As you may have noticed, I recently wrote an extremely angry review of Grant Morrison’s break-through series Animal Man, in which I pointed out a number of (genuine) flaws in his writing. However, having thought about things for a while I have come to the conclusion that I was unfair, for it is true that though his writing is often infuriating, it is never dull, and I look forward to reading more of it. So, this is my attempt to make amends by taking a more balanced look at Morrison and his work.
What I shall do is draw in the pieces of Morrison’s that I know best, that it to say We3, Arkham Asylum, The Filth, The Invisibles, Animal Man and the Doom Patrol. Of these, We3, Arkham Asylum and The Filth are masterpieces, The Invisibles is a deeply flawed piece of work that could have been a masterpiece, Animal Man is simply flawed and the Doom Patrol is a glorious example of Dadaist nonsense. I will look at these pieces in an attempt to find what is good about Morrison’s writing (lots) and what is bad (not very much, but it’s very bad, and rather pervasive).
What’s good, what’s bad
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. Now, I’m not going to complain, as you might have expected, about Morrison’s tendency to wildly incoherent narratives. As I’ll describe below, I actually see that as something of a strength. What is a problem, though, is that sometimes he just lets things get a bit out of control, and the huge proliferation of ideas that emerge from his ever-fertile mind become so disjointed that they end up not generating an emergent masterpiece arising from the chaos, but just chaos. This does, I have to say, happen at the end of The Invisibles, where he has any number of fascinating ideas, but he clearly has no idea how to make them tie together to form the apocalyptic climax that he’s been promising us now for several hundred pages, and he gives the impression of having become rather flustered. This also happens very noticeably at the end of the Counting to None arc, where after a terrific build-up, with masses of tension and apparent disaster facing our heroes, with one of them about to slaughter King Mob, Morrison suddenly pulls an ‘and with one bound he was free’ so blatant as to be almost unbelievable.
The next, and I think most important, problem is a tendency to be a bit lazy, to take the easy option. So villains are often easy targets. E.g. in The Invisibles the enemies of humanity are – of course – the English aristocracy. Who else? I think this is part of a wider issue, which is a tendency to think in overly black-and-white terms. Now, I’m not saying he always does this: in Doom Patrol the Devil is positively charming, and Mr Nobody is a creation of genius, in The Filth nobody really comes out very well, except, perhaps, for the cat, and Arkham Asylum is immensely nuanced. But the villains of The Invisibles are bad, bad, bad. And as for Animal Man, well let’s just say, the eponymous hero is so good as to be faintly boring, or would be were he not so infuriating, while his enemies are cast in shades of darkest black, without one redeeming feature, or even being given the chance to put their point of view, as opposed to the points of view that the hero puts in their mouths.
Oh, and finally, he really isn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is. For example, the final ‘character meets author’ scene in Animal Man had already been far surpassed by some of the wilder imaginings of mainstream fiction, not to mention the utterly weird worlds of Philip K Dick (whose novel Valis contains a character called ‘Philip K Dick’, who is ostensibly the narrator, as well as another character who, we later discover, is another ‘Philip K Dick’ who may, or may not, be the same person as the first). Stanislaw Lem’s fake review The Robinsonads deals with the whole issue far more rigorously (and is much funnier). For example, instead of Grant turning up and being God-like at the hero, why not have fictive Grant discover that now he’s in the text he’s no longer authorial Grant, and so he is as much circumscribed as his characters?
Mr Nobody likes his haddock
Well, there’s lots of this. Let me start off by stating the absolutely obvious and saying that Morrison has a wild imagination. Who else has come up with the idea of an evil genius using a model as his spokesperson – no, that’s not the original bit – then surgically replacing bits of her (e.g one eye) with electronics, installing WiFi, and sending her forth into the world, a sexpot remote-controlled cyborg, guaranteed to stay on-message and able, at the press of a switch, should negotiations become tricky, to deliver a pre-programmed blow-job? That bit of madness occurs in The Filth, in case you hadn’t noticed.
And then there’s the mad world of the Doom Patrol. This is where Morrison’s tendency to fire out a new idea every couple of pages comes into its own, because in the gaily absurdist world he creates it doesn’t matter if a woman goes into a rest-room a rather nondescript brunette and emerges as a bombshell blonde. And so a wild imagination that leads to near incoherence works just fine, because that’s what the world’s strangest superheroes expect. And they get it. The Devil is a charming man, rather like Noel Coward, who has a periscope sticking out of the top of his head. We discover just what a paraplegic man can do when faced with a muscle-bound and heavily armed lunatic who appears, in so far as we can tell, to be a barbosexual (think about it). Not to mention the intriguing question of what exactly does it mean to lose the use of one’s beard? And then, of course, there is Mr Nobody, leader of the (New New New) Brotherhood of Dada. He is a creation so gloriously mad that he really deserved a spin-off series of his own. Where else will you find a character solemnly asserting ‘I know a way of destroying the fifth horseman of the apocalypse and making him feel really stupid at the same time, and it’s so embarrassing that it must work’ or ‘I’m warning you, I have a boiled egg and I know how to use it’? And then proceeding to wipe the floor with the Doom Patrol, the only superheroes who dared even try to take him on.
There is a possible criticism of Morrison, in that his wild imagination leads him to narrative incoherence. His books are famously, even infamously, non-linear, with jagged, fragmented narratives that, on the surface at least, make no sense. And, as I said above, sometimes things go too far and he does collapse under the sheer weight of ideas. This clearly happens near the end of The Invisibles, where the strain of pulling all the plot strands is too much, but in The Filth it works to very different effect.
At first sight, The Filth is utterly incoherent, a collection of narrative fragments that more or less involve the same characters, but don’t seem to actually hold together to produce a single narrative. But that is, in fact the point. Morrison does not provide complete, fully worked out stories, he doesn’t hand us a world on a plate, telling us what happened and what we should think about it. Instead he is elliptical, presenting isolated shards of narrative that may (or may not) fit together to form a whole, and leaving it up to us to fill in the gaps. He turns us into literary detectives whose job it is to derive from the tantalising clues he gives us some idea of the greater truth. And in The Filth he succeeds: vast ideas (like the giant pen, for example) are merely hinted at, without any attempt at explanation; we have to piece them together. In other words Morrison pays us the compliment of wanting to make us think, and giving us the raw material with which to frame our own narratives by doing so. He doesn’t dictate, he suggests. And, by working in this lapidary way, he is genuinely clever, using advanced literary techniques to turn his work into an act of co-creation.
Similarly, in Arhkam Asylum, he uses the fragmentation approach, but what fragments is not the narrative, but Batman’s personality. Batman is never seen clearly, he is usually a shadowy hint of an outline, and psychologically he is a tabula rasa. In his script Morrison describes him as so tightly wound up he would be incapable of a sexual (or any other kind of?) relationship, and it’s clear that the reason is that he so fears the emptiness within that it’s the only way to hold himself together. And this terrible void is filled with the madness that the Joker, acting as ring-master, as per de Sade in Weiss’ Marat / Sade, chooses to insert into it, and then sent forth into the world to see if he can become a person. Morrison doesn’t provide an explanation of what the Joker was trying to do, or a conclusion; Batman doesn’t conquer, or overcome: he flees. There is no resolution, just the Joker’s question as to where does sanity lie? We have to provide the answers, because Morrison isn’t going to do it for us.
In fact, looking at Morrison’s work, it’s clear that where he fails is where he eschews this carefully non-judgemental and non-completist attitude and tries to tell us what the message is, whether it be in The Invisibles or the frankly preachy Animal Man. On the other hand, in Doom Patrol, often the villains are more appealing than the heroes, not to mention the fact that on the occasions where the heroes do prevail, they generally do so by accident, and the only real message seems to be ‘strange is good’, which I, for one, can whole-heartedly support. We3, though it is an unusually straightforward narrative, is scrupulous in avoiding judgement, and leaves enormous scope for thought and discussion relating to what I take to be its theme, that is the way that non-combatant war buffs prefer to dehumanise the actual combatants, because when they become human then there is the danger of people feeling empathy for them, and so losing their enthusiasm for war. And I have discussed The Filth and Arkham Asylum above.
This characteristic of giving the reader the tools to create a narrative and then leaving them free to do what they want with them is, I think, key to understanding Morrison’s creativity, and it is part of what makes him such a great writer. It is just a shame that every now and then either he simply cannot control the sheer weight of material, or else he allows himself to be tempted away from this extremely austere approach to writing, and gives in to making easy and unthinking judgements. Hence the sometimes rather bargain-basement monsters he can produce. But when he is at his best, and most disciplined, he can produce marvellous work, whether it be neo-Dadaist farce or a profound mystery.
The Ideas Themselves
As for the nature of the ideas that shoot out at us in such profusion, it is safe to say that their range is as diverse as it is possible to be. The range of reference is not so immense as Alan Moore’s (but then, what could be?) but then Morrison doesn’t suffer from Moore’s blind-spot when it comes to non-Mediterranean cultures. And what Morrison is also really good at is creating not just references to things we know and love, like fairy-tales, but fake references. He can authoritatively create from nothing a supposed piece of folklore that seems to real that it almost convinces one that it is genuine, and it is only afterwards that one realises that, no, he made it out of broadcloth. This ability to make even the most lunatic idea (changing the shape of the Pentagon by flexing your muscles?) seem not just plausible but inevitable is a great talent.
Going further, Morrison’s worlds are fragmentary, incoherent, and generally just plain weird or even incomprehensible, but they are never, not even in his lesser or flawed works, unbelievable. The thing in the mirror in The Invisibles is genuine, and is horrifying, even though all we ever see of it is a few tentacles. Mr Quimper, terribly underused though he is, is genuinely a source of great fear – one feels how monstrous he is radiating from the page. One feels madness closing in when reading the narrative of Amadeus Arkham. And, somehow or other, and this achievement alone is enough to make Morrison great, the total lunacy of, well, more or less every page of Doom Patrol does not at any point make one want to fling the volume away and shout ‘stuff’. Morrison makes the idea of a woman with at least sixty-four personalities, who inhabit a spectral New York Subway, seem not just plausible, but entirely everyday and normal. And that is part of his genius.
As a parting thought, I’d like to compare Morrison to his great rival Alan Moore. When reading Moore, one gets the feeling that one is being taken on a guided tour of a vast Gothic cathedral. Everything is worked out and structured perfectly. Even in his most bizarre creations, there is a sense of a complete world, and of control.
Reading Morrison, on the other hand, is rather like being an archaeologist, digging up fragments in order to build a picture of an alien culture. Much of the time the fragments help you, with a lot of mental effort and work on your part to fill in the gaps, to form an overall picture. Sometimes they make no sense whatever. And every now and then you turn up a Coke can in the middle of what you had thought was a Neolithic enclosure. Just like life, really.