Grant Morrison Talks About Action Comics, His Batman Mega-Story, and Mothers [Interview]
It might not have featured a free ride home or Bojangles, but one of the highlights of my convention weekend at Comic-Con 2011 was getting to sit down with DC Universe uber-architect, Supergods writer and living legend Grant Morrison whose Batman books I have annotated in detail. We discussed the new Action Comics relaunching in September, the upcoming conclusion of his Batman story in Batman: Leviathan, the curious lack of mother figures in his work, and the Wonder Woman: Earth One series that wasn’t.
Grant Morrison: So thanks for all the annotations and stuff, I think they’re really good.
ComicsAlliance: Thank you very much! One of the things I’ve noticed in the books so far is this recurring thematic motif of absent parents damaging their children, similar to the Sheeda from Seven Soldiers and also with Bruce Wayne and his father Thomas, Bruce and his son Damian, etc. Is this theme going to continue next year in your work on Batman: Leviathan and Action Comics?
GM: That’s interesting — it’ll certainly come into Leviathan, but because there’s a big reveal there I can’t really talk about it. Certainly the whole year of Leviathan is about the Batman/Damian relationship and where that goes, and like I said it’s a big “weepy” type of story, so it’ll be very much in that vein. It’s really Damian relating to his father for the first time in a big way and the two of them trying to find some kind of common ground, which they don’t really have.In terms of Action, I haven’t thought about it but you’re probably right; there are these master themes that you find in things that you don’t really notice until somebody points them out. With Action Comics, we’re certainly dealing with a Superman that doesn’t have his parents anymore. Both Ma and Pa Kent are dead in this version, and it’s kind of like the original Superman where you saw him standing over their graves in the same way that Batman did and vowing to always fight for the right. He’s kind of a lot more isolated in that sense, even though he’s not a brooding or inward-turning character like Batman is.
CA: Are we going to see any more of elements from Seven Soldiers? For instance, is it going to be the same or a different Leviathan?
GM: It’s a different Leviathan, it’s a name that I’ve always liked because it’s the idea of a collective from [Thomas] Hobbes, the collective of society. When I was doing the Batman story, I had a few different types of names, but I suddenly thought, “this is the one I want” because it’s the Biblical serpent, the idea of the ouroboros, everything fit in there so I just thought, well, “that’s a different Leviathan.” The original one in Klarion was simply because I thought it felt that Puritan time period, and the Biblical references were really good, and it could relate back to that Biblical notion of that mighty beast from the beach.
CA: I’m curious what the evolution of the concept of your Batman run was. I know when you came on you said it was going to be sixteen issues against a big enemy and that was going to be it. And then it evolved, and you had Final Crisis and the Dick and Damian period, and then you went on and now we’ve got the new Incorporated.
GM: It was always going to be Batman up against Doctor Hurt. Batman versus the Devil was the idea I had, and then, as you know, not necessarily a literal devil but Batman’s devil, a metaphorical one, one that represented everything that was opposed to Batman in a way that wasn’t the Joker. The ultimate mastermind, the ultimate plotter. That was my original idea, then when we got to “Batman R.I.P.” — which would have actually been the end for me, we were offered the chance to do a new Batman, and I just couldn’t refuse. Doing Dick Grayson and Damian as Batman and Robin was just too good to pass up on.
That ended up, for me I think, was the most exciting, dynamic period of the whole thing, to the point were I almost felt bad when we got Bruce back. I think the relationship between Dick Grayson and Damian was just so fresh and so new and it still felt like Batman but it really opened up a lot of doors for characterization that hadn’t been there before.
Having done that, and then having to bring that to an end, I thought, “what remains?” I remember on the plane, thinking “I’m going to finish at the end of Batman and Robin,” and then suddenly this notion of Batman Incorporated came to mind. That was the idea of bringing Bruce Wayne heavily back into the equation, because the series they wanted me to do was the Return of Bruce Wayne so I thought, let’s take that very literally… This is the return of Bruce Wayne to the Batman persona, and so what would Bruce bring to that? It took off again, and I got really into the notion of doing a team-up book… I’m doing ten issues of super-intricate team-up stories, and from that I notice all the threads I’ve left untouched from the beginning of the run. I want to bring them all together and do this absolute grand finale, the biggest Batman story I can think of, to wrap up my six years on the book. That’s what Leviathan became — these twelve issues that finished everything, dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and left no stone unturned.
CA: So R.I.P. was originally going to end with the revelation about Doctor Hurt and who he was, and that got pushed back?
GM: I was never going to reveal who he was, I was just going to leave Doctor Hurt as this guy who claims to be, “I’m the Devil, I’m your father, you’ll never know who I am.” Then I thought, let’s do comic books with this and–
CA: And the idea for the Hyper-Adapter came through, and Barbatos…?
GM: Yeah, and tied it into the Darkseid stuff, and the Barbatos stuff from Pete Milligan’s run, and I felt I could use that stuff and make it grounded. The readers want everything grounded and explained, so I felt we could give one group of readers the more metaphorical, abstract stuff but at the same time we could give the other readers the secret origin and — you know, it may not even be true! Doctor Hurt may not be Thomas, he may actually be the devil, I wanted it all to remain that [the devil] was who he was. The Joker recognizes him as the devil most of the way through, and treats him as the devil, and then has his own victory over the devil, so he remained that character, that space, that hole. And he could still be Thomas Wayne as well, Bruce’s father.
CA: That’s very true. Out of curiosity, one thing I noticed was that all the way back in “Gothic” [Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10], you seemed to be building on the idea of Thomas Wayne as more of a character. We never really see Thomas Wayne actually dealt with as a person. With regards to Thomas, most of the time, he’s this big influence on Bruce’s life but once of the things you came up with in “Gothic” was that he was solving all of these supernatural mysteries, and doing all of this crazy stuff in the DC Universe — or also in the backmatter in Aztek.
GM: Yeah, that’s true. I just thought that Batman’s personality came from this man, and he probably would be interested in puzzles and things, even though he was a doctor and he was obviously very socially conscious. I love the idea that he was like Batman in his own sphere, and that he was the sort of man who’d do crossword puzzles and solve clues and if he read about a case in the paper he’d probably contact the police and suggest that he help out. I saw him as that figure, but also as a slightly sinister figure particularly in Batman’s world, which is noirish and dark. In the way that Jor-El is usually seen as quite a positive if distant figure [to Superman], there’s a kind of ambiguity to Thomas Wayne which is where Hurt came from. The sense of “maybe my father wasn’t the man I thought he was,” and you could do something scary about him, because for Bruce Wayne his parents left him when he was ten, and however much he loved them he’s still blaming them for that moment they left him alone.
I think I was trying to build that kind of ambiguity into Thomas, but my favorite portrayal of him that captures all this is in Batman Begins, where you see him and he’s trying to talk the guy [Joe Chill] down, saying “you don’t have to do this, I’ll get you money,” and I thought that was great. You only see him for thirty seconds, but it’s this very compassionate man who wants to help the guy who’s about to shoot him and his wife. And then he dies.
CA: So what’s your take on Martha, out of curiosity?
GM: It’s weird — I don’t do much about mothers. I always thought it was strange, but it’s because my mother’s still alive and we’re really good friends. She’s pretty old now, give it a few years and I’ll probably start writing about mothers, but I’ve noticed this very clearly in my work that I don’t have mothers in it. Animal Man — his mother doesn’t get mentioned but his father does, even in St. Swithin’s Day the boy’s father’s dead but his mother’s alive, and it’s probably because when we were kids and my parents divorced, I went to live with my mom and my dad became a more distant figure. So I think it’s something I have noticed I tend not to deal with the mothers, I’m constantly obsessed with the fathers in these stories, and I’ve got a feeling that soon that will change. [Bittersweet laughter]
CA: Yeah, the only mother I can think of [in your work] is Talia, and I don’t think that anybody would call her any kind of role model.
GM: She’s not, but also, I’ve been thinking about her again as well. I want to do a much more rounded portrayal of Talia shortly.
CA: So we’ll see a lot more of her and Ra’s and…?
GM: We’ll see a bit more of those characters, because… I don’t like Ra’s al Ghul much, and I think it was actually a good idea to get rid of him.
CA: I thought Death and the Maidens was brilliant — talking about Bruce’s parents, that scene in DatM where he meets them in that hallucinogenic dream and his mother slaps him and says “I may have been dead for twenty-five years, but I’m still your mother”–
GM: That’s why in Arkham Asylum, when he sees his mother she’s been kind of haunting him, since they’re dragging him to — it’s not Zorro, but it’s an earlier movie, it’s Bambi, and his mother is saying “you shouldn’t be crying, you’ve made a fool of everybody.” She seems quite nasty in that book, and I was looking back to memories of my own mother, I once I got dragged out of a cinema for screaming at the death of a turtle, so that was that. She’s only ever appeared in my stories as kind of a scary figure. It’s an interesting one, I think. I need to start exploring the mothers. There’s a lot about Lara in Action Comics.
CA: Are we going to be seeing more of Jor-El and Lara and Ma and Pa Kent, even though they aren’t there? I assume we’ll see them if it is, as you say, a time loop sort of story?
GM: We’ll get to see all of these characters from a slightly different perspective. In fact, Action Comics #3 has a whole scene with Jor-El and Lara which is set in the Death of Krypton period.
CA: So, without spoiling, what’s the new take on Krypton?
GM: Mashing up a lot of the stuff I like about it. It’s the Planet of the Supermen, it’s the Things to Come 1930s idea of the future, where everything’s slightly art-deco and retro, that kind of lost golden age vision of perfected men and women. I’m not doing the John Byrne cold stuff, but — the scene in Action Comics #3, we’ve got Baby Kal-El sitting on a balcony on a gigantic skyscraper on Krypton, and there’s no guardrails — just this little baby sitting there, legs over the side, with a thousand-foot drop. And over there all the women are chatting and gossiping, but what they’re gossiping about is “oh, did you hear Doctor Kem-Daj has discovered the new quantum equation?”
They’re all laughing, and it’s all these science people gossiping and it’s their idea of social interaction, all this really high-level science stuff. They’re ignoring the kid because they know he’s not going to jump — even the children are too smart to fall off, so they just let him play over there near the edge. So that’s the take we’re doing on it, and it’s not they’re cold, they just have a completely different attitude towards child safety than we do.
GM: I’ve got sixteen [issues] plotted so far, so I’ll just probably stay on after the same way I did on Batman: I work out the first year or so and then I find myself getting much more involved in it once I’ve done a few issues, so I’m hoping once I’m done the sixteen I’ll just keep going as long as it seems exciting.
CA: And after the first arc, we’re going to be catching up the present day?
GM: Pretty much. Actually, the whole thing is much more complex than that, because I wanted to do a big story involving time. It’s got the Legion in there — a slightly different version — and it’s a big timeloop story. So we’re seeing some of the past stuff, then we cut to the present, and then we go back to areas in the past so it’s really a big, big story in the same way I did with Batman, telling the entire story of Superman’s life but in a different way from Batman, which was much more linear and drawing on the elements of the past. This one’s actually quite dynamic and moves through his life, and it’s kind of Superman’s life as seen from a five-dimensional perspective.
CA: So we’re going to be seeing something more along the lines of the holistic approach to Batman incorporating all of his different appearances and different incarnations?
GM: Not so much in the same way, because with Batman I specifically took the history and welded it all together. With Superman we’re actually creating a whole new history and then revealing it through the story. So it’s new stuff, while with Batman it was integrating previous history.
CA: How much of all of this is going to be tying in with Multiversity, if anything?
GM: Not much — there’s a little bit of tie-in, but Multiversity is its own thing since I wanted it to be quite complete in itself and to be a final statement — I always make these “final statements,” [laughs] and Multiversity is my latest “final statement.” It’s kind of very self-enclosed, but there are little points of crossover, like the black President Superman from Final Crisis #7 is a major character in Multiversity and there’s a kind of crossover between him and the DC Superman in a later episode of Action Comics. So there are little bits of crossovers here and there.
CA: What’s the process like with Multiversity? Did you start the individual issues first and then work the framework out from there?
GM: I worked out which of the Earths I wanted and then, as with Seven Soldiers, which was originally just a collection of disparate characters. I began to think, “Well, this would be much more fun if I was able to link them all together,” and then what kind of structure does that provide when you start to come up with that idea? Multiversity began to develop this structure, because I thought, I’ve got seven parallel worlds, I’ve got two bookends, and it’s set in a bigger world that encompasses all of those, so how do I link these?
And then I found the device of using the comic books within the comic books. The first parallel-world story was “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123), and in that one you see Barry Allen reading a Jay Garrick Flash comic, and that’s what inspires him. I loved that idea that each of the worlds had comic book versions of the other worlds, so Earth-10 opens with Hitler on the toilet with constipation reading Action Comics, and he’s furious!
CA: I noticed that in your first two issues of Authority as well, since when they went to the Earth-Prime analogue–
GM: Exactly, yeah, they’re reading Warren Ellis’s Authority! So yeah, they’re reading each other’s adventures, so there’s some way that if a real big emergency arises, they can communicate using comic books. So each world has a comic from the previous world which has clues to the disaster that’s coming their way, and they all have to basically start communicating using writers and artists so it’s my big, big statement.
CA: So will you be following up on stuff from Final Crisis with MONITOR and…?
GM: Nix Uotan’s in it; he’s got a big part to play. The rest of the Monitors aren’t in it, but he’s in there as a main character. We’ve got a bunch of new villains, I’m so pleased with these conceptual villains. I don’t want to talk too much about it, but the Earth-Prime comic is, I think, the most advanced thing I’ve ever done. I’m so excited about this. It’s just taking something that used to be done in comics and captions that they don’t do anymore and turning it into a technique, a weapon, but beyond that I don’t want to say. It’s a haunted comic book, actually, it’s the most frightening thing anyone will ever read. It’s actually haunted — if you read this thing, you’ll become possessed. [laughs]
CA: Is there anything else coming up in the future? Other than all of your film work.
GM: I just finished the screenplay for the Barry Sonnenfeld movie, Dominion: Dinosaurs vs. Aliens, and that was brilliant fun. Barry had given me a one-page pitch of what he wanted to do, which was really good — he took this unprepossessing title and came up with a really good idea with it, so I just developed on that and ended up having an amazing time. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing anything in a long time. It’s a very big Biblical span of story. There’s Sinatoro, which I’m working on right now–
CA: Is that script for the movie still being worked on, or is production about to begin?
GM: I’ve got 147 pages of screenplay right now that I’m trying to edit down to 120. Hopefully I’ll be finished by the end of the month, and then Adam [Egypt Mortimer]‘s going to start doing his pre-production on that. Otherwise, I’m working on this Wonder Woman thing that I’ve been doing for years, which was going to be Earth One and I’m sure it’ll end up somewhere with Brian Azzarello doing the new in-continuity Wonder Woman.
So there’s that and as I’ve said before I’d love to do a Flash story — my take on the Flash that doesn’t owe anything to any previous continuity. Those are the comic things I’m thinking about right now. And there’s always the Action and Leviathan stuff as well.
CA: It is called Leviathan, right? The name Batman Incorporated is no longer?
GM: I’m not sure how they’re gonna play it, actually. I just thought they should end it and then do this new thing, but I think Dan [DiDio] may want to call it Batman Incorporated with a big Leviathan logo at the top, so we’ll see how that works out.
CA: And is that going to be a big crossover within the Batman books as well? Are you coordinating with Scott Snyder and Tony Daniel and the rest?
GM: Not so much. I know Scott’s got a big story he wants to tell as well, and I always think each writer should be allowed to their own thing and express themselves in their own way, so it’s not an intense crossover. There’ll be more crossover with Batman and Robin by Peter J. Tomasi because he’s dealing with Damian and Bruce as well, so that’ll be the one I’m closest in tandem with. Basically, no, it’s its own thing, and even though it takes place over twelve issues it’s two very intense months in Batman’s life.
CA: How much will this be tying in, if at all, with the Doctor Hurt plotline [that concluded in Batman and Robin #16]? Are we done with Hurt forever pretty much at this point?
GM: Yeah, pretty much. I feel as though I’ve done that, he was representing the devil for both Batman and then the Joker takes down the devil, and I’m so pleased being able to get down to the primal gag, killing the primal enemy–
CA: And then the Big Mike [the name of the banana the Joker ate to leave the peel for Hurt to slip on, allowing the Joker to bury Hurt alive] thing ended up just being too perfect.
GM: Yeah, it was nuts, the way you dig into something and these correspondences start to happen, so you’re doing your research — all I was looking for was the bananas they used in pratfall gags. What’s the best banana? And I discovered that in the old days of silent cinema, they used the “Big Mike” banana, which was just so perfect, Big Mike [as a metaphor for the Archangel Michael] taking down the devil — you couldn’t pay for that kind of connection.