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"Superman is a socialist superhero"

The graphic novelist Grant Morrison on the evolution of secular gods, his love of happy endings . .

Grant Morrison is an accomplished comic-book writer, whose "Batman: Arkham Asylum" is one of the best selling original graphic novels ever published and the basis for the critically acclaimed video game of the same name. His new book, "Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero", opens with the first comic-book appearance of Superman in 1938 and traces his evolution and the emergence of other heroes such as Batman, the X Men (and the ill-advised Captain Britain), through to the darker, satirical tales of Alan Moore and others in the 1970s and 1980s and on to Hollywood's current obsession with film adaptations.

What made you want to write the book?

I was talked into it -- it started out as a collection of interviews I'd done on superheroes over the years. But my agent said, "I think you should just write an original book." I blithely said, "No problem," and found myself with an immense history to do.

What most surprised you in the course of your research?

What was most exciting was reconnecting with things I'd taken for granted. I'd dismissed some of the early stuff -- you look at that and think the artwork was poor, it was drawn by young teenage boys -- but, looking at that again, in the context of its time, was to see nuance and depth I hadn't seen before. There was a lot going on in society and the time and these boys were picking up on that.

How have superheroes evolved?

They've evolved along with us -- but in a lot of cases, they've also predicted social change. The "soft body" superheroes of the 1960s were almost a prediction of the way LSD would affect the consciousness of a lot of young people; there are "9/11" comics that happened prior to that event but depicted weird and uncanny images of ruined towers and destroyed cities.

I think [comics] represent our best selves. They're a very crude representation of what in the past might have been a Hindu god, or a humanist Renaissance ideal of the perfect man, or the Enlightenment man; they're a small-scale, obscure attempt to talk about that idea that we might be better than we think we are.

I felt that at a time when the narrative that the western world is telling itself is one of guilt and fear -- it must be difficult to be a young person now -- the fact that superheroes had become popular again was maybe a response to that.

That's a very different conception of the superhero to the one you find in, say, Alan Moore's Watchmen -- that they're basically psychopaths.

That's one way of looking at it but it relies on imagining that superheroes are real. If they were real and they lived in a world like ours and had superpowers, there's a chance they would be very peculiar. The decision to dress up as a bat and fight crime is not a normal or conventional one.

Watchmen is a beautiful book, amazingly written, but the "mistake" it made is asking us to accept as real things that could never be real. For me, the only way a superhero is real is on paper, or on screen -- as an idea. Superman was as real as the idea of the nuclear bomb to me as a child and it allowed me to get over that terror.

What [superheroes] actually are is a kind of echo, or memory -- an archetype of our own best selves. The engine that drives them is that they aren't real but they allow us to solve problems in a symbolic way. Superman represents our best, golden selves, who solves problems without fighting -- and that doesn't represent American foreign policy in the way that Alan Moore set up his superheroes to represent foreign policy. For me, Superman is an Enlightenment ideal of what we could be if we tried.

That plays into another debate -- whether graphic novels have become obsessed with being "dark".

I've been fighting against that current for a long time. That's not to say that graphic novels shouldn't be dark -- they can deal with all kinds of subjects; I'm talking about superheroes that are a distinct corner of that market. I wouldn't want to say that Maus, for instance, the graphic novel about the Holocaust, shouldn't deal with dark subjects. But I've always been in agreement that the 1980s movement to pare superheroes down, examine them, expose them to the foibles of humans, was a terrible dead end.

It did produce some interesting work, because it's always interesting to see Batman . . .

Old and broken?

Or the alcoholic Superman, or what would it be like if he worked for the government and hated us all . . . These are interesting questions but they didn't get at the heart of why we created these things in the first place.

The idea of the happy ending is quite beautiful -- it only happens in fiction. To throw it out of the fictional toolbox to fit in an existential gloomy view of the world was dumb. I always felt superheroes were best when they were doing what they do best -- fighting evil.

Is the form particularly suited to the subject -- what can a graphic novel do that a prose novel can't?

When you try to describe superheroes in prose, it becomes ridiculous. Somehow it works in graphic novels. To go back to the idea of gods, which I link [superheroes] to in the book, people have ideas of gods that are the same in every culture, such as the god of communication -- Hermes for the Greeks, Mercury for the Romans, Ganesh for the Hindus, Thoth for the Ancient Egyptians.

The superheroes are the same -- look at the Justice League of America. Superman is Zeus, Wonder Woman is Hera, The Flash is Mercury. It wasn't necessarily that people believed in Olympian beings in the past but they embodied eternal human qualities -- love will always exist but we only feel it occasionally in our lives.

It's odd, then, that superheroes were co-opted as entertainment for teenage boys, which basically consisted of them punching each other. They can do a lot more than that: take the place in a secular world that gods once had.

Do you have a favourite superhero?

It was always the Flash -- I would have loved to have been able to run at the speed of light and vibrate my molecules so fast that no one could see me. But I love them all. They represent something in our society. Batman, for example, is the guy who processes trauma: his parents were shot in front of him but, on his own terms, he's done something incredibly sane by dressing up as a bat and confronting his childhood fears. Superman is made to solve all problems; the Justice League of America never get beaten.

I'm intrigued that humans created ideas that cannot be destroyed, even in the comics, after 20 years of deconstruction and reconstruction and picking them apart.

Is it very different writing for a character with an existing mythology?

I like to go back and work out what the original writer and artist wanted to do with the character and then study as many of the different iterations as possible. Every generation has its own version of Superman and they can often be very different.

At the beginning, Superman was very much a socialist superhero. He fought for the unemployed, the oppressed, he beat up wife-beaters. It's about a man driven by a burning sense of injustice -- there are no monsters or robots, he fights against corrupt council officials! He was conceived as a Depression-era superhero, who dealt with the problems of ordinary people.

By the time of the war ten years later, he'd become like Elvis -- he'd had his hair cut, suddenly he was riding missiles and telling readers to "slap a Jap". He was suddenly very for American foreign policy.

In the 1950s, he became a patriarch -- with a family, surrounded by Supergirl and Superdog. I feel that was representative of men home from the war who'd seen horrific things and were being expected to "act normal". And so on, through the decades. So you have to go back to first principles and ask: how would a champion of the oppressed act today?

I wonder what the answer to that would be.

I think he's a much more global, connected character. Truth, justice and the American way isn't relevant any more. We've all seen the pictures of the earth from Apollo 8. The Superman I would write would be a much more international figure.

For people who've never read a graphic novel, what is a good place to start?

Watchmen is the obvious one. The Dark Knight [Returns], the big Batman revision book in the 1980s, is fantastic. Peter Milligan's Enigma looked at the figure of the superhero through the lens of alternative culture and queer theory and that's one of the best books on superheroes ever written. Obviously, I'd ask people to read all of mine!

Supergods suggests a reading list at the end. Like most media, there's an awful lot of dreck but the good stuff is as good as your favourite movie, your favourite record. Just jump in.

I think there's a feeling that graphic novels are steadily gaining respect as a form of literature.

Yes. The kinds of formal experimentation and narrative tricks played in comics are like nothing in any other medium right now. Thomas Pynchon-type stuff. What I wanted to do with the book is say there's an entire shadow history of our culture being published alongside other stuff and no one's written about it.

And this stuff belongs to everyone. It's been seen as a "geek" thing but it's no more geeky than collecting football posters or Britney Spears records. Everyone's a geek today.

"Supergods" is out now (£17.99) on Jonathan Cape. You can follow Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis