When it comes to authors that have had an influence on me, Grant Morrison has got to be near the top of the list. Morrison’s work is many things – subversive, alternative, complex – but it also holds a tremendously deep joy, almost a reverence, for the characters and tropes that he plays with.
I won’t go into too much of Morrison’s writing history – lord knows, there are interviews, biographies and now documentaries aplenty dedicated to his work – but in short he’s best known for his comic books.
Morrison’s stories with the established properties of the Big Two (DC and Marvel Comics) are iconic. His run on Superman is the distillation of seventy-plus years of crazy stories and concepts, packed into twelve issues. His multi-year work on X-Men redefined characters that had been written by countless authors and artists before him. His current Batman stories are deeper and wilder than anything seen for years.
His creator-owned stories (as opposed to licensed properties like those above) are vastly different from one another, but share a love of the unreal. The Invisibles is a chaotic ride into hyper-cool magical terrorism, We3 melds the pathos of Watership Down with the action of an action blockbuster, Vinamarama is teen angst meets crazy mythology, Seaguy is sweet and kooky, Kill Your Boyfriend is a charming rampage across the English countryside. There is something for everyone.
Morrison’s more recent works can feel overloaded with concepts; there is more plot and characterization on a single page than most writers would have in an entire year’s worth of output. It can become a bit much, on occasion; works like Final Crisis become almost frenzied in their storytelling. There is a degree of overlap with William Gibson, who I wrote about recently. In both cases, you can feel like you’ve come in halfway through a conversation. With Gibson, you can study the words and let the points of information accrete into a whole. With Morrison, you can just shrug and let it wash over you; sure, you may miss half of what’s going on the first read through, but next time you pick it up you’ll notice more, join dots between previously (seemingly-)unrelated comments or plot threads.
Comics is a visual medium, but it’s also driven by dialogue. In Morrison’s case, characters have a voice that you just can’t find anywhere else. Take Mister Quimper, a crippled, dwarf-like alien from The Invisibles. Quimper is most certainly A Bad Guy, but he’s not a cartoonish villain. He has a twisted, almost perverted, hatred toward existence. Physically, he shields himself from the world through thick clothes, gloves and a near-featureless mask. His dialogue demonstrates his reasoning, his beliefs, his hubris;
Things are simple: you forgot you were parts of a machine. Because of your forgetfulness, the machine is inefficient. We can correct your functioning. We must correct it.
You, in your chaotic state, may experience our efforts in value-laden terms; feelings of degradation, shame and humiliation are common. Those states are simply the reaction of a damaged subjective unit during its return to the objective reality of the machine. ‘Individuality’ is the name you give your sickness, your deviation from correct functioning.
Understand this: we have come to free you from chaos and uncertainty and ‘individuality’.
There are no monsters here. There are no dreams. Your search for value is part of your pathology. Your questions are meaningless. There are no questions here. What is, is. Nothing is open to interpretation. Your search for God is over. God is in the machine.
Not everything that Morrison writes is so over the top; Quimper’s style works in The Invisibles, but is distinct and isn’t replicated elsewhere. For comparison, take Morrison’s speech in his final issue of Animal Man. The image here is of Morrison himself, wandering the streets of Glasgow at night, talking directly to his (mostly American) audience.
When I was young, I had an imaginary friend called Foxy. He lived in a vast underground kingdom. A utopia ruled over by peaceful and intelligent foxes. I used to signal to him.
My parents bought me a torch so that I could signal to him. Not a flashlight. We call them torches over here.
I used to stand at the top of Angus Oval and shine my torch out toward the hills. Foxy always signaled back. That was more than twenty years ago.
And here I am again. Don’t ask me why. Here I am at the end of the century, toiling up a hill in the bitter wind. I’ve come to send a signal out into the dark. In the end, it seemed like the only thing worth doing.
Are you there?
Can you see me?
Foxy, I came back.
I didn’t forget.
I came back.
The line of the hill stays dark. There is no answering light. No light at all.
Clouds pile up in the darkness, weighted with snow. Curtains are drawn, windows blink and go dark. Wind whines in the power lines.
Stars go out.
Streets are empty.
What an odd, intimate way to finish up his work on a book that he’d written for years. It’s a wonderfully personal tale, and like nothing seen before – or indeed, since.
I think another reason I love Morrison’s work is that, at its heart, it’s filled with wonder, love, horror, laughter, mystery and passion. All the stuff that makes a great read is packed into the same book. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy, and was pleasant enough to nod and smile when I waved hello to him while dressed as a character from Star Wars.