Monday, July 12, 2010

We all need to listen to Grant Morrison

Those of you that know me well enough likely aren't surprised by this opinion. As far as comics creators go, there are somewhere between a handful and a dozen of really great ones every generation, depending on your opinion of “great.” While there are some who aren't very big fans of Morrison's work, it becomes difficult to argue that he has not at least been prolific over the past twenty-five years.

Morrison tends to write what I would refer to as the “thinking man's” comic. The majority of his work has a surface level that it can be appreciated at, but if you are willing to dig a little deeper, there are levels of commentary on humanity and the medium of comics beneath the superhero narrative.

One of my favorite Morrison works is Animal Man, the story of Buddy Baker, c-list superhero and family man. As far as power sets go, the ability to mimic those of an animal in the vicinity aren't particularly useful. Struggling to support his wife and children on his Justice League stipend and knowing that his teammates believe he's a third string hero, it is little wonder that he undergoes an existential crisis when the pieces of his life start to slowly unravel.

At 26 issues, Morrison's tenure on Animal Man was just over two years, and what began as a simple story championing animal rights with a superhero mascot ends as a meta-narrative with Buddy pleading for Grant to resurrect his wife and children. After all, Morrison displays his ability to create heroes and villains from nothing in the drab, Scottish grassland they are wandering through, he could certainly breathe life back into the Bakers, but he will not:

Morrison's first speech bubble here is all the answer that most writers would give. Tragedy is real. Pain and suffering are real. Bad things happen to good people, and there's nothing we can do about it. It's in the second bubble when you realize that he has a problem with this. Comic book superheroes are basically the closest thing that modern society has to classical mythology. These are stories that are supposed to tell of the greatness of mankind and the heights we can reach. About how a mere mortal who is determined enough can stand shoulder to shoulder with a god-like alien from another planet, or how a simple farm family can raise that alien to be a beacon of morality and one of the kindest beings on a planet of people he could enslave.

There are lots of things that comics can be used for, and it would be foolish of me to say that they should only be used to tell stories that many would call naïve. Morrison has spent the last two decades attempting to clean up the mess that Alan Moore and Frank Miller left in the 80's. While Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are both wonderful uses of the medium, the majority of comics creators took them as a sign that adding death and anguish to superhero stories made them more “adult.” Twenty years later and we have comics like Identity Crisis and Cry for Justice with near hyperbolic levels of mature themes attempting to masquerade as mature storytelling. Over two decades ago, nobody listened to Morrison when he directly said what the problem was with comics:

But what is more depressing is that nobody seemed to realize that this was not just advice for how to make a better medium, but how to be better people. The idea that humanity believes perfection and complete happiness to be fictional, that we define ourselves by suffering, has permeated many fictions that deal with concepts of consciousness and identity. It is also the common argument made against characters like Superman: they are unrealistic, outdated, and representative of a naïve worldview.

We spend so much time in the emotional trenches, that it is no wonder there are so many people in the country suffering from depression. Whether it is reality television taking advantage of schadenfreude, the news presenting us daily with new calamities to fear and reasons to be ashamed of mankind or just the daily struggle to live up to the life that is expected of us from others, we have an overabundance of negative energy permeating our lives.

So, why don't we take a lesson from Grant and ask ourselves how we define adulthood, or happiness, or realism. Ask yourself why it is that when someone says that the world is unfair, it carries the message “and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.