“On one level, it’s simple: someone, somewhere figured out that, like chimpanzees, superheroes make everything more entertaining.” — Grant Morrison, Supergods
I’ve always thought that wear and tear was a good quality indicator for books. My ten-year-old self knew he would enjoy Lord of the Rings as soon as he saw the pages of his dad’s copy worn away to yellowness. If you also abide by that logic, then the grape jelly stains sticking to the first pages of my copy of Grant Morrison’sSupergods should be an indicator of how much I love it.
Supergods is a history of superhero comic books. Unabashed comic nerd that I am, of course I read it as soon as it came out. Add the fact that it’s written by my favorite comic writer, Grant Morrison—by the time July rolled around, I was practically using Grond to break down the door of my local Border’s.
I am a huge nerd, so I would probably love a book about comics no matter what. But do you know who isn’t a giant nerd? Grant Morrison!
That’s right, one of the best comic book authors ever (second only to Alan Moore, I would say) is not a nerd. Sure, he writes excellent comic books of all voices and genres (from the heartwarming, all-ages-friendly All-Star Superman series to the massive, mythology-tinged opus Seven Soldiers of Victory). But he is also really fucking awesome. In fact, he is a chaos magician. He still possesses a complete set of women’s clothing that he used to wear during magical rituals to confuse any demons he summoned.
Yes. Want to do something entertaining? Google “Grant Morrison interview” and read his ramblings about that time in the '90s when he was kidnapped by multidimensional aliens in Kathmandu and shown the mysteries of the universe.
So that should give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here: I would read a book by Grant Morrison if it was a 600-page analysis of poop. Luckily, Supergods is not a book about poop, but a book about superheroes. Read: The single most entertaining subject you could ever write a book about.
Morrison reminds us that superheroes really are supergods and are simply a new telling of humanity’s greatest myths. Some of these connections are obvious. For instance, Captain Marvel derives his superpowers from the word “Shazam,” an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Take another look at the cover to Action Comics No. 1, the first appearance of Superman, and you’ll see that the composition is based around an X-shape with Superman at the center. As Morrison reminds us, the crossroads often mythically represents the meeting between the mundane and the divine, so “it makes perfect sense for Superman to inhabit the same nexus.”
This history and analysis of superhero comics is woven together with a bit of Grant Morrison autobiography. Some critics have cited this as a fault as it blurs the genre lines of the book. Supergods is simultaneously a history, journal and critical analysis, but that interplay means that it’s not any of them. For example, the chapter on the psychedelic, literary, post-Watchmen movement in comics is frequently punctuated by Morrison’s arbitrary remarks about which Vertigo editors were taking which drugs and what Morrison’s girlfriend at the time looked like.
That can get confusing, but I also think that you can count on one hand the amount of living people more interesting than Grant Morrison. I wasn’t joking when I mentioned that he thinks he was kidnapped by interdimensional beings while on vacation in Kathmandu. His description of that experience in the book is riveting, even if it has little to do with the main topic of the book. As a historian, Morrison is that kind of charismatic professor who wants to make sure you understand the causes of the French Revolution, but is also open to entertaining tangents about Louis XVI’s sexual incompetence.
Do you enjoy that kind of professor? I certainly do.
Morrison’s charisma comes across through his unique prose style and storytelling sensibility. In his comics, particularly the recent DC crossover epic Final Crisis, he’s constantly throwing out unanswered questions, mysterious references and hinting at plot points. It can be frustrating if you’re trying to concentrate on untangling the threads, but can be very fun if you sit back and let it wash over you. I mean, who wants everything to make sense all the time anyway?
Here’s an example of that style from Supergods’s section on the Joker: “Corrupt and unhealthy, protopunk, proto-Goth, he was skinny, pale, hunched, and psychopathic. He was Johnny Rotten, Steerpike, Bowie strung out in Berlin, or Joel Grey in Cabaret…While Batman cut a swath through blackened streets and leapt between skyscrapers, the Joker had to hunch beneath bare bulbs like a heroin addict facing a nightmare comedown with an acid tongue and a graveyard wit.”
That actually doubles as a good snapshot of this book: A mesmerizing take on an entertaining subject, packed with rambling strings of beautiful words and hypnotic references you won’t always understand, Supergods lives in its own little space of Bookland. If I ran a bookstore, I’m not totally sure where I would shelve it. I just know I would read it.
Worth reading? Yes. That is, unless you like logical systems of thought: Morrison doesn’t go for that. If you enjoy mysterious half-truths and off-the-cuff ramblings about the multiverse, you will get a lot out of Supergods — especially given the prevalence of superheroes in our modern culture. Plus, the drug-addled, magic-tinged autobiographical nuggets are alone worth the price of admission.
Time taken: Two to three weeks. I spent most of my Welcome Week free time racing through this book. If it hooks you, expect a similar timeframe. However, since each chapter focuses on a different aspect of comics or a different time period, some chapters are naturally less interesting than others. Slogging through chapters like the one on Denny O’Neill’s ‘progressive’ take on drugs and other ‘mature subjects’ like his '70s Green Lantern run might add another week.