"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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain