Clash of the Mythologies

I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it’s unhelpful to all of us, and it’s coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the  others, and it’s indefensible.

So I never liked that stuff, I  always thought that I had a real Scottish working class thing against the fact that these were done by privileged American college kids, and they were telling me the world was flat. “You’re telling me the world is flat, pal?” And it’s not helpful, it doesn’t get us anywhere. OK, so it is, then what? What are you going to do about it, college kid? My book wasn’t academic. I can’t take on those Comics Journal guys, they flattened me, as they did, it’s just defensive, smartass kids.

This is what I’m into, and here’s how, through my eyes, it’s exalted. You may look at the same thing and just see trash, toilet paper, I’m looking at this and seeing William Blake angels. This is how it looks through these eyes, this is all I’ve got, I can’t talk about it in half degrees, but I can talk about it in the sense of a practitioner of it, someone who has thought about it intensely for an awful long time, and again, I thought, “What can I make, a book that reads the way Nick Kent talks about music,” those guys, it at least gives you a personal  connection to someone who takes this very seriously.

— Grant Morrison, Rolling Stone interview

In “The Future of a Re-Fusion,” I dropped a few comments about how certain proponents of artcomics, such as R. Crumb and Gary Groth, had been known to toss brickbats at the mainstream in order to champion their respective tastes. Usually, when artcomics proponents put on the gloves to battle the alleged bad taste of mainstream producers and customers, they find themselves shadow-boxing, as the mainstream proponents tend to ignore the “smartass kids” and are often unaware of having been “called out.”

Morrison’s shot at Chris Ware does not, to be sure, signal a major bout between the two estranged branches of the Comics Family. Morrison’s lengthy reply addresses a Rolling Stone question as to whether there has been progress away from the notion that the comics medium ought to grow away from superheroes, which is certainly something Gary Groth has suggested as a desirable outcome. I assume that, even though Morrison does mention the Comic Journal in passing, he focuses on Ware simply because he has a genuine animus toward the “nihilism” he sees in Ware’s work.

As a statement of personal taste, there’s nothing wrong with Morrison’s opinion.  But Morrison’s screed flirts with intolerance when he states that “all that nihilistic stuff [is] unhelpful to all of us.” Sadly, this is often the way elitist critics often frame their arguments against superheroes specifically and genre-comics as a whole: in terms of what is “unhelpful” — or, more often, “useful.”

Can one conceive of art in terms of its usefulness? Oscar Wilde for one said no, averring that “All art is perfectly useless.” The opposite position was taken by the tradition of literary social realism, one that has had considerable influence upon modern elitist critics: they said that art was to be found in causing readers to recognize the ubiquity of “the real.” This is surely an overly narrow and utilitarian view of what literature can do, but Morrison’s “unhelpful” comment comes close to saying similar, particularly when one reflects on this comment from page 116 of Morrison’s Supergods:

The superheroes may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.  When the superhumans of tomorrow step dripping from their tanks, they could do much worse than to look to Superman for guidance. Superhero comics may yet find a purpose all along as the social realist fiction of tomorrow.

I can picture the critics of the Comics Journal hooting over this metaphorical flight of fancy, but it’s no daffier than the tedious Marxist agendas soberly discussed in Elitesville. Morrison’s idea of “social realism” isn’t nearly so focused on utilitarianism, of course. But it may be that he’s so concerned with getting his readers to see Blakean angels that he’s dismissed the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Different readers respond to different stimuli. Because of this irrefutable fact, the only objective statements we can make about literary taste are not universal but simply statistically widespread. We know that some readers respond favorably to exalted images of supernormal occurrences while others respond favorably to kitchen-sink realism. Even these generalizations break down under analysis: some of the latter group like a little magical realism to leaven the nihilism, and some of the former group only like heroes like Batman and can’t stand those of the Superman variety.

But as long as there is some group out there that responds to a dominant myth-theme, whether it belongs to the starry-eyed world of the supergods or the tough-minded domain of the kitchen sink, it’s never “unhelpful” for an artist to reach out to that audience.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen



  1. Great Article.

    “But it may be that he’s so concerned with getting his readers to see Blakean angels that he’s dismissed the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
    - Favorite line. Just love this.

    This is something I think a lot of people do not catch on about Morrison. He has almost completely left the world behind in favor of some deluded fanboy world of his own creation.

    To me there is something frightening about Morrison that also frightens me in characters like Michelle Bachmann or Jerry Falwell. They are so certain of these convictions they have turned away from almost anything that would cast doubt on their beliefs.

    This to me is the call of idealism and not art. What Morrison is thinly discussing above is a culture war: the “hopeful” versus the “negative”. And with his unabashedly lust after ideas like the Anti-Life Equation that he took from Kirby, it is clear which side he stands on.

    This is not art. There is nothing beautiful here.

    However, while I am not well acclimated with Chris Ware I found the page you posted of his work to be infinitely more interesting than just about any of the New 52 issues I had read so far.

    Not because it expresses a point of view, but because it is a story.

    • David Balan says:

      Morrison lacks communication skills – that’s really what I’ve found after reading a lot of his work and perusing various analyses of it, and seeing other folks’ opinions. I can tell he is very passionate about what he does, and sees a mystical dimension to all of his work, which is very important to a storyteller and it’s something many writers neglect.

      But Morrison sort of tips off the other extreme and tends to neglect making his stories applicable to the here and now – making them legible, clear, and transparent to their message.

      But I actually share some of his views about “art comics” or “high academicism” (not NEARLY as extreme) – because some art comics are obsessed with being art comics, not telling a story. That, more than anything, I find deplorable. Any art that is about just art is self-absorbed nonsense in my opinion. It’s mental masturbation. Same thing with writers and artists that attempt to be complex and symbolic for no other reason than to be complex and symbolic so people will talk about it. That’s arrogance, not storytelling.

      I suppose in the end, the middle ground is where you want to be. Extremism is easy, and it’s never the way to go. There is truth in all sides.

      • Morrison’s a genius, and I certainly don’t want to bash him. But I think you’re making a good point here about how he sometimes fails to make stories applicable. Making stories applicable to people doesn’t need to involve realism, but that’s the usual way to do it. And super-hero comics, including Morrison, have looked down on realism for 15 years. I think that’s sad and is part of the problem. That said, Morrison does smart comics that reject realism, and if they were all like his, I’d be thrilled.

        I’m with you, David, on “artcomics.” Chris Ware is brilliant. Seth is fantastic. But a lot are not any more remarkable than most super-hero fluff. They’re just trading on indy, black-and-white faux legitimacy, instead of super-hero fights.

        What I do not understand is Morrison’s point about Ware. Morrison seems to reject any kind of real-world focus as preaching from “privileged American college kids.” Which is pretty offensive, as one. Have I misread this?

  2. Kevin,
    I wouldn’t call Morrison’s world a “fanboy” one, precisely. As I interpret him, he’s interested in everything that enhances his sort of mystical vision of the world, be it drugs, meditation or superheroes. I think that view has its limitations, but then so does the “kitchen-sink” world of Chris Ware. I like his view of the world better than Ware’s, but I think as a culture we do need both of them, in one way or another.

    His comment, though, is very mild compared to the way the Elite-Comics Nazis go after the superhero fans– all in the name of “art,” they would claim.

  3. David,
    Morrison is undisciplined, but not incapable of discipline. He’ll never be a “tight” plotter, but certain works achieve your basic feeling of a resolution, even if you’re not entirely sure what all happened, as with FLEX MENTALLO and SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY. With others, like FINAL CRISIS, he seemed to lose track of the story by virtue of being so focused on his own navel. (Or maybe places more colorful than the navel.)

    Storytelling is a complex matter. A lot of modern readers wouldn’t think that 400+ pages of a ship hunting whales while the narrator talks about cetacean philosophy was a “story,” even if it does end in a big battle between the whalers and the book’s title character. But MOBY DICK is a good story; it’s just one that takes an unusual form. I’d like to think that someday people will appreciate Morrison in similar terms.

  4. Julius,
    My take is that superhero and similar fantasy comics didn’t so much put down realism as put it to one side. Most of the time there wasn’t a lot of thought about it by either the professionals or the fans. I definitely agree that Morrison has given the matter greater thought, and if I had any disappointment with SUPERGODS, it was that he didn’t touch on the “alternative scene” of comics much. He barely if ever mentions the undergrounds, and only references the EC’s in passing. I take it he just didn’t search out things like this in England; maybe for some time the superheroes were all that was readily available. I can remember my initial rejection of some of the early counterculture comics, and wondered if Morrison had a similar experience.

    Re: your question about Morrison’s logic– I would *guess* that he thinks that his response as a former denizen of the (monetary) lower classes– that he searched after visions of wonder– was more valid than the attempt of artists like Chris Ware to deny wonder; to emphasize the world of base experience. It isn’t more valid; it’s just as valid. Certainly any number of people from the lower classes have grown up satirizing high ideals, so his experience isn’t superior to theirs; just different.

    Like I said, most of the time the adherents of the superhero books don’t bother firing back at the “tony” artcomics types, so I’ve usually found myself writing essays about the intolerance of the Bloody Comic Book Elitists. This was a rare opportunity to write about intolerance in a well-known superhero-maker– though, again, Morrison’s remarks are nowhere near as filled with bile as those of the BCBE.

    • Point taken. And I’m certainly not fond of the artcomics school of elitism. Obviously enough, I hope.

      I’m still struggling with the offense Morrison takes, though. I suppose the point is that super-hero comics are mainstream, middle-class, and artcomics are elite? Well, yes, if you put it that way, sniping at super-hero comics is elite and offensive. But I don’t know many bluebloods at work in comics, in artcomics any more than in mainstream ones.

      Thanks for clarifying.

  5. Miguel Rosa says:

    I continue to scratch my head trying to understand Morrison’s point. What I get is that Morrison doesn’t think some artists should have the right to feel that the world isn’t a good, bright place. But it’s not, so why shouldn’t some artists capture that aspect of the world?

    • Yeah, it’s important to say, Grant, the world’s not a wonderful, bright place, and it’s important for art to say that. That Grant isn’t interested in doing so anymore doesn’t mean others shouldn’t.

      On the other hand, I’m with Grant saying that putting down super-hero comics is elitist and stupid. No argument there.

  6. Miguel Rosa says:

    “I definitely agree that Morrison has given the matter greater thought, and if I had any disappointment with SUPERGODS, it was that he didn’t touch on the “alternative scene” of comics much. He barely if ever mentions the undergrounds, and only references the EC’s in passing. I take it he just didn’t search out things like this in England; maybe for some time the superheroes were all that was readily available. I can remember my initial rejection of some of the early counterculture comics, and wondered if Morrison had a similar experience.”

    I’ve been re-reading Supergods, and considering that Morrison couldn’t even get the history of SUPERHERO comics right, I’m wary of him venturing into the territory of altcomics, of which he evidently knows nothing. But who knows, it could have been a hilarious trainwreck.

    I’m still laughing at his attempt at applying the Sekhmet Hypothesis to the history of comics. Supposedly the grim-and-gritty cycle started in 1977 and ended in 1988, which saw a new age of fun, colorful, traditional heroes start, before things got darker from 1999 onwards again, only for a new change to occur in 2010. And supposedly NOW we’re living a fun age of superhero comics again.

    This is ridiculous.

    The ’90s were a mere continuation of the grim-and-gritty tone set by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Why, Morrison himself had a part in the gritty comics of this period when he wrote Arkham Asylum in 1989, one year after the fun cycle allegedly started. Hilariously, he calls AA a ‘traditional’ Batman story. You rememer it, right, the book that shows Batman mutilating himself with a shard of glass? Equally absurd was his attempt to spin Stormwatch and The Authority as superhero comics that went back to basics, and not the revisionist works that we know they were. Not to mention that the ’90s saw the rise of Image.

    And then he talks about how Marvel’s Heroic Age is sign of the new cycle starting. Anyone who’s been reading Marvel knows that that was a short-lived experiment and that the MU has gone back to its bloody, messy usual status quo. And only God knows how you can fit most of the New 52 books in this cycle.

    Supergods is just not a good book. The more I think about it, the more I scrutinise it, the more it falls apart due to spin, egocentrism, poorly-backed up claims, gross omissions of historical details, corporate bias and shoddy interpretation of well-known comics. I want to like Morrison, but he makes it very difficult. Yes he does.

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