Taken for Granted
Goodness knows our society has long mistaken the exhortation to kill its idols for an invitation to shit on its most talented members, but sometimes it seems that comics fandom in particular is determined to isolate the best and brightest of their chosen medium’s creators and relentlessly heap bile on them until they go away, leaving the job of telling the stories they love so much to the most mediocre and predictable elements available. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Grant Morrison.
Alan Moore, at the very least, has the good grace to be an irascible old crank who hates comics, comic companies, comics fans, and pretty much everything else. (And God — or giant snake-god — bless him for it.) This makes it easy for fans to despise him and forget that he created at least a half-dozen of the finest works ever written for the superhero genre. With Morrison, though, it can’t be attributed to crazy-old-manhood, or a case of being jilted, or personal or professional bitterness. Although he’s possessed of plenty of the same quirks as Moore, he houses them in an urbane, sophisticated display that does nothing to piss off fans on a personal level; he’s still almost alarmingly enthusiastic about the superhero medium, and doesn’t bum out America’s man-children by pointing out that their primary hobby is kind of embarrassing; and far from having burned his bridges (or, more accurately, having had them burned), he’s worked his way to a level of almost unprecedented power and influence at venerable DC Comics. And yet, while he’s still widely celebrated by many fans and critics, there remains a segment — vocal, hyperbolic, and not markedly small — who openly despise him and call him the worst thing to happen to the industry since Wertham.
Even his success is turned against him: some of the same people who vilify Moore as a prickly, difficult snob who never learned to play ball claim that Morrison is a toady, a suck-up, a company man who betrays the legacy he loves just for the chance to play with them in his cosmos-sized sandbox. Morrison’s work is too difficult, some of them say, with the charge of pretentiousness — that is, difficulty for difficulty’s sake — never too far away. Morrison has no respect for the characters and wreaks arbitrary change on them for his own amusement, some of them say, with others going so far as to accuse him of not understanding the essence of these four-color icons in the first place. Morrison is contemptuous of the fans, some of them say, and does not respond to their wishes. Morrison leaves jobs undone, some of theme say, dangling threads of plot everywhere, failing to make connections, forgetting his place and leaving the universe over which he has been given charge a total mess.
I must confess to a near complete lack of appreciation for these charges; whether as a summary referendum on his character in general, or an analysis of specific cases, I find little merit in them. Morrison’s work may be difficult to the kind of fan who despises ambiguity, fails to appreciate mystery, and resents being asked to make an effort, but it is only difficult by the still-paltry standards of superhero comics, and its best qualities — by turns elegant and simple — can be discerned by anyone who approaches his writing with a modicum of respect. He may play ball with the powers that be to get himself into a position to effect change in the editorial mission of DC Comics, but it is a job that needs doing quite badly, and who else would do a better job of it? Surely none of the cut-rate toadies, egotists, and hacks who make up the rest of Dan DiDio’s entourage. The idea that Morrison doesn’t understand superhero comics is particularly bizarre, given that he literally wrote the book on the subject; it may not be the best book on the subject, but differences of interpretation aside, this is clearly not a man who doesn’t care about his medium.
The charge that he disrespects the characters bears a bit more examination. The lack of vividness and uniqueness in some of his character work (though certainly not all) can probably be attributed that, especially of late, he has been called on to work with a cast of literally hundreds of individual characters; a few are sure to come off as a bit samey, but when the rubber meets the road, he can still hit you in the heart. I think part of the confusion arises from the fact that one of Morrison’s great strengths — it can be witnessed anywhere, even in a brief and largely inconsequential panel on page 6 of this week’s Multiversity Handbook where he strips eternal Marvel Family nemesis Dr. Sivana to his purest visual essence by the multiple occurrence of two adjacent circles to symbolize his Coke-bottle glasses — is to immediately ascertain the most pure iconic nature of a character and use it as a thru-line in his storytelling. This criticism comes up again and again, and to me, it seems to come from people who not only perceive this quality as a weakness rather than a strength, but also simply disagree with his assessment of what is essential about those characters.
Since I do my best to stay out of the rat-hole that is comics fandom, I cannot speak to whether or not the man holds his fans in contempt; he was certainly quite open and kind to me when I interviewed him a few years ago. I don’t remember reading any instances where he was openly hostile or insulting to fans, but allowing for the fact that I might have just missed them, I have to consider that this hostility might run only one way, and that Morrison — a man who seems to me to come across as friendly and forthcoming — may be more hated than hateful. The final charge, that he is a genius of coming up with ideas and a fool at executing them, is common enough, and there is some truth to it; the DC Universe is tangled with the plot and story threads he has left dangling all over the place. I’m willing to let him off the hook for this, as I am for the fact that he can indeed be hit-and-miss as a writer, because his workload is phenomenally heavy; he’s producing an enormous amount of material for DC even aside from his editorial duties, and he’s bound to leave some stuff hanging from the rafters. But when he is allowed, as he often isn’t, to complete a story, it’s more often than not airtight, with even sprawling and complex storylines (as in 7 Soldiers of Victory) wrapped up neatly in the end. It should also be recognized that someone with an eye as far ahead as his may not be forgetful or careless so much as he is deliberately planting seeds for himself, or others, to harvest down the road.
Grant Morrison is a clever, intelligent, passionate, and prolific writer. His work habits are by all accounts extraordinary; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of comics that he bring to bear on work that is creative rather than academic; and he has done the near-impossible by introducing metafictional techniques to comics without making them cheap and obvious, telling stories about stories in a way far less ham-fisted than the far more celebrated Neil Gaiman does. He has managed to retain a subversive, progressive, and artistically refined outlook on his work while rising to a position of great authority in his chosen métier. And on top of all that, he has produced an astonishing number of comics of great accomplishment and quality: Doom Patrol, The Authority, The Invisibles, Batman, 7 Soldiers of Victory, Flex Mentallo, Seaguy, We3, and All-Star Superman, among others. His failures have been few, and his greatest successes have been great indeed. I don’t expect everyone to love him, but I don’t understand why so many people hate him; there are few people in comics with his combination of work ethic and talent, and we banish him at our peril.