I’ve never been much of a comic fan; my brother liked them for the both of us. Despite a flirtation with our local comic store’s annual summer clearance sale1, and a long-lived passion for the 6-issue Double Dragon series in 1991, the medium left me largely cold, and I eventually2 became enamored of the long-form novel.
As a result of either my age or my eventual indifference to the format, I was unaware or unimpressed of most of the important happenings in the medium. I learned most of the historical ones—e.g., the origins the Batman and Superman, and their eventual censorship or transmogrification during the panic of the 1950s—from David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague, and many of the latter-day events either from first-hand knowledge—e.g., hearing about Bane breaking Batman’s back or Doomsday killing Superman—or finally reading the graphic novels themselves—e.g., Alan Moore’s critical 1980s work The Watchmen and V for Vendetta. For what it’s worth, I tried reading Roger Stern’s 1994 The Death and Life of Superman, though it was beyond my 9-year-old self3.
I only heard about Grant Morrison through the grapevine; I have yet to read a comic by him, but I ascertained from context clues that he’s become kind of a big deal in the comic world. When my friend recommended Supergods, I decided it would be fun into enter the occluded world of comic books. It’s not a comic or graphic novel, mind you: it’s an interesting blend of comic book history and Morrison’s own life and career in the industry. It works about 50% of the time.
Easily the most engaging portion of Morrison’s book is the first half, where he covers the early history of comic books. In particular, he addresses the creation of the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman characters, among others, noting how the unique characteristics of each reflected their creators and the environment in which they were created. He briefly touches upon the mid-century panic, and notes the excellent The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju. Even more interesting is the way in which characters changed to match the zeitgeist: Superman morphed from a simple do-gooder to a ridiculous über-patriot during the 40s and 50s. Batman began as a dark and creepy detective, but eventually became a silly, camp figure to survive the comics witchhunt—you could argue that the camp peaked either with the TV series starring Adam West4 or with the 1997 Joel Schumacher film Batman and Robin, both of which Morrison covers. There is, of course, all kind of minutiæ that I’m eliding here; Morrison qua historian is thorough. But while Hadju more or less ends his narrative in the middle of the century, Morrison—obviously—goes on the cover the second rise of comics, with the emergence of the two heavyweights, DC and Marvel, and a slew of imprints large and small.
With this, however, Morrison also begins to inject his own biography into the narrative. This is fine, to a point; but soon he goes down the rabbit hole by relating, for instance, a crazy drug trip he had in Kathmandu and how he thinks it expanded his consciousness blah blah blah… there’s way, way too much hokey hippie drug nonsense going on here, and Morrison—even writing retrospectively—seems to take it very seriously. This whole section is a shambles, made worse by its stark contrast to the solemn comic book hagiography of the first half of the book. It’s a stumble from which Morrison never really recovers, limping wounded across the finish line of the present day and reiterating his thesis.
Said thesis is a good one, too, if a little self-evident. As the title alludes, comic book superheroes are not simply heroes in the sense that Bruce Willis plays a hero in the Die Hard series, or Harry Potter plays a hero in his eponymous series; rather, our comic book superheroes form a sort of modern-day pantheon. They are gods and demigods onto whom we place our own frailties and vices and hopes and dreams. The dominant modern-day monotheisms don’t have these characters like ancient Greece or Rome or Scandinavia; there isn’t an intermediate layer that bridges the gap between humanity and the divine. I suppose you could point to the story of Jesus and the moneylenders, but it’s not quite the same thing, since the pantheons of old were often cruel and capricious. This is why Superman has changed along with culture, becoming the Superpatriot, and a social realist superman, and a dead man, replaced by several different personalities lik an evil robot, a deputized steelworker, and an artificial alien life form. Batman, too, is a vessel for the dark, pragmatic parts of our personality, albeit one with long campy interstice. Our collection of superheroes are a manufactured mythology, highly-stylized forms of our deepest neuroses and sometimes our greatest achievements. It’s not an unreasonable theory, and it explains—in part—why not just comics, but certain individual superheroes, have such staying power, even eighty years after their creation.
If only Supergods hadn’t take such a strange turn halfway through, and Morrison hadn’t decided that his colorful past was perfect material for his argument (why?), the final product would have been so much more impressive.
- If I remember correctly, it was 5/$1, and I usually came home with an allowance-full, which I read and promptly discarded[↩]
- Though I like to thing of myself as a thorough-going reader, my first “real” chapterbook was Goosebumps #13 , which I found on the floor of my local Venture department store[↩]
- Though I did, of course, playing the Sega game The Death and Return of Superman[↩]
- Bang! Pow! Mint![↩]