Grant Morrison Stand-Alone Stories

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…

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14 Responses to Grant Morrison Stand-Alone Stories

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Brilliant, many thanks!

  2. prankster36 says:

    Obviously I defer to any South Asian people who find Vimanarama offensive, but I don’t think simply mixing Hindu and Muslim imagery is insensitive in and of itself–I think Morrison’s simply trying to create a Kirby-style comic that uses Indian culture as a starting point, and by featuring both (and isn’t there a Buddhist-inspired character as well? Been a while since I read it) he’s simply trying to be inclusive. It’s similar to Thor being on the Avengers–that doesn’t mean they’re meant to be interchangeably Pagan and Christian. Certainly I find it hard to believe Morrison doesn’t know the difference between Hindu and Muslim ideas and imagery…

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Has anything ever been done on Captain America, who is obviously a traditional American Christian, struggling with being on a team with a pagan deity? That could be interesting. (Or awful, obviously.)

      • Tilt Araiza says:

        There’s a handwavey line in the Avengers movie when someone says Thor is a god and Cap replies “There’s only one god and he doesn’t look like that.”

      • prankster36 says:

        Thing is, Cap represents the “best of America” which would naturally include tolerance. He’s also from an era when America was actually pretty secular–the power structure was nominally Christian, but outright fundamentalism was more of a regional thing. It’s always seemed to me that America’s embrace of religion in their politics is a surprisingly recent development–there’s been a bit of a religious revival since the 70s, and before that the first amendment separation of church and state was taken *very* seriously. I’ve often argued that the idea of American schools being protested for teaching evolution in the 50s was borderline unthinkable, except perhaps again in small, rural regions; everywhere else, America was pretty obsessed with science and technological progress in the post-war years–gotta beat those commies, y’know! Cap’s from before that, obviously, but still post-Scopes trial, and the run up to WWII saw those same technocratic attitudes starting to take shape.

        Furthermore, Brooklyn in the 30s was pretty cosmopolitan (then as now) and it’s hard to imagine anyone from that time and place getting flustered over a, gasp, non-Christian (the fact that Cap was created by two Jews probably adds to this sense). The idea that “white male Christians ONLY” is the default American attitude is something that I’d argue right-wing American politicians have been inculcating only in fairly recent years–you can probably pin it to Reagan’s appeal to the fundamentalists and fringier right-wing groups.

        All of which is to say, while Cap is certainly a Christian by culture, I don’t see it being a huge part of his identity, definitely not enough that he would clash with a pagan teammate or suffer some kind of crisis of faith with the discovery that the Norse gods are real, sort of. It’s probably just more weird shit he has to deal with on a daily basis.

  3. Don Alsafi says:

    I found the Seven Soldiers rough going at first – even as someone well-versed in the DCU – but my enjoyment shot up immeasurably once I found the issue-by-issue Seven Soldiers annotations on Barbelith. Sadly, the page now seems to be broken/gone….

    And as someone who often has mixed feelings about Grant Morrison (he experiments constantly and is thus interesting to watch, even when the experimenting fails, but I think doesn’t work on craft and clarity nearly as much as he could), I loved the heck out of Zenith and think it may be my favorite of all his works. I’m so glad it’s finally getting collected!

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Just for the record, I did give Seven Soldiers every chance before sending Andrew my despairing email. Here’s what I wrote to him:

      I feel like I’m ready to have another go at Grant Morrison, having struggled to make any sense out of Seven Soldiers even after having read it in both orders and having read your analyses.

      You know how Watchmen is a single self-contained volume with the beginning, a middle and an end, and no requirement to know anything about the characters’ back-stories in advance? Is there something analogous to that in Morrison’s work? A standalone?

      Great to get such a detailed response!

      • Don Alsafi says:

        Yep, I definitely am familiar with that struggle; as mentioned, I have it with GM’s work quite a lot, which pains me. (It’s been years since I’ve read 7S, but I do recall the initial barrier being not a confusing representation of the DC Universe elements, but just a lack of clarity / connective bits in general…)

        My shorthand is that I believe Grant’s stories are always brilliant … but he could do a lot more towards conveying that story in a manner to let the rest of us glimpse as much of it as he does. (Writing, after all, is about communication.)

        My own theory is that this is why his earlier works (Zenith, Animal Man, etc) often work for me better than his later ones: Because at that time he had editors who weren’t afraid to say “This could be clearer” or “I’m not sure this is coming across” or “Do you think the majority of your readers will get what you’re going for here?”

      • Don Alsafi says:

        Oh hey! Here you go – the issue-by-issue annotations, and extensive as all hell:

        http://web.archive.org/web/20090503070511/http://www.barbelith.com/faq/index.php/Category:Seven_Soldiers_Issues

        (Thank goodness for the Internet Archive!)

        I imagine you’re probably tired of even trying at this point. But if you wanted to try reading it along with the page-by-page annotations, you might be as surprised as I was at just how much it changes the experience – from confusing and frustrating, to comprehensible and amazing.

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