"In Superman, some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination's bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment, and from their union something powerful and resonant was born, albeit in its underwear."
That line, from the first chapter of comic-book writer Grant Morrison's Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, is Morrison all over.
He's never been one to shy from the gleefully grandiose: As you start that sentence above, for example, you can practically hear alarums and excursions. But note how he allows his Underoos kicker to deflate what's gone before; it's a tip of the cowl to the glorious goofiness bound up in the whole notion of spandex-clad mesomorphs who fight for what's right.
Over the years, the guy's chronicled the comic book adventures of everything from lantern-jawed lawmen to universe-conquering caterpillars, with the odd (the wonderfully odd, let it be noted) sentient, transvestite city street thrown in for good measure.
Supergods is less a history of the superhero genre than it is a meditation on the Superhero, Writ Cosmic. Superheroes as they exist on the comics page can disappoint — Morrison's true subject is the Superhero that exists in our collective cultural psyche. The book is a love letter to this curious breed of technicolor spectacle that, Morrison maintains, reflects our idealized dream-self.
Morrison is a deeply passionate writer — when he enthuses, it is completely infectious; when he disdains, it is downright virulent. Supergods' most entertaining passages are those in which Morrison gets a good head of steam going — as, for example, when he sets his sights on the uber-violent, nihilistic, grim-n'-gritty tone that overtook superhero comics in the late 80s and early 90s. Comics of the time, he says, were like spotty teenage boys in their underwear (NOTE: it always comes back to the underwear) striking poses in their bedroom mirrors:
"The deep earnestness, the crass sensationalism, the aching desire to be taken seriously had become a ridiculous posture, and things would have to change ... Now it was time to get out there and meet girls."
Morrison was one of the writers who helped drag mainstream comics out of that dark time with bold, swing-for-the-fences Big Ideas that evoked Jungian archetypes, Lovecraftian horror and huge action-movie set pieces. And he made sure to place all of that high-concept dream-stuff squarely inside the pulp tradition that gave rise to comics in the first place.
Passages in which Morrison describes his shamanistic experiences with hallucinogens don't offer up the kind of insights to his creative process he seems to think they do, but they do round out his authorial self-portrait — and just might help explain what the hell was going on in his bumfuzzling 2002 series, The Filth.
Morrison has thought deeply about his subject, and communicates those thoughts with cheeky, and at times giddily bitchy, humor. Dry historical treatises on the rise of the superhero abound; Supergods offers an articulate intelligent and (more to the point) fun guide to a world where all of us are the best we can be — and look great in spandex.