Reviewed by Greg Baldino
Whether they be gods or angels, the idea of sentient beings beyond us mere mortals but recognizably similar has influenced human thought since the earliest days of tale-telling around the fire. In some tellings, they are of a state of grace from whence humans fell; in others they are a potential, something that might, by labor or virtue, be reached by all. In the 20th century, these tales were given new form with the advent, at the publishing of Superman's first adventure in Action Comics #1, of the superhero. This sub-genre of a sub-genre, born of the highest mythologies and the lowest pulp denominators, rose up from a declasse and maligned artform to become the dominant mythology of the modern world, influencing philosophical discourses as much as box office receipts.
Grant Morrison is no stranger to these creatures. Long before he became one of the most acclaimed and popular comics writers of the last two decades, being trusted with the corporate treasures of Batman, Superman, and the X-Men, he was writing adventures of atypical ubermenschen, from suburban patriarch Animal Man, to outsider art vigilantes the Doom Patrol, to post-human popstar Zenith. With a somewhat holistic view of storytelling, Morrison is as well-versed in the writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola as he is in the secret origin of Spider-Man, and a full-length work by him on the superhero genre is a veritable literary occasion.
Following a chronological structure beginning with the Man of Steel's debut in 1938, Morrison looks at superhero comics as both diagnosing and predicting the psychological flow of the modern western world. The shifting nature of Superman as an icon is explored, touching on the socialist revolutionary tendencies of the early stories which were revised to project a strict patriot visage come the outbreak of war. Wonder Woman, like so many super characters, is revealed to be born of her creator's world view as well -- William Moulton Marston, in addition to being the creator of the polygraph test, lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and their girlfriend, a sexuality beyond radical for the time and that greatly influenced many of those early Wonder Woman stories.
As superhero adventures rose in popularity, the light struck from Krypton's last sun split in the prism of commerce, and soon they flew through the newsprint as thick as gnats. In the so-called silver age, when Marvel Comics created both a new breed of character and story, the stories became even more complex, with the emotional stresses of post-war America, youth culture, and the Vietnam War bleeding through from our world onto the page, and then back into the minds of impressionable youth everywhere. The icons shifted, seemingly without moving, ebbing and flowing between power fantasy manifestations to outcroppings of imagination -- Jimmy Olson gets a nod as a precursor to the identity-shifting art mechanics of David Bowie, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. The creators began to be recognized, no longer unknown draftsmen, and for some, such as artist-savant Jack Kirby, this acclaim brought with it enough power to begin to experiment not only with the form, but with the message.
It's in the midst of the silver age that Morrison's own storyline intrudes into the book. Born in Scotland to a World War II veteran turned anti-nuclear pacifist and a bohemian renaissance woman, he grew up against the backdrop of the second age of heroes, the rise and fall of flower power, and the height of cold war paranoia. "Before the bomb was a bomb, it was an idea," he writes in the introduction, but Superman was a better one.
Using his own life as an example, Morrison tries to drive home the concept of superheroes as altruistic ideas, archetypes of the transformation of tragedy into triumph. In Glasgow a depressed, lonely teenager has everything turned around by the magic (ritual and metaphorical) of strange clothes, fake names, and abilities far beyond those of mortal men; through the superhero, with its special name and costume, there is the concept of reinvention and the celebration of self. Beyond just wearing his heart on his sleeve, Superman bears his initial on the front of his shirt as a full realization of everything individual identity offers, proffering shades of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche covered with day-glo glitter as a counter to nihilistic anti-life. It's the zenith of Morrison's exploration of what superheroes mean, and why this 20th-century genre took off as it did.
Unfortunately, it's also the point where the book unravels a bit. The autobiographical inclusions certainly add several new layers to the book. If you treat Supergods as one of Morrison's famously multi-layered pieces of imaginative writing, such as his acclaimed series The Invisibles, it's another facet to reflect the whole. But as a critical essay on the meaning and relevance of the superhero, the structure starts to go off the rails when Morrison diverts into autobiography.
As Supergods moves on to explore the last thirty years of the genre, the subject matter starts to resemble a situationist feedback loop. All of the unconscious emergences that shaped and defined the heroes of the golden and silver ages are now fully recognized and calculated by their modern creators. The histories and critiques are all well known, and the tropes have become so well-rehearsed and self-referential that the content becomes trapped in the context rather than enriched by it. Alan Moore's Watchmen may be the best example of this, as the book loses entire layers of relevance for the reader unfamiliar with the mystery men it deconstructs. Modern superhero comics, in a variety of ways, are shown to make more presumptions about their audience, obfuscating with elaborate liturgies or quantum continuities when they aren't stripping everything back to the most basic of archetypes. It's a completely alternate universe from the almost automatic writing of the seminal storytellers, one that probably merits a separate analysis altogether.
All of which is not to say that Supergods isn't interesting, well-written, and exceptionally dynamic. Morrison is the ideal Virgil to have at your side in the divine comedy of superhero comics, an epic journey still underway thanks to creators like him.
Books mentioned in this post