SUPERGODS (WHAT MASKED VIGILANTES, MIRACULOUS MUTANTS, AND A SUN GOD FROM SMALLVILLE CAN TEACH US ABOUT BEING HUMAN) by Grant Morrison (Spiegel & Grau / Random House) 445 pages, hardcover, July 2011
I’m not sure if Morrison intended for that subtitle to be there, or if it was a last minute add-on by the marketing department. Regardless of who takes credit for it - - it certainly creates some reader expectations, expectations I’m not sure the book is equal to meeting.
What SUPERGODS does succeed in doing is take the reader on a journey through the history of comic books , focusing on four key periods as defined by Grant Morrison (Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, Renaissance), and selecting critical titles that best represent each period. For each period, Morrison includes details on how it had an impact on him as well as what stage of his writing career he was in at that particular time.
I considered the subtitle of SUPERGODS and considered how I might try to answer it: “What can masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville teach us about being human?” That’s a monumental task, indeed. So I’ll start small and keep it personal: Comics and superhero tales taught me how to read at an early age, and then accelerate my vocabulary and improve my reading comprehension level well beyond my elementary school grade. It did the same thing for my two sons. My parents read comics to me until I was old enough to read them myself, and there was some family bonding in that process. I took up the same practice and introduced my sons to comics first by reading to them. Comics led me to an interest in mythology, science-fiction and fantasy literature. I developed an appreciation for fiction and reading from the launching platform of comic books. When comics in the 60’s began to write about heroes who were younger and closer to my own age I empathized with those characters much easier and felt a certain kinship. Some of my personal values and principles were developed from lessons learned in comic books. Can comic books actually have the same impact on societal development that mythological heroes and legends did in ancient times as they were passed on from generation to generation, and even used in such a way as to explain the whole world and universe around them? That’s a huge stretch of speculation - - but I can see a thin thread of connection there. No need to prove it to me, Mr. Morrison. That’s like preaching to the choir.
So I don’t expect to see SUPERGODS added to the curriculum for next semester’s religion, philosophy, socialism, American history or ethics courses. SUPERGODS is certainly not Morrison’s masters thesis on the subject. And that’s a good thing. It’s a much more entertaining read in this form.
SUPERGODS is one man’s vision and interpretation of the meaning of comic books in today’s society. When that man is Grant Morrison you can expect certain things, and this book delivers on all of them:
1) It’s a wide-screen, high definition, cinemascope big picture view of each era’s importance to the over all genre. Unlike some superficial treatment that focuses more on microscopic facts/details and reads like a history book, SUPERGODS always points the way to the bigger meaning and spells it out.
2) Like everything Morrison creates, this book is infused with a big dose of his persona. Morrison sometimes approaches his subjects in SUPERGODS from unusual directions and perspectives - - but that’s what we’ve come to expect. Not everybody will like it every time, but it never fails to interest or intrigue.
3) The level of writing is advanced, and superb. If Morrison wasn’t such a great comics creator, he’d have an equally successful career as a comics reviewer, observer, or commentator.
4) He does attempt to answer the big question that is the subtitle of this book, but not in a chapter by chapter fashion, and he certainly doesn’t try to beat us over the head with his conclusions through constant repetition or factual evidence. Rather, as in most of his writing, he lays it out and leaves it to the reader to draw some of the conclusions.
If that isn’t enough to encourage someone interested in comics history and its’ place in history there are some additional bonus items that make SUPERGODS the captivating read that it is:
1) This is probably the closest thing to an auto-biography of Grant Morrison that is likely to ever see print. I learned a lot about the man himself from SUPERGODS, and it helped me to appreciate his writing more once I discovered some of the vast subjects he has investigated and explored. My, what a long, strange trip it’s been. Better you than I, Mr. Morrison. Some of his experiments with drugs, mysticism, and the dark arts would have turned many into blathering idiots. The result on Morrison is that it helped shape his world view and made him a better writer.
2) It also outlines a clear chronology of Morrison’s progression as a comics writer and puts his works into historical context with what else was being produced at the time (mainly in the Dark Age and Renaissance periods).
3) When he does editorialize, it’s always entertaining and often enlightening. I could cite many examples and pad out this review but I’d rather use the words Morrison chose to conclude the final chapter:
“Superhero stories are sweated out at the imagined lowest levels of our culture, but like that shard off a hologram, they contain at their hearts all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature. Created by a workforce that has in its time been marginalized, mocked, scapegoated, and exploited, they never failed to offer a direct line to the cultural subconscious and its convulsions. They tell us where we’ve been, what we feared, and what we desired, and today they are more popular, more all-pervasive than ever because they still speak to us about what we really want to be. Once again, the comics were right all along. When no else cared, they took the idea of a superhuman future seriously, embraced it, exalted it, tested it to destruction and back, and found it intact, stronger, more defined, like steel in a refiner’s fire. Indestructible. Unstoppable. The superheroes, who were champions of the oppressed when we needed them to be, patriots when we needed them to be, pioneers, rebels, conformists, or rock stars when we needed them to be, are now obligingly battering down the walls between reality and fiction before our very eyes. . . . . . . . . . . There’s only one way to find out what happens next . . . . . . . . . . “