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“The superhero is Western culture’s last-gasp attempt to say there’s a future for us.”

April 26th, 2012 by | Tags: ,

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.

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19 comments to ““The superhero is Western culture’s last-gasp attempt to say there’s a future for us.””

  1. Isn’t Star Trek the quintessential example of “there will be a bright future?” It’s at least 28 years younger than Superman, too….


  2. i hope it doesnt sound nit picky, but being married doesnt really give us a true insight to whether someone is on the fringe of society (and DEFINITELY doesnt mean someone isnt extremely sexually frustrated, and im being serious not all wink-wink, nudge-nudge)


  3. man, seems like me and you are the only people who liked Book of Eli. anyway, great post as always. i really like your summation of American pop culture.


  4. Maybe Morrison was just talking about British culture, but there’s always Robin Hood.


  5. I know quite a few people who “society” would find to be totally unacceptable who are married, although I would be terrified (?) to see the kinds of outfits that Frank Miller would make anyone who marries him dress up in.

    And yes, I do agree with you that America is generally run off of violent power fantasies, but these delusions are also one of the many reasons why we are an empire in decline.


  6. I don’t think that Dystopia’s are singular to the United States considering the Big Two who popularized dystopic literature came from the UK. I think Dystopia’s are a very First World problem, you can only worry about tomorrow if you feel you gonna survive today.

    That said, I do think American’s have a prediliction for dystopic work and Mr. Brothers’makes a valid point. I would only add that along with the “Rugged Indiviual”, a certain amount of religious zealotry is intrisic in U.S. dna. Cotton Mather, fire and brimstone, the perception of the ills of modern society and all had bred a fetish of self destruction into our pop culture. We are schizophrenic culture and the art we produce reflects that.

    Also on the minor point, while comics haveits fair share of oddballs and eccentrics (Jim Steranko, Steve Ditko) and work with mildly kinky subtexts (looking at you Chris Claremont), it is pretty tame compared to other artistic classes. Comics’ contemporaies in Sci-Fi and Pulp novels have stranger birds in their flocks.

    It is true that a lot ofcomic writers and artists of 50′s and 60′s came from Jewish/immigrant backgrounds. Not by choice, but the overriding prejudices of the time kept the door closed to more lucrative and commercial work for their skills like advertising and graphic design.

    I think this has more to do with Grant Morrison’s rose colored views on the silver age than reality. God bless ‘im, I enjoy his work, and I think this perception is big part of why.


  7. @RS David: “I think this has more to do with Grant Morrison’s rose colored views on the silver age than reality. God bless ‘im, I enjoy his work, and I think this perception is big part of why.”

    Yeah, basically this. I think this statement has far more to do with Grant Morrison’s understanding of reality, the way he SEES comics and culture, than with those things in themselves. Morrison’s not really right, but he is wrong in a way that is interesting and productive.

    Although I agree with the idea that the “lone ranger” is a super-archetypal figure in American culture and that distrust of authority or even paranoia is a recurrent thread in it, I don’t think that this is as optimistic of an idea as Brothers makes it out to be here. I mean, that’s not really a solution to problems – it’s not necessarily an optimistic trope, because the trope doesn’t necessarily include the idea that the lone ranger will WIN. I mean, look at Chinatown, look at most noir films, look at Network – sure, the possibility of one man standing up to authority runs through the culture, but it’s not necessarily successful. It’s as much Hemingway as it is Horatio Alger.

    Rather, what runs through culture is the importance of standing up even if you will be defeated. If that’s our future, then it could be one where the bad guys ultimately win, but where we – the little guys – have a moral victory, where we make our stand, stay true to ourselves and refuse to be suborned. If that’s our future, then the bright side is one where the moral stature and power of the lone ranger or the prophet overcomes the evil and corruption and drives it out. But on the flip side, there’s the recurrent fear that the best we can hope for is to lose well, die good.


  8. It feels that way for a lot of kids who grew up poor as hell, I think. I identify with Morrison’s feelings on super-heroes as archetypal parables, for a modern age. Anyway, he’s surely just in his own personal movement against the kinds of cynical trends that hit comics in the 80′s, the same way every art movement is basically a rejection of the previous one.

    As for appealing to freaks & geeks, in the broader sense nowadays where people are proud to be freaks, geeks, gay, or even deviant (whether you grew up feeling like the taboos you were breaking were still “deviancy” or you’re more open-minded from the outset). And comics have always been a haven in those cases (and even the popular “jock” or “cheerleader” or whatever cliches feel like freaks & geeks at some point in their existence).

    It’s an appropriate sentiment to write in a Playboy article, as that book was a real barrier-breaker in what was considered “deviant behavior”.


  9. Just to continue a little; Morrison’s works are all famously anti-Fascist, and I always felt like much of what he was rallying against is the persistent bits of everyday fascism. Nazis and tyrants, sure. But I mean the social dogmas that associated words like “deviancy” or “degenerate” with people’s personal preferences, and artwork for that matter. These are fascist ideas, and Morrison constantly employs “better ideas” to go to war with “fascist ideas”, whether it be All-Star Superman pausing from battling Cosmic Fascism in the form of Solaris to stop the fascist idea of worthlessness applied to a troubled Goth girl, to Batman, Incorporated battling a fascist idea in the form of Leviathan. And I can’t help (having recently spent two years doing nothing but writing about post-war painters & sculptors) but draw a line straight back to the first generation of comic creators, primarily Jewish artists using super-heroes to battle slightly more caricatured Fascist enemies.


  10. Bob Kane dated Marilyn Monroe before she was famous. I’d like to be THAT breed of freak, please.

    I agree with your assessment of Morrison’s evangelical view of superheroes. He appreciates them on kind of a messianic level because they represent to him “what we should become” but they have, actually and symbolically, been co-opted by corporate interests who use them, in real life, as mass-market profit generators, reducible to nothing but an easily branded logo and, in the comics page, as weaponized military tools. How this represents the way forward, I have no idea. Call me cynical but I’ve begun subscribing to the Ennisian school of superheroes lately. As stylistically absurd as it is, wouldn’t The Boys be about as accurate as you could get to answering the ages-old “what would superheroes be like in real life?” question?

    Your observations on film noir and westerns are dead-on. Thank you for the insight. I think its interesting that although the movement began in France as a filmic representation of existential nihilism, we made noir our own by defining it as an expression of individualistic struggle in a hellish and chaotic world. Philosophical and cultural differences manifesting in the arts. Good food for thought.


  11. Yeah, as the years go on I’ve come to find Morrison’s statements about “the superhero” increasingly reductive and just plain wrong. He remains one of my two favorite comics writers, but he’s just psychologically arrested in some way on these issues. He’s obviously grown and changed as a writer, but every now and then I get the feeling he’s still very much fighting the same old battle as that guy who wrote Animal Man 20-some years ago, still arguing that “things don’t have to be quite so grim’n’gritty, Alan!”

    It’s like Morrison projects all of this culture onto himself, and the results are sometimes spectacularly bad when he tries to “say something” or willfully change the world in a self-centered way. Example: Final Crisis–I liked it a lot in and of itself, but Morrison very much wanted it to usher in a bright and shiny era of happy super-comics. And it very much did not do that; he miscalculated so many different things on so many different levels. Final Crisis came out, made the least impact of any event of such a scale and conceit ever, and then corporate comics moved onto Dark Reign and Blackest Night.

    Above all else, you have to remember that Morrison is a person who quite literally values Superman over real human beings. How many times has he rhapsodized about how all of these characters will outlive us, be here after we’re gone, and possess more “reality” than we do? Sure, that’s all true in a sense, but his harping on such themes does reveal his own very subjective religious beliefs. Morrison really does believe in theosophic ideas about “Man becoming God”. And he doesn’t just believe in them in a cute little sci-fi way that we can all say “Gosh!” about and be done with. He means what he says in a serious way that is actually quite scary, bordering on merciless. He isn’t a fascist, obviously, but he definitely believes that it might be necessary for human beings to “go away” somehow. So he consequently can’t really value human beings now, since he views them as all-but-obsolete. He’s at a place where superheroes redeem not only “Western culture” but human beings FOR HIM: Morrison needs to lean on superheroes to find human beings interesting.

    The result of all of this thinking is that, well, Morrison doesn’t seem to empathize with regular people in a very genuine way. I mean, I’m sure he wants to empathize, but he just can’t; he isn’t on our level. He can’t connect to “the common man” or with “real people” very well. He just can’t. The connection doesn’t last long before he alienates people somehow.

    Or he starts out by talking about the zeitgeist in a way that makes sense initially, but then he’ll overreach or something in a way that sometimes makes us (or is it just me?) pull back and look at what the guy is really saying. In his book he talks about how the reason JFK was great was because he was like a “Superman” president who f—ed Marilyn Monroe. Yeah, sounds trippy. But is that REALLY what made JFK great, or is it just some non-realistic, pop-culture ridden, psychedelic twist on everything? I think it’s the latter.

    So, I mean, it’s Morrison who’s the “freak”, not Jack Kirby. And I don’t call Morrison a freak to single him out or denigrate him in any way. I like most of the freakiness of Morrison. But when he makes these grandiose statements about “the way things were, are, and will be” they always end up saying way more about HIM than they do about anything else.


  12. All Morrison’s statements about comics are made for effect. They’re not worth analysing.


  13. @asdf: PERFECT!


  14. @asdf: “I get the feeling he’s still very much fighting the same old battle as that guy who wrote Animal Man 20-some years ago, still arguing that “things don’t have to be quite so grim’n’gritty, Alan!””

    He’s fighting that battle because it still needs to be fought, because comics fans have embraced garbage like Kick-Ass.


  15. “We prize violent solutions not because we are bloodthirsty, but because they are permanent, and there is safety in permanence.”

    Violent solutions are rarely as permanent, or as safe, as we think. Americans once thought Vietnam would be a permanent solution to the advance of global Communism, and look how that worked out for them.

    Maybe “expedient” would be a better word. Americans don’t like to compromise or wait around to do what they think is right. (Admittedly that’s a generalization, coming from a Canadian like myself; we like to hold up compromise as one of the values that sets our two cultures apart.) Superheroes are uncompromising individualists. They’re impatient for justice, so they take the law into their own hands, and in that sense they are deeply American pop-culture icons. I’ll point out that Americans didn’t invent the vigilante (see Robin Hood) the vigilante with a secret identity (see Scarlet Pimpernel) or dudes with superpowers (see Hercules, Gilgamesh et al) but they did blend those tropes together and made it into a genre we still use today.

    What’s weird about Morrison is that he looks at this genre and sees only its positive, aspirational aspects. Again, not to generalize, but UK comic writers take a more ironic, critical and realistic eye to superheroes because they recognize the Americanness of the genre, which is how we get books like Marvelman. I think he’s bang-on when it comes to the Silver Age and the mythic, larger-than-life side of comics, but that’s only one of many sides. Maybe noir is, as you say, a more essentially American genre than superhero fare because at least noir acknowledges the darker side of raw individualism: Sordid behaviour, crime, injustice, but also hope.


  16. William Moulton Marston was married as well. :P


  17. @Coleman: In fact, he was extra married!
    Therefore, he must have been extra-non-freaky.


  18. As the paragraph after the list shows, I wasn’t saying that being married makes you a non-freak, because that’s an insane declaration to make. But these guys were married and had kids and jobs and lives in a time that wasn’t kind to freaks. I probably could have explained it better, I guess.

    @David Fairbanks: Comics fans have embraced a lot of things besides Kick Ass.

    @D. Peace: Yeah, there’s probably something real interesting to be said about how cultures remix the culture/ideals of other cultures and integrate it into their own, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    @RetroWarbird: This is a really interesting train of thought. Thanks for posting.


  19. I’m not sure I agree with noir being “the most American of genres.” It feels reductive in a way I’m not entirely down with.

    Maybe there is something to Morrison’s statement. I always saw the superhero as a culmination of colonial aspirations. Certainly you could argue most of their origins lie there. Superman seems to occupy that space between military might and a privateer with letters of marque (I only got that idea from Miller’s Dark Knight and Dark Knight Returns).