When you do research for a book, you often find yourself searching through the more obscure work of a writer or artist, naively hoping that between all the usual awkward experiments and routine exercises in craftsmanship, you’ll stumble upon a brilliant, hidden gem that you never knew existed. Perhaps that’s why I felt so giddy when I recently read Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s “A Glass of Water.” It’s the kind of story with just enough power to make you want to grab it like Gollum and never let go.
Published in 1992, “A Glass of Water” was the first story in a creator-owned, three-issue, anthology series from DC’s now defunct Piranha Press. The series was called Fast Forward, and while it was never reprinted, McKean has expressed his hope to include “A Glass of Water” in his upcoming collection, Comics that Tick 3 (McKean, “I’m hoping”). The story contains a brilliant exhibition of McKean’s experimental approach to storytelling, and it features one of the most mature and subtle scripts Morrison has ever written.
The story was Morrison and McKean’s second collaboration, appearing three years after their wildly successful Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum. That book featured an ambitious story designed to explore the psyche and symbolic power of Batman. It was published in 1989 to great fanfare and even greater sales. As Morrison relates in Supergods, the advance orders were so high that the editor, Karen Berger, called before the book was even released to tell him he was “rich” (227).
That much was true. But the notoriety and exposure of the book also proved a double-edged sword. Along with the money and sales came a nagging sense of dissatisfaction from several corners. Alan Moore, for example, praised McKean’s art but dismissed Morrison’s story entirely (Morrison, Supergods 228), and McKean himself seemed unhappy with the whole effort: “We chopped it and changed it around. It became sort of a symbolic play. We piled all this stuff on top of it, and dressed it up in its best clothes, and sent it out. Then I sat down afterwards and realized, ‘Why? Why bother? It’s such an absurd thing to do’” (McKean, “Dave McKean on”).
Morrison, who had been scrapping his way to the top of the industry off and on since 1978, seemed thrown a bit by the seemingly paradoxical financial success and negative criticism. In his now infamous “Drivel” column about Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, Morrison concludes, “If only I’d read [Superfolks] in 1978, I might have made something of my life and avoided all this pompous, pretentious Batman nonsense that’s made me a laughing-stock the world over” (qtd. in Callahan). That column, of course, is largely tongue-in-cheek, so Morrison’s irony can be hard to interpret. Is it a self-critical dismissal of the book or is it a “humble brag” reminding everyone of his success? Either way, it demonstrates the way in which Morrison was feeling defined, perhaps even trapped, by this Batman story. He would later write in Supergods that Arkham Asylum had exposed a falseness to his persona: “The accusations of pretension stung horribly. I was a working-class dropout pretending to be the art student he never was. I was full of big talk, but big talk was all I’d ever had” (228).
McKean, on the other hand, was moving on. While he would continue as cover artist for The Sandman, he was largely done with mainstream genre comics and was completely through with capes and masks: “At the end of the day, if you really love to do Batman comics, then that’s probably the best thing to do. Not liking them, and then trying to make something out of them is just a waste of time” (McKean, “Dave McKean on”). He would collaborate on two more non-genre graphic novels with Neil Gaiman, but he was otherwise moving on to his own, experimental projects like Cages, as well as doing other fine art and illustration work, film, and album covers.
Clearly, both creators walked away from their enormous success on Arkham Asylum with some degree of misgivings. Nevertheless, he and Morrison collaborated once more with “A Glass of Water,” and the result, a deceptively simple, seventeen-page story about a repressed librarian, is a minor masterpiece.
As a follow-up to Arkham Asylum, “A Glass of Water” couldn’t be more different. Arkham is notable for its Baroque style and grand gestures, and the story provides a perfect demonstration for Morrison’s special brand of religion-infused pop opera, with Batman undergoing his own twisted version of “The Passion” as if it had been recorded in some long-lost Gnostic Gospel of Artaud. In the book’s most iconic sequence, Morrison calls for Batman to pierce his hand with a shard of glass while shouting “Jesus!” perhaps for the symbolically impaired. McKean escalates the scene even further, transforming it into what Morrison would later describe, in his comments on the original script, “as an unforgettable, apocalyptic bloodletting” (Batman: Arkham Asylum, Full Script 32).
But “A Glass of Water” is different. In many ways, it reads like the work of two escapees, running away from the “asylum” but bound by straightjackets. The “story” is simple—just a dramatic monologue by a librarian, and the art is deliberately repetitive. The overall effect is so stripped down and simplified that had the story appeared three years later, following Lars Von Trier’s famous Dogme 95 Manifesto, it could’ve been called Morrison and McKean’s “Dogma” comic.
For the story, Morrison turns to his skills as a playwright, eliminating everything but the librarian’s dialogue, essentially creating a one-woman play. Unlike a “narrated comic” where a character tells a story, Morrison doesn’t put the focus on the woman’s backstory. Those details are still filtered through her monologue, but the the real story, the real drama here, is her immediate presence—her thoughts while talking to us, her pauses, her seeming non sequiturs, and her ominous plans for the future.
In the same way, McKean simplifies his approach to the art, imposing rigid limits and essentially taking the opposite approach to Arkham Asylum, which he had begun to doubt as early as 1990: “I’d really begun to think that this whole thing about four-color comics with very, very overpainted, lavish illustrations in every panel just didn’t work. It hampers the storytelling. It does everything wrong” (McKean, “Dave McKean”). So, for this re-teaming with Morrison, McKean takes a minimalist approach. He uses a rigid, unchanging, nine-panel grid for the entire story. Of those 153 images, a staggering 145 are variations of the same image—the librarian sitting at a table. The perspective is always more or less the same, and the images are all connected by moment-to-moment transitions. Each succeeding image often differs only by a turn of the librarian’s head or a shift of her hands, and McKean makes frequent adjustments to the clarity of the image and the lighting. Some of the images look like still, clear photographs, particularly when she is at her least guarded, while other images appear as only the most primitive of early pencil sketches, McKean often obscuring her just as she retreats into cliché.
Based on this description, “A Glass of Water” probably sounds almost unbearably dull, like a comic book version of one of Andy Warhol’s first experimental art films, but the combination of Morrison and McKean “unplugged” is actually quite exhilarating. The uniformity of McKean’s images demonstrates one of the ways in which extremely realistic comic art doesn’t have to be cold or distancing. By drawing our focus to the librarian’s small movements and gestures—a toss of the head or a crossing of the arms—McKean essentially gives us an actor with whom we can connect. While it takes a large number of panels to accomplish the goal, the end result is a character with as much individuality and life as one would find in a panel by an artist with a more expressive and cartoonish style like Will Eisner or Eric Powell.
And the occasional silent panels allow the reader to fully experience the necessary beats so that when Morrison has her change the subject, we feel her awkwardness and discomfort, and we “hear” her changing the subject in a way that makes her inner thoughts very transparent. From a technical standpoint, it’s a style we don’t see much of, but it’s a brilliant exhibition in minimalism and a vital element in communicating the essence of the story’s only character.
As for the writing, on the surface, the story seems like a huge departure for Morrison. Unlike most of his work, this story fits into no popular genre, and its style is unusual as well. Morrison has often criticized decompressed storytelling in comics, but it’s hard to think of anything more decompressed than a seventeen-page monologue played out in repetitive moment-to-moment transitions.
Adding to the seeming strangeness, Irene, the repressed, middle-aged librarian, doesn’t seem like a typical Morrison character. She wears a plain skirt and a long-sleeved blouse buttoned up to the neck—an outfit so out of fashion that it looks like it was lifted from the wardrobe closet on the set of Little House on the Prairie. In other words, she’s a far cry from King Mob and company. Yet, the more we get to know her, the more we start to see many of Morrison’s familiar interests. Her opening words, “People don’t understand about Romance these days” (3), sets the stage for a series of observations on the tradition of Romanticism—one of Morrison’s favorite literary periods. She tells us that she recommends Byron to many of her romance-reading patrons, quotes Shelley on the evils of marriage, wishes that she had lived in the age of Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats, and describes with a sense of awe, the details of Shelley’s death: “Washed up on the beach with a copy of Keats’ poems in his back pocket. Twenty-nine years old. That’s what I call romance” (10). And in an important moment, she explains how she first bonded with “Dennis,” a library patron, over their shared enthusiasm for Richard Holmes’s biography on Coleridge.
In addition to her interest in literary Romanticism, she also hints at a far wilder side to her personality. Having served as caretaker for her father for many years, she complains about his hogging of the record player with Jim Reeves albums, when she would’ve preferred The Rolling Stones. In fact, not only does she like the Stones, she’s hardcore about them, insisting that never liked them after the death of Brian Jones (12). She also speaks admiringly of Shelley’s notion of “free love.” However, as such ideas become more concrete, she seems out of her comfort zone, immediately clarifying that Shelley’s notion of free love is not the same as what she calls the “disgusting” kind (9).
The key part of her monologue comes when she describes her relationship with Dennis. After a slow start, the two of them begin seeing each other, and they talk at length about the John Mallais painting of Ophelia drowned in the river. In many ways, Irene actually resembles Elizabeth Siddal, the model for the painting, though McKean terms this a “happy coincidence” (McKean, “No”). Regardless, Irene is taking steps to live the kind of life she has always admired, taking more risks and embracing more opportunities.
However, her risk-taking backfires and she finds herself caught up in a scandal. While the public shame and loss of money are no doubt painful, it seems that the most painful aspect has been the fact that she finally tried to move out of her repressed life and met with failure. It’s unusual for a Morrison protagonist to confront complete and total failure, but by the end of the story, Irene is planning her suicide, carefully orchestrating the details in one final effort, like Shelley, to inspire others to say, “It was very Romantic” (19).
For two creators each working to alter their career trajectory, the story is a sobering reminder that real change always comes with the risk of failure. Even though the word “Realism” had been tossed around routinely to describe the mainstream comics of the late eighties, those stories rarely approached the traditional, nineteenth-century notion of Realism in the way this story does. For all the brilliance in Arkham Asylum, it’s not exactly a documentary record of the treatment of the mentally ill. “A Glass of Water,” however, takes a character being treated by a psychiatrist, and makes it real. This is what damaged people look like in the real world. It’s a side of Morrison’s writing that we have only rarely seen. In place of hipsters, punks, and counter-cultural heroes, he gives us a conservative, repressed, middle-age librarian living her own life of “quiet desperation.” Yet, Morrison sees her potential. Her overly prescribed lifestyle may be slowly killing her, but Morrison sees her wild Romantic spirit trapped inside like a latent superpower.
Just as Irene recognizes that she needs to change her life, Morrison was in the process of changing his own. In fact, when he describes himself during the 1990s, his self-perception could just as easily apply to Irene: “Having missed out on the tilt-a-whirl of teenage life, I was tormented by regrets. I felt my own life had grown stale and repetitive. My own personality seemed crudely fashioned, and often ill-fitting. I was thoroughly sick of chronic vague depression” (Supergods 253). In addition to his many well-documented lifestyle changes, a good portion of Morrison’s comics work became more esoteric during this period, beginning with “St. Swithin’s Day” (1989) and running through The Mystery Play (1994). But nothing he wrote went quite as far in that direction as “A Glass of Water.”
The story offers a clear reminder that the most persistent motif in Morrison’s work is not really all of the post-modernist elements, surrealism, or hallucinatory visions. Nor is it superpowers, the 5th Dimension, or the complex nature of time. Instead, it’s the personal element. Morrison is an autobiographer of sorts, as deeply personal and self-revealing in his own way as Robert Crumb or Harvey Pekar. It’s in every phase of his career, from his earliest writings through his most iconic works. It even takes over his non-fiction book, Supergods. Almost everything he writes, from a seemingly throwaway Doctor Who story to his magnum opus, The Invisibles, becomes a venue for exploring his life and his sense of self. And here, against all odds, the brash, young, punk-rock playing, chaos-magic wielding, Scottish writer finds a way to inhabit the soul of a repressed, middle-aged, female librarian. A great writer can see a lot from the reflection in a simple glass of water.
Callahan, Timothy. “Morrison’s ‘Drivel,’ By Popular Demand.” GeniusboyFiremelon, GeniusboyFiremelon. 10 Aug. 2009. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
McKean, Dave. “Dave McKean on Arkham Asylum and Cages.” Interview. Comics Career 2.1 (1990). Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
—. “I’m hoping to reprint my story with Grant Morison in Pictures That Tick 3.” 4 Feb. 2013. 9:57 a.m. Tweet.
—. “No not really, a happy coincidence by the sounds of it.” 5 Feb. 2013. 6:27 p.m. Tweet.
Morrison, Grant. Supergods. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Print.
Morrison, Grant (w), and Dave McKean (a). Batman: Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition. New York: DC Comics, 2004. Print.
—. “A Glass of Water.” Fast Forward #1 (1992), Piranha Press [DC Comics]: 3-19.