Sunday, October 02, 2011

Some lame things Grant Morrison said in public a while back, which are even lamer in context

Grant Morrison received a great deal of media attention in July of this year, as he was promoting his then just-released comics history/memoir Supergods. Some of those interviews gained him a lot of negative attention, for some fairly foolish sounding things he said.

One was this Q-and-A style interview conducted by Brian Hiatt for Rolling Stone, which accompanied a sizable feature on Morrison for the magazine online.

In that Q-and-A, Morrison discussed Alan Moore, Mark Millar, rape and misogyny in comics, and non-superhero comics, among other topics, and his comments set off some alarm bells. Here, for example, is The Comics Journal’s Dan Nadel responding to Morrison’s conflation and dismissal of non-superhero comics as Chris Ware and “those Comics Journal guys." And here is David Brothers responding to Morrison’s statement that he never wrote about rape in his 30 years of comics-writing, as well as calling him out on an even more troubling thing he said in another interview about Supergods.

That was an interview with Kiel Phegley for Comic Book Resources, in which he said something quite unfortunate about Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and Superman.

Here’s the exchange in full:
From Siegel and Shuster through later chapters on Kirby or Jim Starlin, you cover a lot of the creative life of the people behind comics and how one informs the other, and you make some particular observations about Siegel and Shuster's desires as artists as well as professionals. There's so much chatter over the lawsuits over Superman and what not, but for you, did you feel like the characters transcend some of those debates on their own terms, or is that creative personality something that informs how our whole industry works even to today?

Well, to me it's never been honestly what's interesting about this stuff. I think the stories outlast all of those complications. You look at the people who created those characters, and they're all dead. But the characters will still be around in 50 years probably – at least the best of them will. So I try not to concern myself with that. These are deals made in times before I was even born. I can say from experience that young creative people tend to sell rights to things because they want to get noticed. They want to sell their work and to be commercial. Then when they grow up and get a bit smarter, they suddenly realize it maybe wasn't so good and that the adults have it real nice. [Laughs] But still, it's kind of the world. I wouldn't want to comment on that because it was something I wasn't around for. I can't tell why they decided to do what they did. Obviously Bob Kane came in at the same age and got a very different deal and profited hugely from Batman's success. So who knows? They were boys of the same age, but maybe some of them were more keen to sell the rights than others. It all just takes a different business head.
As I’ve said before, it’s an extremely unfortunate statement coming from Morrison, and he probably should've stopped talking when he hit the bit about not really being interested in the subject, or not being comfortable talking about it.

I was hoping he had merely misspoke—perhaps he was jetlagged, and in the middle of some terrible press junket where he was doing phone interview after phone interview?—and one of the reasons I was looking forward to sitting down with Supergods was to see how he dealt with the issue in the context of the book.

Unfortunately, Morrison’s treatment of Siegel and Shuster’s treatment is even more depressing in context; far from not wanting to comment on something that happened before he was born or not being interested in the subject, he devotes several paragraphs providing a counter-narrative to the conventional wisdom that the young creators got screwed over by the savvy and experienced suits at National Comics.

The single most troubling line in the whole 420-page volume comes in a paragraph assessing the influence of the first Superman comic story to see publication by National Comics:
By the time the first Superman story concluded, thirteen pages after its breathtaking opening scene, our hero apprehended no fewer than five lawbreakers and taken a moment to root out corruption in the US Senate. Every new reveal made both the individual story and the overall concept seem even more exciting. It gave the medium a character innovation to call its own. He gave the world the first superhero.
It’s that last sentence. Read it again, paying special attention to the pronoun that it begins with. He, not they.

Superman, not Siegel and Shuster.

In a way, it can perhaps be seen as in keeping with Morrison’s view of the evolution of the superhero as a concept that’s really real, even if Superman exists mostly in the 2-D reality of printed pages of DC comics (with occasional excursions outside of his home universe and into 3- and 4-D reality). But it’s a solidification of the idea that the character’s the thing, not the creator. In Morrison’s shamanic view as expressed there, it’s as if Superman came to Siegel and Shuster as divine inspiration, and used them to introduce himself to our perception of reality, as if they were in the throes of the comics-making equivalent of automatic writing.

Morrison talks up Siegel and Shuster’s considerable talents at great length, devoting almost an entire chapter to the first Superman story and the cover of the first issue of Action Comics, but the effect of that pronoun choice is heartbreaking.

And it gets worse.

After a paragraph in which Morrison notes the two young artists’ struggles to come up with an idea and sell it, he notes that with Superman they “struck gold” and that they sold all the rights to National Comics for $130:
If you listen to the right voices, you’ll hear and believe what I heard and believed growing up in this business, and it won’t be long before a dark and evil fairy tale unfolds: the grim cautionary fable of two innocent seventeen-year-old boys seduced by the forked tongues of cartoon fat-cat capitalists and top-hatted bloodsuckers. In this Hollywood tragedy, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are depicted as doe-eyed ingĂ©nues in a world of razor-toothed predators.

The truth, as ever, is less dramatic. The deal was done in 1938, before Superman boomed. Siegel and Shuster were both twenty-three when they sold the copyright to Superman. They had worked together for several years in the cutthroat world of pulp periodical publishing, and, like so many artists, musicians, and entertainers, they were creating a product to sell. Superman was a foot in the door, a potential break that might put them in demand as big-time pop content providers. Superman was a sacrifice to the gods of commercial success. If my own understanding of the creative mind carries any weight, I’d suspect that both Siegel and Shuster imagined they’d create other, better characters.
Morrison then notes in a parenthetical statement a paragraph later that in 1975, bad publicity pressured Warner Bros. to award Siegel and Shuster $20,000 per year, in addition to creator credit on everything Superman.

“I’m sure it helped, but as an example of how far the business has come,” Morrison then writes, “Today a prolific and popular comics writer could make the same amount in a week.”

Holy shit. Twenty-thousand dollars…in a week?

Is that what Morrison pulls down? Because he’s one of the four most popular superhero comic book writers (along with Geoff Johns, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar), and perhaps the third most prolific of the four.

Wait. That can’t possibly be right. Because 52 times $20,000 is $1,040,000 dollars. That’s a million bucks a year. Is Grant Morrison a fucking millionaire? Because, if so, that makes his dismissal of Shuster and Siegel’s screwing over seem not just impolitic—given his current gig writing Action Comics and the success he’s had with the character in JLA and All-Star Superman—but almost monstrous.

Morrison is, by the way, super-rich, which makes his statements about art comics in Rolling Stone seem even worse in context as well.

Here it is again:
There have been histories of comic books, but your book Supergods is all superheroes. It's a counter-narrative to the idea that comics need to outgrow this superhero stuff.

I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it's unhelpful to all of us, and it's coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the others, and it's indefensible.

So I never liked that stuff, I always thought that I had a real Scottish working class thing against the fact that these were done by privileged American college kids, and they were telling me the world was flat. "You're telling me the world is flat, pal?" And it's not helpful, it doesn't get us anywhere. OK, so it is, then what? What are you going to do about it, college kid? My book wasn't academic. I can't take on those Comics Journalguys, they flattened me, as they did, it's just defensive, smartass kids.
He first made it big with original graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Ground, which he says is “the bestselling original graphic novel of all time.”

It took him a month to write, he says, and before it went on sale, “Karen Berger called to tell me I was rich. Initial orders were for 120,000 copies, with Dave and me on a dollar royalty for each.

That’s $120,000 right out of the gate, and the book still sells well over 20 years later. While Morrison doesn’t say how much he’s worth or anything, it’s clear that after Arkham Asylum, he wasn’t merely able to simply live off writing comics (the dream of most artists; to make enough doing what they love to not have a day job any longer), to not simply live comfortably writing comics, but to live luxuriously off of them, being able to take spur of the moment vacations to exotic locations whenever he was feeling bored.

He was 27-years-old.

Sneering at Chris Ware for being someone really privileged with money and success, or for the people who make comics that aren’t superhero comics as a bunch of privileged American college students sounds a bit silly, coming from someone who made $120,000 in a month for writing a comic book script.

Morrison’s (financial) fortunes only increased after that early point in his career, as well. A three-issue stint writing Spawn during the ‘90s boom brought him “another mini-fortune” and, while sales of comics have slid ever since, with hits like his Batman Inc or Final Crisis doing, at their best, in the neighborhood of 100,000 units a month, and considering how much of his work is in print in trade form (just about all of it), Morrison is probably doing pretty all right for himself.

Regardless of how working class his roots might have been, he’s clearly not so working class now, and hasn’t been for a good 25 years now, so it’s a bizarre thing to call out the poor bastards writing, drawing, lettering and in some cases even publishing their own goddam comic books.

To be fair—fairer than he seems to be to Siegel, Shuster and other Golden Age artists who just started to get their due in the last decade or so, fairer than he is to Ware and company—I don’t think Morrison reads, or is even vaguely aware of non-superhero literature and art comics at all after he himself hit it big and started working for DC Comics in the late eighties. (Still, it’s so…weird that he took Hiatt’s prompting that the celebration of the superhero above all else is sort of counter to a popular narrative to just jump on Chris Ware, and associate Ware with non-superhero comics, as if he was the only guy making comics that DC and Marvel didn’t publish).

Supergods is tailored to superhero discussion, so much so that when listing the big names writing consecutive issues of Spawn during Todd MacFarlane’s inspired stunt freelance writer hiring in 1993, he mentions Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller, but neglects to mention Dave Sim. Scott Pilgrim and Bryan Lee O’Malley are mentioned at the tail end of a discussion of superhero movies. The name Robert Crumb appears once, and is used in comparison to Frank Quietely’s art style. And that’s about it for Morrison’s discussion of comics outside the superhero reservation.

His history of comics seems narrow because his subject is superheroes, of course, but even that narrow subject is narrowed even further by limiting the discussion to mainstream, corporate American comics (with digressions into British comics, where they influence his career).

That is, “superhero” as Morrison defines it means Marvel, DC, ‘90s Image, and Hollywood blockbusters, essentially. It ignores manga, it ignores the rise of the graphic novel (aside form noting that Jenette Khan and Karen Berger anticipated it, and that Akrham Asylum capitalized on it by essentially getting there first), it ignores mini-comics and it ignores webcomics—not even engaging the superheroes of those aspects of the medium and industry, or the warping effect that those big, driving forces had on the Marvel/DC super-comic that is his main focus.

Naturally Chris Ware/privileged American college kid comics don’t come up in the book, and I suppose that’s why Morrison seems ignorant of what they are, who makes them, and whether his working-class formative years, the first three decades of his life, are more working-class than the likes of Ware’s or not.

Reading his book though, it’s clear Morrison is crazy rich by Guys Who Make Comics standards, and he looks and sounds foolish clucking about Ware looking at the gutter instead of looking at the stars because Ware’s so rich and famous he should devote his wealth and fame to something more positive.

Almost as foolish as he does essentially saying that Shuster and Siegel got what they deserved. Morrison would certainly lose a working-class roots-off against Shuster, sitting in his kitchen wearing a coat and gloves because it was so damn cold and his family couldn’t afford heat, drawing on the back of butcher paper or strips of wallpaper because they couldn’t afford paper.


Unknown said...

Great post. It's really disheartening to Morrison taking the establishment's side, especially since so many present-day writers and artists don't make nearly as much as him. Especially those who don't work on superheroes who've been around for decades, long since out of the hands (and rights) of their original creators.

For someone whose book works on the thesis that the superhero is an idea with power beyond the confines of fiction, he's pretty hung up on the old ideas and their unfortunate implications.

Anonymous said...

Grant Morrison, several years ago, on The Matrix "plagiarising" The Invisibles:

"I'm not angry about it anymore, although at one time I was, because they made millions from what was basically a Xerox of my work and to be honest, I would be happy with just one million so I didn't have to work thirteen hours of every fucking day, including weekends"

Michael Netzer said...

An insightful and fearless piece about an icon of the industry that few tend to consider beyond pop hype. Many thanks for the good thoughts, Mr. M.

Guix said...

I have not read Supergods yet, so I cannot judge the book's content, but the part about the money made me think 'what a dick' of Morrison.

MrImaginary said...

This really doesn't bother me. At all. I don't agree with Morrison's opinion on Ware, but I understand it. He's not attacking that Ware is privileged, but rather that he makes cynical nihilistic stories out of privileged life. It's clear Morrison, in his joyous writing style, cant be pissed with that. Fair enough. I had similar thoughts on an Auden poem called 'Miss Gee' As long as he doesn't get really arrogant about it (which he doesn't, as he still appreciates the artistry)

Alex Weisler said...

Hdefined, you sound like a child! This is a thorough post in response to a lengthy book Morrison wrote. The point is that these comments might seem off the cuff in interviews but are totally consistent with a view of the medium expressed in Supergods and apparent in his recent work.
What's most bizarre about Morrison's sudden siding with the establishment is his vision of Superman as a socialist figure. Inconsistent w/ DC's profiteering, and inconsistent with Superman's relatively conservative (lower case "C" there fellas)position in the DCU for the past half century.

neonbabyblue said...

This doesn't really read like a valid critique of Morrison's book. His comments regarding the creators of Superman don't seem outrageous, and his use of "Superman" instead of the creators' name is completely appropriate for his topic and focus.

Further, that he doesn't discuss all of comicbookdom is an asset of his work, not a flaw. Professional historians take great care in determining a narrow focus for their works; trying to include all things would render a text incomprehensible.

WWest3001 said...

Technically, legally, Siegel and Shuster screwed themselves. Grant Morrison is allowed to have an opinion about it. A somewhat informed one it would seem. Like it or not, agree with it or not; he's not technically wrong. Young comic book creators, just like young musicians, are always eager to sell out to the "man". It is only with hindsight that many of them realize they should have done things a bit differently. Their story (and many others') serves as a warning to young creators out there today and has for over 50 years.

Caleb said...

Like it or not, agree with it or not; he's not technically wrong.

Lately I've struggled with how much to respond in comment threads--I quit doing it altogether in "professional" ones like at Robot 6--when the folks commenting don't have names and I can't connect them to real people (Man, Grant Morrison would HATE you having an alias on the Internet!)

I think he's wrong. Morally. The legality of the situation is so fucked up that I don't even think it's all that clear cut to say words like "technically" and "legally," nor does Morrison know any better than me or you (I've read all the books he cites "for further reading," for example, and none of his assertions have footnotes, so when he says "the truth" about Siegel/Shuster/National is different than the version certain folks share, he's basically just offering an opinion and stating it as fact.

I think it's a reprehensible opinion to have. Especially considering how important Superman the character is to him.

Caleb said...

This doesn't really read like a valid critique of Morrison's book. His comments regarding the creators of Superman don't seem outrageous, and his use of "Superman" instead of the creators' name is completely appropriate for his topic and focus.

No it isn't. SUPERMAN didn't give the world its first superhero. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster gave the world its first superhero.

Further, that he doesn't discuss all of comicbookdom is an asset of his work, not a flaw. Professional historians take great care in determining a narrow focus for their works;

Er, I know, I read the book. I said its focused solely on superheroes, not comics in general. The thing is, in the Rolling Stone interview, the interviewer asked, "So what's up with the rest of comics? Your position would seem to be contrary to conventional wisdom," and Morrison responds, "Yeah dude, fuck Chris Ware, privileged American college students and The Comics Journal assholes."

I was just pointing out that Morrison doesn't talk about non-superhero comics at all IN THE BOOK, so his comment in the interview seems particularly out of left field.

I guess I could have broken this up into two posts, one about how Grant Morrison says something douchey about Siegel/Shuster and a second about how Grant Morrison says something douchey (and random and weird) about Chris Ware/non-superhero comics, but I combined both strands into one big Grant Morrison says douchey things post.

I didn't want to turn the blog over to Supergods posts all week.

WWest3001 said...

We all know they signed the contract and sold the character. It's a matter of record. The only legal battle at this point is was it work for hire? I don't personally think it was, but let's leave all that to the lawyers. The original point was that young artists sold their creation to a company and then later realized they could have (and should have) gotten a better deal. Happens all the time. Did the company take advantage of inexperienced young people? Welcome to capitalism.

It's not a matter of sides (establishment vs the rest of us), it's how the world works unfortunately. Morals don't enter into it. We can all Monday morning Quarterback this to death 73 years later, but it doesn't matter. Is Grant wealthy and a little off center? Yes, but a douche? I've met the guy on a couple of occasions. I can only describe him as funny, affable and open. A true joy to talk to. Then you ask, why he was addressing things outside the purview of his book in an interview. Because the interviewer asked. Don't get that point at all.

Also, I'm not hiding behind anything. That's how I was forced to log in to this board. Since you have to review the post before it can be seen (interesting) I had no idea what name was on it. My name is Sean Stoltey. I almost never comment on these kind of posts, but like you I felt compelled. Nobody working in the industry today should be forced to damn a company for something that happened 73 years ago. Business is business, and it was even shittier then than it is now. No matter how you or anyone else feels about it "morally".

WWest3001 said...

Sorry man, don't take this personal, any of it. I seriously can't get over you calling his opinion reprehensible though. Come on, it's an opinion. In America, we're allowed to have those. He didn't call for genocide, his opinion on a 73 year old contractual situation differed from yours.

Anonymous said...

If DC were a person, 1938 social justice Superman would beat the crap out of them, toss them out a window, and give all their money to Siegel and Shuster.

Caleb said...

Okay, we obviously disagree, and I don't want to seem combative or defensive by continuing to respond or anything, so don't take this personally or anything.


Happens all the time.

I don't know. I think the Superman thing is kind of special in that it was the creators of the first superhero getting screwed out of a symbol of justice and goodness at the dawn of a new industry and just-evolving medium. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that Tom Spurgeon has referred to this as comics' "original sin".

We can all Monday morning Quarterback this to death 73 years later, but it doesn't matter.

Well the unique thing about this is, it's STILL being fought over in court, and thus is still happening right now, in a sense (Oddly, later in the book Morrison talks about seeing the world through his 5-D vision, and how Joe Shuster is drawing Superman for the first time RIGHT NOW, through his eyes).

Then you ask, why he was addressing things outside the purview of his book in an interview. Because the interviewer asked. Don't get that point at all.

My point was that he attacked Chris Ware un-prompted, "The Comics Journal" guys un-prompted, and privileged American college kids un-prompted. I assume something was edited out of there at some point, because the exchange makes so little sense as printed, but he essentially dismissed everything that wasn't a superhero comic, and Chris Ware's viewpoint based on Ware's fame and fortune, while talking about a book in which Morrison spends a great deal of time discussing how rich and famous HE is.

Also, I'm not hiding behind anything. That's how I was forced to log in to this board. Since you have to review the post before it can be seen (interesting) I had no idea what name was on it. My name is Sean Stoltey.

Thanks. I only review comments that are older than a day or two, and I only started doing that after a certain anonymous individual--whose name I now know--spent a few years abusing the comments section. Thankfully, that's the only problem person I've had, but I don't know how to ban individuals, so I've had to simply mark his comments as spam when he posts, and its easier if I set it so I review them.

I post everything that's either not by him (so far).

I seriously can't get over you calling his opinion reprehensible though. Come on, it's an opinion. In America, we're allowed to have those. He didn't call for genocide, his opinion on a 73 year old contractual situation differed from yours.

Well, as you allude to, there ARE some opinions are fairly widely considered reprehensible, and while he's not calling for genocide, denying the holocaust or singling out certain groups for discrimination, I think it's pretty gross he went so far out of his way to write that passage about Siegel and Shuster, essentially saying they got what they deserved. If he were a more neutral party, it would still be a impolitic thing for a creator or comics fan to think, but as someone who currently works for DC on Siegel and Shuster's creation, and has made so much money off of it himself...? Ugh.

And, while this IS America, Morrison's Scottish. He doesn't get an opinion. (That's a pretty reprehensible opinion right there, right?)

Anyway, thanks for reading and responding, even if we don't agree

Caleb said...

(oh yeah, and I didn't mean to imply Morrison IS a douche. he may be sweet as sugar in real life, I don't know/care. I can only respond to his work when reviewing his work. And those opinions he expressed, and the way in which he expressed 'em, were pretty douchey).

LiamKav said...

I do slightly dispair that "if it's legal, we shouldn't care about the morality" is allowed as an argument. Surely the whole point of the law is to make things ethically fair for all? If it's not ethical, but legal, then the law is wrong.

Also, "it happens all the time" has surely got to be one of the worst counter arguments to anything.

Anonymous said...

You seem to have overlooked what Morrison writes on page 118 of Supergods:

"The parasitic relationship of universe to creator that saw the rebellions of people like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby had become a little more symbiotic; following changes in the business in the eighties, creative people adding to the DC or Marvel universe would be ripped off with a little more reward on the back end."

Just because Morrison makes a lot of money does not mean he's not part of the working class. The key point is that he does not own the characters he works with, which means he can be fired at any time and prevented from writing more Superman or Batman stories. This suggests to me that Morrison's not really free to say what he may really think when talking about subjects such as whether Siegel and Shuster were ripped off, especially when there's a current lawsuit related to the issue. The passage I quoted above may be closer to what he really thinks than the passages you highlighted.

Caleb said...

That's silly. If he's not free to say what he "really thinks," I see no reason why he would say something he doesn't really think.

The point is, he went way, way out of his way to slam the creators of Superman, and in some kind of weird "working class"-off competition with the non-superhero creators he compares himself with and certainly the men who invented the characters he's grown rich off, he loses.