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…