A few days ago Mike Taylor emailed me, asking what, if any, Grant Morrison stories could be read without knowing more about a fictional universe — he’d been reading Seven Soldiers, and found it difficult going, as he doesn’t have the decades of experience with a fictional universe that most modern superhero comics require (and I might have to write something about *that* soon, possibly a Mindless post tomorrow…).
It’s a good question — Morrison is a favourite writer of mine, but the vast majority of his best or most interesting work (Seven Soldiers, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, New X-Men) requires a great deal of familiarity with the major superhero shared universes. You can definitely read and enjoy Animal Man, for example, without having read any other DC comics — some bits, like the Invasion crossover, would be confusing, but you could get quite a lot out of it — but you’re definitely missing a lot if you don’t realise it’s at least in part a commentary on Crisis On Infinite Earths, and that it’s also riffing on things like the Pog issue of Swamp Thing.
But he *has* done some good work outside those shared universes, so here’s a brief list of the more newbie-friendly stories (so not something like The Invisibles, but also not trifles like Big Dave) he’s done — the ones you can get in one volume (or a small number of volumes):
We3 (with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant) — this is pitched as “the Incredible Journey meets Terminator”. Three animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) who have been turned into cyborg weapons, escape from the lab in which they were created and try to get home. Much of the comic is silent, and a lot of the dialogue is between the animals (who can talk, but only use a handful of words each). It’s touching, beautiful, and extremely violent, and has some of the best work Quitely’s ever done.
Zenith, with Steve Yeowell, is a story that ran in 2000AD in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a superhero story that starts as a satire of Thatcherism and celebrity culture, and the death of 60s idealism, before becoming a Lovecraftian horror in its final pages. Finally getting reissued in an affordable edition soon.
The Filth, with Chris Weston, is a book about being depressed when your cat dies (pretty much every good Grant Morrison comic, in fact, seems to be inspired by his cats dying). Greg Feely, the protagonist, is either a sad, lonely, bald, suicidal compulsive masturbator whose only friend is his dying cat and who’s suffering from a serious dissociative delusional disorder, or he’s a “para-personality” for an agent for a secret Bondesque sci-fi spy organisation, or both. It’s a vicious, dark, but cathartic work, something like Stewart Lee’s “vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ” routine — something that achieves a kind of beauty through its sheer desperation and ugliness.
Seaguy with Cameron Stewart is an absurdist superhero story, something like what you’d get if you made a five-year-old watch every episode of The Prisoner, interspersed with the 1966 Batman TV series, and then got them to write a story about what they’d seen. It’s utterly brilliant, but very difficult to sum up neatly. You can point at things it has a flavour of — Philip K Dick, The Prisoner, Spike Milligan, James Joyce, Douglas Adams — but it’s very much sui generis.
Flex Mentallo, with Frank Quitely, is technically a spin-off from Doom Patrol, but really its own thing, a meditation on superhero comics and redemption, as seen through the mind of someone talking on the phone after taking an overdose. Difficult, but worth the effort.
Vimanarama is a gloriously silly, fun, story about Jack Kirby-esque ancient astronauts set among Bradford’s Asian community. Unfortunately, it’s more than a little culturally insensitive, mixing and matching between Hindu and Muslim imagery in a way that can come off as a little uncomfortable. If you can overlook that fairly glaring fault, though, it’s fun.
and All-Star Superman, with Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, is a Superman story, but one that’s deliberately out of continuity, with the intention of being readable by anyone with the most basic pop-culture knowledge of Superman. It’s one of a very, very small number of Superman stories one can point to and say “this is what the character is about, this has everything about why Superman and his supporting characters work”. Frank Quitely’s “acting” for the characters, in particular, is just stunning.
And that’s about it, as far as standalone Morrison stuff. There were a handful of standalone stories for Vertigo in the early 90s (Kid Eternity, Sebastian O, The Mystery Play, and Kill Your Boyfriend), none of which I suspect have aged especially well, though I’ve not read them recently, some bits for 2000AD, oddities like The New Adventures Of Hitler that are out of print, and a couple of weak recent things that read more like film pitches than proper comics themselves. Everything else has either been in long-running superhero universes or his own massive, long-running story The Invisibles.
The ones listed above, though, are the things he’s done that, to my mind at least, have a lot of artistic value, are *relatively* new-reader friendly (in as much as any Morrison comic is) and can be obtained relatively easily (or, in the case of Zenith, soon will be). It’s a short list, but a good one…
Today I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a comic shop and bought more Marvel comics than DC ones. I picked up sixteen comics, and only six were DC. Seven were Marvel, and three were Image.
This is a very depressing figure, because three years ago I’d have bought that many comics in a week, and this was ten weeks’ worth of comics I was picking up. And the reason I’m buying so few comics is precisely because up until now I’ve always preferred DC to Marvel.
While I appreciate and love comics’ potential as an artistic medium as much as anyone — give me an Alice In Sunderland or Alec and I’ll rave about it for hours — comics are one of the few media I also turn to for pure entertainment, the way other people watch the football or soap operas. I can’t cope with those things, but I can enjoy an equally mindless comic, so long as it’s done to a basic level.
And throughout my life, since I was about ten, I’ve always looked to DC Comics for that kind of thing.
It’s a kind of brand loyalty I don’t usually have about most things, and think is ridiculous, but when I was first becoming a comics fan, DC was producing comics that were so far superior to Marvel’s it’s hard to think of them even as the same media. While DC were putting out things like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and even fun brainless stuff like Alan Grant’s work on Batman, Lobo and The Demon, Marvel were going all in on the proto-Image GUNS-WITH-A-CAPITAL-GUNS “aesthetic”.
And this meant that at a formative age, I got to grok DC Comics (and 2000AD, which I thought of as essentially the same thing, since the DC comics I liked were mostly made by British writers and artists who were also working for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic) in a way I never did with Marvel. STAR Labs, Black Canary, the Daily Planet building, WGBS-TV, Lexcorp, all have instant associations for me in a way that, say, Stark Industries, Ms. Marvel, the Baxter Building and so on just don’t.
And so what this has meant is that whenever Marvel have put out something truly, exceptionally, good, I’ve bought it, but I’ve never bought the dozens of basically competent titles Marvel put out every month. I have, on the other hand, bought and enjoyed plenty of DC comics that merely showed a basic competence — I bought every issue of the 2008-2011 Booster Gold series, for example, which no-one is ever going to accuse of being a masterpiece but which had a witticism-spouting man in a gaudy costume having time travel adventures.
Since the New 52 started in late 2011, though, DC has descended into something close to the level of utter incompetence that Marvel where at when I first started buying comics. When the New 52 started out, I put something like thirty titles from it on my pull list, because there were interesting concepts like Demon Knights and Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and people like Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, J.H. Williams, George Perez — people who knew how to make good comics — working on many of the books.
Most of the more interesting titles are now cancelled, and none of those people are working on the comics they were working on. In three years, my DC pull list has gone from around thirty titles to two — Swamp Thing and Justice League 3000. And they’re the two comics I’m least interested in out of all the ones I’m buying.
Sorry, make that three — I’ve also got the Sandman miniseries on my list, the monthly one that’s released two issues in the last nine months.
The vast majority of DC’s output has turned into a sludgy morass of underdressed women, men with too many muscles and too many pockets, and “homages” to “classic” stories but with more violence and misogyny. Some of the titles I’m not reading might have got good again, and some of the new titles might be good. I know people have been saying nothing but good things about Batgirl (but even with Gail Simone writing, or now with Cameron Stewart working on it, I can’t get over the editorially-mandated destruction of Oracle), but DC are not only not making any great comics at the moment, they’re not even making any of those adequately-enjoyable ones they used to make.
And this means that not only am I buying fewer DC comics, I’m not buying as much by anyone as I used to. As recently as 2011 I used to eagerly go to the comic shop every week, and I’d pick a lot of stuff off the shelf to go with my regular purchases. Now I turn up every few months and pick up a handful of comics, and if there’s anything interesting on the shelves it’s usually up to issue three or four and I’ve missed the start of the story.
Luckily for my comics-reading, Marvel have started putting out a few titles so good I’ve ended up adding a few to my pull list, and I intend to add more, so I’ll be going to the shop more regularly. And with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity starting next month, I’ll even have a regular DC comic I’m actually looking forward to for at least six months (and that really does look like the best thing ever).
But if DC don’t change their editorial stance soon, once that’s over I may well, for the first time since I started reading comics, be left reading not a single DC title, and going to the comic shop and saying “Make Mine Marvel”. And as good as many of the current Marvel titles are, nothing in them can replace the thing in my brain that clicks with recognition when I see Etrigan or Bizarro, Darkseid or Booster Gold, Deadman or Zatanna. Those characters, and thousands of other DC characters, are like old friends I’ve known since childhood, and I want them back. I miss them.
Remember when this used to be a comics blog?
Those of you who thought my other Hugo blog posts were a little grumpy might want to look away, because not only am I in a bad mood for unrelated reasons, but I’d question the whole point of this category.
Quite simply, science fiction fans and comics fans are two non-identical groups (though there is overlap of course), and having a comics award in the Hugos, like some of the other minority awards, seems like it’s more likely to reward things that have names recognisable to SF fans than things that are actually good.
2013 wasn’t a particularly exciting year for comics (in fact it was the least excited I’ve been about comics since I was old enough to read, and I rather fell out of touch with the comics scene, though I’m getting back into it), but there was good work being put out. Sadly, that’s not represented in the Hugo nominations for the most part.
As always, from best to worst:
Time by Randall Munroe — I’m not even sure whether this is a comic, or a cartoon, or what, but it’s formally inventive and interesting. Munroe had one page of his webcomic XKCD which updated with a new panel every hour for many months, each panel replacing the previous one. When run together, the panels become a short animated science fiction film (with Munroe’s usual stick figure characters) , but that’s not how the work was intended to be viewed — it’s essentially impossible for anyone to experience now, because part of the point was the real-time nature of it. It’s a genuinely interesting experiment, and the only thing on the ballot that could possibly be said to deserve the award.
Girl Genius Vol 13 by Phil and Kaja Foglio — Girl Genius is a steampunk webcomic. The Hugo “best graphic story” award started in 2009, and that year’s collected edition of Girl Genius won it. And it won in 2010. And 2011. At which point the Foglios announced they were letting someone else have a go and withdrawing it from nomination for a little while. It’s very well done if you like that sort of thing, but steampunk is definitely not my sort of thing, and volume thirteen of an ongoing storyline is not a great place to start.
The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who by Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton. This is passable enough, but it’s not deserving of an award — it’s been nominated because it’s about Doctor Who , because it makes SF fandom feel good about themselves, and because Paul Cornell is (deservedly) very popular. Cornell is a good writer, but this is not him at his best, and the story is yet another Doctor Who story about how special Doctor Who is and how much the show means and how much being a Doctor Who fan can change your life and… can we please have some Doctor Who stories that aren’t navel-gazing at some point?
The Meathouse Man “adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden” is a comic adaptation of a short story Martin wrote in the 1970s (it was originally intended for The Last Dangerous Visions which shows how old it is) and has all the flaws of comics adapted from short stories — for the most part the illustrations are just that, illustrations, not an integral part of the work. I’ve not read the original story, but from the way this is presented I’d guess little or none of Martin’s prose was removed, so it’s only a “graphic story” in the most technical sense. And unlike in, say, P. Craig Russell’s adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s prose, or Eddie Campbell’s adaptations of Alan Moore’s monologues, which do something similar, there’s nothing special added by the art.
And the story itself I found very, very unpleasant, “boundary-pushing” in that 70s way which just wants to see how unpleasant a story can be and still be a story. Which makes it just about average for a mainstream comic of 2013. This is clearly nominated purely on Martin’s name.
Not in the Hugo Packet, so not ranked, is Saga, vol 2 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I’ve not read this, but have heard very good things about it. If I get round to getting a copy before the close of voting, I suspect I’ll be ranking it above No Award, at least, but don’t know if I’ll have a chance to get round to it.
OK, I knew that Before Watchmen was terrible — I wrote about it myself, and then there’s the Hooded Utilitarian’s two-part evisceration, but until I read this by Calamity Jon Morris, I didn’t realise just how utterly appalling it was.
I mean, as Jon points out, the whole “terrible superhero auditions” thing is a cliché anyway, but seriously? “I’m The Slut. I like to take off my clothes and do things.”
That’s something that a professional, Eisner-award-winning, comics writer thought would add to the most acclaimed work in his medium. Darwyn Cooke — a man who is, let us not forget, a grown adult, who has been out of school for. we must presume, several decades, thought Watchmen — a formal masterpiece based around themes of free will, predestination, power and responsibility — would have been better if there was a joke superhero who called herself “the Slut”.
Eisner award winning Darwyn Cooke there, ladies and gentlemen…