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Since debuting as a comics writer in the early ’80s, Glasgow-born Grant Morrison has been actively engaged with celebrating the conventions of superhero storytelling, often by ripping them to shreds. Morrison’s mind-bending take on DC’s Animal Man and The Doom Patrol in the late ’80s and early ’90s helped set the standard for blending superheroes with the postmodernist subgenre known as “superfiction” (where the audience becomes a part of the art), and in creator-owned series like The Invisibles, The Filth, and We3, Morrison expanded his aesthetic vision to encompass politics, ancient myths, science fiction, and the occult. Currently, Morrison is writing the creator-owned Joe The Barbarian (about a sickly boy who escapes into a very real fantasy world), as well as two key titles in the DC Universe: Batman And Robin (about the adventures of novice Batman Dick Grayson and his snobby sidekick Damian Wayne) and the miniseries The Return Of Bruce Wayne (which intends to bring the original Batman back, via a series of time-traveling adventures). Morrison recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his take on Batman, what inspires him, and his future plans to delve deeper into the meaning of superheroes.
The A.V Club: With Batman And Robin, you’ve been writing stories that take place in present-day DC continuity, but The Return Of Bruce Wayne takes place mostly in the past. Do you prefer to work with these iconic characters in an ongoing, what’s-happening-now way, or to retreat to the past where you can play around without messing up what other writers are up to?
GM: A little bit of both, I guess. These characters come complete with an ancestry, and I guess that’s what fascinates me about them. The notion of the DC Universe itself, which is 75 years deep or whatever, is interesting. It’s a place, but it’s also a sustained story that’s lasted for such a long time and has outlived even its creators. So going in there and getting to play with the inhabitants is quite interesting. And I think the history of them and being able to create new strands for them and new opportunities for them is equally interesting. It’s like a science experiment.
AVC: In Batman And Robin, you have Dick Grayson as Batman, not Bruce Wayne, but it still reads as “Batman.” When you’re writing the character, do you think of him as Batman, or Dick Grayson?
GM: No I always think of Dick Grayson, because I think of him as younger, skinnier, more working-class. Because for me, coming from Britain particularly, I think there’s a big class element in Batman. I like the idea that Dick Grayson was a carnival kid and kind of lower-class specimen. And Batman’s an aristocrat, a blueblood from the higher echelons of Gotham City society. But the two of them work really well together. So I saw the character in that light, and in that way, Damian the orphan is very much an aristocrat and privileged kid, so you kind of get the same dynamic, but in reverse. So when I write him, I always think of that. It’s a little more colloquial than Bruce Wayne might be.
AVC: When you write something with a long-range goal, where you know that within a year, something in particular is going to have to happen, how much does that affect your writing month-to-month?
GM: Well, as you might imagine, I make these long-range plans, and the good bits of them always remain in place, but generally on the job, you find a different way to do things, smarter ways to do things. Yeah, the tentpoles, as they call them, are always there, but things can change on the way. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s never absolutely set in stone, and you’re not following an outline point by point.
AVC: You’ve worked on Batman off and on almost since you started writing for DC, going back to Arkham Asylum. Has your approach to the character changed over time? Do you feel like your job is to write the best version of the character, or your version of the character?
GM: I think any writer coming on to Batman should at least attempt to do their own definitive version. What it means to them. Whatever they think that symbol or character can say. If you take on Batman, you want to do the best you can, but you also want to say something specific about the personality of the character and the writer.
AVC: When you’re done with a project and you hand it off to somebody else, do you still follow it? Do you keep an eye on what people are doing with what you’ve left behind?
GM: I sometimes go back. Not often. It’s weird that there’s a sustained continuity that people pass on. Characters are re-energized by new generations of creative people. You’re kind of passing on the baton, and it might go in a completely different way from anything you thought was appropriate. So sometimes, yeah, I’ve looked at them now and again, but sometimes they’re very different from what I would like to see. [Laughs.] It’s a hard question. Sometimes I pretend not to look at my own characters, because that’s like different people getting off with your girlfriend or something.
AVC: So if someone else is writing Animal Man or Doom Patrol…
GM: I usually check it out, but I start seething, sitting in the chair thinking, “This is totally daft, he would never say that!”
AVC: Does it tempt you to return to those characters and bring them back to what you think they should be?
GM: No, not often. I think you get your chance to say something, and as I say, it really is a huge patchwork quilt of a thing, and people will still be adding to the DC universe long after I’m snuffed. You have to be aware of that. You’re coming in and having to play by certain rules. There’s certain things you can’t do, or else it doesn’t work. Superman can’t kill people or rape people. [Laughs.] It’s like an environment to me. I can look at it almost in an anthropological way. It’s like going to a particular place which is created by generations of people, and you can have a wee play in that little ballpark as long as you don’t damage it too much. But at the same time, hopefully you’ll be able to express your own ideas through these… symbols.
AVC: When you read comics, do you generally prefer to read writers who do similar things to what you do, or people who do something you’d never do?
GM: I tend to only read comics written by friends or people I’ve known. And I’m not a great comic reader. I get a bunch of DC stuff sent in a box every month, and I’ve got a friend in town who runs a store, and he gives me stuff every now and again. But I’m not a big comic reader, so I tend to read people like Warren Ellis or Alan Moore. People I’m familiar with, or that I’ve met, or that I’m friendly with. Like Mark Millar or whoever. It’s more on the basis of who I know rather than who I like.
AVC: How about outside the comics realm? Do you like to read writers who challenge you?
GM: I don’t even think of it that way. I think everyone has their own individual vision of the world, and we all get our own little set of senses, and we process things, and we write them down, and we talk about them, and we stream them, and some people are better at composing things, but everyone’s view is at the very least absolutely individual and unique, and never to be repeated in the entire history of the universe. So I don’t look at it that way. I tend not to read fiction. I mostly read nonfiction, but of the fiction I have read, recent stuff has been things like this new superfiction stuff everyone’s doing. I like that. I like text that involves the reader heavily, and kind of forces you to really work things out.
AVC: A lot of your writing deals with bizarre, speculative concepts. Is that informed by your reading of nonfiction? Do you read a lot about cutting-edge science?
GM: I read loads of science stuff. Science, anthropology, occult stuff… just weird fringe ideas. Those are always helpful to people who do superheroes. So yeah, that stuff goes in. But to me, it’s mostly about experience. The books are helpful to maybe provide metaphor, but for me, it’s about real life. If my dad dies and I’m writing about something like that in All-Star Superman, suddenly I’ve got a story which I may never have had if my dad hadn’t died. So what is the Faustian pact in that one? [Laughs.] But it’s mostly that. It’s things that happen in real life, and feelings that you have that you’ve got to get out, and I think that superhero comics in particular are really useful for talking about big emotions and feelings, and personifying and concretizing symbols.
AVC: Back when you were writing Animal Man, you mentioned that a lot of what you were writing in the book ended up happening in your life shortly afterward, as though you were conjuring events.
GM: Yeah, because I think the only way you can get something out is to invest some real emotion into it, which means you’re already writing about what’s going to happen to you, whether you know it or not. That’s why I’m always surprised when people talk about writer’s block. Because to me, it can’t be stopped. Every news item you see, every thought you have, every strange soap-opera event that happens in my life can be translated into a story and make that story mine. So for me, all that stuff… that’s me, that’s my life. That’s where the engine comes from to write it. I don’t only get it from books.
AVC: You’ve done more miniseries work lately than open-ended runs. Do you have any plans to do another Invisibles that would run longer?
GM: Yeah, I keep thinking about it, but it keeps not happening. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I keep pulling back from that stuff, and have just been trying to tell stories for a while. Be a storyteller. Even though The Invisibles was a story, it involved my participation a lot more. So yeah, I keep thinking about it, but I haven’t found a vehicle yet.
AVC: Last year, All-Star Superman made a lot of people’s lists of the best comics of the decade. Were you surprised by how beloved that series was?
GM: I don’t know if I should lie, but the answer is no. [Laughs.] We put a lot of thought into it, and we worked through what we wanted Superman to be, and I think people responded as I’d imagined to the architecture of it. Because comics fans are quite into that. They like the Apollonian, rather than the Dionysian, and Superman is very Apollonian. And that’s what I felt. I thought it was always going to be popular, because it was very straight-up. The storytelling stuck to the folktales, so it was intended to be universal and iconic, so that even your 5-year-old nephew could read it. It was intended to be that universal story, and I think that’s how it panned out. It became what we hoped it would be, so I can’t say I was totally surprised.
AVC: You’ve been working on a nonfiction book called Supergods for a while. What can you say about it?
GM: I’m actually just finishing it this month. I think it was originally intended to come out in fall of this year, but they’re moving it forward to spring next. At least that’s the last conversation I vaguely remember. Anyway, I’m getting quite close to wrapping it up. It’s partly a history of superhero comics and partly a biography, and it’s also almost a spiritual thing. It’s very hard to describe. It jumps through culture and talks about superheroes as basically expressive of the way people were feeling at the time they came around. The early Superman was a radical socialist reformer, but during the war, he becomes a patriotic cop. Then in the ’50s, when men were coming back from war and trying to form some kind of semblance of sane society, the Superman adventures are very domesticated. It’s all about his family, his dog, his friends. It follows this thread about why particular things are popular in their time, and why they’re more popular now. Why Iron Man’s suddenly a huge global success when it used to just be a comic that a few nerds read. It’s about all of that. Nothing like it has been done before, so it’s hard for me to describe it, but it has everything to do with superheroes and why we invented them. As I’ve been doing it, I’ve been finding new amazing stuff and discovering angles on things that I thought were really familiar.
AVC: Is it one of those things that have been in your head for a while and you just had to get it out?
GM: Not so much. It actually came out of the blue. Originally, it was meant to be a book of my interviews, and then the idea became much more ambitious, and suddenly I got involved in writing this thing, which I didn’t really want to do at first, but I got really excited about the idea. Because I could see the idea of comics developing through distinct ages like the Golden Age and the Silver Age, and how it came to mimic the development of human beings through infancy and adolescence. Late adolescence is the dark age, where it starts to get really miserable and introverted and excited by pain. [Laughs.] And so on. Everything can fit in the beautiful structure of this flowering medium. It seemed interesting that no one had ever actually done this. It’s like talking about film as if no one had ever seen film, and now you’re trying to introduce everything from Citizen Kane to The Godfather to Goodfellas. It’s quite exciting at the same time, because people haven’t looked at this stuff with a real critical eye, ever.
AVC: Did you read some of the existing critical texts, like Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, or just work from your own head?
GM: I’ve read some of those books in the past, but I wanted this to be purely from the point of view of someone who’s still immersed in this business. I’m not an academic, but I kind of work just from the point of view of an imaginative person doing this work and looking at the history and the cultural possibilities and the future of it as almost like sci-fi.
AVC: There’s also a documentary coming out about you. How do you feel being a public figure like that, being a creator and also the subject of somebody else’s creation?
GM: It’s… odd. [Laughs.] A Superman story I really love is “Superman’s Secret Power,” where he gains the power to shoot a tiny imp from his hand, and the imp flies around the world and does things better than Superman, and people love the imp even more than Superman. Superman kind of stays home moping. [Laughs.] Well, that’s what it’s like. Because I’m kind of sitting here doing some work, and the public will be seeing me elsewhere while I’m stuck in this weird, hermetic existence.