular – way of reading Manga.

As a young boy Tezuka was very ill, his arms swelling up. The following treatment led him to want to become a doctor. He continued to draw as he studied medicine at Osaka University and obtained his medical degree. He arrived at a cross roads – familiar to almost all creatives when they try to decide which path to follow. Ahead of him a potentially lucrative career as a doctor, for which he was now almost fully qualified, or alternatively the life of a comic artist, not considered a particularly rewarding job. He turned to his mother for advice who replied “You should work doing the thing you like most of all.”

Tezuka graduated from Osaka University, having gained his Medical degree but would never practice medicine. He would however use his medical knowledge to enrich his sci-fi manga, such as Black Jack.

His creations include Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan, literally translated to “Iron-armed Atom”), Black Jack, Princess Knight, Phoenix (Hi no Tori in Japan), Kimba the White Lion, Adolf and Buddha. His “life’s work” was Phoenix — a story of life and death that he began in the 1950s and continued until his death.
In January 1965, Tezuka received a letter from Stanley Kubrick, who had watched Astro Boy and wanted to invite Tezuka to be the art director of his next movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tezuka could not afford to leave his studio for an entire year to live in England, so he refused the invitation. Though he could not work on it, he loved the movie, and would play its soundtrack at maximum volume in his studio to keep him awake during the long nights of work.

Tezuka headed the animation production studio Mushi Production (“Bug Production”), which pioneered TV animation in Japan. The name of the studio derives from one of the kanji (虫 – Japanese reading: mushi, English meaning: bug,insect) used to write his name, bringing that quiet day discovering a bug bearing his name back firmly to his present day. Robust, tenacious and built for purpose ‘Bug’ productions continued to produce innovative and fascinating projects.

Many young manga artists once lived in the apartment where Tezuka lived, Tokiwa-sō. (As the suffix -sō indicates, this was probably a small, inexpensive apartment.) The residents included Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider) ; Fujio Akatsuka (known as the Gag Manga King; also influenced by western work, namely Buster Keaton and MAD magazine); and Abiko Motou and Hiroshi Fujimoto (who worked together under the pen name Fujiko Fujio and created the long-running series Doraemon, the main character of which is officially recognised as a cultural icon of modern Japan – much like Astroboy). All these men opted to live close to the starting point of the great master. Hard to think of an equivalent today for western artists though perhaps the difference is more cultural. Never-the-less the influence of Tezuka was undeniable and clear in order to inspire these men to wish to see the same views and follow so closely in his personal path.

Thanks to his prolific output, pioneering techniques and innovative redefinition of genres Tezuka earned himself incredible titles such as ‘the father of Manga’, ‘the god of comics’ and ‘kamisama (Japanese for spirit or natural force) of manga’.

Tezuka is known for his imaginative stories and stylized Japanese adaptations of western literature. He loved reading novels and watching films that came from the West. Tezuka’s early works included manga versions of Disney movies such as Bambi. His work, like that of other manga creators, was sometimes gritty and violent. However, he stayed away from graphic violence in some titles such as Astro Boy.

The distinctive “large eyes” style of Japanese animation was invented by Tezuka, drawing inspirations on cartoons of the time such as Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Bambi and Mickey Mouse. His productivity is awesome in it’s scale – certainly dwarfing almost all modern artists, the Complete Manga Works of Tezuka Osamu (手塚治虫漫画全集, published in Japan) comprises some 400 volumes, over 80,000 pages; even considering this, it is not comprehensive. His complete portfolio includes over 700 manga with more than 150,000 pages. However, the vast majority of his work has never been translated from the original Japanese – which has led to a lack of fame in the west that other creators such as Kazuo Koike, Goseki Kojima and Katsuhiro Otomo have enjoyed.

Tezuka died of stomach cancer on February 9, 1989, at the age of 60. His death came about one month after the death of Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor of Japan. In an afterword written by Takayuki Matsutani, president of Mushi Productions, that was published in Viz Media’s English language release of the Hi no Tori manga, it is said that his last words were, “I’m begging you, let me work!”

The city of Takarazuka, Hyōgo, where Tezuka grew up, opened a museum in his memory.
Stamps were issued in his honor in 1997. Also, beginning in 2003 the Japanese toy company Kaiyodo began manufacturing a series of figurines of Tezuka’s creations, including Princess Knight, Unico, the Phoenix, Dororo, Marvelous Melmo, Ambassador Magma and many others. To date three series of the figurines have been released. A separate Astro Boy series of figurines has also been issued, and continuing popularity for fans throughout Japan are annual Tezuka calendars with some of Tezuka’s most famous artwork.

His legacy has continued to be honored among Manga artists and animators and many artists including Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball), and Kazuki Takahashi (Yu-Gi-Oh!) have cited Tezuka an inspiration for their works.

Far reaching influences: Vampires (1966 -67 and 1968 -69) by Osamu Tezuka reveals parallel styles seen in Warner Bros and Disney, and even the later chapters of Jeff Smith's Bone.

Anywhere that the mark of modern manga and anime are found globally started with the stroke of Tezuka’s pen in post-war Japan. His intention was to spread joy. He has also spread images of science fiction worlds unimaginable in the west, although many are violent and malevolent they have moved millions and all carry the ‘wide-eyed’ innocence of Osamu Tezuka. An unknown legend in the west – he is partially responsible for almost half the design and artistic influence visible in modern comics and animation. East and West. Though these things are hard to quantify his intention to ‘spread joy’ through manga is still being achieved. Shelves and shelves of manga on every subject imaginable find their way to millions of Japanese readers every day. And every page carries a little bit of the joy Tezuka hoped for. Just a little ‘bug’ in the corner of every panel.