"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

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism