‘Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics’ – an interview with author Marc Singer on his new book
November 28th, 2011
If you don’t know who Marc Singer is then you’ve been doing something wrong. An academic by trade and one of the most rigorous and interesting critical voices to come out of the comics blogosphere, Marc’s writing is often mentioned in the same breath as Joe McCulloch’s (Jog) and Douglas Wolk’s, and has long been a Mindless touchstone.
To the dismay of many Marc took a step back from his blog, I Am NOT the Beast Master, a couple of years ago, but during that time re-focussed his energies into a book length critical overview of Grant Morrison’s work. We’re happy to say that we got an early look at the finished product, Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics, and that it’s honestly the best sustained piece of writing on Morrison’s work that you’re likely to find anywhere for some time to come. It’ll be published by University Press of Mississippi in paper back and hardback on the 6th of December just in time for your Christmas stocking.
In the meantime, as a little teaser, here’s Marc being interrogated on the subject of his book by the Faceless Mindless Collective. Don’t pity him too much: He can control animals ‘n’ shit.
Faceless Mindless Collective: One of the nice things with your book is that it has its own theory of what Morrison’s work is “about” that’s neither too indebted to Morrison’s own version of events nor unnecessarily hostile to it. Was there ever a temptation to emphasise your take, or had you always intended for your ideas about how Morrison’s work plays with metonymy and hypostasis to be there in the background of your more specific readings?
Marc Singer: That particular take (which, for the uninitiated, is the idea that Morrison uses the visual language of comics and the conventions of fantasy genres to take ideas that would otherwise be figurative or abstract and render them literal and concrete) is so central to my understanding of Morrison that it was always going to come through without any special prodding.
I had a harder time trying to find an overarching narrative structure large enough to hang the book on but not so specific that it would limit the range of things I could write about. In the end I settled on my treatment of Morrison as a figure who straddles these different cultures of comics because it was the one approach that seemed to encompass his entire career without ruling anything out.
The ideas about language and hypostasis sit on the next level down. If the “combining the worlds of comics” argument talks about how to situate his works, the hypostasis argument is probably the most prominent in terms of talking about why we should read them and what we can gain by reading them through the lens of literary criticism. But there are others; if I thought we could reduce Morrison to just one style or one technique I never would have written a book about him.
FMC: There are already a lot of books out there on Morrison’s work, and I was wondering how much this affected the way you wrote yours? Like, there’s a bit in the introduction where you acknowledge some of the earlier works, and talk about how there still hasn’t been much proper criticism of Morrison’s work for all the words that have been spent on him online and in print, but did you have other ideas about how you were going to differentiate your book from the pack?
MS: I wouldn’t say those other works aren’t proper criticism, just that they tend to focus on individual series or stages of his career and they tend to be written outside the practices of academic discourse. I wanted to differentiate my book in terms of providing some things that other books and articles weren’t offering—a comprehensive focus on his entire career to date, and a rigorous application of literary and comics scholarship that would both reveal new ways of looking at his work and take the critical discussion in new directions.
FMC: Related to that last question, as the fleshy man-mind behind an excellent blog, how much do you think that the work of an artist like Morrison – who, as you note, exists in a strange sort of limbo between what might crudely be called graphic novel culture and comic book culture – is better suited to ongoing bloggy analysis than traditional academic criticism? It occurs that the interconnected, serialised storytelling that Morrison specialises in might be a good match for the ever-up-datable, constantly contested “space” of… THE COMICS INTERNET! Agree/disagree/next question please?
MS: Any serialized medium, whether it’s periodical comics or television shows, is going to be well-suited to the open-ended, running commentary of a blog. The internet and the blogosphere enjoy certain advantages, without question. I hadn’t gotten very far into the book before I ruled out the idea of doing extensive annotations, not only because they’ve already been done in places like the Barbelith Seven Soldiers annotations, but because those places do them better—with hyperlinks to connect entries and the possibility of constant, up-to-the-minute updates—than a print book ever could.
But if the form of the blog is better suited for immediate and ongoing reactions (not to mention instant feedback and dialogue), the form of the book is ideal for reflection, distance, nuance, depth, careful consideration over a longer period of time. I would never build up one at the expense of the other, though, and in many ways this book grew out of my blog. From my earliest thoughts about signification and hypostasis in comics to my ongoing commentary on Morrison, the blog was my first working through of the ideas that would form the core of the book.
FMC: At the end of the book you discuss the way that Morrison has started to re-integrate his artier self into his work again, and you even find time to suggest the first truly interesting reading of Joe the Barbarian that I’ve seen so far, so well done! Still, this conclusion made me wonder whether you’ve ever felt frustrated by the direction of Morrison’s recent career? Reading your book, I was reminded of the feeling I had when I finished Owen Hatherly’s book about Pulp, Uncommon, i.e. that it would possibly have been even more engaged and engaging if its subject had taken a different path…
MS: I’ve absolutely felt frustrated by the direction of Morrison’s recent career, in ways that I feel are pretty palpable by the end of the last chapter. In a sense, I was lucky that the timing worked out the way it did: Final Crisis and Batman R.I.P. both ended just as I was beginning the project, and while I’ve come to think better of R.I.P. as its place in Morrison’s larger Batman project becomes clearer, Final Crisis would have been a dismal ending point indeed. Fortunately, by the time I was ready to write the conclusion Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye and Batman and Robin had come out, and the first issue of Batman, Incorporated slipped in just in time for the edits. So I was able to end on a more upbeat note where it looked like Morrison was finally starting to turn back toward the more critical, experimental work and integrate some of that sensibility back into his superhero books.
I suppose this is the danger of writing about living and highly prolific authors, because in light of the last few months that’s starting to look like a false dawn. The experimental comics faded just as quickly as they returned, Joe the Barbarian and Batman, Incorporated were derailed by erratic delays and a multiversal reboot, and Supergods positioned Morrison as a defender of some pretty appalling comics industry practices. The absorption into the superhero mainstream appears to be continuing unabated.
FMC: Following on from that, how has writing the book changed how you feel about Morrison’s work? Was there a journey of personal discovery?
MS: There was a journey of personal discovery, externalized as my journey across a postapocalyptic wasteland to throw the Ring of Life into the Cauldron of Rebirth. I defeated Necros, Lord of the Abyss, but more importantly—I learned that if I trust in myself and follow my dreams, I can do anything.
I also learned that I’m a sarcastic bastard. When I first began this project I was worried that I might exhaust my interest in Morrison, that after spending three years immersed in his comics I would never want to read another one again. That was dispelled almost immediately when I started delving into Doom Patrol (the second part I wrote, right after the pages on Animal Man) and I realized that not only was I seeing things I had never seen before but that I could never hope to fit them all into one book. In most cases, rereading his comics both increased my admiration for them and helped me figure out why I was so drawn to them in the first place.
FMC: Did you discover any new favourites locked away in the depths of Morrison’s back catalogue while you were researching the book? You’re very good on one of my favourites, The New Adventures of Hitler, for example.
MS: Very late in the writing process, when I had almost given up on finding a complete run of Crisis and was gearing up to start hunting English back-issue bins in what probably would have been a fruitless quest, I was fortunate enough to come across a scan of Bible John, the true-crime serial killer story Morrison did with his former bandmate Daniel Vallely. I was only seeking it out for completeness’s sake and I didn’t expect to enjoy it much. I don’t care for The Mystery Play, which treads similar ground, and I thought Bible John would be a pretentious precursor.
I was so happy to be proven wrong.
Not that it isn’t pretentious, mind you, but it’s pretentious in the service of more sophisticated ideas (and more of them, an unending barrage of them), it takes almost the exact opposite stance as The Mystery Play, and it’s laced with a genuine creepiness. The séance with the Ouija board, or the scene where Vallely has the dream meeting with the murder victim in the truck… I was reading that in a typically hot, humid early May and it chilled me to the bone. It bothers me now just thinking about it.
And Vallely’s art… even if it is awfully derivative of that Bill Sienkiewicz/Dave McKean late 80s collage style, I realized upon reading it just how much I missed that look. Never my favorite at the time, now the cut-ups and the photographs and the painted art are intoxicating reminders of a moment when even the most mainstream publishers and creators aspired to create adult, arty, serious comics. It was an adolescent style for an adolescent moment, but they were adolescent in the best way—overheated, unembarrassed, utterly sincere, not subject to the diminished ambitions of adulthood or the brutally partitioned genres and styles of the modern comics industry.
I found other favorites, too, like the later phases of Zenith. Mostly I rediscovered old favorites and saw them through new eyes. I must have taken enough notes on Doom Patrol to fill their own book, and I think this was the first time I’d ever reread The Filth from start to finish without interruption. Reading those comics again, rediscovering my own discovery of Morrison, was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. I count myself incredibly lucky that I get to call that work.
FMC: Going back to Uncommon for a moment, I know you were quite taken with some of its author’s observations on the tradition of weird, working class pop-art in Britain. While the interpretations you offer aren’t defined by Grant Morrison’s biography, you don’t exactly shy away from it either, so – do you think there’s another book to be written that deals with Moore, Morrison and co as part of this tradition? Maybe not quite Grant Morrison: The Scottish Connection, but something close.
MS: Absolutely. I think there are probably a couple dozen more books to be written about those two, their peers, and the transformation in comics they were part of. Hatherley’s point is just as applicable to Morrison and Moore’s generation of comics writers as it was to the musicians he was writing about. Here was this bunch of artists who were nurtured by the Arts Labs or living on the dole, writing comics that took the form and its genres seriously. They hit that sweet spot where they got the absolute minimum amount of state support necessary to make a living in the arts, but never so much that they had to listen to some admissions board or grants council tell them they couldn’t use it to make comics. With the disappearance of that infrastructure, and the acceptance of comics into the worlds of literature, art, and the academy, and increasing class polarization in general, we’re not likely to see as many entry points for weird, arty, working-class artists again.
One of the things that became clear as I started this project is that contemporary mainstream comics aren’t very well covered in the existing criticism. There’s a lot of popular criticism of the “Superheroes and …” variety where comics are used to illustrate some other discourse’s ideas, and there’s a lot of celebratory discourse dressed in parascholarly drag, but almost nobody (Roger Sabin honorably excepted) has attempted to write a critical history of modern comics, Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art. There’s a lot of work to be done in examining where these comics came from, how they are made, how the artists themselves are made, and how that affects the final product.
FMC: I’m really interested in the tension between your status as a fan of Morrison’s work and the appropriately dispassionate evaluative exercise you undertook. I mean, the book is implicitly enthusiastic, and explicitly paints Morrison as a creator worthy of academic interest, but I wonder whether it was hard to keep that fannish glee at a healthy remove on occasion – or did the discipline acquired at your academic day job see you through without much trouble?
MS: It was actually hardest when I didn’t like the comics I was writing about. Writing about the ones you love is easy. You have to make a scholarly argument for their worth, rather than an aesthetic one, but as you note that’s an implicit and accepted part of choosing a subject for critical analysis. You have to be able to make the case for why it’s worthy of attention or else you shouldn’t be writing about it in the first place.
But when I was writing about the (mercifully rare) Morrison comics I didn’t enjoy, it was awfully hard to keep the scholar and the fan separate. My first instinct was always to write about the reasons I didn’t like them, and those generally ran at cross-purposes to the project of scholarship. While the things that make Morrison’s best comics so good are (for me, anyway) the very things that make them fitting subjects for literary criticism— the treatment of language, the fusion of styles, the attention to form and medium and so forth—the things that make his worst ones so bad generally aren’t. They were aesthetic problems, for the most part, not matters of form or ideology or industry, and that just isn’t as relevant in the long view.
One of the toughest comics for me to write about, in this context, was Final Crisis. That was largely because I’d already spent so much time thinking and writing about its technical problems that I had a hard time looking past them to the comic’s content, its ideology, its place in the comics industry and in Morrison’s career—all of which are equally problematic for me, but they’re a little more important than whether I thought the plot hung together or not.
That isn’t to say that the most critical passages were always the toughest. I’m no fan of The Mystery Play either, but perhaps because I was coming back to that book for the first time in years—and because I had an excellent Jog review to springboard off of—I saw pretty quickly how it fit into Morrison’s career and my overall arguments in the Vertigo chapter. And the books I loved weren’t always easy either: trying to fit the many- headed beast that was The Invisibles into a single coherent reading posed a real challenge, as did writing something about Flex Mentallo that wasn’t already spelled out in perfect clarity by the comic itself. But in general the academic imperative to justify the attention you give to the work was complementary with my evaluation of the books I love and completely counter to the ones I don’t.
FMC: Thinking back to your blog, it seems to me that your tastes run towards comics that exist in the space between straight genre adventure and arty exploration. As such, do you feel particularly engaged by the current comics scene?
MS: A scene that has almost completely bifurcated the two, to the point of splitting them into separate marketplaces? No, I don’t.
FMC: Would you consider following this book up with further works of comics criticism? A hefty tome on the overlap between Alan Moore’s books and back garden, perhaps, or a whole book dedicated to the fight sequences in issue #2 of We3?
MS: I’m sure I will write more comics criticism; in fact, as soon as I finished the first draft I wrote two short articles (on “Best Man Fall” and “Pog,” both now in print) in a flurry of pent-up creative energy and sustained momentum. That’s well and truly gone and now I’m taking a bit of a breather and figuring out what I want to write about next. Having spent so long working in the long form I keep seeing everything through that lens— coming up with ideas that seem more appropriate to books, not articles, and I know I’ll need to start with something shorter first to work my arguments into shape. But things are percolating.
FMC: Not so much a question as a discussion point, maybe, but you talk about Morrison ‘embrac[ing] hypostasis precisely because it challenges this dissociation [between language and reality] and reopens the possibility of a mimetic art”. I’d disagree. I think in fact that if we look through Morrison’s work, the verbal is often portrayed as literally prosaic – that words tend to have a 1-1 correspondence with a singular ‘meaning’. Whereas images – symbols – tend to have multiple meanings (his explanation of the vesica piscis in the Arkham Asylum script as an example) and be overloaded with many different possible interpretations. Isn’t it, surely, the case that he’s using images because of their *lack* of mimesis, or am I missing the point?
MS: Great question! I think you’re absolutely right about the univalence of language and the multivalence of images in most Morrison comics, but just because they’re multivalent doesn’t mean they can’t also be mimetic. There are two senses of mimesis at play here, the general sense of “imitation of reality” and the discredited linguistic theory that words are tied to their referents, and Morrison taps into both of them; and just to complicate matters further, the reality Morrison “imitates” is often an interior, subjective one that he externalizes through his images. Those images can represent objects, ideas, or psychological states without the symbolic mediation of language, but they’re almost never limited to just one meaning (something Morrison does not trust—“THIS SCULPTURE MEANS TOTAL CONTROL ONLY”—although in more recent works like Seven Soldiers he’s just as suspicious of floating signifiers and endless interpretations). And his magical words tend to become mimetic through the intervention of images: Phil Jimenez’s art turning words on a slip of paper into the objects they describe, Philip Bond turning Ali’s face into its own verbal descriptors like a poststructuralist Arcimboldo, etc. I think one of the reasons Morrison is so well suited for comics (and vice versa) is that the combination of words and images gives them a facility for conveying ideas and emotions and subjective experiences without having to resort to symbolic abstractions or plodding literalism. It lets Morrison duck around the endless deferrals of poststructuralist theory and the stifling simplicity of the mimetic theory of language, rejecting either or both as he sees fit.
FMC: To my mind, the main – or a main, maybe – ideological line running through Morrison’s work is an attempt to reconcile Romanticism with Enlightenment thought. Given that you seem to come down very heavily on the Enlightenment side (as, indeed, do I), and you talk a lot about how Morrison’s heroes often come down on the side of Enlightenment liberal democracy when push comes to shove, how well do you think he’s achieved this?
MS: Pretty well, I would say, although there’s also a strain of naïve Romanticism that runs through some of his works—works like The Mystery Play or Arkham Asylum that casually reject rationalism in favor of intuition and a rose-tinted depiction of insanity. As with most aspects of his career, I’m more drawn to the comics that combine these schools of thought rather than staking a claim in one camp or another.
In some of his most beautiful, strange, and bitter books—I’m thinking primarily of Seaguy, but also large stretches of Doom Patrol—he doesn’t reconcile those camps so much as negate them. Seaguy is just brilliant in the way that it shows the long-range negative consequences of Enlightenment utopianism and universalism while also showing how the Romantic model of individualized rebellion does absolutely nothing to correct or stop it. I can’t wait to see the third volume; Morrison tends to shy away from downer endings but man, that one should be headed for a doozy.
FMC: Further to the last, you talk quite a bit about Morrison’s cosmology. A lot of this is based on, or at least refers to, real science, whether Bohm’s implicate order or the holographic universe hypothesis. After having studied his work in this much detail, do you think he’s primarily letting the science influence his thinking, or do you think he’s using it as a rationalisation for ideas he’s primarily got from mystical sources? If tomorrow the idea of a holographic universe was completely disproved, do you think he’d give up the idea?
MS: I doubt it, because I think that (whatever he may say in his interviews, prefaces, letter columns, and other public pronouncements) he tends to seize on ideas for their dramatic potential rather than any possible scientific accuracy or mystic insight. I can’t speak to the science with much authority, so let me shift to an area where I am a little more qualified. At various points in The Invisibles he treats the different magic languages and hyper-alphabets as deep-structure command languages that are rooted in the human psyche, as glossolalic nonsense strings that are entirely dependent on each listener’s interpretation, as modes of subjective expression more akin to dance or abstract painting, as universalist, conventionalist, relativist, whatever he needs them to be in that particular scene. The story usually drives the ideas, which is probably how it should be when you’re looking to create a work of art rather than a critical study or a belief system.
FMC: A lot of Morrison’s work is very specifically rooted in British themes – and also in Morrison’s own antipathy towards the English (or at least to Southerners, he seems much less hostile towards those of us in the post-industrial North). How difficult was it for you as an American to deal with the subtleties of these things?
MS: I was lucky to have some knowledgeable guides, especially when it came to navigating the British comics industry. Roger Sabin wrote a couple of excellent books that looked at the adult comics boom from a predominantly British point of view and supplied the kind of context you can only get from being a lifelong reader and firsthand observer of the industry. (The Summer Offensive didn’t quite make it into the book, but I never would have gotten that Di and Fergie were supposed to be the Fat Slags without Roger.)
It occurs to me that saying he explained a crass Viz gag for me is not the highest compliment I could pay Roger, so I’ll add that he and sometime-Mindless One Will Brooker were both kind enough to look over the manuscript and give me a few pointers. I also benefited from online discussions like David’s [Illogical Volume] excavation of the Chris Morris influence on The Filth or your own guide to all the iconic British vehicles that appear in the London issue of Batman and Robin. And finally, Morrison himself is so often his own most eloquent interpreter (if not always the most objective one) that his interviews were a huge help in placing his works against their original cultural backdrop.
I think there’s a lot more work to be done situating Morrison’s comics in a British context—not just his former antipathy to the South, which peaks in those early, angry, anti-Thatcher works like Dare and The New Adventures of Hitler before abating considerably in recent years, but also his curious antipathy to writing comics about Scotland. You could count the number of Morrison books set in Glasgow on one hand, and even in those rare moments when his characters do head North it’s always to Liverpool or Newcastle or Preston. And then you have something like Batman and Robin, which appears to turn that old antipathy on its head—the Northern and Southern criminals are both jumped-up would-be aristocrats, but the script seems to buy into the Pearly King’s description of their rivalry as “good honest plunder vs. fanatical superstition,” just some cheeky, salt-of-the-earth criminals fighting religious fundamentalists. Any hostility Morrison might still harbor towards the South is more than overshadowed by his interest in writing about anything, anywhere but his own home.
FMC: Your book seems, in effect, to be explaining to academics why they should consider Morrison’s work worthy of interest. As someone who is already a massive fan of Morrison, it seemed at times a little redundant *for me*. Is there any chance you might do a similar book but from the other point of view, trying to explain to the average comic fan why this kind of academic analysis will add to their appreciation of the work? I tried something similar in my own recent book, but you’re much better at this kind of deep reading than I am, and I’d love to read something like that.
MS: It’s a little weird responding to these questions when I’m not sure which of the Mindless collective is doing the questioning at any moment. You might as well be a series of masked figures communicating with me and each other through your individual viewscreens like any self-respecting meeting of SPECTRE. Anyway, given the reference to your latest book I’m going to assume that this is Andrew Hickey and, if I’m correct, that the compromise of your identity means the others are now reaching for the switch that will send you and your chair tumbling down into the shark tank. The Mindless Ones can tolerate almost any perversion, Mister Hickey, but they cannot abide failure.
I wrote the book for two distinct audiences knowing that certain parts would have to be pitched to one group or the other. The primary audience is an academic one—not necessarily an audience that’s wholly or universally ignorant of Morrison’s work, just one that’s invested in the practices and discourses of academic scholarship. But the secondary audience is Morrison fans, or comics fans in general, who are interested in reading critical analyses of comics—pretty much the Mindless Ones home turf, I would think. I know some parts of the book will be redundant for each of those audiences: the Morrison fans won’t need to read the broad summaries of his work and the academics won’t need the brief, brutally simplified explanations of poststructuralist theory, but each one is necessary to give the other audience the full context.
A few years ago, I was at a conference where the mystery novelist Laura Lippman said that for every book she’s ever written, or will ever write, there’s always some reader who solves the mystery on the first page—and she writes for that reader. She writes to give them something in the language, the characterization, the social observation that makes up for the fact that they already know the answer to the mystery. I took a similar approach with my book. I know that some readers will already know the complete range of comics references in All Star Superman, or the theories of Derrida and Zizek, or the history of Vertigo comics, or all of the above. I was writing to bring you something else beyond the sum of my subjects. I wrote it in the hope that the interplay of academic and fan discourses, and their applications to these particular comics, can teach us all something new about Morrison’s work—even if we’ve been reading it for more than half our lives.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go fish Andrew out of the tank.
FMC: Thanks Marc. Don’t suppose a bloke with your powers needs to worry about the shark…
Read a preview on Marc’s site, here.