Comic Books' Secret Identity Revealed In 'Supergods' Bounding tall buildings but grounded in the times, superheroes provide a snapshot of human anxiety and aspiration. Comic book writer Grant Morrison discusses the human side of the superhuman in his new book, Supergods.
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Comic Books' Secret Identity Revealed In 'Supergods'

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Comic Books' Secret Identity Revealed In 'Supergods'

Comic Books' Secret Identity Revealed In 'Supergods'

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DAVID GREENE, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm David Greene. It's time for a history lesson.


GREENE: Shall we say a super history lesson, this one from Grant Morrison, one of the world's most revered comic book writers. He's worked for both DC and Marvel comics, and he's written the words of Superman, Batman and other heroes. If you're a fan of comic books, well, Grant Morrison is sort of like a god. Exhibit A: the faces of some of my colleagues who are pressed against the glass of the studio right now waving their arms around.

If, like me, you don't spend a whole lot of time paging through comic books, you're about to hear what comic book characters might tell us about everything from American history to cross-dressing. Grant Morrison's new book is "Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human." Grant Morrison joins us in the studio. Welcome.

GRANT MORRISON: Hi. How are you doing?

GREENE: So I guess we all have the image of the comic book, superheroes on the page and the bubble quotes. You were a kid growing up in Scotland. What brought you into this world?

MORRISON: It was kind of weird. And I guess what really got me into it was my mother was a big fan of science fiction, and her father had been a fan of science fiction. And that was quite unusual for working class people in Scotland and, you know, pre-war. But certainly, my parents were anti-nuclear activists, so the big fear in my house was the bomb. And as a kid, I was terrified of the bomb. You know, it was just this thing that would kill us all.

And then, I discovered Superman, and those comic books had characters who could laugh at the bomb. You know, Superman could take the atom bomb in his face and shake it off and only get a tan. So I kind of really had to attach myself to those guys because they helped me make a lot of sense out of that.

GREENE: Why wouldn't a working-class family in Scotland be into science fiction?

MORRISON: It just wasn't done. It was seen as frivolous, you know, particularly in Scotland, which is very down-to-earth, very grounded. And people didn't like the fanciful. They like crazy humor. But if you were into, say, American superheroes, it was seen as slightly suspect, you know, that you would take any of this ridiculous nonsense seriously.

GREENE: Yeah. You wrote that the first glimpse of Superman was really deliberately ambiguous, not necessarily flying. Describe for us that very first issue of Action Comics where we first meet Superman.

MORRISON: Well, the first image of Superman appears without any copy at all. You know, the comic was Action Comics. It was number one. No one had ever seen this thing before. And on the front, there's a guy dressed in a cape and tights smashing a car off a rock while three other men run in every possible direction to get away from him.

And so the - that very first appearance of Superman, we have no idea if he's a hero at all, if he's on our side. I mean...

GREENE: We don't know whether to fear him, to like him, to - what he's up to?

MORRISON: Exactly. You know, and he's destroying a car, which at the time was kind of a symbol of America's technological superiority. You know, normally, we would've seen those cars rolling off the production belts at Ford. Instead, here was a man actually picking one up and destroying it quite flamboyantly.

GREENE: Well, after we see the success of Superman, a lot of comic book writers wanted to jump in and try to recreate that. And you write that the answer was Batman.


GREENE: And in some ways, it was almost reversing the polarity. What defined this character and made him different from Superman?

MORRISON: I think a lot of it was very calculated. You know, as I said in the book, Batman is so much an obvious opposite of Superman that it's quite clear that somebody just sat there and broke it all down and put it back together again.

GREENE: In the opposite way.

MORRISON: Pretty much, you know? And Superman's a solar hero. He gets his power from the sun. So Batman hangs out at night, you know, Superman works alone, and he has no partners. Batman has a boy partner.

GREENE: You said that Batman was like The Rolling Stones to Superman's Beatles.

MORRISON: Yeah. Because then, Batman was cool. You know, Superman had a boss, and he worked on a job, and the girl across on the other side of the office didn't like him. Batman has a butler. He sleeps in all day. You know, he's surrounded by all these girls in leather who are constantly chasing him and trying to go off with him and or kill him.

So it's kind of - as I said in the book, it's the capitalist superhero versus the socialist superhero. It's the socialist versus the socialite.

GREENE: Right.

MORRISON: And I think it's why Batman's been more popular recently, because in our culture, there's, you know, there's much more aspiration to be a billionaire success than it is to be a farm worker or a newspaper reporter. So we've kind of become the sort of people who would rather have Batman or Iron Man.

GREENE: I'm speaking with comic book writer Grant Morrison, and his new book "Supergods" is in bookstores right now. Grant, can we talk about cross-dressing?

MORRISON: Sure, we can.


MORRISON: What, Jim and his (unintelligible)?

GREENE: Of course. Jimmy Olsen was - worked for the Daily Planet alongside Clark Kent, alongside Superman, and he starts dressing like a woman, Jimmy Olsen does.


GREENE: What was that about?

MORRISON: I have no idea. Again, it was those stories in the '50s where instead of trying to deal with the real world, which, you know, Superman has started out doing in the Depression - it was very real, it was real gangsters, real politicians - but in the '50s it just went insane. So Jimmy would be dressed as a girl, and then he'd be forced to, you know, have a date with an ape.

And the piling up of madness and surrealism would just get more and more grotesque until somehow Superman would come along at the end and with some very easy explanation it would all go back to normality.

GREENE: What - you yourself decided to cross-dress for a while, and you say it sort of shaped your writing in many ways. What was going on?

MORRISON: I'd reached 30, and I'd had a fairly cloistered life. You know, I'd grown up wanting to write, and I went to a boys' school. So I kind of spent most of my teenage years just learning to write and being indoors, you know, a proper kind of geek existence.

GREENE: Cooped up.

MORRISON: Yeah. So, although - you know, in my 20s, I was in a band and lots of other things had happened. I was with a very nice girl, but I felt as if I hadn't done a lot of things. So I went a bit nutty at 30 and decided to do a lot of the stuff that I hadn't ever tried, like drinking and...

GREENE: Cross-dressing.

MORRISON: ...cross-dressing, for instance. But I was doing a comic called The Invisibles, and one of the characters...

GREENE: Which people have heard of.

MORRISON: Yeah. One of the characters was a cross-dressing transvestite shaman from Brazil. So I thought, well, I'm going to learn what it's like to be a transvestite shaman. So...

GREENE: And what's the lesson for aspiring writers? I mean, if you want to write about a transvestite witch do you, as a writer, need to become one, or I mean...

MORRISON: I think all writers should do that. I think if Stephen King was to write his next book about transvestite witch, he really needs to wear a dress.


GREENE: I have to say, when I first heard that we were doing this interview, I'm not a comic book guy, and I was kind of like, you know, the old dusty comic books...

MORRISON: Yeah, yeah.

GREENE: ...that people collected. What's going to be fresh about that? And you've taught me a lot, but for those of us who are not in the comic book world, give us the argument for why we should give comics a chance, why I should go out today and buy some comic books and get to reading.

MORRISON: ..TEXT: There's a very specific way of dealing with the world. You know, other things like movies and TV shows take years to make. A comic is on the streets within three months of it being created. There's very little editorial influence so you see an artist's work directly on the page.

So I think the real value of comic book stories and of the movie stories and of everything that we've talked about superheroes over the last 70 years is actually to provide role models for a new generation that will be so far beyond as we've only considered in these ridiculous stories.

And the fact that at least the wars are an outlet for this is we've kind of tested the idea to distraction, so when new superheroes appear on the planet, real superheroes, they'll have all this material to study and can figure out what are we supposed to be and do.

GREENE: And real superheroes will be arriving soon?

MORRISON: They're here already. I mean, there's people on the streets wearing costumes, fighting crime right now. And they're fighting crime without superpowers, but, you know, give those guys bionic legs, give them X-ray eyes and wait until you see what happens next.

GREENE: They'll really kick some butt.



GREENE: Well, Grant Morrison tells us we should all go wile away an afternoon reading a comic book. If you want to wile away an afternoon, you can also read his new book "Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human." And it's out in bookstores now. Grant Morrison, thank you so much for being here.

MORRISON: Thanks so much. That was good.

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