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Reading Room: Grant Morrison

by on February 18, 2011

Sentient universes. Cybernetic war machine rabbits. Fiction suits.
Singing evil to death. A guy who hunts other men for their beards.

In an industry where “guy in tights punches other guy in tights” seems
to qualify as enough to build at least a miniseries on, you might
occasionally be surprised to stumble across an issue that hits you with
at least one mad, incredible idea right up front. Take a little break
from Superman wrestling an angel for a second and look at the name on
the cover. That’s probably Grant Morrison.

Scottish writer Grant Morrison is certainly a divisive figure. For every
fan that’s willing to devote the time to trying to figure out the
mythic elements and magical rituals presented in Arkham Asylum: A
Serious House on Serious Earth
, there are probably 10 who are quite
content to write it off as complete impenetrable nonsense.

And sometimes it seems like it. Morrison occasionally has a tendency to
soar a little too high into his rarified realm of magick fiction and
ideas, and leave all but the readers most dedicated to metaphor and
metatextual analysis behind. Miss a subtle clue and you’re lost

But the best Grant Morrison stories work on more than one level. They
provide satisfying and compelling narrative and characterization while
at the same time firing the imagination with concepts and fantasy.

If you can forgive the rather grandiose comparison, to me Grant Morrison
is our generation’s Jack Kirby. Jack Kirby, the God of superhero comics
and creator or co-creator of most of Marvel’s stars, seemed to be an
unending, tireless well-spring of wonder.
All he needed to build a monster was a sound, a guttural grunt from Stan
Lee like “Goom” and a creature of nightmare with bat wings and an
enormous head would spill onto the page as if Jack somehow was simply
drawing from memory the “Goom” he’d seen in one of his travels. Grant
Morrison types instead of draws, but the well of ideas seems just as
deep and often just as authentic.

So, in honor of the All Star Superman movie, here are my picks for the
top five best Grant Morrison comics. Other than All Star Superman, of
course, which you should go out and buy right now so you can read it
before you see the movie. Get some of his recent Batman comics while
you’re there.

I’ll also say up front that this is just my list and I haven’t read
everything Morrison has ever written, so if you want to send me some
issues of Zoids or The New Adventures of Hitler, that’d be great. If you
have other picks, please post in the comment thread.

1.  Doom Patrol

Doom Patrol is the story of some people who were crippled and disfigured
by accidents and come together in a freakish little band to fight evil.
That’s a pretty weird concept. But after the original run in the 1960s,
revivals of the Doom Patrol tended to treat them as standard
superheroes. Morrison’s first issue of Doom Patrol isn’t the first issue of
the series, it follows a brief yawn inducing earlier incarnation that
sorta seemed to be copying the X-Men. Or maybe the New Teen Titans. They
brought in some young, boring characters and had already killed one off
in some big event before Morrison’s first issue.

The thing I love about Morrison is that he gets that superheroes are
supposed to be weird. While other writers are running away from anything
that doesn’t seem gritty and down to earth and “realistic,” Morrison is
embracing all the strangeness. And since the Doom Patrol was such a
low-tier, nearly-forgotten team at the time, he really got a chance to
embrace the strangeness inherent in them.

Morrison’s run is more than 40 issues of wonderful madness; if you
know anything about comics you’ve probably heard that it’s weird. But at
the same time characterization comes to the forefront and he creates a
cast you really care about. In most other writer’s hands Cliff Steele,
Robotman, is the Thing. Gruff, grouchy blue collar guy. But
for the first time, Morrison made me feel what it must be like to be a
brain encased in a robot body by having Cliff bash his impervious robot
skull into something and yell in anguish “I can’t feel anything!” Along
the way Morrison also introduces other intriguing and mysterious
characters like Crazy Jane, a woman with multiple personalities, all of
them with superpowers; Dorothy Spinner, a young girl whose imaginary
friends are very real and very dangerous; Flex Mentallo, a man of muscle
mystery and a parody of old Charles Atlas workout ads; and Danny the
Street. Danny is sentient, teleporting, transvestite street. The Doom
Patrol’s Mentor, the Chief, also takes a strangely sinister turn; it’s
hard to believe you could be creeped out by someone eating chocolate.

My favorite arc is collected in the book The Painting That Ate Paris.
That introduces us to the anarchic and absurd Brotherhood of Dada,
perfect foes for the new approach to the Doom Patrol.

2. Animal Man

Animal Man started off as a four issue miniseries with Morrison updating
a D-List superhero, a toy that’s so obscure DC doesn’t care if the
weird Scottish guy breaks him. He was literally on a team called the
Forgotten Heroes before this, if you want to get some idea of just how
obscure. There’s some great character stuff with Animal Man Buddy
Baker’s family and he becomes involved in animal rights, but that’s
about it.

The series proved popular, however, and when DC asked for more Morrison decided to go in a different direction. Animal Man keeps having
superhero adventures and sabotaging fox hunts and such, but things start
to seem increasingly strange. In issue 5, the “Coyote Gospel” he meets
the Coyote, whose cruel god had sent him to suffer endlessly on Earth in
a fashion that might seem pretty darn familiar to Chuck Jones fans.
Animal Man investigates the “guiding hand” in his own life until he has a
mystical experience and actually meets God. Who in his particular case
is Grant Morrison.

Some people called it egotism, but it’s a fascinating read and an
intense exploration of what fiction means and what what we create says
about ourselves.

It’s really hard to recommend a volume here, because you need to read it
all to understand it. Just start at the beginning and keep telling
yourself it gets better during those first four issues.

3. JLA

Remember when I mentioned Superman wrestling an angel? This is where you
can see it. After years of a rather D-List Justice League that was a
lot more like Marvel’s Avengers, DC brought Morrison on to bring back a
big guns approach with a “Big 7” league made up of DC’s most iconic
characters. Morrison approach was to envision the JLA metaphorically as
gods, a new pantheon. And he gave them suitably mythic adventures.

The whole Morrison run is worth reading, but if you want to pick up one,
my favorite is Rock of Ages. This is an incredible, twisting and
turning story that brings in a new Lex Luthor-led Injustice Gang and
Darkseid. It’s probably the best it gets if you want to see how Morrison
can mix slam bang superheroics with wild mythic ideas.

(ed’s note: Inexplicably, both the JLA Deluxe Edition vol. 1 and the first trade paperback of Morrison’s JLA, “New World Order,” seem to be out of print at the moment; the link above will take you to the first in-print trade paperback on Amazon.com, but both may still be available at your local comic book shop.)

4. Skrull Kill Krew

I know this collaboration with Mark Millar is an odd one for the list,
but it’s my list so hear me out. You should track this one down
because, as concepts go, it doesn’t get a whole lot stranger or funnier.
Fantasic Four Leader Reed Richards is a pretty smart guy, you know, but
he’s a little more book smart than street smart and he probably didn’t
really think it through when he hypnotized a few Skrulls and made them
turn into cows in an early issue of Fantastic Four.

Those cows got mixed into hamburger. People who ate these burgers got a
strange Skrull disease that gives them powers but also horribly kills
them. The Skrull Kill Krew’s reaction to this is to use their powers to
brutally murder as many of the Skrulls that are secretly hiding on earth
as they can.

My favorite thing about this series is Moonstomp. He’s a racist skinhead
who, because of the Skrull disease, is turning black. Team leader
Ryder, who is black, says he keeps him around because he’s trying to
teach Moonstomp a better way with patience and understanding. The fact
that Moonstomp likes to go off on rampages and kill Skrulls with a
hammer helps too.
There’s also a great cameo by Captain America that sums up more about
him in a few pages than most writers manage in entire runs. He’s in a
diner eating pie. Of course it’s apple.

This series was five issues and was reissued as a trade, so just get that.

5.  WE3

Has a comic ever made you cry? Like, really bawl like a baby. If not,
you owe it to yourself to read WE3. It’s a simple Homeward Bound story
of a dog, a cat and a rabbit who are trying to find their homes. Except
the dog, cat, and rabbit were the subjects of military experiments, have
frightening cyborg destructive power, and can speak.

Though there are brutal scenes where these animals use what the military
has done to them to take apart scores of humans, their simple stilted
dialogue reveals them as confused pets struggling to understand the
betrayal of what has been done to them. The dog is especially touching;
he just wants to be a “Gud Dog.” This is sad, Old Yeller sad, but also
uplifting and hopeful. It’s the book to show to people who think Grant
Morrison is just weirdness and mumbo jumbo.

Those are my picks for best Grant Morrison comics, but there are also
some single issues over the years that he’s done that have had an impact
on me that I want to share.

1. Invisibles #12 “Best Man Fall”

I didn’t add Invisibles to my main list, even though I know a lot of
other people would. It just didn’t grab me like the other works did. But
I did love this issue and it’s probably my favorite single thing
Morrison has written. In the first issue of Invisibles, you see,
anti-hero/Morrison stand-in King Mob shoots and kills a guard. That’s
such a minor incident in the book it’s not even a spoiler, although the
guard does have an impressive death scene.

The whole of Invisibles #12 is devoted to revealing this anonymous
guard’s life. It’s almost the perfect melding of Morrison high concept
with his gift for characterization as we go through this guy’s life,
from his boyhood playing the soldier game of trying to have the most
impressive fake death that gives this issue its title to how he ended up
in the moment when King Mob casually ends it. Even if you don’t read Invisibles, read this.

2. St. Swithin’s Day

Hugely controversial, this comic, available in a one-shot, is about an
alienated British teenager who wants to assassinate Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher. It’s apparently based in part on Morrison’s diaries
and effectively paints a picture of disaffected youth from a particular
place and time.

3. Doom Patrol #45

This comic introduces us to the Beard Hunter. He can’t grow a beard,
so he hates men with beards and kills them to take their beards as
trophies. Hey, the Doom Patrol’s Chief has a beard. A nice one.

This is one of the funniest comics I have ever read. It’s a vicious
parody of the ridiculousness of vigilante characters like the Punisher.
The chief’s struggle to survive as the Beard Hunter stalks him through a
supermarket also makes it very clear that there are much darker things
yet to be revealed about the Chief.

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