"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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The flirting has got extremely out of hand in the latest episode of Game of Thrones

Game of Bones, more like.

Last week, we discovered the romcom residing within Game of Thrones: this week gave us all that and more. “Eastwatch”, the fifth episode of the season, didn’t have high-octane action scenes or lengthy shots of people scheming around maps. But it did have a whole lot of character building: as old allies returned, new tensions emerged and new bonds were formed. And that, my friends, resulted in truly the best thing of all: lots and lots of good, old-fashion Westerosian flirting.

We begin with Bronn and Jaime emerging from the lake: reader, they did not die. Lying on the grass together, dripping and panting. “What the fuck were you doing back there?” Bronn says angrily about Jaime nobly risking his life in his attempt to kill Daenerys. KISS! KISS! KISS! “Listen to me, cunt,” Bronn continues. “Until I get what I’m owed, a dragon doesn’t get to kill you. You don’t get to kill you. Only I get to kill you!” Possessive much? Bronn leaves Jaime looking sadly out over the lake, contemplating the wars to come.

Meanwhile, Tyrion looks sadly over the ashes of battle, contemplating the wars to come. Daenerys and Drogon are presiding proudly over the remaining soldiers, demanding they swear fealty to their new queen. Lord Tarly and his hot son Dickon refuse, and in a vaguely horrifying call back to her father’s taste for (wild)fire, Dany has them burned alive. RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son.

Dany flies Drogon back to Dragonstone, where they run into Jon Snow. Drogon and Jon’s eyes meet across an uncrowded hillside. Jon is transfixed. He gazes deeply into Drogon’s reptilian pools. He removes the glove upon his hand, that he might touch that cheek! They touch. Jon gasps. It’s steamy stuff. Then Daenerys jumps down and Jon’s attention is refocused. What a love triangle.

Dany seems moved by Jon’s connection with her enormous, dreadful son. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” She sighs. “It wasn’t the word I was thinking of,” Jon mutters, before remembering who he’s talking to. “But yes, they are. Gorgeous beasts.” It’s adorably unconvincing. They chat about her new habit of burning men alive and Jon’s past habit of taking knives to the heart. The flirting is purely restricted to the eyes but, my God, it’s there.

Until, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up. Boy, this love quadrangle is heating up. Dany openly and outrageously flirts with Jorah’s new, smooth, scale-free face, calling him “an old friend”, saying things like “you look strong”. They hug for way too long. Jon scowls. I can’t wait for the scene where they fight in the fountain to the red-hot guitar chords of The Darkness!!!!

That scene arrives sooner than you’d think. After Bran has a vision of ravens flying over the White Walkers as they march on Eastwatch, he sends a raven to Jon from Winterfell. Jon finds out Arya and Bran are alive and that the White Walkers are approaching their destination. After a long debate, Dany, Jon, Tyron, Davos and Jorah all agree that the priority is to get Cersei to believe the White Walkers are real – by taking one captive and bringing it to King’s Landing. Of course, Jorah and Jon use this opportunity to dick swing in front of Dany like “No, I, The Big Man, will go beyond the Wall, because my penis is larger.” Dany absolutely loves it, doing the same facial expression she used to reserve for gazing between Daario Naharis’s naked thighs.

Even after all this, the flirting is not over for the Dragonstone club. Davos runs off to King’s Landing with Tyrion, where he discovers………. GENDRY! And, my dudes, he’s hotter than ever!! My heart truly sings. What we lost with Dickon’s death (RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son) we gain twice over with the return of the sweaty, hammer-wielding bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos and Gendry flirt about Gendry’s love of rowing, Davos’s aging face and being fucked, hard (by Time). Mere seconds later, as they attempt to escape in their comically tiny and unstable boat, Davos flirts with some guards about their massive erections (before Gendry murders them with his larger, harder hammer). Tyrion is impressed, muttering “He’ll do!”

Gendry makes an instant impression back at Dragonstone by refusing to hide his true identity as Davos suggests immediately introducing himself as the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, asking to join the trip to the Wall, and flirting outrageously with Jon by teasing him for being short. Jon absolutely loves it. “Our fathers trusted each other, why shouldn’t we?” Gendry says, cheerfully. (Editor’s note: thanks to the political ramifications of their friendship, both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead.)

Before we leave Dragonstone we pack in three more sexually-charged conversations. Tyrion flirts with Jorah. “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont,” he says. “Nobody glowers like you, not even Grey Worm.” In a gesture of grand romance, he gives Mormont a coin from their past, and insists he promise to make it back from The Wall alive, in order to return it. Then Jorah and Dany exchange syrupy goodbyes, Dany grabbing Jorah’s hands and Jorah kissing hers. Jon turns up and fishes for compliments. “If I don’t return, at least you won’t have to deal with the king of the North anymore.” “I’ve grown used to him,” she replies. It looks like Jorah has won the battle – but Jon will win the war.

Outside of the steamy boudoir of Dragonstone, elsewhere in Westeros, relationships are tested. In King’s Landing, Jaime confronts Cersei about Dany’s unbeatable dragons, and Olenna’s confession that she murdered Joffrey. Tyrion meets Jaime to tell him of the White Walkers and Dany’s proposition of a truce. Cersei responds with the shocking reveal that she’s pregnant, and plans to tell the world that Jaime is the father.

In Winterfell, Arya watches Sansa placate the Northern Lords as they complain about Jon – and finds Sansa not protective enough of her brother. When Sansa tries to explain the importance of diplomacy, Arya is like “just kill em all, bitch” as she is wont to do. Sansa sounds surprisingly like her brother when she says: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.” It’s the first hint we get that while Arya is very good at murdering others and surviving herself, she’s not brilliant at managing other people – a thread that continues when she falls into a trap set by Littlefinger, who, by pretending to hide a letter from Arya, leads her straight to it. It’s the letter Sansa was forced to send to Robb when she was a prisoner of Cersei – asking him to swear fealty to her beloved King Joffrey. It’s intended to poison Arya against her sister – but I don’t buy that she would be fooled so easily

In the Citadel, Sam ignores his smart girlfriend because he’s an idiot. Gilly discovers in one of the citadel’s dusty old books that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage in Dorne (presumably to his Dornish wife, Elia Martell) was annulled and he was remarried – possibly to Lyanna Stark. We know that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son with Lyanna Stark - if Jon was their legitimate child, that’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out if Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne. Sam responds by talking over her, jacking in his maester training and leaving the city with all the useful information in. Good one, ya idiot.

Finally, Jon visits the Wall where he is reunited with the Wildlings. Tormund obviously lusts after Brienne – “the big woman” – which makes Jon chuckle with delight. He discovers the Brotherhood Without Banners in the basement, and they all flirt by insulting each other repeatedly. Jon gets to do his favourite thing of reminding everyone that there real war is the one with DEATH. “We’re all on the same side,” he insists. “We’re still breathing.” It’s a great line on which to end the episode, which closes with a shot of this ragtag bunch o’ misfits striding out beyond the wall. Will this motley crew figure out a way to work together? Will they complete their quest and secure a White Walker? Or will they discover that, all along, the real prize beyond the Wall… was friendship?

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • Bronn calling Jaime a cunt. +11. Same.
  • Jon telling Daenerys her dragons aren’t beautiful. +9. Risky move.
  • Sam just boldly butting in to a Serious Maester convention when he’s essentially their cleaner. +19.
  • Tyrion and Varis sipping wine and reading private letters. +8 each.
  • Dany openly lusting over two men and subtly encouraging them to vie for her affection. +21. This is serious bad bitch behaviour.
  • Davos seriously suggesting that Gendry rename himself “Clovis”. What the fuck kind of weird name is Clovis?! +12.
  • Davos: “Don’t mind me, all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age!” +16. Why does no one ever listen to Davos!!!
  • Gilly just casually discovering some of the most crucial information for the wars to come. +21.
  • Gilly taking no shit when Sam treats her like a total fucking idiot. +17.
  • Sam, being a total twat. -71.
  • Gendry immediately running off with Davos after five seconds in his company again and no knowledge of the task at hand. +14.
  • Gendry killing people with an enormous phallic hammer. +8.
  • Gendry discarding all advice and breezily identifying himself to a potential rival for the Iron Throne. +18
  • Gendry negging the King of the North five seconds after meeting him. +12.

That means this week’s bad bitch is Gendry!!!!! The hammer-weilding, Jon-teasing king of my life. He is closely followed by Gilly, who I strongly suspect will get her day in the sun one day soon. Congrats to both.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.