July 29th, 2014
A brief thought on Grant Morrison’s work that I might disown in the morning…
While hyping his upcoming Multiversity mini series for DC (at least half a decade in the making, and from the sound of it pages are still being done), Morrison has made reference to the Stan Lee method, in which the comic makes the reader an accomplice in the story.
Here’s the man himself, making some typically bold claims for his adoption of this technique in Multiversity #7, Ultra Comics:
I’ve used a lot of hypnotic induction. There’s an old trick that Stan Lee used to do — it was quite popular at Marvel — of the comic talking to you. I took that and this thing, and I think we’ve actually created the world’s first actual superhuman being, which you’ll see how it works when you read this comic. Then the world’s first super human being on this earth has to fight the most malignant entity. So the bad guys in Multiversity who are attacking the entire multiversal structure are also attacking the real world, and this comic is their only way through right now. So it becomes the reader versus the bad guy on the page. I think it’s actually quite scary, this thing. It scared me!
While Morrison hasn’t built his career on such direct addresses to the audience – he’s mostly left that to Derren Brown and Gary Lactus – it’s arguable that he’s always operated in the register for superhero comics that Lee perfected.
Way back in the early days of the comics internet (The Comics Internet!), David Fiore made quite a stir while working up towards a lengthy, academic description of the way that sixties Marvel comics thrived by developing the culture of sci-fi fandom in its letter columns. Running against comics crit’s auteurist tendencies, Fiore argued that the ultimate sort of “realism” Marvel fans craved wasn’t found in Stan Lee’s much vaunted second dimension of characterisation so much as it was in the simulated relationship between readers and creators.
While they operate in a more traditional authorial mode, Morrison’s comics have long since generated a similar volume of feedback – for all his attempts to simulate Jack Kirby’s vorticist thunder, and for all that his hero worship of John Broome is obviously in earnest, Morrison’s work has always benefited from audience participation as much as it has from stylisation.
This has taken many forms, few of them directly indebted to the traditional Marvel approach Lee pioneered, but all of them involving asking the readers to be aware of their own status in the creation of the story. Consider the clever plays on the physical properties of comics in Animal Man and The Filth, or of the way the characters in The Invisibles are only able to glimpse the series’ overlapping cosmologies when they attain the reader’s position. Or think about how works like Seaguy and New X-Men demonstrate the futility of superhero conventions while asking the reader to thrill in them, or the way the last issue of Seven Soldiers framed its elaborate jigsaw structure as an attempt to reach out to the reader.
Morrison’s work has always been built to be talked about, explored, and debated by a genre-savvy, worldly curious audience, and evidence of the success of this technique is easy to find. The Invisibles’ readers didn’t stop talking along with the comics when they were done with the letter pages, preferring instead to establish their own conversational nodes like Barbelith, Mindless Ones dot com, and whatever your favourite superhero focussed comics blog was circa 2003-2006.
At their best, these communities come close to justifying some of Fiore’s bolder claims. The following flourish is particularly illuminating if you find yourself in a mood to explore the post-letter column diaspora:
Marvel readers were more likely to be the co-producers of—rather than “produced” by—the stories they consumed; and graffiti becomes impossible when the owner of the building hands you the pen (even if he or she never hands over a share of the profits).
To update Fiore’s metaphor, Morrison handed the pen to his readership and then found their own spaces to scribble on when security got a little bit tougher around DC towers.
Morrison’s comics are hardly unique in this, of course – if superhero comics are a testing ground for multimedia properties, the internet is a battleground of infinitely egressing fandoms - but that strengthens my point rather than weakening it. David Fiore wrote about Morrison’s work as the culmination of a tradition that stretched from Stan Lee through Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald, and even if you don’t share Ravin’ Dave’s lit crit damage or his enthusiasm for old Marvels, his thoughts on this topic are still worth reading – especially now Morrison is talking about a more explicit take on Lee’s method!
To state it crudely: if Jack Kirby’s comics were valuable at least in part because of how much physical experience he brought to the page, Morrison’s comics are most successful when they leave space for you to bring your own experience to the story.
Morrison’s recent work hasn’t prompted anywhere near so much analysis, and I think that’s because it’s revealed the dark solution to the Stan Lee equation. We all know that Smiling Stan was a salesman first and foremost, but his patter only works so long as you feel like you’re being sold something useful. Similarly, Morrison’s approach starts to feel like a trap when you notice that you’re being lured into sitting through a movie pitch (Joe the Barbarian, Happy!), or flogged the secret keys to the universe in the form of a lifetime subscription to DC comics (Supergods).
Will Multiversity be any different? At the very least, the issues drawn by Frank Quitely and Cameron Stewart look like they’ll be worth a read:
This is evidence of a different sort of communication, between writer and artist. Such hard-won synergy has always been one of Morrison’s weaknesses as a comics writer, and if I were a gambling man I’d bet on Multiversity being the usual mixed bag so far as artistic collaboration goes. Quitely’s known to have a far closer working relationship with Morrison than any other artist, and Stewart has proven himself capable of acting like he’s in the same position, even if the first he heard about his involvement in this project from fans at a con! Beyond that, we’ll have to see how it goes!
Whether it re-initiates the dialogue with Morrison’s readers is another question entirely. The chat about different versions of the same old thing that you’ve never seen before and comics as a technology tickles me right in my memory of good comics past, but talk is cheap.
Multiversity will cost about as much as a piss-up in the park by the time it’s finished. Let’s hope it’s worth it, and that it doesn’t leave us all wandering around all bitter and dejected the morning after…