Grant Morrison’s history of comic book superheroes purports to illustrate how this particular form of popular literature sheds light on the kind of people we are at any given moment in history. Or, as the subtitle says rather more precisely and pithily, “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.” It doesn’t do that, exactly, although Morrison certainly nods in that direction. The writing, however, is far too scattershot in approach to sustain such an earnest and/or academic approach.
Stylistically, there are two separate books here. In the first – the writing that comprises roughly the first half of the book and intermittent sections in the latter part – Morrison provides an insider’s view and overview of the history and present of comics. Superman and Batman begin their careers not against the Lex Luthors and Jokers of the world. They are on the side of “the working man” and as such, they fight corrupt bosses and organized crime. With the Silver Age of comics, we get World War II and the various Axis foes, not to mention an overtly S&M themed Wonder Woman. He is generous with his praise for writers and artists and sets everybody he writes about in an essentially positive light. There is even a list-of-further-resources at the end of the book (what the more academically inclined might have labeled an “appendix”).
Sometime during the Silver Age, though, something happens in the comics world. To wit: Grant Morrison is born in 1960. Morrison’s birth is less relevant than his growing interest in comics, however, and it is here that the first book in Supergods starts to go off the rails and becomes transformed, as if by gamma radiation, into The Very Interesting Story About Grant Morrison.
You might take that I’m not a huge fan of the second book and you’d be right – but I have to stress that this is a particularly and purely personal reaction to his prose. Maybe it would have bothered me less if he’d talked about other writers and artists with the same degree of panache and superficiality. We get from him indirectly that is he astoundingly well-read, or at least well-versed enough in pop culture and literature to pass himself off as well-read. There is less of that, though, and more of his experiences with arcana (he’s a chaos magician! Who knew?) and psychedelia. In his defense, these are at least as important to his comic writing as his reading and education are. On the other hand, no one else gets this treatment. It’s Grant Morrison’s book and he can do anything he wants, you might say, and again, you’re right. But it doesn’t make for good craft.
If you like Grant Morrison and you want to know more about him, you will almost certainly like this section of the book. I found him very interesting in theory and not particularly likable at the same time, which meant that the writing became increasingly wearing.
I finished this book feeling like I had learned a fair amount about some history in the content filled a number of gaps I had in my knowledge as a casual reader of comics since childhood. I get the feeling that Morrison is in full command of his facts and could have written a great deal more or that he could have gone into much greater depth. He didn’t. The result – for me – is a facile, superficial, progressively less-entertaining or educating read. The definition of a mixed bag if there ever was one – appropriately, for reasons both objective (craft) and personal.