Grant Morrison Talks DC Comics, Being a Rock Star in the Comics World, and His Take on Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Multiversity
Last week, Collider (along with a handful of other outlets) was invited to hang out at the L.A. offices of DC Entertainment and chat with comic book legend Grant Morrison. Known for pushing boundaries, exploring the unknown, and redefining legendary heroes and concepts for classic and new audiences, the Scottish-born writer talked about why he loves writing for Batman and Superman, and the new books he’s working on for Wonder Woman and the universe-hopping Multiversity.
Grant Morrison also spoke to Collider for a few minutes about what it’s like to be a rock star of the comic book world, meeting one of the actors who’s played a character that he’s written for, the first comic book he ever read, and when he realized he could make a career out of writing comics. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: Most writers sit at home at a laptop and nobody ever knows who they are, but when you write comic books, you become a rock star when you go to things like Comic-Con or your own MorrisonCon. Is that a strange feeling?
GRANT MORRISON: The thing is, you don’t really feel it. Back home, you’re just at home with a computer. If you go online, most of what you get is just people calling you names. You never have that sense of it, at all. Being a writer is just about being in that room, working. When I was young, I was in bands and I wanted to be a rock star, at one point. I brought some of that over into the comics, when I was in my 20′s and 30′s, and I played that a little bit, so some of it stuck. But right now, I would just rather disappear. I don’t want anyone to know who I am, but they do. So yes, it is pretty weird, but weird in different ways from what you might think. It doesn’t seem to fit what you’re actually doing in real life, when you’re just sitting in a room with your cat and working.
Have you ever met one of the actors who played a character that you’ve written for?
MORRISON: The only time I ever met a character that I wrote was when I met Ian McKellan, when he was playing Magneto in the X-Men movies. I always heard his voice when I was writing that character, and then I met him and it was like I was talking to Magneto. That was the only experience I’ve had with a character that I’ve worked on. I was sitting with the actor and I was treating him like he was this international mutant terrorist because he was so utterly believable as that man.
What was the first comic book that you read?
MORRISON: It was a Marvelman comic. In Britain, in the ‘60s, they did this Marvelman series. In the ‘80s, Alan Moore did a big re-envisioning of that, but back then, it was a kids’ comic. The story was this Marvelman meets Baron Munchausen thing with these adventures. There was a donkey and the snow was so deep. He ties the donkey to what looks like a post, and the next day the snow has melted and the donkey is hanging from the steeple of the church. So, I still remember the story. The combination of superheroes and this famous legendary liar drove me towards the career that I eventually chose.
Was there a point when you realized that you could take a love for comic books and turn it into a career, and end up working for DC Comics?
MORRISON: It was like magic, the idea that you could think of something mad for Superman to do, and then people would pay you to write that down. Still, to me, it’s pure magic. You can think of the most absurd, ridiculous things, and then turn that into something that people want to see, and it can pay for cat food and pay the rent. That’s just weird, weird, weird. But, I became aware of that, a few years into doing comic books. The idea that suddenly people were paying me for my thoughts was quite good. I didn’t have to create any intermediate product.
I love Batman. Batman is so cool. And I love Batman in every incarnation. For me, that was the secret of the character. When Peter Tomasi, who’d been my editor on the Seven Soldiers book, and who is now the brilliant writer of Batman & Robin and some Green Lantern books that just finished, came to me and said, “Do you wanna do Batman?,” I thought I’d said what I had to say about Batman in the Arkham Asylum book, but then I thought, “What can I do with Batman?” Everything cool has been done with Batman, and everyone cool has done Batman. For me, it was about the story. I thought, “What if all the stories from 1939 until now were true, and they were part of this guy’s biography? If he’s had 15 years, and he was 19 when he started, and he’s maybe 34 now, heading for 35, you could fit this stuff in.” And then, the floodgates opened to me.
I love Batman. I love the Adam West Batman. I love the animated Batman. The character of Batman can encompass any interpretation, which is what makes that character so brilliant and why it’s survived so many different media. You can do the comedy Batman. You can do the camp Batman. You can do the super-serious, dark, existential Batman. You can do the adventure Batman. You can do the detective Batman. You can do the street crime Batman. You can do the fantasy Batman. You can do the superhero Batman. The character bends and is able to do it all, and there’s something just so brilliant about that. So, I wanted to take the totality of Batman and imagine that, when this guy was 24, he was Adam West and the Joker wasn’t killing people anymore, he was just trippin’ on his own chemicals because everyone in Gotham was trippin’, including Batman and Robin, and it looked like the Batman TV show. The TV show was this crazy, psychedelic, pop art Gotham.
And then, Batman said, “I’ve had enough of this gas. I’ve had enough of these fumes.” Robin goes off to college and Batman moves into this penthouse apartment and he’s got a sexier car. He’s lost the kid and becomes this James Bond Batman. You can take that through the entire history of the character. ‘70s Batman came out of ‘60s Batman and into ‘80s Batman, where you have a little bit of the Frank Miller stuff. Suddenly, Robin dies when he’s beaten to death by a crowbar. What does that do to that man, if you imagine that entire thing as his singular timeline, and he lived all those years and all those moments. That was the Batman that I wrote about, in trying to tell a very long, six or seven year story that’s just coming to an end now. I’ve done him justice by incorporating as much of that as I could. And they’re creating a new Batman now, which has a definite forward motion, and I think that’s just brilliant. That’s how Batman works. The character is undying. So, the substance of my thesis is that Batman is really cool.
The thing that’s been exciting about Superman is to see how the character has developed through generations. Superman started out as the socialist crusader in 1938. He was a Depression era hero who was created by marginalized young men, and he went on to become a patriot during the war years in the ‘40s. In the post-war years, he was suddenly a suburban dad, trying to make sense of his weird extended family and his role in the world, in the same way that all the men coming home from the war must have. In the ‘60s, he became a cosmic seeker. In the ‘80s, he became a yuppie. In the ‘90s, he died and the entire mechanism of Superman was then examined in a post-modern way, through the comics.
It’s slightly different from Batman, but both of them respond in the same way. Batman and Superman tell us what’s going on in the culture, at each stage of their development, and we’ll see it happen again. And now, Superman has been reinvented again [with the upcoming movie]. So, I wanted to encompass the entirety of that character, who could embody all the dreams of what we might be. There’s a messianic aspect to him. Superman is the man who opposes technology overwhelming humanity. Superman stands for our individuality and our sovereign self, in the midst of a gigantic corporate world. That’s why his time is about to come again, and that’s why I wanted to write Superman again, with the Action Comics stuff. It seemed worthwhile to come back and dig back into the roots of it and see if we could grow it again from a seed.
On Wonder Woman:
I’m working on a new Wonder Woman book with Yanick Paquette, where Hercules dies. Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, and the women have been chained up and are being controlled by Hercules and his men. It’s part of the Greek legend. And she finally turns on him and gets those chains around his neck, where they belong. The first book is going to be 120 pages. Diana is the main character, but we wanted to give a little bit of service to all of the stuff that actually happened in the original myth where Hercules captured the Amazons and subjected them to all kinds of tortures, so the first 15 pages of our book deal with that. It’s a big ladies-kick-ass thing.
Having read my feminist literature, I wanted to come up with the most outrageous version of the battle of the sexes to open this book. When you see Hercules gloating over Hippolyta, who’s down on her knees in the mud, all chained, that’s what we wanted to do. I wanted this to be something different from every other superhero book I’ve done. It’s not like a superhero comic. It’s a comic about the sexes and how we feel about one another, and why Wonder Woman represents the best of something.
The Amazons, over many thousands of years of living eternally, have developed some very strange and ritualized ideas about sex. This is what happens, if you have a utopian community of women. You don’t need to kill men, or any of that, but other things happen. If you’ve got maybe a couple thousand women, 250 years later, they’ve all kissed one another. A thousand years later, what’s going on? Two thousand years later, what the hell is going on?! And then, we take up the story 1,000 years after that.
I thought we owed the world a genuinely new sexuality that you don’t understand, and we’ll see if people can make sense of it. We did a lot of research on that book. It’s for mom and her teenage daughter, but not for your eight-year-old daughter, unless you want her to kill dad. It’s a story about a mother and her daughter, with Hippolyta and Diana. I grew up with a sister and a mother, and my father was estranged, so I watched that dynamic, and this is really about that. I wanted to really play on this notion of mothers and daughters, and how they fight and teach each other stuff.
This new book is something that I’ve been working on for quite awhile. It’s nine issues that are 40 pages each. The first one and the last one comprise an 80-page, giant DC super-spectacular story. There are seven comics, each of which come from a different parallel universe, all with a different storytelling approach and artistic look. Each one is drawn by a different artist, but each of them combine. DC Comics has always had this idea of the multi-verse, where there are multiple parallel universes that all occupy the same space, but vibrate at different frequencies. It’s that idea of comic book universes as music. That’s what the vibration is. And when you hear them all vibrating together, it makes the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, and you can choose what you want that music to be. So, we’re exploring that concept with this book.
They established that, in each of the worlds of the DC multi-verse, they read comic books about the other worlds. In one world, a fictional character can be a real person. So, we chose to make that the basis of this story. Basically, each of the worlds can read the comic book that we just read, the month before, and they’re all facing a gigantic cosmic threat, which is the most terrifying thing that anybody’s ever read in a comic. I don’t do hyperbole, so this is the one. Each of the worlds all connect, and they pass on a message to the next world, that something terrible is happening and something is bringing down the structure of the multi-verse.
The first of the seven books is a kind of Justice League of the multi-verse and how they come together. It features the black Superman that we had in Action Comics #9, Calvin Ellis. He’s the main character in that one. The second one is a pulp universe that’s the 1940′s characters that fit the pulp archetype. It’s set in a world where there’s only two billion people. It’s 2013, but they just had a major world war, and out of that comes a particular set of circumstances. The next one is set on Earth 11. There was this concept of the super-sons, where Superman and Batman had a couple of sons that were real mean bastards when they grew up. They just weren’t happy about the legacy their fathers had left them. So, the next one is about this world of the children of superheroes and what happens after you’ve turned the world into utopia, so there’s nothing for you to do, but you can punch out mountains. We chose to do it in the style of The Hills, with these really super bland conversations. We wanted something as shallow, flat and on the surface, but with superheroes and the kind of conversations that superheroes would have. You’ll see a lot of the ‘90s characters who have been consigned to the dust bins. They’ve got nothing to do, so they perform battle re-enactments. That’s another book, which I can’t really describe the ambiance of.
Then, we took the storytelling devices of Watchmen and applied them to the Charlton characters that Watchmen was originally inspired by. Instead of Watchmen’s nine-panel grid, we have an eight-panel grid that reflects the musical harmonics that underpin the whole series. It’s based on the number eight, which becomes really important through everything. In 40 pages, we’ve done this thing that is probably the best thing we’ve ever done in superhero comics. After that is a great take on the Captain Marvel stuff, and it’s done as an all-ages book. It has a completely different tone, and it’s a really neat little story that’s self-contained.
After that are the Nazi superheroes that’s set on what used to be Earth X, but it’s not Earth 10. The idea behind it is that the Nazis won World War II and took over the world. It’s like, what if the classic DC world has been played with and Hitler got ahold of the super-baby, and the world emerges from that. We didn’t want to do something dull. This one was meant to feel like a big Shakespeare-style HBO series. Imagine if you were Superman and for the first 25 years of your life you were working for Hitler, and then you go, “Oh, my god, it’s Hitler! Shit, now I get it! Now I see who the baddie is!” And he cleans up and creates a utopia, but that utopia is based on the Nazi principles that he was indoctrinated with. Everything is wrong, overblown and ready for destruction in this culture, and Superman knows it. He knows that his entire society, even though it looks like utopian, has been built on the bones of the dead and ultimately is wrong and must be destroyed. To that comes the Freedom Fighter characters led by Uncle Sam, who is the last remnant of the America that was conquered in 1956. He’s gathered all the people that Hitler killed. We’ve recast all the Freedom Fighter characters as Hitler’s enemies. It’s all the people who Hitler persecuted, and it’s the return of the oppressed. It’s a big Game of Thrones, hardcore story about what happens when your entire society is under threat from terrorists who actually embody the good. Worse than that, your leader, Superman, knows that they’re right and that it’s time for this society to die.
Following that, the seventh issue of the book is called Ultra Comics. It’s the one that’s set in this world, where we actually use this technology that will blow your mind. You’ve never had this experience before with a comic book. That’s all that I’m going to say. It’s something you have never seen before, and it’s an actual superhero that we’re going to make, in front of you. In the midst of all of that, there’s a guidebook where we’re going to show you how the multi-verse works, and it will have a narrative element through it as well. And then, it ends with a bookend that completes the story that we started off in #1, and it unites all the strands of the narrative together. This is my magnum opus. This is why I love comics.