“They try to find some hidden darkness or something like that,” he sighs, “or ‘this proves, this proves!’ – naw, it just proves I said something that day, you know, which either I still agree with or don’t. Why do I have to defend all of this? I think people just want to be mad and want to fight all the time, so I’m gonna join in now!”
Sometimes it feels like Grant Morrison’s spent the last year and a half on a bad will publicity tour designed to disappoint people like me. I’m one of those readers who were persuaded to return to the superhero genre by Morrison and Quitely’s (seemingly) audacious take on the X-Men. There was a moment when I thought that Morrison fulfilled the potential of the genre for an adult audience – a writer who specialized in witty layered narratives and who understood the importance of visual storytelling. Morrison managed to appeal to those who hungered for meaning from the culture they consumed while spinning an entertaining yarn.
That appeal was complemented by the public persona that Morrison constructed over the years: a new-age counter culture icon. He talked about Buddhism and aliens and psychedelic drugs. He espoused anti-corporate philosophies. He evinced radicalism. We were tempted to think of him as some kind of post-modern pop culture Gnostic visionary. A philosopher. A chaos magician. In the last year and change, Grant made a series of comments in interviews and his Supergods book that seemed to come from a different place. A guy who used to embrace the paradoxes of the human condition in books like the Invisibles and Seaguy sounded like he was more interested in the mythology around pop culture icons than the struggles of the men who created them. It felt like he was turning a blind eye to what Tom Spurgeon’s described as the original sin of the American comics industry to embrace the stories.
David Brothers has tackled Morrison’s hypocrisy over at 4th Letter, but I’d like to approach this from a slightly different angle. I think Morrison’s heel turn has been incredibly helpful for comics readers and fans.
A few words on the substance of his comments:
Morrison has become the master of the disingenuous bad faith argument. All of his critics are clownish strawmen. Matt Seneca’s transformed from an impassioned critic into some kind of performance artist who ate Supergods out of incoherent mania. I may not agree with all of Matt’s points, but he deserves engagement, not condescension. Morrison’s critics werent holding him personally responsible for the Siefel/Shuster suit, they were just holding him to account for the things he actually said or wrote. But I guess it’s easier to pretend otherwise.
But that’s not my favorite part. The best bit is when he doubles down on his position on the relationship between creators and the ‘Big Two’ publishers and drops a subliminal Alan Moore dis that would make Jay-Z proud. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that Moore wasn’t some yokel who signed his ideas away for magic beans, but a guy who thought that DC violated the terms of its contract with him and acted in bad faith after benefiting from a windfall (long story short: the rights to Watchmen were supposed to revert to the creators after the book went out of print. Neither party anticipated the explosive growth of the trade market). I find it hard to believe that Morrison doesn’t know that contracts are always subject to interpretation and frequently fail to address unforeseeable advances in technology or changes to the marketplace.
At the same time, I don’t want to completely dismiss Morrison’s comments. As I’ve written earlier, I suspect that Morrison was trying to suggest that “modern creators should go into contract negotiations with their eyes wide open, and appreciate the risks of opting for short-term gains (immediate compensation) over long-term uncertainty (the property which may be more valuable than [the creator] thought)”. On the other hand, if that’s what he wanted to say, then wouldn’t he have just said it? It’s impossible to believe that the misrepresentations weren’t deliberate, that the whole point was to get us to forget why so many Golden and Silver and Bronze Age creators signed such terrible contracts.
So, I’ve reached the conclusion that he is mostly full of crap. At the same time, I think the Morrison heel turn can be a teachable moment for comics fans (and I’m including myself in this). We need to reevaluate our relationship with creators.
One of the best things about the comics industry is that the line between creator and audience is a lot fuzzier than it is in other American cultural industries. American comics is still a pretty cozy industry. It’s pretty easy to engage with creators at cons, comic stores and online. If you have the talent, the barriers to entry to becoming a creator are pretty low. So it’s easy to forget that the main reason that the public personae of constructed by most creators (and almost all other entertainment figures) are essentially fictions. They’re created to evoke specific responses from the audience and to generate revenue. I know that sounds cynical, but it’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, especially for creators who work on books published by Marvel or DC. Most of the interviews we read are arranged to promote a particular project or the creator’s personal brand. There’s an inescapably commercial element to most of our interactions with creators at store signings and conventions – even if you’re not going to buy a specific product, you’re being cultivated as a potential audience for a future product. This shouldn’t be mistaken for an ethical judgment of any kind, it’s just reality. Creators are in the business of selling the cultural products they create to an audience who will appreciate them.
So it stands to reason that a rational creator would present the public with a version of themselves that’s most conducive to selling those products. It makes sense for Grant Morrison or Alan Moore to emphasize the more radical, countercultural side of their personalities when selling products to an audience that would be most receptive to those ideas. Neither man would gain from reminding the audience that they are also hard-nosed businessmen. But we forget. We confuse an advertising campaign with reality. We never should have assumed that Grant Morrison was anything more than “a freelance commercial writer who sells stories to pay the bills“.
I’m not sure if the version of Morrison that inspired a thriving online community of freethinkers and radicals represents all or any of the real Grant Morrison, and I don’t think it matters.
These interviews should inspire us to rethink the notion of fandom. We shouldn’t stop loving the books or respecting the people who create them. We can still value online and in-person interactions with creators, and pore over their interviews and profiles. We just shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when they change their public persona. We should resist that sense of false sense of familiarity or intimacy with people who are essentially strangers.
Sometimes creators modify their public persona because they want to emphasize a different part of their personality, or because their views on a subject have evolved. Or maybe it’s just part of a public relations campaign of some kind. We shouldn’t stop pointing out hypocrisies or falsehoods, especially since most journalists covering the culture beat are hopelessly compromised (either because they are enthusiasts or because of the commercial interests of their employers who rely on the industry they cover for advertising revenue). But we shouldn’t kid ourselves.
We never knew Grant Morrison. If we’re disappointed in him, that’s our problem. It says a lot more about us than it does about him.