Scottish-born Grant Morrison started out working in British indie comics, and became part of the “Brit Wave” of UK writers who brought a sophisticated new perspective to American superhero comics beginning in the mid-’80s. Morrison’s American breakthrough came with the 1989 bestseller Arkham Asylum, which he followed up with his metafictional take on Animal Man and an ambitious, strange vision for the venerable Doom Patrol. Since then, Morrison has created The Invisibles, one of the defining comics of the ’90s; revamped the X-Men; and most recently, become the backbone of DC Comics, blending postmodern sensibilities and narrative techniques with an affectionate, informed respect for traditional superhero stories. Among his recent works are groundbreaking series like All-Star Superman, Seaguy, Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, and We3, and he’s currently beginning a run with fellow Scot Frank Quitely on Batman And Robin. Morrison recently exchanged e-mails with The A.V. Club in a discussion of fandom, burnout, and Harry Potter rituals.
The A.V. Club: Given that you work largely in a medium where the fans are notoriously difficult to satisfy, how much consideration do you give your audience?
Grant Morrison: I don’t like to think of my readership as “fans,” a word which has always suggested a kind of power relationship I’m uncomfortable with. I do like to keep abreast of what the hardcore vocal members of the comics-reading audience are talking about on Internet message boards, but there are so few of them, as a percentage of the buying audience, that I can’t allow their opinions to dictate story direction. It’s always interesting to see what the real enthusiasts think, but they’re rarely representative of the tastes of the wider audience, so I tend to write for myself, for an imagined smart 14-year-old, and for a couple of friends who are still big comics fans. I’m a fan myself, so I try to write the kind of comics I want to read.
AVC: You’ve had your way with just about every iconic DC character there is. Is there anyone you’ve wanted to tell a story about and haven’t had the chance?
GM: Wonder Woman is the one I want to get to work with next. I’ve become fascinated by all the contradictions and complexities in the character over the years, and would love to do an All-Star Superman-style take that would clarify and redefine what she stands for, and what she’s capable of as a character.
AVC: How involved are you in the editorial planning process? How carefully do you have to work with the editorial staff and other writers?
GM: I write a big pitch document outlining what I plan to do over 12 issues, and send it to my editor. The other writers do something similar, and it’s our editor’s job to keep us on the same page and to catch any inconsistencies that may arise.
AVC: How far ahead do you plan plot arcs in your books? How much editorial feedback is involved before you can move ahead?
GM: I plan years in advance, but I like to leave enough space in the narrative scheme to change things, because I always get my best ideas the closer I come to the end of a project, after I’ve lived with it for a while. I write dozens and dozens of pages more than I need, and then edit them down to size. It’s more like sculpture than construction. I’m at a stage in my career where I don’t expect or get too much editorial input into what I’m doing. I now have a proven track record of success, so my editors are willing to cut me some slack even when a particular approach is not to their personal taste.
AVC: Do you prefer working in-continuity or out of it, and why?
GM: I prefer working out of strict continuity, because no normal human being can have a firm grip on the constantly shifting bardo-like territory of a comics universe, where entire histories can be erased by a strong enough super-sneeze. I don’t ignore continuity, and try my best to stick as closely to the current status quo as possible, but it’s not my primary concern when I start a story.
AVC: What qualities make you want to revive or reinterpret a character, other than simple availability?
GM: Often I’m asked to consider old properties, and I take great delight in finding out what makes them tick and how to reinterpret that for a contemporary audience. Sometimes I just happen to get a good idea for an obscure character like Klarion The Witch Boy, Frankenstein, or the Manhattan Guardian, and I put in a request to do it.
AVC: How involved are you in the business of comics?
GM: I stopped having anything to do with the business side of what I do soon after I met my wife Kristan in 2000. She was a corporate insurance broker, and has a supernatural way with figures. She does the numbers now and I do the words, which suits me fine. That’s why I’ve been able to do more work in the last decade than at any time previously.
AVC: What is it about the comics medium in particular that appeals to you as a storyteller?
GM: The essentially magical qualities of inert words and ink pictures working together with reader consciousness to create a holographic Sensurround emotional experience. What else?
AVC: What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment in comics? Given the proverbial carte blanche, what would you most want to do?
GM: My greatest accomplishment so far is to keep selling enough that I never want for the labor that sustains my Presbyterian soul. It surprises me constantly that my sometimes-unorthodox approach has such a large following, but I’m very grateful to my readers for allowing me to continue writing 10 or 12 hours a day. I already have carte blanche, and get to do pretty much anything that comes to mind. The big problem is time. I don’t have enough of it to do all the things I think about doing.
AVC: Has there ever been a project you’ve wanted to do enough to put all your other work on the back burner, to give it 100 percent of your time? Is there a Grant Morrison super-project that you’ve put off only for reasons of time?
GM: It’s not so much that I put things off, but some ideas never seem to flap their wings strongly enough to take to the air. I wrote hundreds of pages for a novel titled The If before realizing I was never going to make time to finish it. There’s this big comic idea I’ve been working on for the last few years—briefly called Warcop, and now known as The New Bible—where I’ve now gone through about five different versions of the first-issue script without getting what I wanted from it. There are dozens of unfinished or aborted projects in my files, but I can only assume they don’t get done because they’re not robust enough to struggle through the birth process.
AVC: Which artists have you enjoyed working with the most? Which ones have been the most difficult?
GM: Artists with whom I’ve enjoyed particularly fruitful and effective collaborations include Frank Quitely, Chris Weston, Steve Yeowell, Cameron Stewart, J.H. Williams, Doug Mahnke, Phil Jimenez, Philip Bond, Frazer Irving, and many others. (Definitely Sean Murphy on the upcoming Joe The Barbarian.) I haven’t worked with any artists who didn’t give their best, and I can’t think of anyone who’s been deliberately difficult to work with, but in some cases, I’ve collaborated on company-owned projects with artists on very demanding deadlines that impacted negatively on our work together, or artists with a stylistic approach that couldn’t quite capture the particular nuances of body language and expression I depend on for my stories to read properly.
AVC: A lot of fans refer to you as a postmodernist storyteller, though it seems to be used as a canard as much as it is a compliment. Is that a conscious stylistic choice?
GM: Secretly, I’ve always felt I had more in common with the modernist approach than with postmodernism, but I can see where the connection might arise—and to be honest, I’m no academic, so I tend to use these words, like in Alice In Wonderland, to mean what I want them to mean rather than what they actually do mean. I could point to “classical” influences on the style of All-Star Superman, or a “romantic” approach to Batman, but I’m sure any competent English lit professor could shoot me down in flames in an instant. I just do what I do because it feels right. Other people attach labels to that. I aspire in my work to the kind of luminous, “authorless” poetic transparency found in Alan Garner’s brilliant novels Thursbitch and Strandloper, but I’m far from reaching that goal.
AVC: It’s interesting that you say that, especially given that you often have a literal presence in your work, and your first big DC project, Animal Man, was pretty meta-narrative in that sense. What is it about Garner’s work that appeals to you? Are there any other writers in comics or fiction today that you really admire?
GM: I love how Garner doesn’t let you inside the characters’ head. He just tells you what they’re saying and to whom, and lets his readers work everything out the way you would if you found yourself eavesdropping on a conversation. He never wastes time describing what his characters look like or what they’re wearing, unless it has relevance for the story. I love the poetic super-compression of his descriptions of landscape or environmental conditions. There’s a kind of pure tone to his writing that seems to me the very apex of the art. The reader is made an active participant rather than a passive spectator, and that’s the effect I’m aiming toward. I pretty much stopped reading fiction in 1990, but I’ve picked up a couple of books since then. The last ones I read were House Of Leaves and The Raw Shark Texts, both of which I liked a lot. I grew up influenced largely by TV dramatists and playwrights like Dennis Potter, David Rudkin, Nigel Kneale, Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale, David Sherwin, and Peter Barnes, to name a few favorites.
AVC: A few of your best works suffered long delays (All-Star Superman), outrightinterruptions (Seaguy), or even full-scale destruction by litigation (Flex Mentallo). What’s been your biggest frustration in the industry?
GM: The lack of a Flex Mentallo trade paperback is particularly annoying. Otherwise, those delays have been an organic part of the process; in the case of All-Star Superman, I elected to wait for Frank Quitely to finish the project in his own good time rather than try to rush him through it. With Seaguy, the gap of a few years between books one and two gave the story a stronger sense of nostalgia and distance between the “childhood” world of the first volume and the “teenage” milieu of the second. I can’t say I’ve experienced a lot of frustration in this business.
AVC: Is there any of your work from the past that you wish had a wider audience today? I ask here out of pure selfishness, since my years of evangelism for Bible John have been met with many blank stares.
GM: Bible John would be good. There aren’t many documentary comics like that one around. I’d like the Zenith series to be available. I’d love to have a collection of The New Adventures Of Hitler on my bookshop. The Big Dave strips I did with Mark Millar for 2000 AD are some of my favorites and would make a good, daft book. A lot of that late-’80s/early-’90s non-superhero stuff is missing from my shelves, and it’s some of my most interesting, diverse work, I think.
AVC: When you complete a project, do you consider it done, or do you think of it more as temporarily on hold and worthy of revisiting in the future? Do you ever re-read your older work and think about picking a storyline or character back up?
GM: All of the work feels like a seamless continuum. I write constantly, so it flows from one project to the next, and I would edit everything endlessly if I had the chance. I can always see ways to improve what I’ve done. At the same time, knowing it’s all an ongoing life’s work allows me to be less precious about blind alleys, failed experiments, and misfires.
AVC: You’ve taken a pretty international approach to comics storytelling, getting your start in British comics, becoming a huge name in American comics, and telling stories in Indian and Japanese modes of storytelling as well. Have comics become more international? What are Americans missing in the international comics scene?
GM: Comics have always been international—one of the most influential books of my teenage years was Maurice Horn’s vast comic encyclopedia [The World Encyclopedia Of Comics], where I first learned about the art of Guido Crepax, and Diabolik, and discovered Filipino fantasy books, Japanese manga, Argentinean superheroes, and the whole panorama of world comics. But it’s been a long time since I kept up with developments, so I don’t know much about what’s going on in the global comics scene these days, I’m sorry to say. I have to confess I’m not a huge comics fan in the wider sense of comics as an art form. Apart from the absurdist comics like Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed To Thrizzle and Steve Aylett’s The Caterer, I just like superhero stuff. I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to the undergrounds or the indie scene. I don’t have a bagged and boarded comic collection—there’s a heap of ancient tattered things I keep in a cupboard, collector’s items rotted to pulp by bath-time re-reads. It’s Marvel and DC comics, newspapers, and non-fiction ’round our way. I’m probably the wrong person to ask what Americans are missing out on!
AVC: Speaking of British comics, if a British writer reaches a certain level of critical success, is he automatically inducted into a magic circle?
GM: Induction isn’t automatic, and involves a rigorous series of Harry Potter-style challenges involving hippogriff-wrangling, mer-wolf races, and all the usual folderol of an openly occult lifestyle. Marshall Law writer Pat Mills is also a magician of some infamy.
AVC: You’ve been incredibly prolific, especially in the last few years. Do you ever feel you’re courting burnout—or, for that matter, that you’ve already married burnout in a lovely private ceremony?
GM: Shhh! Burnout believes we’re married, but it was a dodgy Mick Jagger con job conducted by Cap’n Barbossa out of Pirates Of The Caribbean—in international waters, mind you, where none of man’s laws apply. She’ll rue the day, but until then, it’s a never-ending honeymoon!
Burnout is grist to the mill. I write every day, for most of the day, so it’s just about turning into metaphor whatever’s going on in my life, in the world, and in my head. Every nightmare, every moment of grief or joy or failure, is a moment I can convert into cash via words. I use everything. Turning life into stories is how I make sense of my experience. No matter how weird or disturbing or upsetting to me personally, it all finds its way in there. I’ve been close to nervous breakdown, sheer exhaustion, or profound existential crisis several times doing this stuff, and somehow, I always bounce back refreshed with new ideas. “Bend, son,” my mother told me when I was young, “bend and you won’t break!” Otherwise, I’m lucky to have a job doing something I really love to do, and I’m happy to accept the pressures of relentless deadlines or reader expectations as necessary evils. It’s probably not as stressful as mining coal or leading men into battle.