Grant Morrison:

From the Asylum to the Star

Grant Morrison has been one of the three most influential writers working in mainstream comics over the last 20 years (the other two being Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman). Since Timothy Callahan has mostly devoted his Sequart writing to Morrison’s early work, it would be redundant to provide a list of the books he has produced during that period, but it is worth noting that while he has been working on the fringe of established genres (see The Filth, The Invisibles or Flex Mentallo), he has also written highly visible and successful series using some of Marvel and DC’s most recognizable characters, namely the X-Men and the Justice League of America. While he was perceived for a long time as an edgy and risky writer, he is now among the true stars of the medium.

His career is also interesting as a symptom of more general trends in the industry, and especially, since it has been his main theme, about the industry’s attitude towards super-heroes. Morrison’s first major super-hero work was Arkham Asylum, (following his already interesting but not-yet-groundbreaking Animal Man). One of his latest is the ongoingAll-Star Superman, and it could not be more different. Yet, being focused on DC’s most iconic characters, they share a similar sub-text, a definition in progress of what super-hero narratives can and should be. From 1989 to 2008, this definition has undergone considerable changes, and Morrison has definitely played a part in these.

Arkham Asylum came out after Watchmen and especially The Dark Knight Returns. It shows. It was also written while Morrison was in the process of transforming Animal Man from a happily forgotten generic super-hero into a fascinating meta-narrative tale. This shows as well.

The plot?

The inmates of the asylum, super-villains actually, have taken control of the place. They have hostages, and they want Batman sent in. The Joker appears to be running the revolt, and he confronts Batman, underlining the closeness between the super-hero and his super-enemies, while they are all locked within the Asylum.

A thin plot, to which Morrison and painter Dave McKean bring a lot of depth. The story and the art are conceived as collages, bringing together pictorial influences, psychoanalytical considerations, and numerous strands of narratives. The whole point of the book is to present Batman and the Joker as mirror images (and of course Two-Face is in there too, in case the point was missed), lunatics disguising themselves as knight and martyr to avoid facing their true selves. Detailed and erudite analyses of this theme have been made,[1] demonstrating that Morrison and McKean did not just sprinkle their narrative with suggestive details, but actually created a whole architecture of Christian insanity. This in an impressive feat, but that feat does not appear utterly relevant. Staging a psychoanalysis of fictional characters is something critics do when their aim is to display their own skill instead of passing judgment on the work they’re dealing with. This is also done by academics who seek to exemplify the relevance of their pet intellectual system. Whatever its value, this is an outsider approach to the work considered.

Case in point: remove Batman and the Joker from the narrative, replacing them with less colourful characters, and the psychoanalytical elements in the story would still work, thanks in a great part to McKean’s mastery of his art. The super-heroes do bring in a set of symbols (as seen in the early, text-less pages of the book) and a pre-defined background, but this only saves time and does not radically alter the story. Arkham Asylum‘s main protagonist turns out to be Arkham himself, founder of the asylum, who left a magical and corrupting imprint on the place. When you try to bring in Kafka and Lewis Carroll, it does not leave much room for Bob Kane.

page from Arkham Asylum

Batman cuts himself. From Arkham Asylum.

Completing these psycho-literary elements, another sub-text is present in Arkham Asylum, which has not received as much attention as the former: that of Batman as a comic book super-hero. Obviously, this works together with the hero as martyr as lunatics as Christ; there is more to it.

Two sequences in particular introduce Batman as a classical super-hero: bleak skyline, bat-signal, discussion with Gordon… these are shown using black and white vertical strips, a style not used anywhere else in the story. They stand both thematically and graphically, even more so since in between those vertical strips, the main story continues, with its vibrant colours and enigmatic visual elements. The most distinguishable elements of any generic Batman story are thus treated as external elements, which do not belong in the narrative. The black and white emphasize this displacement, since it makes them appear both as sketches and as old newsreels. Both interpretations suggest their irrelevance, further underlined by the fact that while theses two sequences are designed as an introduction and conclusion respectively (Batman called into the asylum, Batman coming out), they do not open nor conclude the story. Later, it appears that Batman himself is slowly drained page after page, until he is on the verge of disappearing. The story is dominated by two madmen, Arkham, the founder of the asylum, and the Joker, and together, they squeeze the super-hero out of existence, just as Kafka and Carroll squeezed the super-hero genre out of the book. Another example: what would a Batman story be without some hand to hand fight in dark shadows? Morrison knows that and inserts such a passage but also makes sure to neutralise it, to reduce it to a pure cliché. In a long sequence, Batman is thrown through a window, barely manages not to fall off a balcony, fights against Croc and finally “slays” him. All along the sequence, a voice-over comments: “I must go alone to the dark tower…and face the dragon…the world explodes…there is nothing to hold onto,” etc. Typically, the kind of self-analysis you would expect from the character, especially if you have read The Dark Knight Returns. Except this voice-over is not Batman’s. It belongs to Arkham (although that’s easy to miss when you read it first), and it deals with his attempt to come to terms with his mother’s death. Thus, the super-hero routine is reduced to background noise, so codified it can be included without any comment or explanation, while the real struggle takes place in the head of a long dead madman. This passage also denies any reading of Batman as a crusading knight (and once more, this was after The Dark Knight Returns), and this denial is all the more effective since, at first glance, this sequence could be read as reinforcing the identification of the Batman-Croc showdown with a conflict between knight and dragon. By assigning this interpretation to a madman, Morrison neutralises it and effectively de-mythologizes Batman.

This is also one of the most effective sequences in the book.

Thus, Arkham Asylum is about defining the super-hero from without. Cornering him out of existence by denying his purity, his effectiveness, his voice, and even his shape, reducing Batman to a black shape, existing as a minimal difference with the dark background. Morrison has stated that “people who don’t read comics regularly seemed to really enjoy the book.”[2] This should not come as a surprise since Arkham Asylum tries its best to be a serious work, using a complex structure and established references to reduce its comic book elements to a minimum, to that blank and almost disappearing shape which stands for Batman. It is painfully obvious that the book’s creators try to develop the genre by getting rid of it, turning capes into three-dimensional characters and the four-colour comic into a fascinating collage. Quick anecdote: I wrote a dissertation about modern super-heroes a few years ago, from Watchmen to The Authority, and asked some friends who did not read comics to proofread it for me. The one work they expressed some interest in reading was Arkham Asylum, even though I had done my best to present what I felt were the flaws of the book. Dave McKean famously acknowledged that it did not work, eventually. A psychoanalytical drama worked best if it did not contain super-heroes in the first place. Arkham Asylum has been recognized as a landmark of the genre, but it denies all validity to the code of this genre. Expanding super-hero comics into high art was a brave attempt, but also a failed one.

All-Star Superman takes the opposite stand. This is a series where the super-hero does not have anything like a psychology. He is, quite simply, a function and a costume. No wonder then Lois Lane is unable to accept the fact that he has been impersonating Clark Kent all along (obviously not the other way round), no wonder that she is unable to distinguish between the real Superman and a robot that simply looks like him (All-Star Superman #2).

Compare, for instance, the origin sequences in Arkham Asylum and All-Star Superman. These sequences are one of the defining features of the super-hero genre, and especially crucial since they keep being re-drawn and re-written, as they evolve with the heroes themselves. Arkham Asylum dwells heavily on Batman’s traumatic birth, and even confronts him with a psychotherapist who tries to help him come to terms with his parents’ death. His dressing as a bat is described as a symptom of his madness, not a logical reaction to the violent crime. The link between this traumatic origin and his function as super-hero is severed, or is about to be, and Batman has to mutilate himself with a shard of glass in order to be able to function, to focus on his self-assigned task and not on his mental state. In All-Star Superman, there is logic, there is order, a straight line from Kal-el to Superman, as exemplified by the brilliant opening. “Doomed planet”, “Desperate scientist”, “Last hope”, “Kindly couple”, leading to a silent splash page of Superman flying near the sun… no doubt, no introspection, but a set of clichés to tell a simple and familiar story. The inescapable logic of the sequence is even enhanced by the simple fact that it is placed at the very beginning of the book.

Everything is simpler in the world of All-Star Superman, everything makes sense. Even the living bomb in #1 is certain of its destiny, it wants to explode, it lives to explode. Similarly, Lois Lane writes the Superman headlines before the actual events happen, because it has to be this way. He was destined to be a super-hero, and as such, he simply will not fail. Thus, Superman is indistinguishable from his function. He exists to perform super-feats, and he does. This is made explicit in All-Star Superman #2, which revolves around the gap of knowledge between the readers and Lois Lane. We know that in this story, Superman cannot be evil, we know he has to tell the truth, we also know he has in fact been Clark Kent all along. Lois cannot see this. Unlike Superman, she is a character; she has doubts, feelings and thoughts. To emphasize this contrast, Morrison even gives the reader access to her reflections for most of the issue. It would of course be pointless to do this with Superman, since he cannot have an inner life. More precisely, his whole course of action is pre-determined, and while he makes choices, these are entirely predictable. He will not kill. He will do good (and so far, there hasn’t been any doubt in the story about what “good” was), and he will succeed. No room there for character development. In that respect, it is noteworthy that the global plot of the series seems to revolve around the notion of destiny. Superman knows he is about to die, but he is not angry, not even sad, he just does what he has to do before it’s over. Once more, straightness and logic prevail, but Morrison makes only half-hearted efforts to convince us that Superman could feel anything about his fate.

Umberto Eco once pointed out that the problem with Superman’s stories is that although he never seems to do much, there is nothing he cannot do, which makes most stories pointless. One trick of Silver Age stories was to confront him with opponents or challenges too small or too silly for him, since nothing could be too big. In All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison confidently exploits the near omnipotence of his main character. Since the series is not to continue indefinitely, it is acceptable to de-dramatize events in order to build up the mythic stature of the main character. Thus, the reader never doubts because Lois herself ruins the plot by acknowledging, “Superman, please, we both know you’ll win any contest these losers can dream up.” We do know that the only opponent Superman is liable to succumb to is himself, after his overexposure to the sun. We also know this in not likely to happen. In the meantime, Superman has never seemed so infallible. When he tries to tell to Lois that he does other things besides being Superman, she predictably does not believe him and falls asleep instead.

With no inner life, Superman’s existence is summed up by his appearance, by his costume. Quitely’s art emphasizes this: Samson is another super-being, a would-be Superman, with a large chin and winning grin, but he simply does not have the costume. On the contrary, when Superman offers Lois his powers for a day, at the end of #2, he first hands her a Super-Lois costume. The serum that actually gives her the powers is only presented in the next issue, almost as an afterthought. This emphasis on the visual elements of the characters (his disease is even caused by an excess of light) brings us back to his existence as a comic book super-hero. We know that the costume and the powers define a super-hero, while his “personality” is merely an excuse to provide us with an origin sequence or a few alter-ego-centred subplots. Robin is still Robin no matter who’s behind the mask, and even when the alter-ego does not explicitly change, few writers bother with psychological continuity. Morrison just takes this logic to its extreme, creating a character as flat and brilliantly coloured as can be. In a recent interview he explained that his goal was to identify and use the archetypal version of Superman, after having read everything written about him:

What struck me wasn’t the differences in all these approaches, and they were all very different, but the similarities. He barely has the same personality from one issue to the next sometimes and yet… no matter who is writing the stories, some essential, archetypal Superman always remains intact[,] and it’s that primal core, that soul of Superman that we’re putting onto the pages of All-Star.[3]

This “primal core”, as it appears in the book, is threefold: powers, certainty and a primary-coloured costume. Quitely’s clear lines and Jamie Grant’s radiant colours obviously work towards the same goal, presenting a perfect and vibrant Superman, literally devoid of shadows.

Yet for all its voluntary simplicity, All-Star Superman is (so far) a better super-hero story than Arkham Asylum. It might also be a better super-hero story than Animal ManDoom Patrol or Flex Mentallo. The essential truth about super-heroes is that they have been created for the comic books, and with the possible exception of animation (from the 40′s Superman to Justice League Unlimited), they have never been able to function in another medium. The radio shows were horrible, the novels are not worth speaking of, most video games are pointless, and even the best films have either come short of or twisted their materials to reduce the super-heroic content to an acceptable minimum, mostly by emphasizing the science fiction or fantasy elements. The equilibrium at work in the genre is a delicate one, hinging on a sense of wonder but also on an implied naivety that seems to be very delicate to export to other media. As soon as 1991, Dave McKean could explain what had gone wrong with Arkham Asylum:

[the story] 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.” It’s like suddenly realizing the fact that you’re desperately trying to work around the subject matter — trying to make the book despite the subject, rather than because of it. 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.

Also, by the end of it 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. It’s very difficult to have any enthusiasm about it after that. [4]

Tinkering with the genre by bringing in external elements does not work because it ruins that delicate equilibrium. For talented writers, there are many ways to write within the genre. You can treat super-heroes with a distance, as cultural artifacts, but that’s a limited argument, and Alan Moore has pretty much exhausted it for everyone. You can try to “enrich” the genre, but then, why bother with super-heroes if you care about psychology and relevance?

However, after a while, it seems that the only way to write about super-heroes is not to bother with the genre as such, but to use its code without questioning them, trusting their essential power to entertain and fascinate. Minor writers will confuse minor elements, such as continuity, for essential aspects of the genre. Morrison knows better. It takes some courage for a renowned writer to forego his ego and make sure he serves the character and the reader before pleasing himself. Arkham Asylum failed because it was trying to do too much; it was too brilliant to be contained within the genre, and it was so obviously a work of hubris from creators unwilling to submit to their material. He has not made that mistake again, and in All-Star Superman, he had indeed managed to simplify his main character, his stories, until only one thing remains. The super-hero.

[1] “Guilt and the Unconscious in Arkham Asylum,” Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies 1.1 (February 1994): pp 2-13.
[2] “Grant Morrison Interviewed” (2003): http://www.slushfactory.com/content/EpVFZpuFFERLibpJJK.php.
[3] “Uniquely Original” (2006): http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/features/112602239631900.htm.
[4] “1991 Comics Career Interview,” originally published in Comics Career Vol. 2, No. 1 (1991): http://www.mckean-art.co.uk/.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I'm French. While completing my Ph.D, I've also done a lot of work in and about comics over the last few years, including a published BD, illustrated by my talented sister and an ongoing personal project. This is all in French, though.

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