Wednesday, March 2, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: Supergods

Today is new comic book day - the day that shops receive their new comics. Although I'm currently subscribing to about 36 titles, this ended up being a slow week for me. Only one regular title that I'm reading came out (Batman & Robin Eternal, which is a weekly), and I also chose to pick up the first issue of Black Widow by Marvel comics.

Lately, in addition to my weekly comics, I've also been reading a lot of books about the history of the hobbies I enjoy, particularly role-playing and also comics. Not too long ago, I finished a book by comics writer Grant Morrison, called Supergods: What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which was published back in 2011.

While I'm going to categorize the book as a history of comics, it's really much more (and at times, much less) than that, and it defies categorization. It's part memoir, part auto-biography, part history of comics, and part philosophical musings about how we can view our own lives through the lens of the superhero. What's frustrating, however, is that the book isn't really divided neatly into these sub-categories. It wanders back and forth between each one, which can make it a bit difficult to follow if you're trying to get a linear sense of the different "ages" of comics.

However, that doesn't stop me from recommending this book to those who are interested in comics from an historical perspective but also, as mentioned, from a philosophical one. Grant Morrison is highly regarded as a storyteller in comics and he has a real command of the form. His All-Star Superman is in my top three Superman stories of all time, and I'm not alone in that assessment. He understands these characters but, more importantly, understands the medium he is using to tell his stories, and does all of this in a way that makes his readers identify with the characters and insert themselves into the story. 

Supergods is, at times, written with that kind of mastery. In the first parts of the book, Morrison writes about the early days of comics, before he was even born, and in these sections he brings his love of comics and their characters to the fore. The section on the Golden Age of comics contains a lot of broad strokes history that I've read in other books on the subject, but it's instilled with Morrison's own sensibilities about the kind of political, social, and economic forces combined to create the right situation for comic book superheroes to become so popular. He continues these themes through the following "ages" of Comics - the Silver Age, the "Dark Age," and the "Modern Age."

However, once we reach the point in time where Morrison was old enough to be self-aware and has a memory of himself as a child, the tone of the book changes. Morrison can be a little self-indulgent at times, and his confidence comes across more as cocky and even egotistical. But, he also does a great job describing a very different environment for a young comic book reader than most of us are used to - he grew up in a more industrial part of Scotland, so his access to American comics of the time was much more reduced, and he also had the opportunity to read, and eventually write for, English comics that we here in the States never had a chance to see back in the day. These sections of the book are quite interesting from an historical perspective, as they describe a part of comic book history that most often gets glossed over in mainstream histories that focus only on the United States.

Those familiar Morrison know that he has some "unconventional" ideas about things such as magic (from the standpoint that, he thinks it's real and claims to practice it successfully to affect changes in his life) and other metaphysical theories. There are times in the book where Morrison's attention wanders and he writes at length about his experiences "summoning a spirit" to guide him in life, and these situations are only very tangentially related to the main points he's trying to make about the superhero culture. It's as though Morrison had the idea for three different books - a history of comics, a memoir about his experiences as a master of the metaphysical, and a theory about how humans can learn more about themselves by learning more about the main superhero archetypes that inhabitant the comics that we've read throughout history. Unfortunately, these three ideas don't really mesh all that well, yet Morrison went ahead and attempted to put them together anyway.

Then, out of nowhere toward the end of the book, with little transition to lead the reader along the way, Morrison reviews the current state of superhero movies (as of 2011) but never ties these ideas into the rest of the book. It's almost like an after-thought, as though a friend mentioned, "You should include a part about the Batman movies..." and Morrison decided to throw it at the last minute.

All told, this book does do a good job of describing and delineating the main eras of superhero comic books, and the main world events that were happening at the time that made the shift in themes and character happen between the ages. For that alone, this book is worth a read. For those who enjoy Morrison's comic book writing, this will give the reader quite a bit of insight into where Morrison gets some of his ideas and why he's written some of the stories he's written.

However, as a guide to help us understand "What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human," this book is sadly a failure. Ideas are proposed, but never fully developed, and in the end, the reader won't feel any closer to understanding what seemed to have been Morrison's main reason for writing the book.

Format: My copy is a 464-page hardback, but it's also available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.
Where to Buy: Since it was published about five years ago, this may be difficult to find at a brick-and-mortar store, but it's readily available on Amazon.
Price: A new copy of the paperback version is currently selling for $12.68 on Amazon.
More Information: Grant Morrison's official website has a page for Supergods

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: "Grapefruit Margarita" (recipe from a bartender in West Hollywood over the weekend, using grapefruit and lemon instead of lime, and mezcal instead of tequila, and muddled with fresh sage leaves)
Listening: "Coma Cat" by Tensnake

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