For more than 20 Years, the Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison has been regarded as one of the most original and inventive writers in the comics medium. During his career writing comics, he has contributed groundbreaking and best-selling superhero stories for both DC Comics—Batman, Superman, JLA, Doom Patrol, Animal Man—and Marvel Comics—New X-Men, Marvel Boy and Fantastic Four. In addition he has created a number of revolutionary original works including We3, The Invisibles, The Filth and the cult classics Kill Your Boyfriend, The Mystery Play, and Sea Guy. His original graphic novels and comic book collections have been translated into over a dozen languages.
In 2006 Morrison wrote two Eisner Award winning series, the 30 part epic Seven Soldiers and the critically acclaimed All Star Superman (a fresh take on Superman produced with artist Frank Quitely) and was also honored with three Eagle Awards in the U.K., including one for Lifetime Achievement in the field. In 2007, Morrison was nominated for two Eisner Awards for All Star Superman and a Harvey Award for Best Writer and won another Eagle Award for All Star Superman. He was one of four writers for 52, a weekly comic book series published by DC Comics from 2006-2007, an overwhelming success, selling up to 180,000 copies per week. He is currently writing the Batman and Final Crisis series for DC Comics. In the first installment of a two part interview,PWCWtalked with Morrison about his work on Batman and shares his thoughts on working in the superhero genre.
PW Comics Week: Your work on Batman. Where do we begin? What inspired you to tell the stories you’ve told so far?
Grant Morrison: Arkham Asylum in 1989 [featuring the Joker] was an attempt to tell a psychological, symbolic, allusive, and expressionistic Batman story as a kind of response to the "real world" take on superheroes that was in vogue after [Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1986] Watchmen and [Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s 1987] Batman: Year One. Many comic fans consider Arkham the "art movie" version of Batman but it’s remained the biggest-selling original graphic novel of all time and its continued popularity suggests to me that the "mainstream" audience enjoys all kinds of Batman stories. With Batman: Gothic in 1990, I wanted to combine the Gothic novels of the 1700s with the pulp-noir setting of early Batman. It was also an attempt to do as "straight" a Batman as I was capable of at the time. After the dreamlike, Jungian Dark Knight in Arkham Asylum, I wanted to demonstrate I could write a slightly more traditional Batman.
In my JLA stories, I popularized the idea of the healthy, Zen-warrior Batman as an alternative to the slightly-hysterical, obsessed and violent portrayal of the character that had gained ground. And for this current run of stories (beginning with “Batman & Son” from Batman #655 in 2005) I set out to tell a long "definitive" story of Batman, which would implicate his entire publishing history into the plot. I wanted to do a dark, psychologically-driven story since those always seem to suit Batman’s nature. It’s about his past catching up with him and deals with the ultimate threat to everything he values and represents.
I wanted to assemble all the classical tropes of the pulp noir crime genre: the diabolical mastermind, the femme fatale, the inescapable traps, the secret societies of evil…and push them beyond all reasonable limits to a kind of screaming Death Metal crescendo.
PWCW: What drew you to Batman initially?
GM: The same thing that makes him the most popular fictional character on the planet. Bruce Wayne is a very compelling fantasy figure. Super-rich, handsome, dynamic, troubled. The horns give him a hint of the devilish but his soul is spotless. He’s a proper Gothic hero: a romantic, Byronic figure that kicks ass.
PWCW: What influenced your overall approach and decisions regarding plot and characterization?
GM: The big breakthrough for me was when I decided to bring Batman’s entire 70 year history into canon by declaring that ALL of these stories had happened in one man’s incredible life. He’s lost two Robins, seen Batgirl crippled by the Joker, had his back broken and his city devastated! What would the accumulated mental toll of all those years do to even the strongest man? And how would a well-organised and frighteningly-prepared villain attempt to take advantage of that?
PWCW: As I write this the excitement surrounding the climax of your Batman: R.I.P. storyline could not be any greater—the issues are selling out as they release and fans are discussing your work around the world, evidenced by the massive buzz on the Internet and in comic shops. What can you tell me about your inspirations for this particular storyline and what are your thoughts on how it has played out and been received so far?
GM: I’m very pleased with how it has been received. At the time of writing, “Hearts In Darkness,” the final episode of Batman R.I.P. hasn’t been released so I’ve no idea how people will react to the conclusion. I feel it’s my own personal best Batman story.
I had the idea to develop an approach to comic narrative that would actually benefit from becoming entangled in internet fan speculation, gossip and research. So Batman R.I.P., with its huge canvas of potential suspects, its central mystery story (“Who Is The Black Glove?"), which has driven all kinds of inventive speculation, and its references to old stories and obscure Tibetan Buddhist practises you have to look up on Wikipedia, became an attempt to do for Batman what I’d done for The Invisibles in the ‘90s but with better technology. It’s an approach which rewards deeper and more engrossing engagement from readers. It’s proven very popular and will probably become commonplace. TV shows like Lost and movies like Donnie Darko generated the same kind of extra-narrative participation, if I dare call it that!
I’ve always liked to leave resonant spaces, gaps and hints in stories, where readers can do their own work and find clues or insert their own wild and often brilliant theories. I’m often trying to create a kind of fuzzy quantum uncertainty or narrative equivalent of a Rorschach Blot Test effect, which invites interpretation. Lazier readers hate when I do this but fortunately they seem to be in the minority.
This all-encompassing take on the material also gave some overlooked old adventures a new relevance and in doing so drew attention to DC’s entire Batman back catalogue by transforming every neglected old story into a potential goldmine of clues towards the psychology of Batman or the identity of his nemesis!
PWCW: What inspired this storyline in particular? Everything you’d done previously was leading up to this, wasn’t it?
GM: Batman: R.I.P.began as a story title back in 2005 when I accepted the Batman assignment, so I was always building towards it…slowly layering in seemingly disconnected or arbitrary strands which would be revealed as one grand tapestry at the very end. It took three years to get there and I left a lot of room for improvisation on the way but, yes, all the narrative streams were designed to pour into the tight 6-issue finale with the force of a fireman’s hose. Batman R.I.P. is quite dense and delirious as befits the experience it depicts so I’ve tried to make it worth a re-read or two, especially as the conclusion to the trilogy of books with Batman & Son, and Batman: The Black Glove.
PWCW: What can you tell me about your upcoming work on Batman? Are you still as excited by the character and his world as you were at the outset of your arc?
GM: Possibly more so. My understanding of the character has become deeper.
PWCW: Has working on Batman and All Star Superman had any impact on you as a writer?
GM : Of course and in very different ways. All Star Superman was a very classically-composed story which drew its inspiration from folk tales and fables and it taught me a new kind of simplicity and clarity which has made my recent work much better and more focused, I think. Batman is rooted in a fierce, trashy pulp tradition and has taught me most about the magical intersection where preparation meets spontaneity and improvisation.
I always learn lessons as a writer and as a human being from trying to do justice to the ideas behind such iconic figures. Ultimately both books are DC superhero trademark characters but I try to find meaning in what might otherwise be corporate cartoons by emphasizing the fundamental human truths they symbolize, in a way that’s almost like an invocation, or like method acting.
PWCW: What are you expectations for the hardcover and trade paperback Batman and All Star Superman collections (in both the direct market and book market)?
GM: I don’t have any particular expectations about sales. My work has always sold well and I seem to have a solid base of regular readers. It’s never been my primary focus so I tend to have no idea what kind of numbers are involved.
PWCW: What draws you to work in the superhero genre?
GM: I enjoy the freedom to work with colourful primary archetypes that speak directly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longest and highest aspirations. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get but at their best superhero stories allow us to deal directly with “mythic” elements of the human experience. We’re all superheroes in our own stories and in comics we get to see our heroes wrestle with Guilt, Fear, Commitment, Love, Loss, in very direct, imaginative and entertaining ways.
Superheroes deal with primal human emotions on a Paul Bunyan scale and because of their very nature as “unbeatable” ideals; they tend to suggest powerful methods of overcoming difficult emotions or coping with hard times in our lives. At their best they help us to confront even the deepest existential crises. They have a strong “pagan” religious or psychological dimension which I find rich, fascinating and filled with potential.
A comic book “universe” such as DC, with its cosmic backdrop of multiple universes and godlike characters, provides one of the few canvasses upon which we are permitted an exuberant day-glo examination of big issues of good and evil, being and non-being, free will and destiny. Those lofty themes appeal to my imagination and I like the irony of being able to explore or present sophisticated philosophical notions in the pages of a trashy superhero comic.
Jeffery Klaehn is a widely published author and cultural commentator. He maintains a comic-related blog and is currently writing a book about comic books and superheroes.
[Next week in Part II of the Grant Morrison Interview: Final Crisis and more.]