It’s long been no secret, to those who paid attention, that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison — arguably the medium’s two most influential writers — don’t get along. But it’s been a slow simmer of a feud, known mostly to scholars and die-hard fans but rarely exploding the way it has recently.
It began with Pádraig Ó Méalóid writing a rather important and well-written series of three articles for Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat. Pádraig was mostly focused on trying to sort out, once and for all, the longstanding issue of whether Moore had in fact borrowed from Superfolks, the 1977 novel by Robert Mayer that prefigures revisionism. After examining the evidence, Pádraig exonerates Moore of everything but perhaps borrowing a single plot element for his “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
In his third installment, Pádraig turns to Grant Morrison, who seems to have been the source of the Superfolks allegation against Moore. Pádraig briefly gets into their feud, including the famous story of Moore rejecting Morrison’s script for Marvelman. Pádraig offers some sensible and fair thoughts there, based on the evidence he presents.
Lots of people read these articles, including Grant Morrison — who himself responded. To their credit, the Beat allowed him to do so, with Pádraig’s consent. The result is a lengthy piece, in which Morrison corrects several matters and comes off, I think, rather well. To his credit, Morrison says he likes Moore’s work, though not Moore’s attitude towards other creators. But Morrison is quite insistent on a couple points: (1) his own career parallels Moore’s, not comes after it, so he (a) was never some Moore clone and (b) doesn’t owe his career to Moore’s stated largess at suggesting Morrison to DC’s Karen Berger. Morrison also insists that (2) while he might have shown his diversity, early in his career, by fulfilling what he thought was publisher’s expectation of a Moore-esque style, he’s never plagiarized Moore or anyone else. And if you want to make simplistic cases for plagiarism, based on a few elements or plot devices, Morrison’s presents his own tongue-in-cheek alternate history of borrowings, in which Moore’s the one following Morrison’s ideas.
Now, I’m glad all of this is on the record, and I think The Beat (including Pádraig and Laura Sneddon, who posted Morrison’s response) as well as Morrison have done comics scholarship a real service here. Kudos all around.
However, seeing as how Sequart’s documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods was quoted in the piece, I feel compelled to respond. And I can’t help but feel, as a literary historian and not a comics creator or reporter, like a little bit of cold water could be thrown on the whole matter if we apply a bit of literary criticism.
Both the Superfolks issue and the whole Moore / Morrison feud, beyond the personality issues, revolve around the concept of borrowing or plagiarism. Moore’s said that Vertigo, and the mature-readers comics that preceded it, seem to be based on his work. He’s taken a lot of the credit — or the blame — for the whole “dark realism” of revisionism. And Pádraig quotes Moore saying that Morrison’s work seems to be more than a little influenced by Moore’s own work — and that of Michael Moorcock.
(Incidentally, it’s not only Morrison who’s made the Superfolks charge against Moore. Its author, Robert Mayer, has happily repeated it, including on Amazon.com, presumably to sell more books.)
Here, we must understand that, in literature and all of art, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas. All the great writers did it, but they go off in different directions, making the resulting work their own. Anyone who’s spent any time seriously studying Shakespeare or Milton knows how they borrowed from and transformed the work of their predecessors.
This is all rather old hat. Harold Bloom’s famous 1973 The Anxiety of Influence spelled the process out for everyone who followed, but the basic concept of such artistic borrowings has been known since prehistory. Even religions have been cobbled together from other sources. Virgil responds to Homer, Dante to Virgil, Milton to Dante, and Gaiman to Milton. Look at how many times ancient Greek stories have been rewritten, always reflecting their current author’s own concerns and own era. There’s nothing new or controversial about any of this.
What’s really odd about people in comics not getting this is that corporate super-hero comics do this all the time. New writers pick up ideas or plots or characters from past ones, and they transform them, or see new implications in them, or even just retell the same stories in updated form. No one thinks Ultimate Spider-Man “ripped off” Lee and Ditko’s original work. Or that killing off any super-hero’s love interest is a “rip off” of Gwen Stacy’s death. American super-hero comics are based on borrowing. But really, all stories are, in all genres. Music and fine art too.
It’s a good thing that artists have influences. They feed an artist’s work and keep it from stagnation. It’s only when an artist seems to be aping someone else, especially over protracted periods, that there’s room for legitimate criticism.
The terms we use for borrowings matter. For example, plagiarism is one of the most serious terms and applies to taking another’s text, artwork, or ideas with little adaptation — and importantly, without attribution.
Plagiarism is theft, but it’s different than the legal standard of copyright infringement. Copyright applies only to particular expressions, not ideas for a story. Plagiarism is more broad, in this respect, and professors have been dismissed for simply rephrasing someone else’s paragraph without acknowledgement.
On the other hand, this acknowledgement is key in plagiarism, but it doesn’t really apply to copyright infringement. If you take someone else’s writing and put your name on it, that’s both copyright infringement and plagiarism. But if you publish it with the author’s name, you’re actually not plagiarizing – you never claimed it was yours. You are potentially violating the author’s copyright, however.
Copyright infringement also has lots of exceptions, such as using extracts for satirical or critical purposes. You can’t put someone’s face on your billboard, as if they’re endorsing your product, but you can make a caricature of it for a political cartoon. And you can’t stick some lines of a novel into yours, but you can for the purposes of a review or an analytic text.
It’s best to think of the two as operating in two completely different worlds. Plagiarism is part of a code of intellectual honesty; it’s the stuff of internal university hearings. Copyright infringement is part of a legal code; it’s the stuff of court cases. The two are similar, but they belong to different realms.
Now, to my knowledge, no one’s talking about plagiarism or copyright infringement in this case, outside of perhaps a few fans. But that’s not the point. The point is that anything that fails to meet these bar is simply a borrowing.
No, ideas like “a hero’s behind it all!” isn’t an idea, for the purposes of plagiarism. Nor is “a super-hero utopia” or “a metafictional detective story.” Those are elements that can be legitimately borrowed. Naturally, one hopes an author credits his or her influences. But if not, even if the source of that borrowed element is conclusively proven, it doesn’t amount to anything but bad form — and potentially catching an author in a lie. Shame may result, but it’s not really theft. It’s perfectly legitimate borrowing, and if it weren’t, no one would write anything for fear someone, somewhere, may have had the idea first.
Of course, especially in the West, we have this rather odd cult of artistic originality, in which we usually praise whoever did something first — even when we don’t like it, or the people who came after perfected the idea and did it better. That’s a little strange, when you think about it.
Just look at the words we use to describe artists: words like “new,” “different,” “original,” and “unique.” Those are good qualities, to be sure; any form of art dies if it’s stagnant. But none of those words necessarily indicates quality. A Green Lantern comic in which all of the characters speak ancient Greek for no reason might be “different” and “unique” too — but it’s a pretty crappy story. Surely, if we’re honest with ourselves, we also want stories to be well-crafted, to be balanced in pacing and structure, to foreshadow well but without being obvious, and to follow through on their implications, rather than throwing out a clever idea without having the courage or intelligence to explore it. These are all criteria at least as important as any simplistic understanding of “originality.” Put another way, exploring an idea someone else originated, in a new context or in a fuller and more considered way, is just as original as coming up with that idea in the first place.
This is why, for example, an off-hand remark by a character with fascinating implications isn’t a story. The later writer who explores those implications, weaving a careful and moving tale around them — he’s the one we end up celebrating and rereading.
A lot of times we get preoccupied with who’s borrowed a plot element, as if that’s a quest that, pursued fully, wouldn’t ultimately lead back to prehistory and evolutionary circumstances. It’s not a useless quest, by any means, and it’s good to chart and to think about. But using it as a “gotcha” game, to denigrate one creator or another, is a silly — and actually rather anti-literary — business.
That’s not to say originality doesn’t matter. No one is in favor of actual rip offs, and all of us — including me — place a high value on originality. But those who do so responsibly have, since at least Bloom’s 1973 book, understood that originality isn’t an avoidance of influence or of elements that anyone has used before. That would be impossible, and we probably wouldn’t like the artistic results! Rather, the goal is to recast what’s been done before in a strong and unique way — to take things in a different direction or simply further, and to do so in a way that is artistically coherent and says new things, despite its Frankenstein-like origins of borrowed parts.
Consider Superfolks — a great novel, in my estimation, although it’s certainly uncontrolled, precisely as Pádraig points out. But it’s satirical, an utterly different beast form Moore’s Marvelman. MAD magazine’s “Superduperman” (which Moore has always pointed to, as a source for Marvelman) was satirical too. What Marvelman (which I’ve written a lot about) did was take these observations, about how these super-heroes didn’t make sense or could just as easily go in other directions, and take them out of the realm of satire, using them instead as fuel for a rather gripping drama.
Whether Moore knew Superfolks, or to what extent, is important to document if we can. Pádraig Ó Méalóid has done comics a service in looking at this. We may well be writing academic dissertations on the subject for centuries. But the two works are completely different beasts, and this would be the case even if the superficial similarities were striking — and they’re not.
Hypothetically, even if every single element of Marvelman could be tracked back to one satirical super-hero piece or another, this still wouldn’t constitute theft by any meaningful definition of the term. To remix and fuse all those elements into a whole with a new tone of stark realism would itself be original. And it’s this tone, more than any single element or idea, that was Marvelman‘s great innovation.
Just to be fair, consider The Matrix, which Morrison has alleged was borrowed heavily from The Invisibles. There, the similarities are much clearer — especially with Morrison’s fashion-obsessed killer King Mob and the action-oriented Invisibles, Volume Two. But The Invisibles isn’t a Hollywood action flick in tone. King Mob is balanced by a team of different personalities, whose very different histories and viewpoints are explored. In The Matrix, all the heroes are King Mobs. Even the cool-looking, fashion-obsessed element works very differently: King Mob and Neo might both wear shades indoors, but King Mob wears many outfits and stands out, whereas all the heroes of The Matrix were the same outfits, thus representing a cooler-looking form of conformity.
Both works share the idea that the universe is an illusion, and both have characters use who can switch bodies (although both these ideas have long literary roots). But The Matrix uses the illusory nature of reality to tell a Terminator-esque story about machines taking over humanity. In The Invisibles, illusion is just as “real” as anything, but The Matrix staunchly prefers reality — even though that reality completely sucks. In The Invisibles, switching bodies and personalities is about the malleability of identity, which is supposed to be inspiring, encouraging readers to be whatever they want to be. In The Matrix, this idea means anyone but the protagonists can get taken over by an evil machine at any moment. The Invisibles is all about deconstructing the false dichotomy of “us vs. them,” showing us how faceless goons are human too, and King Mob repents his killing ways. The Matrix is totally “us vs. them” — so much so that it justifies killing civilians because they could be possessed. It’s not too much so that The Invisibles offers a kind of inoculation against this exact kind of thinking.
So The Matrix might borrow some elements from The Invisibles, but it’s a totally different thing. And to his credit, Morrison’s said (including in our documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods) that he’s overcome his negative feelings about the matter, and he doesn’t seem to press the issue much in interviews anymore.
(In this comparison of The Invisibles and The Matrix, I owe a debt to our forthcoming book by Tom Shapira, which might not agree with my conclusion that The Matrix isn’t plagiarized, but whose analysis of The Matrix and Morrison’s work is the best I’ve ever read.)
With this framework of how literary borrowings work, let’s turn to Grant Morrison’s work.
Morrison acknowledges, in his response to The Beat, that he adopted the style of others, earlier in his career:
Doing my own approximation of the “in” style to get gigs on Marvel UK books was, I thought, a demonstration of my range, versatility and adaptability to trends, not the declaration of some singular influence it has subsequently been distorted into over four decades.
That’s all entirely reasonable. When a writer joins the writing staff of a TV show, they’re expected to make their work jibe with everyone else’s. It’s a good writer who knows a magazine or a website’s audience and adapts accordingly. That’s a sign of intelligence and versatility, not any lack of originality.
Tim Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years (the first book ever published about Morrison, also published by Sequart) addresses this very point. It acknowledges that Morrison’s first four issues of Animal Man feel influenced by Moore, and it points out that this was probably due to DC wanting material in a similar vein. But Animal Man #5 (“The Coyote Gospel”) comes across as a revelation, and afterward no one could confuse it for the writing of Alan Moore. It’s quintessentially Grant Morrison.
In the appendix to Callahan’s book, he addresses some of Morrison’s earlier work, where Morrison’s influences may be more strongly felt. But even there, Callahan finds that the work reflects themes and concerns that would occupy Morrison’s later work. In other words, they’re still Grant Morrison.
Morrison ably defends that later work from Moore’s assertions. He shouldn’t need to. There’s nothing substantial of Moore in any of it. The absurdity of Doom Patrol is almost utterly foreign to Moore’s oeuvre, as Callahan points out. The Invisibles doesn’t show a trace of Moore. Morrison’s bright JLA was almost the opposite of Moore’s celebrated super-hero work. There’s no Moore in New X-Men either, nor The Filth. If there’s anything of Moore in All Star Superman or Batman, it’s only because everything in the entire history of those characters feels like it’s in there somewhere. And I defy you to explain how Seaguy or Happy! is in any meaningful way derivative of Alan Moore.
As Morrison points out, it’s not fair to generalize about an entire career based on, say, four issues of Animal Man. That’s a rather silly business, and it really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
In his interviews and his writings, Moore makes a great many points about a great many things, which continue to inspire me personally. Maybe his statements about Morrison are meant to be taken half-seriously, or as in-kind retaliation for what a young Morrison once said, tongue in cheek, about Moore and Superfolks. Moore certainly brought up those charges, before making his comments about Morrison. I don’t know. I do know that neither claim of plagiarism has any real merit. They’re both as silly as the other.
If anything, I’d argue that Moore has most influenced Morrison in opposition. Morrison’s said many times that his response to Watchmen was negative, and it helped him go in the opposite direction. Instead of gritty realism, Animal Man ended with hope and metafiction. Doom Patrol went deep into the absurdity of super-heroes. JLA is about as opposed to Watchmen as anything could get. If there’s a case to be made for Moore’s continued influence on Morrison, it’s for pushing Morrison to define himself on his own terms, to refuse to labor in Alan Moore’s shadow.
Even in his self-styling as a bald-headed rock star, Morrison couldn’t be more different than Moore.
There’s one final irony in all of this. Moore’s often said that he didn’t want people to copy Watchmen by writing more grim-and-gritty super-hero stories. He wanted people instead to innovate, the way Watchmen had innovated. Morrison’s done that.
That’s how the anxiety of influence is supposed to work — to spur others to do better and to beat the influential works preceding theirs. Whether you think Morrison’s accomplished that, or you personally prefer Moore’s work, there’s no question that Morrison refuses to be in anyone’s shadow.
Next time, with this silliness out of the way, I’ll look at how the real issue is a battle over comics history. And how Karen Berger gets marginalized in that history.