Grant Morrison: The ‘Action Comics’ Exit Interview
There is no denying Grant Morrison is one of the premiere voices in the comic book industry today. Whether he is crafting stories about interdimensional, alien gods enslaving humanity or just reinventing the Justice League for a new generation, it is clear the man is a visionary. Particularly with respect to Superman, of whom Morrison had been telling a distinct, independently consistent saga for a number of years throughout a plethora of titles like JLA, DC One Million and Superman Beyond, concluding with what’s arguably the writer’s most beloved superhero work, All-Star Superman. But Morrison returned to the Man of Steel in 2011, writing the reboot of Action Comics for DC Comics’ New 52 line, with the stated intention of taking a different look at Superman’s early years, taking specific inspiration from the “New Deal” era of America in which the character was originally created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
With his run of Action Comics coming to an end in March, we thought this was the best time to chat with Morrison about his latest work with the Man of Steel.
ComicsAlliance: You have a deep reverence for Superman as seen in All-Star Superman and Super Gods. Has there ever been a time in your personal life or professional career where you didn’t have a strong connection with the character? What’s kept you coming back to that character over the years?
Grant Morrison: I’ve always liked Superman, even since I was kid, but he was never my favorite. It was always the Flash when I was young, but I liked Superman and I particularly liked Superman stories when I was growing up all through the ’60s and ’70s. I was a big fan of that character and he’s always been there, but I would say that as I’ve got older he’s become more meaningful. He’s become more symbolic and more useful as a symbolic tool to talk about big world stuff. I think in the past he was considered fun, but the older I’ve gotten and the more I understand what the character is capable of, the more fun its become.
CA: You spent the last year on Action Comics. You got to retell the beginnings of the Man of Steel as more of an everyman in jeans, t-shirt, the Bruce Springsteen sort of deal. However it wasn’t long before we saw Superman in more of the traditional costume. How important do you think the symbolic nature of the clothes was to the evolution of Superman’s character during your run?
GM: For me it symbolized that whole thing, because one of things Superman hasn’t been able to do was show a particular development in his character. He didn’t have an arc, as we say. So when [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Dan [DiDio] came to me and said that we wanted to revamp Superman, I had all these drawings, because I wanted to do an early years Superman story after I had done All-Star Superman at the end of his life. So I had a bunch sketches of Superman just in a t-shirt and jeans and I really loved the look and I kept coming back to it. So I said to Dan, “Can we use this look on Superman?” And he was really up for it, because it very much signaled a change. Once people saw that costume, they knew something different was going on with the character.
We still had to get to [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Jim Lee’s costume, because it was the new official look for the character. But what that meant was I was allowed to tell the story of how Superman changed from this idea, this proto-idea, before there were any other superheroes. No one knew what a superhero was and all they had was this guy in jeans and t-shirt and a cape and that kind of influenced the look of every superhero on.
CA: Bouncing off that, you kicked off a Populist/New Deal flavor that reflected a lot of what is going on in America and other places in the world, especially following the financial crisis. What sort of contemporary or political issues influenced the rest of your run and especially coming up to the conclusion?
GM: Symbolically I’m not a big fan of dealing with politics in superhero comics because I think it diminishes both sides of the argument, but I do have my own take on things. I’ve got my own politics and so they do tend to find their way in. And really for me, its more symbolic, the way story winds up to tackle all those issues and looks at them through the perspective of Superman and Red Kryptonite and weirdness. So its gone underground. I think the early Superman was very much more aligned with the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian current, because I think when Superman started out that he was what entered into.
So to bring it back at a time when people are more feeling that again seems very appropriate. But at the same time Superman has to be a lot of other things and that is what this story is about. As you’ll see in the last couple of issues, that really is the paramount question, which side is Superman on? Is he on the side of the establishment or is he on the side of the rebel? And that’s what it is really all about. And that is where all the tension is on the character.
CA: Fans can feel the end of your run approaching, especially when it says, “The Second Death of Superman” on the cover of issue #16. What can you tell us about the finale of the book?
GM: Well it’s a big crazy story. It’s something we haven’t tried before and I wanted to do something we hadn’t really seen in a comic before. So it takes place on a lot of different levels. We have the fifth dimensional character, the evil, psychopathic Lord Vyndktvx who is making his final move on Superman. So it’s Superman under-fit, you know — physically, literally, symbolically, conceptually. It’s kind of an assault on Superman that is happening on more levels then you would normally see in a comic book and I wanted it to do more with the last question, “What does Superman represent?” as well. What is he in the new world? It’s a big one and it’s kind of psychedelic in that way and psychedelic in the sense that it implicates that he doesn’t have specific way so everyone gets a chance to join in this one.
CA: What makes this the right time for you to move onto other projects?
GM: I just reached the end of what I had to say with Superman and especially after Super Gods, I kind of said my piece. And I began to be interested in different things and wanted to talk about different things, because I’ve spent so much time with superheroes. But it really is just the end of a phase for me. There is a bunch of other things I want to do. But certainly I am not laying off the superhero characters. Superman or any of these other are great fun to tell stories with, but other things were chasing my imagination.
CA: Fair enough. You worked with Rag Morales and a number of other artists on this run. Can you pinpoint any moments during the collaborative process where you felt the art team really nailed what you were trying to accomplish with you scripts?
GM: There’s a ton of that. Especially because what I said to Rags and to Brad Walker up front was change things around. Change the storytelling, throw in your ideas. The collaboration has been fun. Especially the last few issues have been great depictions of the fifth dimensional entities and higher dimensional viewpoints and there’s a little bit more of that in the upcoming stories. I’ve been pleased at what those guys have done.
CA: You’re very well known for you psychedelic presence in comics, whether it’s your Animal Man or The Invisibles. You’ve always managed to take that vibe and put it into a mainstream book…
GM: These things sort of go together. Look at Jack Kirby. Look at any comic you grew up reading. To me those things are psychedelic. Because I grew up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, the music even when I was reading those comics was psychedelic and they have always been inseparable.
I think one of the great things about comics is that you can do anything. There’s no particular budget. Anything you can imagine, anything can you draw can go on the page. The word psychedelia literally means mind-manifesting, so if a comic isn’t psychedelic [laughs] I don’t know what is, because it is a physical product of someone’s thought going directly on the paper.
CA: You said you were done with Superman, or at least done with him for the time being. Was there any territory you weren’t able to explore during this run. I believe a few years back, you and Mark Waid had pitched out some Superman stories…
GM: Yeah, yeah…
CA: Was anything you weren’t able to tell or wanted to explore with Superman or otherwise?
GM: No, not at all. I didn’t want to do Luthor in Action Comics because All-Star Superman was all about him. So I didn’t want to spend much time with him. I tried to set up a story where you could see the difference between Luthor at one end where he’s a kind of cowardly, miserable, sniveling man and by the end of it he’s a proper Superman foil. Like where he’s a type of Moriarty-style figure. And you see him again at the end of Action Comics as the Luthor we all get. The absolute mastermind, the equal of Superman. So just by showing Luthor at the beginning and the end, we can suggest a character arc for him, so that’s why I didn’t use a lot of him.
Again, I didn’t do much of the other ones, but I used the ones I wanted to do. There is no General Zod, but we did have a Phantom Zone villain, Xa-Du, who is the same type of character. What I pretty much wanted to do was introduce a lot of new guys. The big villain is not Mr. Mxyzptlk even though he comes from the same dimension. What I was trying to do was take something familiar and then make the scarier, badder, meaner version with fangs. So instead of Mr. Mxyzptlk, the trickster, we’ve got Lord Vyndktvx, the psychopath and they’ve both got the powers of a god.
There was no one I didn’t get to, although I would have liked to have spent more time with Lois and Jimmy, but I think I spent just enough anyway. A lot of that was just setting up for other writers to do. The great thing that about Action Comics is that it is a monthly book and when I leave, someone else writes it. So you’re not trying to tell a story that begins and ends in the same way that All-Star Superman is fairly complete story. Action Comics has been out forever, so it’s a very different approach to telling something like that. You have to think about next month all the time and you have to think about the next guy coming in and that fact that Superman stories will never stop being told as long as people are capable of it.
CA: Going back to when you were writing JLA, a lot of people considered your take on the Electric Superman better than his own monthly books, at times.
GM: Oh, thank you, but I always tried to take the mythical aspect of him, because it’s a superhero comic, so that’s what I’m looking for and that’s why you remember the Blue Superman for that one JLA story. Actually he was in some good stories, but he was just told in a way that didn’t emphasize this big move I think.
CA: Your Image book Happy has gotten a lot of buzz. Can you tell us a little bit about what the future holds for you in terms of balancing creator owned projects and work for hire comics?
GM: I’m doing a bunch of stuff. Obviously Happy is wrapping up. I’ve got Annihilator over at Legendary. I’m doing the new Seaguy book with [editor] Shelly Bond at Vertigo. So those are the next few I’m working on finishing up.
CA: I know that you are going to be moving more towards creator-owned projects, but is there any character or book in the superhero world that you would like to try your hand at that you may have not tried before?
GM: Oh, no. Apart from the ones I am doing right now — Multiversity has been a lot of fun, I’ve nearly finished that. I’ve just finished the first 20 pages of the Wonder Woman story that I’m doing, so that’s been the most fun I’ve had in years. Wonder Woman is a really different approach to a superhero story and I am getting totally caught up in that.