Romantic Reflections in “A Glass of Water”:

Morrison and McKean Unplugged

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.

Works Cited

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.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Tom Murphy says:

    It’s probably worth flagging up that the distinctive tone and narrative approach of ‘A Glass of Water’ owe almost everything to Talking Heads, a series of television monologues written by Alan Bennett and broadcast by the BBC to universal acclaim in 1988 (a second series followed some years later). Several featured middle-aged women reflecting on their lives, and even the titles have similar cadences: ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, ‘A Chip in the Sugar’, ‘A Bed Amongst the Lentils’. I’d guess they’re on YouTube.

    I’ve been a fan of Morrison since Zenith and Doom Patrol, but he does have a bit of previous for recycling literary inspirations that he probably assumed most of his audience wouldn’t recognise, like the Paul Auster swipe for Maximan’s speech patterns and the Orton-tinged bits of Kill Your Boyfriend.

    Mike Moorcock said of him: “GM is one of those who, when you come home, is standing at the fire escape window carrying out your TV. When you confront him he grins uneasily and says ‘You have a great taste in TVs, man.’”

    • Tom, that’s fascinating. Thanks for sharing and I will definitely try to look those up. It’s always helpful to see the chain of thought behind a story.

      Let me also say, though, that I’ve never been all that interested in “flagging” every source of inspiration or influence as a taint on someone’s reputation. Assuming Morrison was familiar with the series, is there really anything untoward about thinking, “Man, I oughtta write a comic book story like one of those Alan Bennett monologues. That’s the sort of story we need.” Isn’t that how most things get started? Virtually everything has antecedents, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Moreover, if we start discounting everything that has a “close” antecedent, we’re not going to have anything left.

      What ultimately seems important to me are the choices involved. The fact that Morrison decided to write something with a different tone from Arkham Asylum is a choice. The fact that he decided to lace the story with allusions to Shelley and the other Romantics is a choice. The fact (okay, my theory) that he worked to find himself in the soul of this repressed, middle-aged woman is a choice. These types of choices are the things that we revere our writers and artists for.

      Does this mean that plagiarism and swiping aren’t important? Not at all. In fact, if there is one of these monologues that focuses on a repressed woman who talks at length about Shelley and the other Romantic poets and tries to tap into her own Romantic spirit, then I think we might have a problem.

      By the way, I hope the tone of this response doesn’t come across as combative. I really appreciate the reference to the Bennett monologues. But, at least at first glance, I see them as a way of enhancing one’s appreciation for this particular story rather than a justification for discrediting it.

  2. Tom Murphy says:

    Hi Greg – thanks for the response, and no combativity detected!

    Of course every writer brings a lifetime of influences – both conscious and subconscious – to everything they produce. And the fact that Grant Morrison had/has a wider range of references than the majority of his peers enriches his work no end. That’s a big part of what made it so appealing to me (especially Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, around the time I was autodidactically devouring my way through all the culture I could. Go Chorley Library!)

    But despite the individual aspects Morrison and McKean bring to it, I’m still not convinced that ‘A Glass of Water’ escapes the shadow of Talking Heads. As affecting as the story is, the narrative form, the tone and even the narrator’s verbal rhythm are so tightly identified with Bennett (in the UK, at least) that its hard to read it as more than a cover version, rather than something with its creators’ distinct voice and vision. That’s why I found it so disappointing when I picked up Phobias all those years ago.

    (But, of course, none of this is intended to detract from your astute analysis of where it sits in Morrison’s bibliography and how it relates to the work around it.)

    Take care – Tom M

  3. Tom W says:

    Never read A Glass Of Water, always intended to track it down. I’ve just written about another of Grant Morrison’s idiosyncratic works from this period, Bible John, at my blog, and it’s another one that’s good, that’s interesting, but that’s very directly influenced by a literary source. In that case it’s Iain Sinclair, and Morrison does a fine job of recreating his techniques, walking the murder ground and bringing in all kinds of crazy evidence. But, as Tom Murphy says about A Glass Of Water, if you know the influences all you’re seeing is an adept translation of them into a different medium. In that respect I think Morrison’s ill served by academic attention because it’s too easy to play spot-the-steal, when these comics were written at a time when the medium was in churn and everything seemed allowable.

    (Another steal I’m not sure has been noted elsewhere is the authorial appearance in Animal Man coming straight from Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, a book I know Morrison admires because I saw him talk about it in a documentary about Scottish literature…)

  4. Tom W, thanks for your comments and for sharing your link on Bible John. As I suggested in my earlier comments, I’m honestly not that troubled about Morrison’s sourcing for his stories, or his “steals” as you put it. This “spot the steal” tradition was influential for a long time in academia, but I think we’re moving beyond it. Or at least we should be.

    When we place the greatest priority on “originality” in judging works of art, I fear that we create a number of problems. Put simply, almost nothing is really original. As we all learned in high school, virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays are re-workings of pre-existing plays or narratives. Opera survives almost entirely on the basis of adaptation. In fact, almost any work carries with it layer upon layer of influence.

    I’m reminded of the way that African-American literature was treated by the establishment for more than a century. During that time, whenever something from an African-American writer was scrutinized, the work was ultimately “dismissed” as a copy of something that had already been done by Western authors. Words like “imitating” or even the more ghastly and racist “aping” found their way into the professional journals and classrooms of the time.

    Finally, in 1988, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote The Signifyin(g) Monkey, a book which connected a folk tradition of trickster tales and signifying monkey tales with a street tradition of verbal games and rhetorical flourishes, commonly labeled as “signifyin’.” Gates argued that what many African-American artists were actually doing was not “ripping off” or “imitating” white authors, but rather “repeating” certain tropes or themes with a “signal difference,” much like the characters in the folk tales. In other words, Gates demonstrated that they were “interpreting” things, not “stealing.” The hip-hop tradition of “sampling” has its roots in this same practice.

    This is how disempowered classes often engage, rhetorically. For instance, imagine a slave on a Southern plantation, surrounded by stories from the Western religion of his or her owners. What does that slave do? He or she takes the basic stories from the master’s religion and repeats them, but with a difference. That’s how you get something like “Go Down Moses.” In the song, Moses is no longer just the “lawgiver.” He’s now the “deliverer” from slavery. The “signal difference” is interpretation, and that’s where the art comes from.

    Put more simply, what we really enjoy is not when an artist has a truly original idea. That almost never happens. Instead, what we really enjoy is how that artist “plays” with things that already exist. That’s where the fun begins.

    For example, when Andy Griffith died, Jerry Seinfeld tweeted that when the Seinfeld characters greeted each other with “Hey Kramer” or “Hey Elaine,” they were paying homage to the “Hey Andy” and “Hey Gomer” greetings from The Andy Griffith Show. But Seinfeld took it a step further, changing the greeting for the hated character, Newman, to a formal, drawn out, “Hello . . . Newman.” The line always got a laugh because it played with the existing tradition. Does it make it less funny if we know about the original homage?

    Do we dismiss Watchmen for “stealing” its plot from Superfolks, its characters from Charlton, and its ending from The Outer Limits? I would hope not. Writers and artists “steal” in this way all the time. Always have, always will. But over time we come to realize that there’s a difference between plagiarism and the act of reassembling pre-existing elements in order to create something new.

    Most of us who follow comics often sneer at the idea that DC sued Fawcett Comics over Captain Marvel. We see all the things that make Captain Marvel unique and special, and we see the ways in which the character differs fundamentally from Superman. But was Captain Marvel a “steal” from DC’s Superman? Of course it was. So was DC’s own Batman and Wonder Woman. So was Captain America.

    George Lucas also sued the producers of the original Battlestar Galactica. Today, such a charge seems silly, because most of the things Lucas was objecting to have gradually become the accepted elements of science fiction filmmaking. And besides that, what was Star Wars but a “steal” of King Arthur, Flash Gordon, Tolkien, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, and Leni Riefenstahl?

    Do we dismiss William Faulkner for “stealing” stream of consciousness from James Joyce? What would Catcher in the Rye be without Huckleberry Finn? Is The West Wing a bad television show because Sorkin himself had already done much the same thing in The American President? Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out are no less brilliant, simply because each borrows elements from Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

    Pardon me if I sound like I’m ranting, but this is fundamental to me and it reaches far beyond just the career of Grant Morrison. When we build up originality as the pinnacle of artistic achievement, we turn all our artists into the equivalent of Oz, hiding his secrets behind the curtain for fear of being exposed as a fraud.

    One of the nice things about a lot of comics creators is that they tend to be more open and transparent about their influences than some other writers. Diverse creators including Spiegelman, Miller, Moore, Gaiman and Morrison have all been refreshingly forthcoming about their influences. It would be a shame if they all felt like they had to hide behind the curtain.

  5. Tom W says:

    I’m with you on originality in art, and I’ve been careful to say I don’t consider Grant Morrison’s steals or borrowings to be plagiarism when I’ve written about his work. Zenith was quite consciously a blend of what Morrison liked best about Paradax and Marvelman, with the hero then run through the traditional superhero tropes, but it was entirely original. Animal Man’s ending was indebted to Lanark but dealing with a character in a shared universe makes it entirely different to Gray’s apologies to his own protagonist. And though Morrison takes the structure of Rogan Gosh for Flex Mentallo, he arguably makes much better use of it in examining his own and society’s relationship with comics and heroes. I think those un embarrassed uses of influence are one of the this that’s kept Morrison’s work fresh over a quarter of a century.

    But there can be occasions where the influence overshadows what’s done with it. I liked Bible John, I think it’s a valuable piece of work and I’d like to see it reprinted. Once you’re aware of the work of Iain Sinclair, though, it’s impossible not to see it as Sinclair in comics. It’s extremely well executed and the switch of medium gives it strengths that Sinclair’s work can’t have, but it’s the same toolbox applied to a like subject. That knowledge unavoidably lessens the work, just as Tom Murphy says A Glass Of Water is reduced because it’s so evidently Talking Heads in comics. It doesn’t mean either are invalid or that Morrison needs to confess to plagiarism live on Oprah – both were produced at a time when comics present quickly receded into history and such experiments seemed absolutely allowable and worthwhile – but it’s more than just a case of noting influences.

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