Grant Morrison’s Day-Glo Years:

Kill Your Boyfriend

NOTE: Rather than start chronologically in the early ’90s, I chose to begin my exploration of Grant’s Day-Glo Years with a work that best exemplifies the themes, motifs, and energy of that era of his careerKill Your Boyfriend.

Kill Your Boyfriend is not a particularly significant work in the overall development of Grant Morrison’s career. It doesn’t have the scope of longform works like The Invisibles or The Filth or the intense emotional punch of We3, but in many ways, it’s the perfect introduction to Day-Glo era Morrison work. It plays like an Invisibles b-side, experimenting with a lower-scale approach to many of the themes from The Invisibles. Divorced from the grand cosmological scope of The Invisibles, the themes can become even clearer, and Boyfriend is likely one of the most personal pieces of work Morrison has ever written.

The work uses the story of “the Girl” as a kind of case study exploration of the lifestyle shifts Morrison was going through himself at the time. As he was leaving a somewhat sheltered life in favor of travel, partying, and adventure, he writes the story of a girl who does the same.

The key theme to the book is the Girl’s quest to reconcile the various paths that people have in mind for her and find a way to live and be herself. As the story opens, she is beholden to her parents’ expectations, to a school that aims to turn her into a robot, and a life that gives her nothing to be excited about. Given the chance to live a purely hedonistic life, she clings to it and escapes into fantasy, but by the end of the book, she chooses to turn back from the carnival and return to everyday life.

Morrison, particularly as the ’90s wore on, moved further and further away from stories set in a recognizable reality. Perhaps his own journey into a wild, rock star existence made day-to-day life feel like science fiction, but Kill Your Boyfriend is notable for being one of the final times that Morrison wrote about a troubled young protagonist struggling to find identity in a normal world. Kill Your Boyfriend reinterprets a lot of the themes of St. Swithin’s Day and Dane’s story in The Invisibles but does so in a new pop day-glo context. St. Swithin’s Day was a black and white, low-key story that was all about fantasies that never came true, and those previous stories resonate with the opening few pages of Kill Your Boyfriend.

Here, we follow the Girl as she monologues to the reader about her frustrations with day-to-day life. She wants to escape and be free, but feels pulled down to Earth by her teachers, her parents, and her boyfriend, all of whom have a specific path in mind for her. It’s a distinctly teenage frustration and a distinctly ordinary world to explore. But, the book becomes about what happens when an ordinary person abandons their life to an avatar of chaos, and that’s what the Boy proves to be for the Girl.

To her, he is the life she could be leading, a life free from worry about consequences and responsibilities, a purely hedonistic existence devoted to self pleasure and doing whatever feels right in the moment. He’s the distinct opposite of Paul, her boyfriend, who thinks he has to wait for exams to be over before his life can begin. But, in always focusing on the future, on checking off the next task on the road to a “happy life,” Paul is missing the journey. That’s what frustrates the Girl so much about everyone around her; it’s all about preparing for what’s next, not living in the moment.

At the end, she says that it wouldn’t be so bad to live in an amusement park, that it would be better than living in a housing project. Living in an amusement park would mean existing within an illusion, one that you choose to believe is stronger than reality. That’s essentially what the Girl does when she teams up with the Boy. She chooses to treat the whole world as an amusement park, where the people around her aren’t real; they’re just there for entertainment, and nothing has any real stakes. It’s all fun and games.

The actual murder of Paul is the moment when the Girl abandons teenage rebellion and moves full-on into an imaginary existence. From a moral standpoint, it’s wrong to kill, but the Girl exists in a delusion. To her, nothing is real and she’s not responsible. In that moment, she wants only to feel and live and isn’t thinking at all about what’s coming next. It’s a complete reversal from the life she’d been living before, and the only way to make herself not worry about the moral implications is to slip into a new identity.

Viewed on a metaphorical level, violence is the great liberator. When she vandalizes a house, the Boy claims that she’s actually doing the people inside a favor, forcing them to wake up, putting a little excitement into their boring day. That’s his only concern, excitement, and in this case, his aura of chaos rubs off on his victims. Though they may be suffering, they’re also more alive. His only concern is with disrupting ordinary existence.

The notion of fluid personality and identity is key to Morrison’s writing in this period, particularly in The Invisibles. There, King Mob and the other characters take on a variety of personas over the course of the series, and they find it liberating. They pretend to be something long enough that it becomes real, and that’s one of the key thematic points of any Morrison work. There is no line between belief and reality. If you do it, you are it. If you live like a wild rock star, and believe yourself to be that, you can become it.

It fits with what was going on in Morrison’s life at the time. He was transforming himself from the shy poet we see in Animal Man to the ultra cool rock star assassin we see in The Invisibles. For him, the transformation worked. A guy who’d never done drugs until he was thirty was suddenly viewed as the wildest, most unhinged man in comics and was living the life he’d always dreamed about.

The same thing happens to the Girl. She abandons her neuroses and fears and replaces them with a blond wig, a red dress, and a new attitude. She says “I feel like a transvestite,” emphasizing the idea that she is playing a role. This is not her natural state, but it is an identity that she can escape into for the time being. And, once in this identity, she’s no longer a powerless teenager or someone who’s just murdered her boyfriend, she’s “not real anymore. I’m just a figment of his imagination. I’m no longer responsible. And that means I can do anything.”

So, she goes out dancing and shagging and doing all the things she wasn’t supposed to do but secretly wanted to. It’s easy to draw parallels to Morrison’s own experiences at the time. His favorite drug at the time was ecstasy, and he would go out dancing, sometimes even dressing up in women’s clothing. For him, the transformative aspect is key: to live a different life, you have to become someone else. To some extent, you can even connect it to the super-hero story. The Girl’s secret identity is a typical teenager, but when she puts on her costume, she can become someone entirely different and live with reckless abandon.

From there, they meet up with a group of traveling “style terrorists,” a group that has clear parallels with characters from The Invisibles. There are characters who very closely resemble Jim Crow, de Sade, John a Dreams, King Mob, and Lord Byron. While The Invisibles presents the characters as active seekers of revolutionary change, using any-means-necessary tactics (sometimes to a fault), the group here is decidedly on the conceptual side of terrorism. They are presented as a wimpy contrast to the Boy’s seize-the-day style, all thought and no action.

Morrison is doing a meta critique of his own high-minded characters in The Invisibles, who giddily spout theory about social change and the nature of the universe that would likely seem distant and irrelevant to characters like the Girl and Boy, who are more concerned with pure experience than changing the world.

In many ways, the group is Morrison’s critique of the counterculture as just as stifling and restrictive as mainstream culture. Even though the looks are different, the adherence to certain rules of is- and is-not-acceptable is the same. These characters are all different, but their difference becomes wearying and even monotonous. The Girl says, “It’s getting harder and harder to remember what I used to be like. Things are different here on the bus.” She has moved from one set of norms to another, and even though it, at first, seems liberating, it soon becomes exhausting.

On the bus, the Girl and Boy sleep with other people and experiment sexually, but that is pure experience, it’s not love. As the Girl says, the bus is all “floating identities” and pretending, but is it possible to feel real emotion when pretending? It’s possible to experience things, to experience joy and excitement, but is it possible to connect with someone on a deeper level, to feel love?

The most sincere moment of connection we see between the Boy and Girl occurs when they’re lying on the grass, looking at the stars. She’s taken off her wig for the first time in a while and thinks back to her childhood; the life she once led floating back in as she ponders the ephemeral nature of existence. “We’re just like smoke,” she says, referencing the way that people drift through the world and disappear, leaving nary a trace.

The Boy protests, claiming “We’re nothing like smoke.” While others try to go through the world without disrupting things, he is pure chaos. He wants to leave a trail of chaos behind him, that is his legacy. The book’s ending supports both of their points. After the Boy dies, the Girl abandons the sort of life they’d been living and disowns him. He is gone from her life, just a memory that fades. But, he makes such an impact on her that, even years later, ensconced in a happy suburban life, she revives his legacy and brings a bit of chaos into her housewife world.

They both say “I love you” here, the masks slipping for a moment, but after that, it’s back to action and the desire to disrupt the world. Here, the Boy’s frustration with the style terrorists comes to the fore. For him, conceptual thinking is not enough, he needs action. The idea of a grenade pales in comparison to the real thing. He would rather do something less ambitious with tangible results than attempt the large scale projects the bus crew has in mind.

After a botched attempt to steal some cakes, the Boy and Girl find themselves on the run, and the Girl has to sacrifice her wig to secure their innocence. Reality is disrupting their fantasy, and her false identity is the price she has to pay to keep running.

The encroaching authority is reinforced by the escape scene’s juxtaposition with a sequence showing the police at her house, digging up dirt that reveals the happy suburban life her parents had been living as just as much a construction as the Girl’s new persona. Just as she built a new identity on the back of Paul’s death, their happy family came at the expense of her husband suppressing an interest in verboten pornography and her mother’s abandoned child. The Mother had to sacrifice the parts of herself that didn’t fit with the image she was trying to create, and the Boy suffered as a result.

In a sense, it’s karma; the Girl’s family sought to rid themselves of a child who would prevent them from living the happy suburban existence they hoped to have, and he wound up finding his way back as an agent of chaos, destroying the life they’d so carefully built.

For most of the book, she has been living in an illusion, one where her actions have no consequences and she can keep running without ever having to deal with what’s left in her wake. Now, things are catching up with her and she’s seeing just how hollow the counterculture group she admired is and, by extension, how insignificant what she and the Boy have done is. They talk about achieving big goals, but do nothing. She and the Boy have just been seeking pleasure and freedom but are now boxed in.

She claims, “I can hardly complain now, can I? This is what I wanted,” but that seems to be her embrace of the final stage of their chaotic, violent romp. Just like Bonnie and Clyde, they have to die to complete their transgression from society. To stop here would mean admitting that her parents were right and going back to a boring life. It would mean giving up, and she doesn’t want to do that.

Here, we find out that the Boy is, in fact, her brother. This works on a number of levels. As mentioned above, it shows that her parents’ attempts to shield her from their mistakes and give her a “normal life” backfired and wound up taking her into even crazier places. But, the story isn’t really about her parents or a parable about why you shouldn’t abandon children.

It’s more interesting in the way that it places the Boy as a direct parallel to the Girl. This is the life she could have been living the whole time. Nothing separated them but experiences and choices. They have the same genes but were living such different lives. She has the capacity to be this agent of chaos or to be an ordinary girl. It’s a choice she has to make.

It also is interesting in the context of Morrison’s fascination with the incestuous brother and sister Stargraves in The Invisibles. There, two siblings play out a relationship across multiple universes, always ending in death, gunned down by authorities who won’t let them live. In that sense, Kill Your Boyfriend could be viewed as yet another spin on the Stargrave myth; two lovers fated to be together even though they were separated at birth. The explosive climax here recalls the sequence at the start of The Invisibles #17, where the two lovers are shot down in a hail of bullets.

The Boy plummets to his death, leaving the Girl with yet another opportunity to reinvent her identity. She can choose to either continue living like an outlaw and go down with him or return to her old life, blaming everything that happened on him. She’s been playing roles for so long, it would be easy to cast herself as the victim and let the fictional self disappear and replace it with someone timid and scared, a victim.

She chooses to pull the trigger, to stay wild, but fate won’t let her. Without the Boy around, chaos has run out, and she’s destined to return to an ordinary life. We’re led to believe that she chose to embrace normality and be an obedient housewife, but that’s not exactly the case.

Hanging out with the art students, she imagines a set of identities for herself, “A page three girl… a Warhol superstar… a dyke… a housewife with a jar of rat poison.” In the end, she chooses the latter, to live within the rules of the world but still subvert them for her own gain. She’s not going to be tied down by family. She’s only playing the obedient wife. Identities are fluid, and she can just as easily shift back to chaos.

In the end, the book works as an exploration of fluid identities and chaos in a more real-world setting than The Invisibles. It’s a low-scale microcosm of much of what that work is about, without the larger scale philosophical points about the nature of good and evil. The Girl is given the same kind of choices that Jack Frost had, but rather than be morally troubled by the violence she commits, she embraces the illusion. The book never has the comedown period that the Invisibles characters must go through; it’s all joy all the time.

The book’s position on violence is troubling at times. For the Girl, it’s a liberating act, but we never really feel the consequences of what she did. The joyous sense of freedom and escape comes at the cost of feeling any sort of impact of actions. It’s very similar to the feeling of early Invisibles, when King Mob’s violence feels exhilarating and revolutionary. In the context of Morrison’s overall work in this period, this is still the ascent, the moment when the characters are discovering themselves and throwing off the shackles of boring existence. In time, consequences will start to weigh on them, and the works will become heavier. But, for now, it’s still pure exhilaration and excitement.

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1 Comment

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    I haven’t re-read KYB for a while, but I remember at the time thinking that the stylised dialogue and brother-sister revelation were, ahem, heavily influenced by Joe Orton.

    (I guess there’s a study to be made in GM’s literary swipes that he – presumably – didn’t think anyone would notice; eg the blind Maximan (?) in Zenith lifted speech patterns from a Paul Auster character from City of Glass, and the story he did with Dave McKean for DC’s Pirahna Press nicked the format of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Might there be simiilar links between New Adventures of Hitler and Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf, and Bible John and Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings?)

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