The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


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Grant Me This

I go back and forth on the merits of top-tier comics scribe Grant Morrison. On the one hand, I finding his special brand of hype-happy, free-your-mind, drug-addled, psychedelic mysticism kind of annoying. As a fan of Alan Moore, Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, it’s not that I think that’s necessarily a bad way to go — it’s that, too often, Morrison seems less interested in telling stories or developing characters and lot more interested in LIKE, TOTALLY BLOWING YOUR MIND, MAN with EIGHT SOLID PAGES of SERIOUSLY FREAKY SHITCAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE IT?!!! OR UNDERSTAND IT?!! I KNOW, RIGHT? SOO CRAZY!

At his most frustrating — in books like The Invisibles — he’s overly interested in atmosphere and attitude, and maybe jostling his readers around a bit. But moody bullshit is still, well, bullshit, no matter how many copies of Arkham Asylum Morrison’s sold. This is probably a complaint that could be leveled at the comics/superhero genre in general, but Morrison seems worse than most.

On the other hand, when he decides to actually sit still for a moment and tell a story, he’s rather formidable — and, at his best, proves himself more than capable of employing his wacko interests in service of something genuinely moving. His multi-year run on New X-Men, which offered a significant change of pace for the team, if not quite a radical revamping, was expertly paced and surprisingly balanced — expertly blending genre convention and surreleastic incomprehension, story and soap opera, inner lives and radical ideas. He made sure that the book was accessible to just about anyone, but also provided plenty to mull over for those who wanted more. (For more on this, see this fascinating, lengthy explication of how Morrison used his run to critique the series’ previous decades.)

Nor is it that Morrison only succeeds when he’s reigned in by the rules and conventions of “mainstream” comics. His recent run with Batman — which climaxed with the character’s kinda-sorta “death,” or something like it — is semi-coherent, focused far more of freaky-deaky fractured storytelling and can-you-believe-your-eyes milestone events (Batman has a son! Batman dies! Or does he!) than the crucial plot and character mechanics that ought to drive this sort of story. But comparatively out-there limited series like The Filth and We3, on the other hand, both work expertly, weaving thematic Morrison’s fascination with personhood and identity into carefully worlds equal parts utter nonsense and gritty reality. The Filth is almost impossible to summarize (though if you’re interested, knock yourself out with this totally accurate but totally inadequate Wikipedia article), but let’s just say that if David Cronenberg ever produces a series for HBO, I dearly hope it’s an adaptation of The Filth.

Still, of all the Morrison works I’ve read, I suspect We3 is the most likely to be of interest to TAS readers, as it’s something of a sci-fi inversion of Watership Down (or perhaps a grown-up retelling of The Secret of NIMH) — telling a story of cuddly housepets who’ve been bioengineered into ultra deadly killing machines by the military industrial complex. After assassinating a number of third-world dictators in a bioweapons trial phase, they’re scheduled for decommissioning. But they escape, and fight off the military as they search for someplace they can call home. Morrison’s decision to give the animals rudimentary speech — “gud dog”, “bad dog”, “stay”, “is come” — blurs the line between Ninja-Turtle style cartoon anthropomorphism and cute-pet sentimentalism, but ends up someplace smarter and more affecting than either — with alien creatures you somehow relate to anyway. It’s weird. It’s graphic. It’s probably going to get you funny looks on the subway. But it’s also surprisingly touching.

And that’s why it’s so frustrating when Morrison decides to go the hipster mad-scientist route and coast on pomo allusions and a very high weird-shit factor. Believe me, I like weird shit as much as the next comic-book-loving libertarian journalist — but when you’re looking for an actual story, it’s not enough.