Scottish writer Grant Morrison has done a lot in his life: received an MBE (a British royal order of chivalry for excellence in the arts), played in bands, written plays, starred as the villain in a series of music videos by My Chemical Romance, met alien gods while traveling in Kathmandu, and written some of the greatest comics of the past 30 years for the pantheon of superheroes: Batman, Superman, the X-Men, and the Justice League of America, as well as scores of his own creations. But with the first volume of DC Comics’ forthcoming Wonder Woman: Earth One, he’s taken on perhaps his biggest challenge: writing a story about Wonder Woman, a character who has confounded comics writers and movie scripters for decades. And it could well be his most controversial book to date.
Drawn by Yanick Paquette, Wonder Women: Earth One is the latest in a series of standalone graphic novels from DC Entertainment aiming to reinvigorate the publisher’s biggest characters for new audiences. It’s one that’s languished for a long time: Morrison started work on it in 2009. Although he’d previously written lengthy and successful takes on both Batman and Superman—Arkham Asylum, published in 1989, is one of the most-read Batman books ever—he’d never really thought about writing the story of Diana, warrior princess of the Amazons.
Like many young boys who read superhero comics growing up, Morrison “just didn’t like the Wonder Woman comics,” he tells me by phone from L.A. in the middle of a publicity blitz for the book, his heavy Glaswegian accent requiring careful listening. He points out that her comics of the 1960s were “pretty horrible stories, where she was always pining for the hand in marriage of Steve Trevor.” However, when Morrison finally read the original comics of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, from the 1940s, Morrison was “blown away. I was just so interested in how far the character had drifted from that vision. So it was a kind of restoration job to see how much of that I could bring back into a modern idiom and add to it.”
It’s this original vision that has plagued so many writers. Though the wholesome Wonder Woman portrayed by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show is fairly straightforward, her origin is anything but simple, or even very wholesome, as historian Jill Lepore explained last year in an entire book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Marston used Diana/Wonder Woman as a vessel for his theories about polygamy, bondage, and gender relations—not exactly standard issue for a character little girls of the 1940s were supposed to view as a role model. Wonder Woman’s transgressive origins have proven to be troublesome for an industry that has issues dealing with even the simplest female characters, let alone female readers.
For Morrison, this odd origin fit right in with his ongoing interests in mythology, magic, archetypes, and secret histories. “Unlike Superman or Batman, where other people seem to be able to write the character, once Marston stopped, [Wonder Woman] lost a kind of charge. I’m convinced that it lost the sense of alternative culture, queer culture, polyamorous culture, and early feminism. No one was able to do that again.”
Morrison’s Wonder Woman goes back to Marston’s ideal of an all-woman society that has its own advanced technology, with lesbian relationships frankly acknowledged in the modern version, and Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, overtly rejecting the values of the outside world. This is a view that few writers had a handle on, Morrison contends. “Batman was crime and mystery, and Superman was science fiction, but Wonder Woman was actually magic and queer culture and alternative sexuality. That’s become hard for people to reapply because Wonder Woman’s become more symbolic of different things.”
For today’s more woman-friendly comics readership, Wonder Woman herself is something of a proof of concept, and Morrison’s version has already rankled some. An early review on Good Reads (now removed because it spoiled much of the book) condemned the book for rape tropes and other elements rejected by contemporary readers.
Morrison knew taking on this misunderstood figure was tricky, but “when I first took this approach to Wonder Woman there wasn’t quite as much heavy debate along these lines. So it was only as we got closer to [publication] that it began to seem this could be quite controversial for a lot of different reasons,” he acknowledges. “I think we’ve been very faithful to the original, but our version is quite matter-of-fact about things, whereas the Marston version is quite feverish. I would say it’s a cool, cerebral take on sexuality. Of course people get irritated, but that’s a mark of something that’s making an impact.”
Diana’s concern for marooned airman Steve Trevor—now African-American—leads her to leave Paradise Island, setting off a fierce mother/daughter cultural battle. Of Queen Hippolyta Morrison says: “She’s my favorite character. I’m onto the second book, and she’s the one I’m more interested in. “
Morrison hopes to make a trilogy out of his Wonder Woman tales and is already well underway with the second volume. The evolution of feminist comics critique and wider discussion of queer and trans issues may have an impact on the next two books. “I hope to [bring some of that in]. The first one set things up.”
It’s hardly the first time he’s juggled archetypes. Morrison broke into the U.S. comics scene in the early 1980s as one of the handful of British writers—among them Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, and Peter Milligan—who defined a new era of comics for what eventually became the Vertigo imprint at DC. Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol subverted the stereotypes of superhero comics with characters who bled, cried, and had existential crises—while driving story lines that never stinted on action.
He went even further with The Invisibles, a sprawling 1990s saga about a gang of freedom fighters with secret powers trying to overturn a globe-spanning conspiracy that mixed up mythology, the Illuminati, Freemasons, and shamanic magic in a mind-altering saga. Morrison’s life-changing experience in Kathmandu—which he wrote about in Supergods, a nonfiction prose history of superheroes—drove much of the psychedelic chaos magic of the Invisibles series. “I had the experience of being removed to the higher dimensional level, where I could look down on all of space and time,” he recalls, his prosaic delivery making it all sound pretty reasonable. “And then I was introduced to beings that live up there, and they kind of explained to me how the entire universe works and it kind of makes sense.”
This experience “gave vent to so much creative energy that there was nothing else like it in my life.” Since then, his work has often dealt with higher states and hidden truths. “If there is a God button in the brain—some people say that you can press it and induce religious experience—I’m thinking everyone should press it.”
Morrison’s most recent work has been influenced by sadder experiences. “For the past 10 years my work has been super dark because my father died, my mother died of dementia, and relatives died. Annihilator, all the Batman stories, Final Crisis, and even All-Star Superman—it’s about negotiating with the void and understanding that you’re next.”
While he’s always busy with a comics series or two—right now it’s Klaus!, which imagines Santa Claus’s adventurous, sexy younger days—he’s been puttering with a very different project: editing Heavy Metal magazine. The U.S. version of the legendary French comics anthology has been around for a long time and had a particularly hallucinogenic version in the 1970s, so it seems right up Morrison’s alley. “I’m trying to find stuff that’s a little more weird and psychedelic. I also plan to be a bit more diverse,” he says.
Morrison and his wife, Kristin, split their time between a Scottish estate and Hollywood, where he’s been dabbling with screenwriting, an experience he distilled into a superhero story in Annihilator. Although he’s written screenplays for several of his comics, none have been produced. But L.A. provides a welcome diversion from Scotland, where, he says, “I live in a tower, and I don’t speak to anyone but Kristin all day for a week at a time.” He adds, “Here, it’s a lot livelier. I have a social life and I get inspiration.”
Aside from leaving his house for more company, Morrison admits he’s pretty much done it all. “There’s nothing left,” he laughs. “I actually don’t have any dream projects now. I’ve done all the characters that intrigued me, apart from Wonder Woman. This series has really got me excited. It’s a whole new storytelling method and a whole new way of thinking.”