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Thoughts From The Land Of Frost:
Grant Morrison Interviewed By Alexander Ness
If you've bought comics since 1987 or so, you’ve bought, read, collected, or heard a lot about Grant Morrison. His work on Animal Man was a brilliant ride, followed by the highly considered work Doom Patrol. In 1989 he was also responsible for the acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, which has since become the highest-selling original graphic novel ever. Throughout the 1990s, on titles such as The Invisibles and JLA, Morrison continued to burn down comic writing convention and draw readers from outside the general readership of comics. He still operates in that vein today with his work on DC's The Filth and Marvel's X-Men.
He is a pioneer and radical thinker and we are privileged to offer our interview with Grant Morrison.
AN: Hello, Mr. Morrison and welcome to my column. Please tell my readers where you are from, where you live, are you married, kids, cats...?
GM: I was born in Glasgow, Scotland - the unhealthiest city in Europe. I still live here with my girlfriend Kristan and four cats.
AN: Did you attend university and if so where and with what kind of degree field?
GM: No. I left school at 18 and went on the dole until I was 26. I mostly played in bands, lived on welfare and did the odd comic book.
AN: What comic was the one that you read as a child that you best remember fondly now?
GM: The Flash #163 - 'The Flash Stakes His Life On You!' which is my favourite comic story of all time.
AN: And how did you get into the comic book industry?
GM: When I was 17 I met a bunch of guys who were putting together an 'alternative' science fiction comic called Near Myths and I showed them some of the stories I'd been writing and drawing in my bedroom at home. They asked me to do some work for them and paid me the glamourous fee of ten pounds a page. I was over the moon, unable to believe someone was paying me for stuff I would have done for nothing.
Emboldened, I sent some script ideas into Starblazer - a series of sci-fi digest-sized 'strip adventure library' books put out by DC Thomson (publishers of The Beano and The Dandy and other British comics which date back to the 1930s and are still successful today).
I was allowed to be weird and non-linear on Near Myths while I was learning the basics of comic storytelling from the expert editors at Thomson. Unfortunately, there wasn't a great deal of money involved and I wasn't able to go full-time as a writer until 1986 when I started to get regular work on 2000AD and then DC came calling.
AN: What was your first published work in comics?
GM: It was 'Time Is A Four Letter Word,' a story I wrote and drew for Near Myths in 1978 when I was still at school. I was a genuine teenage punk rock comic creator!
AN: In comics who has had the most influence upon your writing?
GM: John Broome, Jack Kirby, Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, Brendan McCarthy.
AN: How about your other influences (life, politics religion...)?
GM: Mostly come from living and traveling and meeting people. I don't watch TV or see many movies and I rarely read at all anymore (as Philip Larkin wrote... 'Don't read much now: the dude Who lets the girl down before The hero arrives, the chap Who's yellow and keeps the store, Seem far too familiar. Get stewed: Books are a load of crap.') so all of my inspiration comes from running around the world gathering input. Religion ? My mum's a lapsed Catholic and my Dad's an atheist. I was raised on the Bible at school and went through a period of terror wondering if it might be TRUE before discovering magic and creating my own 'religion'. Politics ? F*ck 'em and ALL politicians.
AN: So Grant, what do you really think about politicians?
Who are your closest friends in the industry?
GM: Frank Quitely and Mark Millar. Otherwise, most of my friends have no connection with comics except that they quite like reading some of them.
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AN: Animal Man certainly was the work that introduced you to the American comics audience. How much of your work was emblematic of your own political views and how hard was it to make a something of a wienie character into a lead in a fan favorite book?
GM: It wasn't hard - I take even the wieniest characters ridiculously seriously. At the time I wrote Animal Man I was deeply enmeshed in vegetarianism and the animal rights movement. Once I started to travel a lot I found it hard to maintain the vegetarian diet and a sense of health so I went back to eating free range chickens and fish in the carnivore style. I remain committed to 'animal rights' in other areas.
AN: Doom Patrol was a pleasant unassuming lesser light at DC before you took over. The results of your 30-odd issue run left a mark on comics wherein art critics outside the comics field consider it to be one of the greatest post-modernist works of the 80/90s. How did you conceive of taking a perhaps strange but nonetheless normal for heroes team into the realm of the abstract and modernism?
GM: It seemed appropriate - the Doom Patrol characters had always been billed as 'The World's Strangest Super-Heroes' and their 60s adventures were always a lot more stressy and peculiar than those of their counterparts so it didn't seem like much of a stretch to really go to town with that 'strangest super-heroes' label and push it as far as I could take it into surrealist territory and from there into a kind of super-post-modernism which mixed high and low culture into a feverish pop casserole.
I was using material from dreams and automatic writing, mushroom trips, seances, cut-ups, trance writing etc. in an attempt to create something that could stand alongside my favourite works by Lautreamont, Burroughs or Cocteau.
AN: Batman: Arkham Asylum was received as being high art by some and confusing for art and story by others. To what degree is Arkham a success as a standalone work, and to the extent as a journey into madness? Was it good for what it was, but somewhat out of canon for most Bat fans?
GM: There's nothing in the story that should make it 'out of canon' but I know that even some factions at DC tend to think of Arkham Asylum in this odd way (never mind that it's sold half a million copies to date and is the most successful original graphic novel EVER). I think many comics people were perhaps overwhelmed by Arkham Asylum because it was so dense and allusive and put the tin lid on the notion of 'serious' superheroes.
The comics audience is fairly conservative oddly enough so it's no surprise that they found Arkham Asylum 'difficult.' People who DON'T read comics regularly seemed to really enjoy the book.
AN: The Invisibles followed an Anarcho/cultic group of non-heroes. To what degree was this a personal statement of a story and does it stand in your mind as one of your most successful works?
GM: It was 100% a personal statement and I consider it the work that broke me out of comics and into the wider fields of endeavor which occupy so much more of my time these days - movies, games, books, readings and seminars etc. I love The Invisibles very much - I re-read it often and find new ideas and insights in there all the time. It's definitely alive in some way.
AN: At Marvel your work on X-Men really seems to bend many of the hard and fast rules that had developed upon the X-books. Was that your goal?
GM: It's just the way my mind runs. I wanted to do something which was true to the spirit of the X-Men concept: one of comics best I believe - the X-MEN is a super hero comic where the concept and the story is more important than the costumes, the powers or even the characters. The X-MEN is a very fluid and adaptable idea so my intent was to 'evolve' things beyond the repetitive set of costumed encounters and power workouts which had come to characterize the comic for a few years prior to my arrival. The movie's emphasis on the science fiction aspects of the X-Men and downplaying of the 'super hero team' approach was also a great inspiration to me.
AN: JLA was wildly successful under your keyboard. Did you think going into the run that it'd be so highly praised, and were there any parts of your work that on later consideration you'd do differently.
GM: I had no idea whether or not it was going to be successful - I'd been told by elements of the DC top brass that no-one would want to see a comic with DC's main super hero characters in it and there were many attempts made to dissuade me from bringing back the 'Big 7' heroes. Fortunately, my editors were on my side and we were able to make our point fairly effectively over the next few years of bestselling books.
I would do everything differently now but fortunately I don't have to. JLA was written on the run and always behind deadline so it has a kind of manic inventiveness and disregard for sanity which I quite like. X-MEN is a year ahead of deadline and is written in a far less frantic and improvised fashion. Despite that, I think there should be more 'surrealist' comics and less 'realistic' ones now. I'm bored by comics about super heroes sex lives and I don't care about conspiracies (90s alert! 90s alert!), the military-industrial complex or George Bush, so it's becoming hard to love many of today's very unambitious super hero stories.
AN: In a recent public interview you discussed bringing sentience to DC comics through the logical progression of essentially making the work more and more intelligent and relevant. Really, do you believe this?
GM: Of course I do.
You may have misunderstood my thinking... It's not about making the comic more intelligent and relevant although that might be one result. It's simply about adding complexity to a story until it begins to compute and think for itself. If the idea of bringing a comic book to life sounds ridiculous to any of my readers then it's simply because they're not keeping up with the latest developments in science, art and technology.
'Emergence' is the science of spontaneous order, which means quite simply that 'intelligence' can be regarded as a by-product of complexity.
One bee is not particularly smart but group a number of bees together and at a critical threshold something interesting happens - a 'hive' emerges. That is to say, from the aggregation of a number of not very intelligent units, a mass intelligence emerges. The same thing happens everywhere in nature; a single sponge cell is a fairly aimless, hopeless animal but gather enough of them together and a colony intelligence is seen to develop which drives each individual along as part of a group endeavor.
So, now that we have the idea in our heads that 'intelligence' appears when systems become increasingly complex, we can approach my notion of 'living comics.'
Think of a STORY. My contention is that a story can be made sufficiently complex that it achieves some measure of self-awareness - in fact I believe this is what's happening when authors talk about characters 'taking control' or when they say 'the story just took a turn I wasn't planning...'. When I was doing The Invisibles, I was definitely aware of the book as a living entity which was interacting with me in many of the ways a human being might but at the time I was thinking of this 'aliveness' as a kind of mystical quality not as an emergent property that could reproduced without recourse to the spirit world. I'd like to see if I can deliberately 'wake up' a story and let it make its own decisions.
AN: I am sure I misunderstood. Hell, I can’t understand new math, let alone theories of Emergence. Are comics always going to be a part of your current projects or do you see yourself being more and more involved in books, movies, and video games?
GM: I'll always do comics because I love the form but I'm having a great time working in the videogame field which is an area I think will grow and grow in the next decade until it displaces movies and TV as the dominant entertainment medium.
AN: Is The Filth (DC/Vertigo) a dialogue about the ultimate ends of current society?
GM: It's about things as they are NOW - hyper mediated, under surveillance, porn-drunk, obsessed with pain and violence and drugs. I took everything I found hideous and depressing about life in the 21st century and tried to get a laugh out of it so it turned it into a kind of black comedy of identity and it's intended as both a diagnosis and a psychic remedy for the ills of the early 21st century.
AN: Tell my readers about your work on the videogame project you finished recently.
GM: I'd love to but they make you sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) on games and movies, which means you can't say a bloody thing about them until they're out. I've been working with some of the big Hollywood studios on 'ultimizing' a few screen properties...i.e. reimagining the concepts as games.
GM: We update whenever we can but most of the time these days I'm working on stuff that pays the bills and I currently have 27 separate projects at various stages of completion so the website usually gets shoved to the bottom of the list on any given day.
The truth is there's such limited response when we do update so it seems like something of a wasted effort most of the time. Not one comic book creator had the guts to send me a photo of themselves in drag last time. Why bother with these losers ?
AN: Any upcoming projects you feel comfortable sharing?
MW: Right now I'm working on some new comic concepts - 'We3,' 'Indestructible Man,' 'Seaguy,' 'Vimanarama,' and continuing with NEW X-MEN. My novel the IF looks set to be completed this year and I'm hard at work on a book outlining my magical system. There's a ton of stuff going on all the time...
AN: Thanks Grant. You ROCK!
GM: THANKS ALEXANDER. YOU ROLL!
Comic publishers and talent are invited to submit their products for review.
Alexander Ness Land Of Frost Box 142 Rockford MN 55373-0142
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