Grant Morrison: Why I'm stepping away from superheroes

The comics author on gay Batman, fan entitlement - and why accepting an honour from the Queen doesn't mean he's sold out.

It's been a busy year for Grant Morrison, architect of the fall and rise of Batman, father of the new socialist Superman, chronicler of superhero history with Supergods, and recipient of an MBE for writing that most blasted of art forms, the humble comic book. The upcoming few months are set to be even more hectic, with Morrison bidding farewell to the grind of monthly titles with a highly anticipated Wonder Woman graphic novel and a mind-bending last magnum opus, several titles shrouded in secrecy, and his very own MorrisonCon drawing devoted fans to Las Vegas.

Sitting in a bar in Edinburgh, it's easy to forget that this guy from Glasgow, who loves to talk and cringes at being quoted, is regarded by many as the high priest of the medium. An appearance at the Book Festival last year resulted in a record-breaking queue over three hours long at the signing tent; a starring role in this year's Glasgow Comic Con drew fans from all across the country.

Some of those same fans were astonished that a writer with such an anti-establishment reputation – The Invisibles regularly makes any list of anarchist reading material – would accept a gong from old Elizabeth, without any apparent plans to blow up the palace. Suffice to say, the MBE news got a bit of a reaction.

“There always is, isn't there?” Morrison laughs. “There's been such a reaction over the last year to everything I've said or done!”

He's not joking. One particular interview, published in Playboy, not only made the newspapers around the world, but resulted in Morrison being denounced on Brazilian television. It was that now infamous soundbite, in which he said Batman -

“Is gay!” he finishes. “But the thing is, it was the opposite of what I said. But Playboy had it in as the most sensationalised version, they didn't take off the bit at the end... Because it was all from the book, it was from an interview I did last year for Supergods. And basically I said what I said in the book, that you can easily dial up the black-leather-fetishistic-night-dwelling aspects of Batman, and the masculinity of Batman, and get a pretty good gay Batman. But as I said, ultimately he's not gay because he has no sex life, really. All he is is an adventurer.. sometimes they show him with girls, sometimes he never seems to be going out with girls.

“But they just took off the cool sound-bite which is 'Batman is utterly, utterly gay, says Morrison'! That was it, I had to deal with that – people were really fucking mad at me for that one.”

Coming to the end of a five-year run on various titles starring the caped crusader, the Batman brand has cemented Morrison's reputation as one of the top writers in his field. That fame though has come with the price of becoming a figurehead for the industry, a responsibility that he is happy to escape when he steps away from superheroes next year. Morrison stresses again and again that he sees himself as a “freelance writer” rather than a cog in the corporate publishing machine, yet his words are pounced upon, dissected and recycled by fans and critics alike.

“They try to find some hidden darkness or something like that,” he sighs, “or 'this proves, this proves!' - naw, it just proves I said something that day, you know, which either I still agree with or don't. Why do I have to defend all of this? I think people just want to be mad and want to fight all the time, so I’m gonna join in now!”

Morrison perhaps felt this most keenly when in Supergods, his history of superhero comics infused with his own autobiographical adventures, he discussed the always controversial case of Siegel and Schuster, the two men who created Superman and sold the character to DC Comics for a small sum. Superman went on to become a national sensation, with the creators left out of pocket and seeking legal recompense. Their names are now frequently invoked when fingers are pointed at the publishing giant. Morrison's take was more pragmatic: that the men had been pitching a product to sell, that this was business as usual, and that as creators they no doubt thought they would have better and brighter characters to come.

The backlash was swift and merciless: clearly Morrison was no more than a DC stooge, an industry apologist. He couldn't possibly just be a writer with his own opinion, frustrated that his words were stripped of intent and context, twisted and gnarled into the readers cynical interpretation. One disgruntled reader took it a step further.

“[The] guy that ate Supergods!” Morrison laughs. “Cooked it and ate it on the basis that it was my fault that people couldn't find alternative comics in their local comics stores. And I was standing in the way, pretending to be the face of alternative comics, and how I actually stood for corporate this or corporate ... you know, I’m the man – again as I say, I’m a freelance writer, I'm not on staff at any company. But this guy ate the book!”

That's quite impressive.

“It certainly is! His shit must have looked like a William Burroughs cut-up!”

His move away from superheroes is not entirely unexpected, then, but it has surprised many that the biggest champion of superhero comics is stepping back. Has Morrison simply done what he set out to do when he first hit the Batman big time with Arkham Asylum back in 1989?

“Yeah, it just felt like I’d said a lot, you know,” he says. “I knew I was coming to the end of Action comics in [issue] 16, I knew I was coming to the end of Batman in issue 12, of Batman Incorporated, and it just seemed like I had all this other stuff building up that was completely different from that, and it seemed like a really good time to stop doing the monthly superhero books. And also having to work with so many artists on Action Comics, it's not that the artists are bad but I’m sometimes working for three or four guys at a time, which means you’re writing issue 14 before you've written issue 12 and then you're sending in six pages of issue 13 to someone else. So it was just too hectic. I just didn't want to do it any more. And since things were reaching that natural end... It wasn't like an announcement but it was treated like an announcement, because I think I’d already said I was leaving these comics at that time.

“But yeah, it fits into this general kind of script that's going now where we're all leaving and moving on to do creator-owned work, like we've never done it before. [laughs] So I’m just going along with that.”

There has been a recent exodus of writers and artists from the DC stable, some slipping out quietly, others angrily, and a couple leaving in protest at various ethical concerns. Morrison is keen to point out that he is leaving on good terms with DC, and still has work in the pipeline with them for the next year.

“We have disagreements,” he acknowledges, “but to me disagreements are things that you deal with, problems are things you solve, and everyone stays friends, and negotiations are done. So I kinda felt that.. it just began to feel too unpleasant to work within a comic book fan culture where everyone was mad at you all the time and giving you responsibility for legal cases and things that Ihaveve got honestly nothing to do with in my life and will shortly have zero connection with.

“But I felt that. There was a sense of, a definite sense of the temple was being burned down and it was time to run away.”

There's a perception that this move towards creator owned titles is something modern and funky, but comic writers have long kept a foot on both sides of the fence, playing in a superhero sandbox to fund their own paper universes.

“I hate the words 'creator-owned,'” Morrison interjects, “it sounds so crap. [But] in the language of comic books, that's what they're called.”

Morrison has been writing his own comics for as long as he's been writing for any of the larger publishers - not as an ethical stance, but as good business, and artistic, sense.

“I own my stuff from Near Myths and all through the 80s, and St Swithin's Day,” he says, the latter title featuring the attempted assassination of Margaret Thatcher which caused it to be raised in parliament at the time. “That's what you did. If you want to own something you go and own it. So I don't understand how you could get yourself into the position where you don't own it and you're angry about it. And again, it's not a position I would endorse, other than saying, 'I really feel sorry for you, for genuinely getting this wrong and being regretful,' but honestly am I gonna leave my job and protest on your behalf? Of course not.”

Is it a slightly classist thing, I wonder, the idea that you can just drop your job at work as a protest?

“Yeah, it's the idea that you don't have to work and that everything will be okay,” he agrees, “and what you just phone your dad and he'll come down and dump a bunch of money on you? So no, it's like, yes, I blame the middle classes for everything.”

I can almost hear the finger-wagging storm that is approaching, but Morrison grew up working class in Glasgow, an origin that instils a high work ethic that extends long past your own financial security. He may now have a home in Los Angeles too, and he probably didn't have to scramble for loose change down the back of his sofa for a bus ride to the interview, but he's still a world apart from those born into financial comfort. At the Glasgow Comic Con this year, he apologised for having a bit of a raspy voice due to having just delivered messages (groceries to the non-Scots) to his mum and sister, who both smoke.

Throughout our chat, Morrison is laughing and grinning, invested in conversation rather than just talking to a tape recorder. Much of this is often stripped out in print, the jokes and dry humour edited to arseyness and the enthusiasm poisoned to conceit. Quizzed on his upcoming Wonder Woman story last year, Morrison stated that he wanted her to be able to have both her sexuality and her personality, the former often being glaringly omitted. This was summarily regurgitated as “Morrison says Wonder Woman needs sex!”

Wonder Woman has long been a character I've wanted to like, yet it's only her earliest very daft adventures that entertain me, I tell him.

“I feel the same,” Morrison says, “There's something fantastic here but it's never quite been focused on. And the earliest stuff comes closest to it but you want to see it done in a more contemporary way.

“The trouble is the men were a bit weak and that's what I’m trying to also resolve in Wonder Woman – why is that Steve Trevor guy so dull, you know? You just think he's not fit to be Wonder Woman's boyfriend, he's terrible. So I’ve done a lot of work on him and it really became about, in a lot of ways how men see women and how women see each other. So it's been a lot of research this one, talking to people. But it's going good. The opening image is quite shocking.”

With Batman and Superman already under his belt, Wonder Woman will complete Morrison's DC trifecta. With the recent focus on women in comics, and debates on the inherent sexism within the comics themselves, is he prepared for a feminist backlash?

“No, no, I'm hoping, I’ve really done my research.” He pauses before continuing. “And again I find that a lot of that stuff, and I know it gets me into more trouble, it's just all artificial to me. I don't give a fuck what gender you are, or whether you're a worm or a zebra. Honestly as long as you're friendly and can communicate, that's all I care about. And I can understand why you might take certain separatist positions but I just don't feel that way.

“Honestly I’m really trying to make it work and again, the sexuality – it's there, but it's really weird, because I thought it had to be quite weird. These are women who've allegedly been cut off from all male contact for three thousand years or something, since the days of Hercules. And none of them have died. And none of them have given birth.

“So it seems like it's actually quite stifling and weird the more you think about it. So I wanted to deal with that, what happens to eroticism and sex when it's [three] thousand years after men, you know when even the women who've been doing it to one another are bored shitless after twenty five [hundred] years. So I think there's something a lot weirder than what people anticipate coming up with this!”

Also due next year is Multiversity, a series of interlocking titles that span the DC multiverse, a construct that allows multiple Earths to exist without destabilising the core continuity of the DC universe (for many comic fans, continuity is as necessary as oxygen). One of the titles most talked about is Pax Americana, partly because it reunites Morrison with fellow Glaswegian artist Frank Quitely, and partly because it focuses on the world harbouring the Charlton characters, the same characters that in turn inspired the cast of Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Originally scheduled for 2012, it appears we must now ride out the Mayan Apocalypse first.

“Yeah, we waited till the end of the universe to publish this one – that's how long it takes for Frank Quitely to finish a book!”

The gentle ribbing is nothing compared to the bizarre vitriol some fans hold for artists who work more slowly, but having seen some of the pages myself, it is definitely worth the wait.

“It's my Citizen Kane, this comic, I’m so proud of it.” Morrison smiles. “We've really worked hard to make it worthy of not only its source but to do all that in 38 pages and in a new way. So yeah it's a big deal, but there's other great ones. The Captain Marvel one's great, the Ultra comic, which is the Earth Prime comic is the one that's gonna really freak people out because I’ve come up with a way... it's a haunted comic. The comic will do things to people that they will never forget. And it's like technology, I’ve discovered a kind of technology that I don't wanna tell because someone else will nick it and they'll ruin it! But that one'll freak people, it's things comics have never ever done before.”

Comparisons to Watchmen will be hard to escape, particularly in light of the current Before Watchmen comics that DC are publishing, much to the distaste of Alan Moore.

“It's so not like Watchmen,” Morrison states. “In the places where it is like Watchmen people will laugh because it's really quite... it's really faithful and respectful but at the same time satiric. I don't think people will be upset by it, in the way that they've been upset by Before Watchmen which even though it's good does ultimately seem redundant. You know, it's actually good – I mean, Amanda Conner's stuff is brilliant, I’m really enjoying it, and Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen is great, the rest of them [I'm] not so hot on but they're really nicely written comics, really quite adult but kind of redundant.

“This one is its own thing but it deliberately quotes the kind of narrative techniques used in Watchmen and does something new with them.”

Morrison's other upcoming projects are mostly shrouded in mystery and will be published through Vertigo, DC's adult imprint, and Image Comics, the favourite of many an independent creator. The long-awaited third instalment of Seaguy is the only announced title thus far, along of course with the series that starts this month, Happy. The latter looks like dark fare, borne from Morrison's observation that those who create things, the actors and singers of the world, are constantly put down no matter how hard they try.

“It was the notion of all these people dancing for us and everyone just going 'neh,'” he explains. “You know, everyone being judged on their stupid little dances and their croaky little voices. And I thought, well let's just kinda concretise that in this story, where it's like the worst possible world that I can imagine, this super crime noir, everybody's a bastard, everything's shit, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, everyone will be hurt.”

And then Happy the horse wanders into this existence, a super sweet little cartoon character of eternal optimism. His appearance is a closely guarded secret, with Morrison describing his design as “like a special effect”. I get the sense that the writer has put a lot of anger into this book, a purging of sorts. Even with a Christmas theme, the amount of swearing makes Bad Santa look like a Disney film.

“It's the most offensively sweary book I think I’ve ever written,” Morrison grins. “It gets to like, you're just thinking, I cannot read the word fuck again. Please do not put the fucking word fuck back in this comic, and you're only on page 3 and there's twenty four pages. It's actually exhausting!”

Morrison fans are descending on Las Vegas at the end of this month for MorrisonCon, a festival of sorts for which Morrison is the figurehead rather than the organiser. The writer himself will be doing a reading, set to music by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, about “Howard Hughes versus Liberace for the soul of Vegas.”

If that sounds pretentious, then bear in mind what he's hoping to see from Frank Quitely at the event.

“Well they wanted, they had this big idea, they said we want Frank Quitely to come on and design an entire universe.” he laughs. “I went, what the fuck?! You've gotta be joking! And then I told them about this thing... he draws these grotesques, these anatomical creatures who've got like heads hanging between their legs, but they all work. And he's got like years of work on this stuff – he calls them the Bumheids. It's them sitting smoking and having tea and everything, but everything’s wrong, it's all in the wrong place, and legs coming out the top. So I kind of want to divert it... he won't have time to create a future world, but he has created this alternate reality where people have arses for faces!”

And that's the Glasgow boy again, swirling his drink and smiling at the enthusiastic leaflet ninjas who keep hovering on the sidelines of our table. He's written the greatest comic characters in the world, created his own highly acclaimed works, and won a clutch of Eisners, Eagles and Harvey awards. Factor in his other work as an award-winning playwright, and his various screenplays (including the upcoming Dinosaurs vs Aliens), it's perhaps no surprise that he was nominated for an honour from the Queen.

“I just felt it's really nice to be acknowledged at all!” he laughs. “I was so shocked... I don't even know who put me up for it. Is it some weird Lib Dem guy who's been reading The Invisibles all these years?”

It seemed to me like many of the detractors were coming from a distinctly middle class perspective.

“I couldn’t help notice that myself,” Morrison says. “There’s a particular miasma of totems and taboos surrounding contact with the trappings of high privilege that appears to arise from specifically middle class prejudices. In Glasgow, there’s also an element of working class sectarian bias in the condemnation, so it’s not all about the middle. I noticed also that previous histrionic public refusals of medals and honours had achieved exactly nothing.”

“To me, the Queen can't help who she is any more than anybody else can. I’m more of a nihilist to be honest, none of it means anything to me. This is an object that will in fifty years be lying on a table in a flea market. I don't have kids, it's going nowhere. So to me, I don't attach all those values to it, and again maybe that's a class thing you know, I’m starting to see more things in terms of class all the time.

“I still feel the same way I do about the monarchy, the class system, about everything I’ve ever written, about everything I will write. So the idea that it doesn't change anything, that people can be so wound up by something that has no effective meaning in the world kinda says it all to me.

“It's okay because it's no biggie, honestly you're not buying into anything - because you can't. By your intrinsic nature, who you are and where you were born, you can't buy into that system. They don't get it, you know, we'll never buy into it. We're the common people, as Jarvis Cocker said, and they'll never understand that.”

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Read more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.comThe original version of the image used to illustrate this article can be found here

Grant Morrison. Photo: Roisin_Dubh/flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism