Most readers will never get the chance to spend an evening with Grant Morrison, sipping pints and hearing his personal take on the history of superhero comics. But Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human fills that role, with all the strengths and weaknesses the “conversation with Grant Morrison” form implies. Morrison is a charming, intelligent, avuncular host, but like a conversation, Supergods lacks rigor; ideas are brought up and discarded as the informal chat moves right along.
Supergods is done no favors by its ponderous subtitle, which implies a philosophical, essay-like approach. Instead, Morrison adopts a chronological format, starting with Action Comics #1 and taking a fairly comprehensive approach to the major creators, editors, and characters of their eras. As the 1960s begin, he also adds a strong autobiographical element, describing his personal life and his relationship with comics. By the time he begins writing his own comics in the late ’70s and becomes a major player in the ’80s, Supergods is as much about Morrison as it is about superheroes.
The split between those aspects of the book offer its biggest problems. A Morrison artistic memoir would be a fine thing, as would Grant Morrison’s History Of Superheroes. But the sections that don’t fit into either of those categories tend to not work. For example, Morrison’s descriptions of some of his famous friends and fans seem largely irrelevant, especially when they come after his fascinating theories about how superhero comics should be embraced for their history and continuity tangles. And the narrative comes to a screeching halt when Morrison spends dozens of pages on his late-’90s vacations, possibly drug-induced visions, and subsequent illness.
On the other hand, where his personal history and comics history intersect, Supergods reveals genius. The best chapters come in the 1980s, when Morrison takes on the era’s seminal works, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. His hagiography with the former is stellar, but his complicated relationship with the latter, its creator Alan Moore, and its influence over the medium all bring out Morrison’s most compelling writing.
Morrison’s prose happily fits in with his comics writing—it’s smart, but maybe too smart and too wild (he draws parallels between Superman’s first appearance and the Vodun deity Legba in the first few pages, in a comparison that leads nowhere and never returns), but never loses its sense of fun. With lines like “The Silver Surfer series lasted nine issues before it was put to death with the same ruthless efficiency as Jesus himself,” Morrison makes it clear that while Supergods is a history, it’s by no means sober. Morrison’s ambitions may have outpaced his abilities, but as usual, the end result still contains some wonders.