Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Man and Superman

REVIEW: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes,
Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville
Can Teach Us about Being Human
by Grant Morrison
Spiegel & Grau, 2011 ($28)

     “... the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God.”
~ Grant Morrison

     That provocative statement, which the author will probably not appreciate my plucking out-of-context from the last-but-two pages of his book, is not nearly as sacrilegious as it seems. Grant Morrison ~ who had written many Superman comic book stories, as well as engaged in a spiritual/religious quest for the past couple decades ~ is not arguing that Superman is as real as God, merely that the idea is as real. That speaks to the solidity of our modern mythologies, not our religions.
     “Supergods” is Morrison’s meditation on the comic book superhero (book-ended by Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics and Morrison’s latest stint writing Superman’s adventures in a new version of Action), his life and career in comics, and his spiritual quest (which has included the use of hallucinogenics and ritual magick). Fans of any of these threads will find something to enjoy in this 417 page (not including appendices and index) tome. Unfortunately, if you’re not fans of all three, parts of the book will drag. Even if you like all three areas, you might wish the book were a little better organized, the strands better integrated into a comprehensible whole.
Photo from Grant Morrison.com
     One thing’s for sure: this is not a comprehensive history of comics, but rather a personal one, focusing on the comics Morrison’s read and written, or at least the subset thereof that addresses the book’s theme.
     That we seem to have read many of the same comic books made that part of the book more enjoyable to me probably than someone younger. Then when he talked about some newer comics that I haven’t read, my interest flagged a bit.
     It also flagged when he talked about his drug use (recreational and in pursuit of his spiritual quest), his cross-dressing, shaving his head and prophetic visions (although it was sometimes instructive of the writing he was doing at the time).
     I found the details of Morrison’s life and career more interesting, if a bit disjointed in the overall narrative. And I enjoyed hearing his thoughts about superhero trends in comic books and the culture (for instance, “In a world where wealth and celebrity are the measures of accomplishment, it’s no surprise that the most popular superhero characters today – Batman and Iron Man – are both handsome tycoons.”).
     However, even on the narrow subject of comic books, Morrison has some surprising factual errors, errors that someone familiar with classic and modern comic book history should have caught (briefly, if you care: Mary Batson/Mary Marvel was the sister, not cousin, of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel, her magic word was, like her brother’s, “Shazam,” while Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr. used “Captain Marvel” as his magic word; and the Fantastic Four placeholders in Alan Moore’s “1963” series was Mystery Inc., while The Tomorrow Syndicate filled in for The Avengers).
     Something else that might annoy some readers is that Morrison doesn’t always give context to his references. In one paragraph (p. 171), he cites “Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels … Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, Dennis Potter, and The PrisonerA Clockwork Orange … Lindsay Anderson’s If …Monty Python … Photographer Bob Carlos Clarke’s fetish girls … Richmal Crompton’s William books,” without a word of explanation except to say that all of these things were “punk.” If you’re well-read enough in popular culture, you may catch most of them, and maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to look up the rest .
     I borrowed the book from a member library of the Suburban Library Cooperative, and at that price ~ free ~ I'm happy to have read it. If you're thinking of purchasing it, you might want to wait for paperback (or get it now as an e-book for $13.99 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble).


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