Wednesday, 16 April 2014


They say you should never meet your heroes and, perhaps, that advice should be extended to never reading your hero’s semi-autobiography.

Grant Morrison isn’t, technically, one of my heroes, literary or otherwise.  He doesn’t have the world sagging weariness of Graham Greene or the majestic warning of George Orwell or even the playful zip of ambition that Nicola Barker’s work carries.  He did, however, get invited to the davidmarstonwrites 100th edition party.  Or at least a fictional construct of him did.  And that’s because he was hugely important to me, as a teenager, exposing me to the idea that writing could pushed by imagination.  You could get away with anything, no matter how little sense it made, as long as you were good enough. 

Unlike the other three, Morrison is a writer not of novels but of comics – or graphic novels as they occasionally, pretentiously claim to be.  Supergods, with the subtitle of ‘Our World in the Age of Superhero’ that it doesn’t really live up to, is part potted history of American comics, part autobiography, part barking mad philosophical statement.

When I was a teenager and first getting into Morrison it was through obnoxious counter-culture vehicles like the Invisibles, Doom Patrol and Kill Your Boyfriend.  Pop art wearing punk boots and a sneer; drug references I pretended to understand; the secrets of the universe laced with fetish sex, glamour guns, French philosophy and an anti-authority widescreen wink.  His work was cool, if somewhat tricky to explain.  Concepts like the painting that ate Paris, Danny the transvestite street,  the Marquis de Sade as a time travelling sidekick to Carter and Regan from the Sweeney, all seemed fabulous in the moment, but – even now – seem just bizarre when said out loud. 
The Invisibles - more anti-authority than
Superman (art Steve Yeowell)

In the past decade, though, Morrison has stepped away from funkily interesting work and wholeheartedly embraced superheroes.  He’s, reasonably enough, followed the money and worked on Superman, Batman, the X-Men and so on.  All the ones you see at the cinema.  He kept the imaginative narrative concepts, kooky dialogue and twisting story loops, but repackaged it as a summer friendly blockbuster.  And in Supergods Morrison claims that his earlier snotty abrasiveness for such brash commercialism was a sham all along; that he’s always loved superheroes, he was just waiting to be reinvented again.
The Mystery Play - "God's dead" - more interesting
concepts than fighting super-villains (art Jon J Muth)

They’re not something that’s ever really worked for me.  Flying Gods with personality problems? Popcorn entertainment, sure, but I don’t have the reverence Morrison seems to have suddenly always had.  I loved his work on Animal Man, back in the late eighties, and perhaps there was, underneath the mischief making, a loveliness to his handling of a third-rate superhero.  But, for me, the interesting bit was the metafictional subtext.  Morrison wrote himself into the comic.  It became a fiction about fiction.  A non-superhero superhero comic dedicated to the memory of Morrison’s childhood imaginary friend, surprisingly touching in the final panels.  That was what made it work, not the fight with Mirror Master. 

Morrison writes himself meeting third rate
superhero, Animal Man (art Chas Truog)

Still, who am I to judge?  As Morrison’s ego splattered pages in Supergods repeatedly remind the reader, he’s made a lot of money from writing about the death and rebirth of Batman.  Supergods’ smugness really got my back up.

There’s a point to all this.   

Despite moving into our house in July last year we’re still unpacking.  Until recently, the spare room was piled high with cardboard boxes.  Partly this has been because of not wanting to unpack and then move things around as we decorate and renovate and partly it has been a surprising lack of furniture to hold all our stuff. 

And by our stuff I mean, of course, books.

We’ve just had custom made floor to ceiling book shelves and cupboards installed in the recesses either side of the lounge fireplace.  This means that the cheap flat pack shelves I bought from Homebase fourteen years ago and have been moving around the city ever since have migrated to the study.  This, I thought, would give us (me) sufficient capacity for more books.

I was wrong.

They are all, essentially, full.  The lounge shelves are jam-packed, if the cupboards are half empty.  Three shelves remain empty in the study.  Where, I wonder, did they all go in the flat?  How did I fit this much stuff in that tiny studio I had before?  This realisation, plus the endless back breaking lugging of them around for half the summer, is forcing me to rethink my attitude to endless physical book consumption.  Maybe it just isn’t practical.

Something needs to be done, but my hoarding/miserly nature makes me reluctant to throw everything away.  So what am I to do?

Back in Supergods, Morrison talks about that time he was kidnapped by a four dimensional meta-alien and shown the secrets of language magic which enables him to simultaneously inhabit the 4D higher plane, our own 3D world and the 2D universe of comics.  Morrison seems to seriously believe he is capable of putting on his fiction suit and entering a subsection of our own reality, one we can all read.  That he can create a character who looks like him (or he modifies his look to be like), writes a scene in which the character is tortured and the writer nearly dies from an illness mirroring the exact same injuries the character sustains.  Eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover it, and while I agree the coincidences that support Morrison’s belief that the things he writes then come true are incredible, it’s just the world working in mysterious ways. 

It happens to us all.

For example, between Christmas and New Year I read Ian McEwan’s Solar.  A one point, there is a scene where the protagonist is on a train and accidentally eats a stranger’s salt and vinegar crisps.  The stranger, rather than reacting aggressively, feels pity for Michael Beard’s apparent lack of grip on humanity and responds by trying to share the crisps.  Beard thinks his crisps are being stolen and so eats with more vigour until the stranger disembarks the train.   Shortly after New Year a variation on this scene appeared to me in Douglas Adams’ four volume of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish.  Arthur Dent is waiting in a train station and buys a packet of biscuits to go with his tea.  The cafe is busy and so he shares a table whereupon the same scene ensues, only for Adams it is the characters’ innate Englishness which means the confusion can’t be resolved by talking to each other.  Shortly afterwards I was in a pub where I accidentally started drinking someone else’s pint, even preparing myself to complain that the barman had poured the wrong beer.  The mistake was quickly sorted out, but in Morrison’s imagination such a thing could be an example of fiction taking over life, the words I’d read seeping into my reality.   It isn’t.  

More interesting are the cycles of mental and creative death and rebirth Morrison believes he – and society – go through.  He ritually goes through transformations from scruffy punk kid to shaven headed sharp suited wrap around shades magus and then on to his next incarnation.  From the dark to the light and back again.  He suggests music does the same, from punk to plastic eighties to rave and on to Britpop.  Morrison’s changes are more than just a haircut or a shift from resentful abrasive writing to optimistic cloud surfing.  With each rebirth he is creatively recharged, anticipating, he says, the next popular zeitgeist (and making lots of money); he becomes the future.

Hanif Kureishi, being interviewed for Guardian at the same time I was pondering my response to Supergods in another coincidence not an example of the cosmos at work, agrees.  Every ten years, he claims, writers have to become someone else.  The very act of writing recycles so much of your life, expunges so much of you onto the page, that you need to create a different persona just to have another vein of material to tap.  Just to keep going.

I sort of do this, only with less self-conscious bravado and over a period of time rather than a sudden transformation in a hotel bathroom. Over the past seven years I have gone from corporate suit to unemployed arts student to penniless writer back to a regular member of society.  I have spent the past year, like Morrison, chasing the money.  As I find my writing career failing to even start, my paid career has stepped up.  I have moved into the property owning class I once vilified and will be getting married in the summer.  Time changes and perhaps it is time for a change; perhaps I need to look at the baggage and the books I’ve been dragging around with me and instigate a purge.

As I run up to my wedding, part of me feels I should be undertaking some sort of herculean tasks, some challenges that define who I am.  Perhaps, instead, before I become a married man, there is still time to become a different man one more time.

Or just to work out how all the different parts of me need to be balanced and get a new haircut.

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