Tuesday, May 07, 2013

#576. Fan Tango Tuesday

subject: Grant Morrison

overview: When I call someone a favorite storyteller, it's because they've hit all the marks I consider necessary for greatness.  The one most people will identify with is simply telling a good story.  The one that's most important to me is telling the story distinctively.  There's also the ability to tell good story after good story.  Sometimes it's simply a matter of telling one story so well that it burnishes the storyteller in my own imagination.  Since I'm a storyteller too, they also have to inspire me.  If they can cover these bases, they earn a place in my favorites.

I read comic books.  I've read comic books since I was a kid.  One of the reasons I still read them is because of storytellers like Grant Morrison.  Morrison was a sensation in ways I couldn't even begin to appreciate when I was just getting into them.  He was part of the wave of British writers who came over to American comics in the '80s.  His first significant work was a surreal new take on Doom Patrol, which is a team that is basically exactly the X-Men, only the trick is that they came first (much like how the Challengers of the Unknown came before the Fantastic Four).  That was his contribution to the budding Vertigo line of more mature material at DC.  He createdThe Invisibles next.  If you ask him, you might know The Invisibles better as The Matrix.  Like his Doom Patrol, The Invisibles was a completely subversive adventure, indicative of the new counterculture of the '90s, the young punks rejecting rather than rebelling against the system, which you may recall from films like Trainspotting.

But like Ewan McGregor at the end of that film, Morrison pulled a fast one on everyone.  He next went mainstream.  In fact, when Morrison went mainstream, it began a process that completely changed the landscape of the mainstream.  His mainstream was called JLA, a completely iconic (and in fact a version of it that hadn't even existed before him) take on the Justice League of America, all of DC's greatest heroes woven into a cohesive pantheon.  This was when I read Morrison for the first time.  After the death of Superman four years earlier, this was easily the most important DC development of the decade.

By the end of the last millennium, Morrison was looking for a new challenge.  He skipped over to DC's competitor, Marvel, where he worked on a book called New X-Men.  Along with the movies that were just getting underway, these comics were responsible for revitalizing the mutant franchise, making what had become stale and forgettable exciting again.  Except Morrison was feeling frisky.  Instead of doing just what he'd done with the Justice League, with the X-Men he did things like reveal that the mysterious Xorn was the infamous Magneto taking on a new guise.  Subsequent writers eventually pretended that his whole run didn't exist.  He didn't stick around Marvel long.

When he returned to DC a few years into the new millennium, Morrison seemed to have learned what readers would find acceptable.  He immediately embarked on two of his most ambitious projects.  One was the beginning of a run with Batman that is only just now coming to a conclusion.  He introduced Batman's son, Damian, whom he had with Talia Head, the daughter of Ra's al Ghul.  Damian was the purest incarnation of Robin ever, a younger version of Batman who might have one day easily slipped into the famous cowl.

Morrison also launched Seven Soldiers of Victory, conjuring obscure characters into a total revision of the team book concept.  Each of the members of this Seven Soldiers had their separate mini-series and adventures, but they converged around a singular mythology that united their disparate efforts.  In a lot of ways this may prove to be his ultimate contribution to the comic book format.

In recent years, in addition to his Batman work Morrison has also put a stamp on Superman, whether in All Star Superman, an out-of-continuity tale that imagines how far the Man of Steel can really go with his abilities if faced with the limitation of his own imminent death, or in Action Comics, where he helped establish a new continuity and embraced Superman's complete legacy.

It's impossible to summarize the impact of Morrison's career, and all the ways he's continually found the most outlandish and compelling stories imaginable to tell.  He's the definition of a comic book writer to me, but to call him "just" a comic book writer is to do a disservice both to comic books and the art of storytelling itself.  You may know guys like Neil Gaiman (for work like Sandman) and Alan Moore (for work like Watchmen) and identify them as the best of the comic book writers, but Morrison exceeds them all.  I truly believe that.

highlights:

Animal Man (1988-1990) Buddy Baker is a superhero who gets his powers by borrowing attributes from the animal kingdom.  Before Morrison wrote him, he wasn't even as respected much less nearly as relevant as Aquaman, a character who's still trying to get out from under the idea that he's that dude who talks to fish.  Under Morrison's guidance, Buddy went about as far as a regular superhero could go.  He literally broke the fourth wall.  Around the end of his first year writing Buddy, Morrison found some of the most transcendent material possible in this form.  It's essential comic book reading material.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth (1989) Released the same year as the Tim Burton Batman and subsequently a high-selling graphic novel, this was Morrison in his earliest and perhaps still greatest work in the mainstream of comic book lore, visiting the place all Batman's villains go and plunging into the psychology of the dynamic between heroes and their foes.  It's Alan Moore's The Killing Joke and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns that everyone knows today, but this is the best of the Batman stories from that time.

Kid Eternity (1991) Another shorter work, this may be the career statement for Morrison, taking another obscure property and doing an incredibly expansive and philosophical take on it.

The Mystery Play (1994) One of his rare stories that don't play with genre (Morrison is known for crafting a peculiar image of himself that is as much a story as anything he writes), this one is pretty literary in a traditional sense, and it completely works.

The Invisibles (1994-2000) I've read only a tiny portion, but it's hard not to acknowledge the impact of this one on Morrison's legacy.

JLA (1997-1999) Bringing together a line-up of the Justice League that was the DC equivalent of the Greek gods, Morrison writes about Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Martian Manhunter in some of their biggest and wildest adventures.  Well, until he writes them again.

New X-Men (2001-2004) Even if it's all but forgotten today, Morrison's work here affirmed everything that's good about Marvel's mutants.

The Filth (2002-2003) For those who want to experience The Invisibles but without having to read an incredibly long story, there's this other pretty unusual story of an alternative look at what's actually going on in our screwed up little world.

We3 (2004-2005) Often Morrison can be mistaken for a writer who completely dependent on throwing everything he can think of in his scripts.  This story about a trio of animals who escape being drafted into the military as bionic warriors and rediscover themselves along the way is easily one of his best, and it's also one of his most subtle works.

Seven Soldiers of Victory (2005-2006) This is a maxi-series that includes the titles Manhattan Guardian, Shining Knight, Klarion the Witch Boy, Zatanna, Mister Miracle, Bulleteer, and Frankenstein, each of them with distinctive stories to tell on their own.

52 (2005-2006) A collaborative book he did with several other standout writers that helped revamp the concept of minor characters in DC, ensuring that they would never be mistaken as such ever again.  There's a big story waiting for anyone.  It certainly doesn't hurt to have Morrison help find them.

All-Star Superman (2005-2006) Morrison pushes the Man of Steel to his limits.  May be one of the definitive Superman tales, this writer or any other.

Batman (2006-2013) Enveloping work that he's done in the titles Batman, Batman and Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne, and Batman Incorporated, this is a truly epic vision of the Dark Knight that wonders how strong the concept really is, whether he works best in isolation or in relation to his allies.

Joe the Barbarian (2010-2011) Like We3 this one plays with Morrison's conventions and is a real charmer because of it.

Action Comics (2011-2013) Morrison revisits Superman, bringing the character he previously pushed to his limits back to earth, swapping the famous costume for jeans and a t-shirt (the cape stays, though) and a whole cast of characters who are simply reacting to his presence, often in surprising ways even though most of them are thoroughly familiar elements of the mythology.

4 comments:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Morrison is a genius story-teller Tony. His "All-Star Superman" story was brilliant on so many levels. Including how Lex thought Clark's muscles were fat.

Tony Laplume said...

It's funny, because the way Frank Quietely draws Superman, he might be described as "fat," especially as Clark Kent.

Spacerguy said...

The X Men movies just keep going from strength to strength. Patrick Stewart returns to the new XMEN right now. It'll be good to see ol' Xavier back where he belongs leading the mutants or will we see a newer spiffer version?

Tony Laplume said...

I'm expecting great thing from the new one!

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