If Morrison’s personal history includes magic, wild experiments with consciousness-tweaking substances and reported alien visitations, why does he keep writing about square-jawed guys with capes? “We’re running out of visions of the future except dystopias,” Morrison says. “The superhero is Western culture’s last-gasp attempt to say there’s a future for us.” Sitting in his drafty house overlooking Loch Long, an hour outside his hometown of Glasgow, the 52-year-old writer smiles. “The creators of superheroes were all freaks,” he says. “People forget that—they were all outcasts, on the margins of society.” And then, inevitably, he shifts from the third person to the first. “We’re people who don’t fit into normal society.”
–Grant Morrison, Playboy, 2012
One minor point: it’s sort of weird to say that the creators of superheroes were freaks when that is pretty much factually not true. It’s the same line of thinking that suggests that “sex-starved geeks,” so described by IGN, created all the sexy ladies in comics. I’m not sure what your measure for freaks is, but I’d guess that Morrison’s is so low as to be meaningless. Here’s a quick sample that I used to debunk IGN:
Sue Storm: created by Stan Lee (married since 1947) and Jack Kirby (married since 1942)
Mystique: created by Dave Cockrum (married)
Jean Grey: created by Stan Lee (married since 1947) and Jack Kirby (married since 1942)
Mary Jane: created by Stan Lee (married since 1947) and John Romita Sr (his son JRjr was born 08/1956)
Elektra: created by Frank Miller (married to Lynn Varley in the ’80s, divorced now)
Rogue: created by Chris Claremont (has a wife and kids) and Michael Golden (can’t find any info on him)
Storm: created by Len Wein (married twice) and Dave Cockrum (married)
Siegel was married, and I can’t find anything on Shuster. Bob Kane was married. Jack Kirby was married, had kids, and served in the military.
And I mean, a lot of these guys were Jewish, and a handful of them probably drew porn comics at some point, but I think freaks is a bit much. Anti-semitic prejudice definitely factored into their lives, but a lot of people deal with prejudice without being turned into freaks. These were regular dudes who had lives and families, not freaks. Freaks makes for a good narrative (Superheroes as outsider comics! The freaks will lead the way!) but all of these dudes fit into normal society in just about every way, other than the (at the time) less-than-distinguished job of drawing funnybooks. I mean, if you called Robert Crumb a freak, sure, okay. But like… Jerry Siegel? Jack Kirby? Freaks? Ehhh.
Anyway, my bigger point (which is rougher than I’d like) regards my thoughts on this:
“The superhero is Western culture’s last-gasp attempt to say there’s a future for us.”
Me and Morrison differ pretty drastically on the subject of the superhero. From my perspective as a dude who grew up on capes under the shadow of Reagan and later Bush, I don’t see much difference between, say, westerns, cape comics, crime movies, and those dystopias that Morrison thinks are a cynical depiction of the future.
There are a few things that I feel like are an integral part of American (pop?) culture. We prize the individual who chooses to go his own way, at least up to a point or within certain accepted standards. America is built on a mistrust of authority, whether we’re talking about the Revolutionary War or the pervasive paranoia that infested films noir. We prize violent solutions not because we are bloodthirsty, but because they are permanent, and there is safety in permanence. There’s a certain beauty and honor in being an outlaw, and while we dislike when outlaws enter our life, there’s a vicarious thrill in watching them work.
I once tried to describe film noir to a lady I know as “the most American of genres” for a lot of these reasons. She thought I was being jingoistic, but I mean it in as genuine a way as it gets. That distrust of authority, wresting control of your life from those who control it, and having a driving need to uncover the truth even if it destroys you… There’s sort of a siege mentality there, like you have to protect yourself and repel the invaders at all costs, because you’re the last righteous/honest man, no matter your sordid past. Redemption and destruction, over and over again, shifting shape a little each time.
This is a story that has repeated itself throughout American culture, whether it’s Malcolm X transforming himself from a street hustler into a truth speaker or corporate whistleblowers or film noir or westerns or crime flicks. It’s all about being your own man and making your own way.
Dystopias are just another way for us to exercise our will. The dystopias are usually not the fault of the main character, but that main character is often the last of the righteous, or at least one of the last willing to stand up and fight back against the darkness. I really liked The Book of Eli, with Denzel Washington, for those reasons. In the world of the lawless, one last man holds tight to the law and lives his life accordingly. Or the Punisher — in the ’80s, he was explicitly a ripped from the headlines revenge fantasy. He went after fake versions of Norieaga, the dude who was poisoning medicine, gangsters… he fought against our fears on his own, because no one was strong enough to shoulder that burden but him. We excuse Rambo’s violence because he’s getting things done. We celebrate Ripley because she’s a problem solver, and John McClane because he knows how to not just get things done, but be charming and relatable while he does it. I mean, “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?” and “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” isn’t just a cool one-liner.
(I think it was Dennis Culver who pointed out that Hans is a form of John, which shifted that movie a little bit for me, thematically. I haven’t quite quantified how, yet, but it’s something that’s going to run through my mind next time I watch Die Hard.)
So I think Morrison is wrong when he says that capes are the last-gasp at a future. I think that’s extremely myopic. We have a future. That future is that there will always be some rugged individualist willing to stand up and say, “No” or “Not in my name” before blowing the head off whatever scientist or priest or politician or cop put us in such a terrible condition. It doesn’t matter whether that future is dusty and barren or colorful and filled with costumes. It’s rap music and Scarface and rock music and The Godfather and Blade Runner and all the rest.