The Invisibles‘ Sir Miles makes for a convincing Number 2.
Seems that half the pleasure of my recent reading has been the unplanned parallels between consecutive books, a side effect of getting most of them from the library, where I have limited control over the order in which they become available. This is currently manifesting in the shared theme of memory loss between the novel I’ve just finished, Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, and the one I’m about to begin, Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into Room. Right before that it was the similar perspectives of Grant Morrison in Supergods and Simon Pegg in Nerd Do Well, each writing about the influence of primarily American popular culture on their own work and their entry in turn into the American cultural consciousness from the UK.
Thinking about both books and their different scopes—Morrison’s is focused, laser-like, on superhero comics, mainly American, and by the time he reaches the 2000s, mainly Marvel and DC, while Pegg’s broadly surveys “geek” culture generally—around the same time I finished watching the 1960s British TV show The Prisoner made me realize how odd Morrison’s emphasis on superhero books is.
True, superheroes have few, if any, more ardent or more articulate defenders than Morrison, so it’s no surprise that he would write a book seriously engaging the genre. However, the more I think about it, the stranger it seems that Morrison, arguably the superhero writer of his popularity level who most reaches outside of the superhero genre for inspiration, would write a book that so thoroughly wraps up his own autobiography with the history of superheroes. Finishing The Prisoner contributed to this sense, as I began to recognize references to it in so much of the other fiction I’ve enjoyed, including several places in Morrison’s work.
Among the many odd contortions that Supergods makes in order to present Morrison’s own history while limiting the fiction discussed almost exclusively to superhero comics is its inclusion of Morrison’s The Invisibles into the superhero tradition without addressing many of the other cultural influences that shaped it. Entire books have been written on the connections between The Invisibles and other works of fiction, but what’s fresh in my mind is The Prisoner, which can be seen throughout the series’ tone, themes, and even specific visuals.
Another place that visuals from The Prisoner are explicitly referenced is in Morrison’s wonderful Seaguy, where the first two minor characters we encounter are dressed as members of the Village.
Is Seaguy set in the Disney version of the Village?
Of course, the visual of playing chess with Death simultaneously recalls one of the most enduring images of age-old struggle between man and the universe/gods, famously the central motif of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Here, Death’s ineptitude at the game and his complaint that the rules seem so “arbitrary” tip us off that a reversal of the natural order is at play here. In the funhouse world Seaguy lives in, everything is artificial and the natural world is out of place. Death has no meaning or power in the realm of Mickey Eye (nor in comics or other corporately owned fictions, in which characters and ideas are never truly allowed to die). That he is dressed as an extra from The Prisoner places the locale in the tradition of the Village, but we quickly learn that its modern iteration is a mindless theme park rather than a quiet resort.
This panoply of diverse influences is common in Morrison’s writing, and I discovered recently that this diversity can be felt even when a reader doesn’t catch the specific references. For a long time I was perplexed by my enjoyment of Morrison’s run on the series of Batman titles he shepherded up until DC’s recent relaunch. After all, it seemed so insular, really only concerning Batman himself in its resurrection of old continuity, its efforts to reconcile the character’s entire publishing history, and yet another plot involving a new enemy using that history against Batman. On the surface, it’s exactly the kind of comics-about-comics that I usually have no patience for. And yet, I found myself continually thrilled by Morrison’s take.
I can’t say for certain that I’ve solved the mystery, but a big clue fell into my lap when I got the hardcover edition of Batman & Robin vol. 3: Batman & Robin Must Die!, which includes a section of notes on the genesis of many of the new villains introduced in Batman & Robin (for all the dot connecting Morrison has done with old stories, his Batman run was also deeply generous with character creation). The section references the behavioral science experiments of Drs. Harry Harlow and John B. Calhoun, the classical demons of the Goetia of the Lemegeton, and even the history of the banana peel pratfall. The point being that even where I didn’t recognize the specific references, they still introduced a different flavor than would have come from so many superhero comics that are primarily influenced by other superhero comics, which have an inbred, stale quality to them. Morrison’s promiscuous use of cultural and sociological touchstones bring a freshness to his work, even when the story itself concerns a possible ancestor of Bruce Wayne posing as Wayne’s father and using knowledge of his history against him.
So while it comes as no surprise that Morrison wrote a book about superheroes, this is more because the genre is currently his preferred subject, not that it is his sole influence. If Morrison’s been bitten by the nonfiction bug, here’s hoping his next book has more to do with comics’ interaction with other media and the world, coupled with a more thorough look at his outside interests. He’s a great defender of superheroes, but his own work can’t be understood solely through that lens.