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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Grant Morrison, Supergods, and Super-Obama; WTF

A friend of mine (Omar Karindu, as he goes by on Comics Should Be Good and Alvaro's Comicboards) suggested that Action Comics #9, the filler issue with President Calvin Ellis (a.k.a. President Superman, a.k.a the Super-Obama from that Alex Ross shirt brought into canon), was filled with subtext about how companies screw comic creators. Upon re-reading the comic, it's pretty obvious, and quite troubling.

In the comic, Super-Obama faces a corrupted Superman tupla (Tibetan for Solid Thought, a living idea). This was created by the Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane of another world, who created the living idea to embody all that is great in humanity. But they needed a lot of money to bring the Super-Idea into existence, so they went to an amoral corporation who took their Super-Idea and warped it into their Super-Brand. Hence, that trio's world became an Orwellian police state ruled by a faceless, violent Super-Brand, which was colonizing other universes and killing their super-men. To quote their Clark's dying last words;

" He becomes anything you want him to be....our world wanted THAT..."

This is an interesting interpretation of the creator's rights debate that has particularly been on the forefront of the industry discussion in recent months. It also comes across as hypocritical coming from Grant Morrison. Not only has Morrison built his career largely on the characters of others (Superman in particular, but also Batman, the Justice League, and to a lesser extent the X-Men), but his interpretation of Superman transcends any writers or artists-- even Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who he characterizes more as agents of the collective unconscious rather than actual creators of the character.

In Supergods, Morrison's history text/critical essay collection/autobiography/metaphysical ramble (which I've held off on reviewing due to its extremely frustrating and rambling nature), the Scottish writer basically dismisses the problems of Siegel and Shuster. He says that he started "believing" that DC swindled these two young men out of what was rightfully theirs, but later realized that it was business as usual, and both Siegel and Shuster legitimately sold Superman to DC while expecting to keep creating other heroes. Since Morrison is one of DC's highest-profile creators, it makes sense that he wouldn't speak badly about the company that made him a star. But Supergods talks about how Superman is an idea of greatness beyond the men and woman who created him, so Siegel and Shuster end up just a footnote to their own creation. Never mind the fact that both men fought hard battles for the character that DC made billions off of, or that they struggled to make end's meet while their creation made the rich even richer. They're just sacrifices to the cause.

Matt Seneca provides a good argument against Morrison's dismissal, albeit with harsher language against the man than I would use. I love Morrison's work, though I can't and won't speak to his quality as an actual human being. But his creed, the idea that fictional characters are ultimately more important than real people, isn't just New Age bollocks. It's also the kind of idea that creates the same problem Super-Obama must face, where a faceless brand is placed above the welfare of flesh-and-blood humans. And that comic doesn't even give it a good resolution, because it's Super-Obama who defeats the Super-Brand, not the Clark, Jimmy, and Lois who rightfully own it. Lois calls Super-Obama "Superman done right", but she's just crediting him as a good example of The Brand, not praising his virtues as an individual.

Is Morrison making a hypocritical argument with Action Comics #9, arguing against the ideas that he celebrates as one of DC's golden boys? Is he making a subversives attack against the company through his comics, the kind of statement he can't make directly? Does it even matter? Not really, because Super-Obama was the star of a filler issue. Next issue, we'll go back to the young, "hip", white, marketable "Ultimate Superman" we've seen in the New 52 reboot. And it won't matter that Super-Obama was an example of how to use the brand for good, to empower the downtrodden and reclaim power from the oppressors, because the brand is more important than the sum of its parts. In the end, Superman exists to sell Superman. The great stories told with the character are the result of the individual writers and artists putting in the creative effort to animate him, but in the end, there is no inherent value to Superman. Morrison tries to present Superman as a religion, but like any religion, it can be used as a tool of oppression.

And it's in really bad taste to call attention to the problem at the same time you're profiting from its perpetuation.


  1. As I noted, the issue definitely pulls the punch in the end. I find it interesting that Luthor teams with Super-Obama to defeat the Super-Brand. A cross-dimensional story wherein "good" Silver Agey IPs band together while "bad" 1990s IPs are destroyed? Sounds like a Final Crisis on Infinite Nostalgia Cash-Ins! It's a nostalgia whose maudlin devotion to past fiction supplants a real fidelity to truth, justice, and...whoops, almost violated a trademark there!

    Thanks for so ably articulating what was troubling about Morrison's "critique," which was initially surprising but ultimately toothless. He's done this before, albeit in a way that provoked less immediate cognitive dissonance. Superman-Brand isn't so different than Hexus the Living Corporation from Marvel Boy #3...a story which, on reflection, shares the same serious problems as Action Comics v.2 #9.

  2. I only just got this issue today and read through it like three times.

    Good post, Neil!

    I also wouldn't word word my response as harshly as Seneca, but I do see a lot of points in his critique.

    Morrison was never my favorite writer so I don't exactly feel disappointed or betrayed. I enjoyed the story so I decided to leave it at that.

    I'll say this much for Morrison, I wasn't reading any Superman before All Star, and I'll probably stick around until he's done with Action, but I won't be going to MorrisonCon that's for sure. I don't know if he's the guy to breathe the creativity back into the comic industry...

  3. I found Seneca's piece fairly silly. He ignores huge chunks of Morrison's work to make his points.

    Is it hypocritical for Morrison to go after DC's practices while writing for them? Yeah, probably, although he really doesn't have much of a choice but to write for them if he wants to write stories about Superman and Batman, which he clearly does.

    Did he give Siegel and Shuster the short shrift in Supergods? Sure, although the book was about how comic book superheroes are modern mythology. I think a discussion of creators' rights would have been off topic and taken the book in an entirely different direction.

    I think part of the problem is that people think of Morrison as something other than a person. I think it's probably why Seneca seemed so determine to tear him down.

    I think we're seeing an evolution of Morrison's thoughts on creator rights. I think it's why this issue of Action came out now, and why his first Image book is coming out in a few months.

    I think a lot of comic book readers are going through the same thing these days.

    1. Is it hypocritical for Morrison to go after DC's practices while writing for them? Yeah, probably, although he really doesn't have much of a choice but to write for them if he wants to write stories about Superman and Batman, which he clearly does.

      But that's the point, no? If he just wants to write Superman and Batman, he has no business complaining. If he finds the state of business practices unethical, he has no business writing Superman and Batman. You can't have your cake and eat, you have to take a stand. A less important writer than Morrison, called Chris Roberson, did. Alan Moore, a much more important writer than Morrison, did it too. Many people have shown courage in recent times except Morrison.

      Morrison, continuing to write these characters, has lost or at least hasn't yet earned the right to criticise DC. If he ever has the courage to join other companies and work on creator-owned material, then I'll listen to what he has to say.

  4. I haven't read Action Comics #9 and don't intend do, so I can't really comment on the main premise of this entry. However, I do take issue with the Matt Seneca essay you linked to. Reading between the lines, it comes across as not just a critique of Morrison but of the comics industry as a whole. His overarching message seems to be that NOTHING a major publisher puts out can have any artistic value or originality or underlying themes, that all mainstream comics are effectively worthless. Furthermore, he dismisses the entire superhero genre, and implies that simply writing a superhero comic is "selling out," and that no writer could ever genuinely enjoy writing one. Overall, it comes across as a bitter and fairly pretentious tirade, rather than a true critique of any kind.

    Oh, and for what it's worth I don't have any particular liking for Morrison. I like some of his comics, and I'll admit he's done some amazing work over the years, but I'm not one of those people who thinks he's the second coming of Christ or anything. I just don't think Seneca's critique of him had much value.

  5. ...since Matt Seneca recently put up photos of him literally barbecuing a copy of Supergods, I'm finding it much, much harder to argue for his points.

    My larger problem with Supergods is that it often goes beyond just being about comic book superheroes as modern mythological figures, and into a sermon on how they're real and the key to our salvation. If it was just an autobiography and/or a commentary on changing trends in the genre, I would've avoided it much more. But when you make that kind of argument that Superman is a deity to be worshipped, you either shouldn't bring up the fact that his creators were royally screwed over (his creators, not the vessels in our dimension through whom he brought his message), or you should acknowledge it without being so caustically dismissive.

    And at several points in Supergods, I was wondering when we'd get a South Park-style "THIS IS WHAT GRANT MORRISON ACTUALLY BELIEVES" disclaimer.

  6. Morrison and Seneca both strike me as incredibly pretentious, each in their own way. The work of Morrison's that I've read puts a lot of emphasis on obscure literary references and in-your-face symbolism, without which you often can't fully understand the story. It all smacks of self-congratulation on Morrison's part for being so deep and symbolic, when the actual underlying themes and message become that much more obscure.

    Compare this to what writers like Stan Lee and Chris Claremont have achieved with their work, giving powerful subtext messages that the majority of readers can pick up on. I don't know if Siegel and Shuster were going for any real deep symbolism when they created Superman, but the character has been used to examine a wide variety of themes (humanity's potential, the nature of power and what people do with it, even just the good vs. evil dichotomy) but these themes are generally much more accessible.

    Seneca's just as grating, if not more so. He seems to blithely dismiss the entirety of superhero comics, and by extension almost all corporate media, in one go as soulless commercial hack work. I find it extremely hard to believe, for example, that different corporations might not have different ideas of what people might find entertaining, or might try to innovate if only to keep or attract audiences. Is the Star Wars Trilogy on the same level as, say, Full House? They were both produced by corporations for profit, so what sets them apart?

    In the case of superheroes, I rather resent the notion that I read them because of corporate brainwashing. The reason I tend to read superhero comics over other types of comics is because I find superhero plots more enjoyable than most others. Nor does the fact that the superheroes I like are decades old prevent me from enjoying new plotlines about them, or even creating them myself.

    My own fanfiction work is partly about reconstructing the superhero comics and plots I loved as a child, but they also help me explore themes that are of great personal interest to me. Sure, it can be fulfilling to create new concepts and ideas, but to my mind breathing new life into well-worn concepts and ideas and putting a fresh spin on them can be just as much of a challenge, and just as rewarding.

    None of this seems to matter to Seneca, though. If you enjoy reading Spider-Man comics, then you're apparently a brainwashed corporate drone who wouldn't know quality work if it bit you in the ass.

    Hence I'm wondering whether we should cast a plague on both their houses.

  7. The problem I see isn't that it's wrong to read corporate-owned media, but that the creators who started many of these beloved characters were treated very badly. For example, in recent months, Tony DeZungia, creator of Jonah Hex, died in ill health and poverty. There were procedures that could've helped him, but he couldn't afford them. And while DC had no legal obligation to pay for them, it would be a nice gesture to help out an old veteran who created a property which has carried across your multimedia empire.

    And while his reaction here goes way too far, Matt Seneca also wrote a very good post a few months back eulogizing the late Gene Colan, who basically lived hand-to-mouth on page rates and commissioned art despite doing great work on many characters. This industry has a history of exploiting the talent that helped build it up, and while Grant Morrison didn't do the exploiting, his comments come across as extremely ignorant and dismissive. Especially since Morrison himself is a millionaire, having made a lot of money off of graphic novel royalties for his DC work as well as his own material.

    But swearing off all Marvel and DC books isn't going to retroactively help the old guard, nor is burning copies of Morrison's book in an immature effigy going to solve anything.

  8. "My larger problem with Supergods is that it often goes beyond just being about comic book superheroes as modern mythological figures, and into a sermon on how they're real and the key to our salvation."

    Honestly, who cares? If Grant Morrison actually believes some wacky nonsense about transdimensional superheroes interacting with our world through psychic messages, that's his right. Sure, his supposed beliefs are easy enough to make fun of, but it's not like he's hurting anyone by preaching them. I'm hardly Morrison's biggest fan, but it seems immature to criticize his work just because he's a bit eccentric and has some rather esoteric ideas.