Grant Morrison And The Great Work
In magical practice, the term magnum opus has a different meaning than in popular context. Latin for "the Great Work," its been used since the early alchemists, and taken on various shades of metaphorical meaning through different traditions, but they're all essentially referring to the same thing: the total actualization of one's will, and the creation of the idealized self. Grant Morrison, the most inventive writer in comics, has been at it for a while now.
Grant Morrison was born in Glasgow, Scotland on January 31, 1960, to a pair of social activists; an ex-soldier father and a science fiction-loving mother who frequently involved their son in their protests of the UK Trident nuclear program. He discovered comics when he was very young; in his rebellious teens, the Romantics, the Beats, punk music and ritual magic.
He was most interested in a form of magical practice that was just emerging around the time, a postmodern approach popularized by Peter Carroll called chaos magic. Practical and results-oriented, chaos magic encourages its users to takes bits and pieces from whatever tradition will work, to personalize and create practices, and emphasizes magic's ultimate role as a tool to affect change. The impact its discovery made on Morrison's life and work is immeasurable.
He entered comics professionally in Near Myths in the late 1970s, where his Jerry Cornelius-inspired character Gideon Stargrave appeared in strips next to Bryan Talbot's Jerry Cornelius-inspired Luther Arkwright. Throughout the early 1980s, Morrison contributed to the usual suspects in British comics, Warrior, Doctor Who Magazine, and 2000 AD. His early work is typically bright but formulaic, with the brightest spots coming when he was willing to take risks and do something outlandish.
The risk paid off on Zenith, with Steve Yeowell; Morrison's first significant creative breakthrough. A satire of Thatcherite Britain and the exploding entertainment culture of the 1980s that recast the superhero as a vapid pop star, Zenith caught the attention of DC, and on their historic head-hunting trip to the UK, Dick Giordano and Karen Berger hired Morrison to write a weird Batman story and revamp the forgotten Animal Man.
On Animal Man, what was initially intended to be a deconstruction of the character that injected the "realism" that was so popular at the time quickly veered off into self-aware postmodernism that sloughed off every trend in the darkening world of superhero comics.
Beginning with his fifth issue, "The Coyote Gospel," Morrison introduced metafictional elements into the story, eventually making Buddy Baker aware that he was a character living in a comicbook, and that Morrison was controlling every aspect of his fictional life. Instead of bringing Animal Man closer to reality, Morrison brought himself and his readers closer to the fiction in the shocking first emergence of a theme that would take on increasing importance to the writer-magician over the years.
His success on Animal Man led to Doom Patrol, which Morrison and artist Richard Case treated as a repository for their esoteric interests. Surrealism, Dada, and aleatoricism wound their way into the fabric of DC's brightly-colored superhero universe. Damaged characters inspired by Morrison and his friends transformed Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani's social misfits into a team of freaks more equipped to deal with the escalating absurdity of the world, and the oncoming explosion of alternative culture in the 90s. Where Morrison based his early career around the ability to follow trends, he began to find that he was better when predicting them.
In late 1989, the weird Batman story he pitched in his first meeting with DC appeared at what turned out to be exactly the right time. Illustrated by Dave McKean, the densely psychological and symbolic Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth hit the market hot on the heels of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's Batman and quickly became a phenomenon. Although Morrison always considered the book a creative failure, its massive success provided him the freedom and capital to incite his next phase of self-creation, and begin the next phase of his career.
A compulsive world traveler, in 1994 Morrison visited Kathmandu, Nepal, and had a magical experience that changed his life. In what he's referred to as a shamanic journey/angelic visitation/alien abduction, he viewed reality from a higher dimension, much like a three-dimensional being would see a two-dimensional comicbook story. Whatever "the Kathmandu Experience" was, cosmic vision or hallucination, the result is the same. Morrison had had a suspicion that there were other realities, some in the form of comics, that one could interact with. After Kathmandu, he seemed to have proof.
He fed the energy of that experience into The Invisibles, a sprawling and unpredictable apocalyptic opus that encompassed chaos magic, conspiracy theory, anarchism, pop culture entropy, Lovecraftian horror, and millennial anxiety. Intended to be a magical work itself, Morrison created The Invisibles to be a "hypersigil" that would change the world.
At the very least, it certainly changed Morrison. He came to view comics as a form of self-editing; like magic, a tool to affect change. He had already put himself into his own comics in Animal Man. With The Invisibles, he put the comics into himself, becoming more like his characters, working out his issues, moving closer to his idealized self.
In 1996, Morrison wrote Flex Mentallo, his first project with Frank Quitely, the artist who would become perhaps Morrison's most important collaborator. Again exploring fictional reality and biographical elements, Flex Mentallo is a mind-bending excursion into sex, drugs, and modern despair. If he wasn't already considered comics' trippiest writer, Flex Mentallo sealed it. And somehow, in the very same year that he was simultaneously working on The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo, comics' trippiest writer was handed the keys to the kingdom.
By the mid-90s the grim and gritty movement had gotten dull and rusty, and Morrison's JLA was one of a few pivotal comics to force the superhero genre to once again celebrate the impossible. A widescreen thrill ride of insane action and mad ideas, JLA reclaimed DC's biggest properties and broke the Silver Age resurgence wide open, becoming one of the highest-selling comics of the day. Suddenly Morrison, who had always been on the fringes, reinvented himself again as he infiltrated the mainstream and became a genuine comics superstar.
After the conclusion of The Invisibles, he converted his newfound stardom into an exclusive deal with Marvel, his first work for the publisher. He came out with a bang on the incendiary Marvel Boy, and in New X-Men with Quitely, brought a laser-like focus to the confused franchise. Overall, though, Morrison's work at Marvel feels almost like a "lost weekend." Fantastic Four: 1234 was listless, and the second half of his run on New X-Men sunk into a depressing repetition of the same stories that had been dragging the X-titles down for years.
Morrison was in an apparently dark place, and as always, he took to comics to explore it. The Filth with Chris Weston, Morrison's return to DC/Vertigo after Marvel, sees him immersed in self-disgust. A bleak inversion of The Invisibles, The Filth is raw and nasty; depressing, hateful, depraved, and ultimately moving. The Filth digs into mankind's sewage and finds something beautiful, and it's one of Morrison's best and most challenging works.
Whatever he worked through in the early 2000s bore fruit later in the decade, which Morrison ripped through like a tornado. He released three passion projects with Vertigo in a very short time, most notably the high-fidelity We3, again with Frank Quitely. He followed those up with Seven Soldiers of Victory, a superstructure of seven mini-series and two bookends that further delves into the role of a creator in a fictional universe, in an exhilarating new metacontext. Morrison appears as a version of himself again, as one of a group of mysterious men guiding events behind the scenes.
In 2005, Morrison paired with Quitely once again for All-Star Superman, one of the highlights of the early 21st century. A twelve-issue, non-continuity tale, All-Star Superman captures the idealized version of Superman, the quintessence of the concept that we knew was somewhere in there; an accumulation of the best versions and greatest aspects of the character. Winner of several Eisner Awards and considered by many to be the best long-form Superman story of all time, it's likely Morrison's least controversial work, enjoyable by a broader audience than any of his other trips into madness.
He continued to play in DC's superhero sandbox as one of the four writers of the surprisingly satisfying weekly event series 52, which tied directly into his debut on Batman, starting a seven-year run, the longest of his career. Like All-Star Superman, Morrison's Batman attempted to find a quintessential version of the character, but this time from a completely different angle. He approached Batman's continuity holistically, as if it had all really happened, and bundled together the atonal notes throughout the character's history in unison. Not only does he provide a definitive statement on the meaning of the character, he properly mythologizes Batman, granting him apotheosis.
Batman tied directly into his next great metafictional experiment, Final Crisis, and it seemed as if the mainstream had finally had enough of the weird Vertigo guy they let play with their toys. An incredibly divisive series that was lambasted by many as being incomprehensible, Final Crisis is actually brilliant. A superhero story about the death of a fictional universe, it's super-compressed, brashly unconventional, and a fantastic further implementation of the themes that have driven much of Morrison's career.
He returned to those themes again in the sequel The Multiversity. Dense, compact, more challenging and strangely much better received, The Multiversity seems like it could be Morrison's final statement on the relationship between fiction and reality. It has the feel of definitiveness to it; of finality.
Then again, Morrison's Great Work isn't quite done yet. He found the goal long ago, when he first passed the membrane into fiction in Animal Man, and he's been working at it regularly ever since. He wants to make the world more like comics.
As Great Works go, it's a pretty good one.