Friday, December 11, 2015

No. 52 Grant Morrison



First Prog: 463
Final Prog: 2001 / 1280 (the 25th Anniversary party story, just a couple of months after Prog 2001). Before that, Prog 1031.
Total appearances: 184
-including Dare from Revolver/Crisis, and his other Crisis work, too.

In with a bang! It's the Maniac for Hire.
(Morrison loves to get meta, so I might as well honour that tradition here)
Art by Johnny Johnstone
Creator credits:
Ulysses Sweet, Zenith, New Adventures of Hitler, Bible John, Really & Truly,
Janus: Psi Division; Big Dave 

The villain from Really & Truly - a bald man in a leather jacket. Morrison playing himself?
Art by Rian Hughes

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Venus Bluegenes
A large pile of one-offs, including some cracking good ones.

Notable character creations:
at the risk of repeating the above lists…
Ulysses Sweet (although he’s only notable now that the character has been resurrected to good effect by other creators)
Zenith and his supporting cast, especially:
Peter St John, Ruby, Dr Payne
Judge Janus (is she still around in MC1 somewhere? And whatever happened to Karyn and Juliet November, while we’re on the subject of random Psi Judges?)
Big Dave
Egyptian Judge Rameses
Vatican Inquisitor/Judge Cesare
-these last two are especially notable for being terrible

ex-Judge Grice from Inferno was pretty horrendous, too - but Morrison didn't create the character.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
 
Notable characteristics:
Where to begin? Characters with actively negative personality traits. Plots that resolve because the writer wants them to without really making sense – but then occasionally figuring out really intricate and clever ways for the plots to resolve, too. Modernism in the various senses of that term – being self-referential, feeling contemporary, pointedly showing no respect to the past. Satire (where satire means being mean about things in a way that is often funny, but also thinks it is making clever observations about the world that don’t always come off).

Pointing out that superheroes don't solve real-world problems such as unemployment, but then not going on to pursue this whole thing in your story is more annoying than helpful.
Art by Steve Yeowell
Much like Garth Ennis, Morrison has become so famous in the world of comics that it’s hard to look past his later writing obsessions to see if and where they fit into his 2000AD work. I think there’s a pretty clear through-line, but there’s not much in Morrison’s 2000AD output that is explicitly about, for example, magic and the concept of story as a real and potent thing, which are among his more prominent themes in later work.


On Grant:
Art by Steve Yeowell
Grant Morrison reminds me of Tom Cruise.* Bear with me on this. Tom Cruise is, I think, an incredibly gifted actor. But largely because of the force of his own personality, he positioned himself early on in his career as a movie star, and it’s something he can never seem to escape from (and in fact I suspect he doesn’t want to). So, any new film with Tom Cruise in becomes a Tom Cruise film. Even when he’s trying to hide himself in edgy roles (Magnolia) or beneath grotesque make-up (Tropic Thunder), it’s still pointedly Tom Cruise shining through. And, as a consequence, it’s hard for me not to have a little bit of a cynical edge when watching the man’s films, an edge that says ‘how is this furthering Cruise’s position in the world? What is he trying to use this role to do?’ In short, it prevents me from enjoying the film as a film, even when it’s a pure entertainment vehicle such as any of the Mission: Impossible franchise. It almost doesn’t matter when some of his films are pretty great and others are downright terrible. And it can make the terrible films more interesting to watch.

And so it is with Grant Morrison. He is an excellent writer of comics. He can write comics in many different styles and in different genres. Some end up rather good, some less so. But he’s also Grant Morrison, a man whose force of personality turned him into one of a handful of international comics superstars, so it barely matters if he turns in something good, bad or mediocre. I’m sure he’d like to get away from that and just put out some fun comics from time to time. I’m also pretty sure he effing loves being an international comics superstar.

Just as Tom Cruise has certain acting tricks to rely on (mostly revolving around disarming grins and outstanding stunts), Grant Morrison has some very overt tropes he likes to rake over again and again (see above). They’re worthwhile tropes, and they tend to mean his stories are interesting at the very least, but I find it almost impossible not to examine the Grant Morrisoniness of his comics over and above just reading them as stories.

Again, just as Tom Cruise pretty much achieved superstar status early in his career with Risky Business and Top Gun, so Morrison basically achieved it with Zenith (for British audiences) and very soon after with Animal Man and Doom Patrol (for American and British audiences).

And now we can get into the meat of the matter.

An intellectual surrounded by dullards - is this how Morrison viewed his childhood?
Art by Steve Dillon
My first exposure to Morrison’s work was his spate of Future Shocks. Not that I took any notice of the names in the credit boxes in those days. But his efforts stuck with me more than most, specifically Danger: Genius at work! and Candy & the Catchman. Clever, funny, horrifying.  

Listen to the man, boy!
Art by John Ridgway

I’d rate him alongside contemporaries Peter Milligan and John Smith as one of the best ever regular Future Shock writers (after Alan Moore, obvs). And I don’t think that’s controversial. He had ideas, he new how to express them without hitting you over the head with it, and he definitely allowed artists to shine.

And let’s remember that although he didn’t take the character any further, he did achieve that rare feat of creating a character for a Future Shock who was so much fun he ended up in his own series. Ulysses Sweet, Maniac for Hire. I especially applaud the episode wherein Morrison mocks his own staunch commitment to vegetarianism.

Rockatarians - when Veganism just isn't pure enough.
Art by Colin MacNeil
I first noticed his name as the writer of Zenith – a series that left me incredibly cold when it first ran, and to be honest that put me off Morrison for a long long time. I pretty much bracketed him off as ‘pretentious, thinks he’s cleverer than he is, likes to sneer at people’.** 

And you can bet Morrison specifcally asked artist Steve Yeowell to pastiche that famous bit from Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel. If I'm honest, this sort of pretentiousness IS my bag, baby.
I don’t think I’ll ever love Zenith the way so many people do, but I have come around on it and recognise it as a genuinely outstanding comic strip. I remain frustrated that it’s an action/horror comic about superheroes fighting interdimensional demons, and not a comedy/satire about a super-powered popstar and his frazzled agent getting up to wizard wheezes with the Prime Minister. As a rule, the first and last episodes of each phase are my ideal Zenith, and the rest is a well-told action romp.

Zenith's greatest fear is not the Lloigor
With a lot of delightful jokes along the way.

And again, it’s worth pausing to acknowledge that Morrison does great dialogue, allowing each character to have his/her own voice, and to sow seeds of exposition without hitting you over the head (although sometimes I need a bit more hitting, I think). And, sometimes, he pitches his clever, showing-off bits about right.

You see, Frankenstein is a story about a man creating a new breed of human, only to see his creation run amok.
Which is a bit like Payne creating his superheroes, so it's appropriate that Zenith himself is reading Frankenstein.
What does come out across all four phases is that Morrison is great at characters. So many are introduced, and then disposed of, that it’s worth acknowledging how much they stick in the mind (credit also to original designer Brendan McCarthy and series artist Steve Yeowell, who bring them to life).

The other thing is how much Morrison is both good at plot and also dismissive of it. His stories are not, on the whole easy to follow. I certainly found I had to put a lot of effort in, and I still find Phase III to be a mess. It doesn’t help that Morrison is quite big on bathos – I think that’s the word – building up to a grand finale that then just sort of happens with little fanfare, because the plot was so artfully constructed that it’s not about a hero digging deep and going that extra mile, it’s about ‘the story could only end one way because that’s how it was set up in the beginning’. But you have to pay attention early on to understand why/how it works.

It’s both admirable and irritating.

It’s also why, I think, Morrison had such a hard time on Dredd. Dredd stories aren’t about intricate clockwork plots – or at least, they’re not if your focus is on emphasising that Dredd is first and foremost a bully and a hardman. And that definitely seems to be Morrison’s vision of Dredd. So what happened was that Morrison’s three (and only?***) Dredd stories all end up with Dredd in a fight with the villain, which he wins by being the biggest bastard. 

Dredd issuing the death penalty: in character
Dredd being excessive in carrying out the death penalty: pure fan service (or not)
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
This can work. But it didn’t. There’s no Spider-Man-esque ‘I must dig deep within myself to find the strength’ so that you worry for Dredd and root for him to pull through. And there’s no Wagner-esque well-plotted in-story set up that allows Dredd to find and use some advantage. He just wins because he wins, because he’s Dredd, and every time the story is diminished by it. It’s not even bathetic – we don’t get a sense of ‘sometimes the world is just the way it is, we’re all just ants’. You may get a smidge of fun at seeing Dredd taking out the bad guy, but when it doesn’t feel earned it’s a let down.

Sometimes, pure grandiose moments DO achieve a satisfying cool.
Art by Mick Austin
A real shame, as Morrison showed later, for example on JLA, that he is actually very good at coming up with clever plots that allow a hero to beat an unstoppable foe through earned cleverness. Hell, even in 2000AD his does this more often than not with Judge Janus (at least, the ones he wrote without Mark Millar). Perhaps Morrison is more comfortable in the realm of the mind than the realm of the body, or maybe he just really hates bullies and doesn’t want them to look good, ever.

Stream of consciousness - a narrative style that feels more Morrisonian than it actually is.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra

Now this, this is clever and delightful, subverting the expectation of violence with an act of love.
This is a side of Morrison I can get excited about.
Art by Paul Johnson

Besides fans’ general love of Zenith, I suspect Morrison’s most lasting legacy on 2000AD was his very deliberate self-presentation as a disruptive bad boy. He took a cue from popstars of the era, and the scattering of interviews and questionnaires that cropped up in Tharg’s Nerve Centre here and there show him acting the clown. He’d give deliberately obtuse or obscure answers to questions, and made a point of disrespecting the likes of Pat Mills and John Wagner.

To some extent, it’s this attitude that informs Dare, the generally much-loved series that ran in Revolver (before finishing in Crisis). If you don’t know it, it’s about Dan Dare as an older man in the 1980s –a version of the 1980s with Mrs Thatcher as supreme leader of a new British Empire. All delightfully designed and drawn by Rian Hughes, the king of retro futures.

 

It has a tight, exciting plot, and contains some interesting meditations on ageing and the class struggle - but there’s also an edge of cynicism running through it. It feels a bit like Morrison is angry about everything the original Dan Dare stood for. I never read that, and he may well have a point.

Honestly, I can admire this kind of thing from a certain perspective. It is healthy to try to rail against what has gone before, especially in 2000AD, which was founded on the principle of not being like everything else that was out there. On the other end, it’s also kind of stupid. More to the point, it’s not as if there were hundreds of 2000AD clones out there to kick against.

Ironically, Morrison’s faux (or perhaps genuine?) rudeness and cynicism actually made a certain period of 2000AD feel more in step with the zeitgeist of Deadline and Loaded Magazine, rather than reacting against that. Whereas old hands Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill were creating Toxic!****, a comic that was to 2000AD in 1991 what 1977 2000AD had been to IPC boys’ comic of the time. Which is to say, radically weird and definitely something parents would disapprove of.

Which brings us to the notorious Summer Offensive of 1993. To be fair to Morrison, he did put his money where his mouth was, and say ‘if I ran 2000AD, this is what I’d do with it’. I don’t know if he really was de facto editor for the run of 8 comics from Prog 842-850, or if it was more of a Thargian publicity stunt, but it felt like a big deal at the time, and it lingers strong in my memory as a reader, too.

Morrison himself wrote the Dredd story, the much-hated Inferno. He wrote the none-more-Morrison lark Really & Truly. He co-wrote the still controversial Big Dave. Leaving space for Mark Millar and John Smith to deliver hyper-violent action thrillers Maniac 5 and Slaughterbowl – which I mention here because presumably Morrison had some hand in approving the idea of these stories, which boil down to hyperviolent exploitation yarns.

Really and Truly don't give a toss - they're just out for a good time, and why not?
The tone behind this series was a lot better than the actual story, which I want to love more than I do.
Art by Rian Hughes

Morrison is always quick to acknowledge that insights priovided by narcotics can often be pretty feeble.

It’s pretty much impossible at this point not to get into a thing about Big Dave. I touched on it very briefly in Mark Millar’s entry, mostly to say that I never really got the joke. And of course it’s not fair to lay the blame at either writer alone. I still struggle with the fact that so many readers at the time seemed to hate it that I desperately wanted to like it. And the odd bit did make me laugh, e.g. Terry Waite as a brawler.

 

A rare spot-on, actually clever and funny sequience from Big Dave.
Art by Steve Parkhouse
My guess is that the main thrust was to develop a new, overtly British hero. And then the joke is that, by following the sorts of things celebrated in the most popular media outlets of the early 1990s, that kind of hero would be horrible. He'd be a body-building, beer-swilling, sexist, xenophobic homophobe from a council estate in Manchester (nothing wrong with that last bit, mind). The dead opposite of a noble, intellectual working class New York superhero role model. And then they stick him in a version of the world in which his repellant views are actually based on truth. In Big Dave's Universe, foreigners are all vile, corrupt imbeciles. Women are all fat slags. Poofs are fodder for being beaten up.

And maybe if 2000AD was actually being read by people who read the Sun and the Daily Mail (either then or now, I suspect not a vast overlap), this would be rather clever. Maybe. I mean, it’s obvious that the creators don’t condone Dave as a role model – and that they don’t view the real world to be the way it’s presented. But I’m not sure the joke goes anywhere beyond that, so it works as a one-off, but didn’t really work as a series. 

There is something telling in the fact that if Big Dave were invented today, the strip could be pretty much exactly the same, except that on the plus side, the true-blue Brit hero would no longer be a gay basher, but on the minus side, he definitely wouldn’t be proud to be on benefits either.

Hid Dredd work aside, I applaud Morrison for filling 2000AD with characters and stories that were absolutely unlike anything that had gone before.


Personal favourites:
Candy & the Catchman
Fruitcake & Veg!
Zenith: Phase II and IV
Janus, Psi Division: House of Sighs

(and, for the record, I also like his Kill Your Boyfriend, bits of Animal Man and Doom Patrol, JLA, parts of the Invisibles, the middle bit of his New X-Men run, all of the Filth; Batman and Robin (but not especially his other Batman stuff)).


This is me using Morrison's work to make my own meta-commentary about the blog...
Art by Steve Yeowell

More on Grant Morrison
I almost don't dare to search for specific links, as there will be so many!
His official website has a section on 2000AD.
I haven't gone into any of the controversy about the ownership of Zenith, but if you're interested, you could do worse than read Laura Sneddon's slog through the whole thing. 
For a seriously in depth look at his Zenith work, I'd recommend Tim Callahan's book: Grant Morrison: the Early Years, (which was originally serialised on the web over at Sequart, a site that worships at the altar of Grant Morrison, and why not? He's written a ton of great and influential comics).


*And not because I had long assumed, in the 90s at any rate, that both men were gay. My thinking nowadays would be that Cruise is largely nuts, while Morrison is, I imagine, not in favour of labelling people according to sexuality or indeed anything else. Both men have been, and continue to be, married to women.

**While acknowledging that this could very easily describe me…

***This feels like telling tales out of school, but I understand that Morrison helped out his friend and, at the time, up-and-coming writer Mark Millar on a bunch of stories in the 1990s. Two of the three Dredds here are explicitly co-written by the pair, but Morrison may well have helped on various ‘solo’ Millar efforts. Given that Millar has long suffered from crippling health problems, this is, I think, a big point in Morrison’s credit. Helping people is always good, no? But it makes it harder to know which aspects of a story to attribute to which author.

****The only problem being that Toxic! was one gets the impression, very poorly managed from a production / financial point of view. And also it had some very divisive art and utterly incomprehensible stories…

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