It was the mid 1990s, and comic books were still working the late-80s requisite grimness out of their system. Grant Morrison became the opening writer to JLA, DC's new Justice League book, meant to revive the franchise. Morrison strikes an odd chord with comics fans. Opinions of him run the gamut between those who welcome his sci-fi psychedelic romps and out-of-this-world revivals of old characters and comics, and there are those who think he is little more than a drugged-out Silver Age fetishist. If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, it's pretty obvious that I'm on the fanboy side of the equation. Anyhow, He had proved himself to be a reliable and inventive writer with long-form works like Vertigo's Doom Patrol and Animal Man. However, this was long before he was handed the keys to DC Continuity wholesale. He still had to follow the bizarre choices of the editorial decisions around him, which involved using the unfortunate Electric Superman for a spell (Yeah, let's hear your complaints about Wonder Woman's new costume again.) An aside: if a thirteen-year-old who considers DragonBall Z OVAs to be compelling and original entertainment finds your new Superman concept to be ridiculous, beat your word processor into a plowshare immediately.
Morrison opened JLA with an invasion. An invasion of new superheroes. The Hyperclan endeared themselves to Earth's population with a combination of superficial acts of charity – turning the Sahara into a forest – and the sort of ultraviolent, take-no-prisoners attitude toward supervillainy that made the Todd McFarlanes and Rob Liefelds of the time such roaring successes. Even if you were brand-new at comics, it was pretty clear where the storyline was headed around the time the Hyperclan roasted Wolverine and Doctor Doom at the stake.
After exposing themselves as conqueror-villains, the Hyperclan immediately disabled the newly-formed JLA. Except not the entire group. In one line, Morrison managed to convey the wonderful naivete of Silver Age supervillains, while taking the piss out of every grim-as-graveyard-dirt, man-sized-gun toting “hero” to grace the pages of Image comics:
I can't find any other word for that line of reasoning outside of “adorable.” Needless to say (and SPOILER ALERT for a 14-year-old comic storyline) Batman discovers the Hyperclan's secret weakness and saves the day.
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All-Star Superman #10, 2008, Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
Morrison and Quietly, as they tend to in this series, get along so many emotions and ideas in so few words and such very simple illustration. There a million reasons – some I can describe, some I cannot – but this panel gets me right in the gut every time I see it. There's a context to it revealed organically, previously in the issue: Superman stops a runaway train, riding which is Regan's psychiatrist. He is on other side of the telephone – that small pink thing Regan (nice choice of name, by the way) drops the lefthand panel.
Her facial and body expressions tell the story in a way that dialogue never could. There's sense of disappointment and resignation in her body language: one hand at her mouth, rendering her mute, the other hovering over the dropped phone, unsure of what it has done. With her eyes shut that tight, you know she doesn't want to do what she is about it, and inside that wide-eyed surprise at Superman's silent arrival, there is a sense of relief and closure; things have gone wrong for her, again, but this time it may not be so bad. She still tries to get away from him, almost by reflex, in that Tim-Burton-doll way she is exists, not believing his words but just as quickly embraces him for dear life.
Her sense of alienation is painted perfectly; she's a dark, scratchy splotch against the majestic impersonality of the Metropolis skyscrapers. Superman's speed, too, is conveyed brilliantly as faster than the speed of thought. He arrives silently enough to not spook Regan, in the midst of her last thought, and his touch is calm and soft enough to simply surprise her. He is much larger than her, as invulnerable but not as impassable and numb as the environment which has driven her to suicide. His embrace lets her know that there is a part of her just like him, and in that way, just like the buildings, just like everything in her world, and that she is in no way alone, nor can be.
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All-Star Superman #1, 2005, Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
This is the first page of Grant Morrison's hyper-lauded All-Star Superman series. It is also the most perfect example of how you tell a globally-recognized superhero's origin in this day and age. Morrison had to retell it in All-Star because he was spinning his own continuity off right at the last panel. His Superman was not the current Superman inhabiting the DC multiverse. Everything would be different in his comic, because he wanted to tell the story of his Superman, and not decades upon decades of conflicting editorial decisions.
Comics characters, especially highly socially cemented ones – Superman, Batman, the X-Men, et. al. – do not have an origin story. No, that's not exactly correct - they do not have a single origin story. The variations are as multitudinous as they are frequent. You can't go to the very first telling as that is akin to gleaning insights about a Picasso through a cave painting. You also can't go to the most recent as origins, in these days of ever-present crisis, tend to be twisted into barely-coherent and staggeringly illogical pretzels meant to fit the conceits of the latest sell-you-ten-one-shots-a-month, it-all-ends-here crossover event.
With this page, Morrison boils down the mythology to both what you need to know and what has been stable throughout Superman's protean history. Eights words within four captions on four panels and suddenly you don't have to worry about whether Brainiac was responsible for the explosion or if a baker's dozen of other Kryptonians made it out of there alive. Certainly, the comic regularly references minutia from decades-forgotten issues in countless cellars, but there exists no expectation of recognition. There's no “SEE ISH #571” here; only a quick and satisfied smirk when the writer dusts off and wields a character or plot device long deleted from the continuity. And it all begins with a story told by the reader as much as Morrison himself.
I watched Ingmar Bergman's 1957 classic The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) last night. For those of you who have never seen it, the mark the film left on media is absolutely indelible. Its imagery persists through time, especially in the films of Woody Allen, who loudly and proudly carries Bergman's influence on his cinematic sleeve. One of my favorite Allen films, Love and Death, references it repeatedly, as does Bananas (which, in an irrelevant aside, also takes credit for being one of Sylvester Stallone's first feature film appearances.) This is the film that loosed the robed-and-accented-Death-as-the-Grim-Reaper archetype into pop culture, although the figure eventually evolved into a skeleton in a robe, rather than a pale man. Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, for instance, took Bergman's character wholesale, barely bothering to modify it.
The iconic chess match between the wittily morbid Death incarnate and the unfearing Knight has also been repeatedly referenced. I've spotted it most recently opening Grant Morrison's loving comics-medium paean Seaguy.
My personal favorite (and first witnessed) homage the film was an episode of Animaniacs entitled “Meatballs or Consequences.” On location in Sweden (birtplace and lifelong home of Ingmar Bergman and the setting of The Seventh Seal) for a meatball eating contest, Wakko Warner imbibes one too many and dies, to be escorted into the afterlife by a Swedish-accented Death. The cartoon goes on to parody not just the plot and setting of Seventh Seal, but also the classic lipline-match scene from Bergman's 1966 film Persona. Fun fact: it's one of Bergman's better known pieces of imagery outside of Seventh Seal and was also parodied in Love and Death (roughly 2:20 in. Spoiler alert: Final scene of the film.) Unfortunately, I can't track down the original scene from Persona. Anyway, here's the cartoon. Enjoy!
In unrelated news, my friend Nathan a.k.a. Renegade Accordion (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) was profiled by Thirteen. He busks around the city, playing accordion in his trademark Boba Fett helmet. If you see him, say hello! (He plays parties too, folks.)
Growing up in New York has allowed me the privilege of meeting some of my favorite comics creators. I find signings genuinely fun: either you’re in-and-out with a few kind words exchanged, or you get to hang out on a line with a bunch of other fans of this thing you’re fond enough to wait on line for.
My friend and coworker Val, whose boyfriend worked at Forbidden Planet, the enormous comic book shop in the East Village, informed me of a Grant Morrison signing. The day of, I showed up at about seven in the morning. Considering the signing wasn’t until ten, there were only a half-dozen of us sitting on the Broadway side of Forbidden Planet in the August heat, killing time and exchanging trivia. I struck up a conversation with the dude directly in front of me. Usually crippled by anxiety in these sorts of moments, the fact that we were both wearing Sonic Youth t-shirts broke the ice enough to get some camaraderie going. Otherwise, there wasn’t anything particularly eventful about the wait, except for the moment when the manager asked us to re-queue onto 13th Street instead of Broadway, apologizing because he “[knew] there’s sun over there.” They distributed raffle cards for comics. I was excited; my raffle number was 6 – Mister Six being one of my favorite Morrison characters. I talked to some guy about Frank Quitely’s detail-driven illustration of All Star Superman. That guy may or may not have been the boyfriend-at-the-time of one of my good friends, who was also there. We once tried to figure out if we did meet, but even a green pompadour isn’t exactly memorable in the front of the line of fans of works like The Filth.
We slowly made our way to the front. Shannon, the gentleman I struck up a conversation with, whipped out a fancy camera and we agreed to take pictures of one another. The manager was standing near the front, gaping at Morrison just like the rest of us were. “Man, I’m really nervous,” I related to him. “Yeah. Me too, man.”
He was seated at a desk, looking tired as all get-out. Behind him, they had made a collage of all his recent covers: mostly Seven Soldiers and All-Star Superman, but a few rarities thrown in as well. I was getting my copy of Invisibles #1 signed, bought on a whim years earlier in Philadelphia. Shannon whipped out what may be considered the holy grail of Morrisonia: the complete 4-issue run of the unreprintable Flex Mentallo. Morrison signed his set with a chaos symbol on each issue and I snapped a couple of photos. Now, it was my turn. We exchanged a few words about some personal experiences I’ve had with his comics that I’m not about to relate, although his reply was a barely comprehensible “whatever doesn’t kill you, right?” He signed my copy with a big anarchy A. It was over before I could believe it. Shannon invited me to accompany him to the Museum of Comics and Comic Art convention going on at the same time, and we went off, still giddy from meeting not just a personal idol, but one of the most influential writers in modern comics.
Say, Lee/Kirby-era Invisible Girl, what exactly are you doing on this mission?
Well then, how about you, contemporary Invisible
Girl Woman? Still keepin' up morale?
Sorry! Forget I even asked!
And now, with a musical interlude, L7: