Recent Dorkiness

Modern-Day Kirbys: Grant Morrison, Part Two

In our Modern-Day Kirbys feature we look at modern funnybook creators who we think are working, in one way or another, in the same spirit of excellence and wild creativity as The King of Comics, Mr. Jack Kirby. Before we launch off into our discussion of Grant Morrison's original creative works, there's one bit of clarification/correction I'd like to make. In the first part of this piece, I said that Jack Kirby was a once-in-a-generation talent. But really, I think Kirby was unique, a man of great drive and restless energy who worked under market conditions that taxed those qualities to their limits and beyond. Through years of practice, self-instruction, and ceaseless work, he turned himself into a sort of funnybook polymath. His grasp of page and panel layout became instinctive, and his concepts, though incredibly idiosyncratic and not always brilliant, have a sort of fever-dream intensity that sells them beyond all common sense. We may never see anyone exactly like him again. Why "Modern-Day Kirbys," then? Because, while Jack Kirby himself may have been unique, his creativity and dedication to innovation are not. These are the qualities we value in the King here on the Dork Forty, and they're qualities we see all over the place in the current comics market. And besides... Kirby was all about the future. He was a World War II vet who embraced the Love Generation, and constantly strove to push comics beyond disposable junk culture and into the realm of respectable storytelling. While I have no idea if he'd like the comics I'm going to be comparing to his, I do think he'd be appalled to think that there was no one carrying on the good work. Which brings us, at last, back to Grant Morrison. Morrison's early career is quite similar to Kirby's in some ways, with him providing both story and art for a variety of barely-professional work, including a newspaper comic strip, before breaking into more mainstream commercial work as just a writer. Also like Kirby, Morrison spent his formative professional years mostly creating his own characters and stories in a variety of genres. Not that he didn't work on existing properties in this period; before he got to do his own stuff, he wrote a few Doctor Who stories and had a run on Marvel UK's ZOIDS:

click to embiggen

But Morrison was destined for bigger and better things than funnybooks about robot dinosaur toys.

His first major work was Zenith, a 1987 super hero series drawn by Steve Yeowell that ran in the now-legendary British weekly 2000 AD.

A callow young pop star super hero, Zenith grows over the course of the series and winds up involved in what would become a typical Morrison mega-plot about a multi-dimensional war against horrible Lovecraftian beasts from beyond space. It’s a cracking good original super hero tale, though, firmly rooted in the generation-gap politics of its era but just timeless enough (costumes notwithstanding) to hold up over time. Had it been more available in America, and had a rights dispute between Morrison and 2000 AD not kept the trade collections out of print, it might be seen as a classic.

Had Zenith been produced in Kirby’s day, of course, the rights would have belonged lock, stock, and barrel to the publisher, and the characters might well have been kept in print, handled by diverse hands, for decades. Would they have lasted as long as Captain America or the Fantastic Four? Hell, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they might have, if they’d belonged to the right company, with the right amount of money and talent behind them. Zenith’s an appealingly simple character, and the generational aspects of the set-up might age pretty well over time; there’s always a generation gap, after all. But it’s impossible to say.

Zenith brought Morrison to the attention of DC Comics, and so next he went to work for them, tackling (and pretty much reinventing from the ground-up) their Animal Man character, and writing the psychological torture of Batman in Arkham Asylum. Both are good work, but as Morrison more or less stuck to corporate-owned characters created by others, they’re not pertinent to our discussion here. Things changed a bit, however, with his next DC project: the blatantly surreal Doom Patrol.

Art by Richard Case

This series represents Morrison at his most Kirbyesque. He gave full vent to his personal fascinations and pet writing experiments, and, though working with core characters and situations created by other writers and owned by DC, he introduced a kaleidoscope of amazing characters so bizarre that they really only work under Morrison’s own hand: Crazy Jane, who has multiple personalities, EACH WITH ITS OWN SUPER POWER! The terrifying Scissormen, borrowed from British children’s stories to SCAR new generations of AMERICAN psyches! The Men from NOWHERE, whose dialogue was produced via AUTOMATIC WRITING! Mr. Nobody, who LOOKS LIKE A PICASSO ABSTRACT, and can only be seen OUT THE CORNER OF YOUR EYE! His compatriots The Brotherhood of Dada, ART TERRORISTS who tried to feed PARIS to a PAINTING! The Quiz, who has EVERY SUPER POWER YOU DON’T THINK OF! Danny the Street, a SENTIENT TELEPORTING TRANSVESTITE ROADWAY! The Beard Hunter, an assassin/body-building enthusiast who only takes hits on MEN WITH FACIAL HAIR! And, of course, everybody’s favorite (and the subject of a later Morrison book) FLEX MENTALLO, MAN OF MUSCLE MSYTERY, the man who tried to FLEX THE PENTAGON ROUND!

Ooooh, man, I loved that book.

Many of these concepts were intentionally absurdist, of course, and not really intended to be used again. I mean, Mr. Nobody might be fun to revisit in the right hands, and I think the Scissormen are particularly creepy villains who probably ought to have popped back up by now. Crazy Jane might have had legs, too, but holy crap. She was a minor masterpiece of a character, and I shudder to think how badly she would have been mangled by now, had Morrison not written her out of existence in his final issue. Kind of like how I’m given to understand that NOWHERE has cropped up in the DC Reboot somewhere, stripped of much of their weirdness, and thus, WRONG. This makes Morrison’s Doom Patrol similar to Kirby’s New Gods, at least in that it hasn’t been well-served by other hands (though I believe that Kirby intended at least some of those characters to carry on without him).

While all this madness was going on, Morrison turned out a couple of minor classics back in England that didn’t involve spandex or work-made-for-hire: the blackly comic New Adventures of Hitler, and St. Swithin’s Day, drawn by (fellow Modern-Day Kirby candidate) Paul Grist:

The story of a 19-year-old kid without a future who decides that the best thing he can do with his life is to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, St. Swithin’s Day is an affecting (and semi-autobiographical) dramatic piece about youthful hopelessness and obsession that caused a bit of a stir in the British conservative press.

Other notable non-spandex, non-work-for-hire books from this period include Bible John: A Forensic Meditation, a speculative piece about the motivations of the real-world serial killer of the title; the Wildean steampunk romp Sebastian O (again with Steve Yeowell); a philosophical murder mystery called The Mystery Play (with Jon Muth); and Kill Your Boyfriend (with Phillip Bond), a twisted romantic comedy that serves as a dark satire of youth culture.

Morrison’s next major original work, The Invisibles, was also not a spandex book. Instead, it was a sexy time-travel conspiracy spy-fi philosopho-political revolutionary adventure story featuring experimental narrative, ruminations of the nature of consciousness and reality, a real-world magic spell, and more autobiography. Sounds completely self-indulgent? Basically just a platform for Morrison to ramble on about anything that interests him? Professional masturbation? It’s been called all these things, and I can’t say that they’re necessarily wrong. But since I (and a good number of others) happen to find all that same stuff fascinating, I guess I paid good money to watch Grant Morrison jerk off in funnybook form. And I don’t regret a penny of it. Hell, I bought this book twice! Once when it was coming out in singles, and again in trade paperback form so I could have it on my bookshelf like a normal adult with a normal library. Not that I’m fooling anybody on that front, but still…

Though a serious work with a really rather brilliant narrative structure that can be read and re-read multiple times, yielding new and interesting insights on each pass, The Invisibles is also another wildly creative Kirbyish romp. I mean, it’s got SECRET AGENTS with INSECT EYES! The SECRET MONSTER KING OF ENGLAND! A MALEVOLENT MIDGET who makes SOUL-DEVOURING PORNOGRAPHY and may be the WRETCHED REMAINS of Our Hero’s best friend! A lesbian bad-ass named JOLLY ROGER! TANTRIC SEX with TIME-TRAVEL GHOSTS! AZTEC GODS and VOODOO LOA! THE TALKING HEAD OF JOHN THE BAPTIST!

Yeah. I loved that book an awful lot, too. It’s like a day-glo hand grenade upside yer head!

Or, if you want the Full Invisible Monty, here’s a bizarrely busy promo poster by Phil Jimenez that captures a lot of the book’s stranger elements all in one place:

click to embiggen

Huh. You know, seeing that, and thinking about Invisbles in this particular context… I’m put in mind of Kirby’s OMAC for some reason. Must be all the secret facilities where shady officials are factory-farming things less than human. And, you know…

click to embiggen... ya know ya wanna!

Good ol’ Lila the Build-a-Friend here, with all her bizarre (and kinky!) implications, would probably be right at freaking home in the Invisibles.

Which makes it all the more strange that simultaneously (and thematically-linked) with Invisibles, Morrison was also writing the Justice League of America. That’s pretty much the definition of “playing with other people’s toys,” and I won’t discuss it at length here. But it did start, however hesitatingly, the trend that would shape the third decade of Morrison’s career: the introduction of cool new concepts into the existing Work-for-Hire Universes of the Big Two. JLA really only gave us the Ultramarine Corps, but soon, very soon, Morrison would start giving his employers new concepts at an increasingly brisk clip.

This, again, was much like Jack Kirby, whose restless creativity wouldn’t allow him to stop selling fresh ideas to his employers for a fraction of what they were worth, even after he became embittered over that very business arrangement. Morrison’s being better-paid for his work, thankfully, and has his own agenda for it besides, I think… But that’s a story that will have to wait til next time. Because, yes, once again I’ve droned on longer than intended, and will have to extend this trip through Grant Morrison’s career out to a third chapter. Because I’m tired, and this one’s gone on long enough…

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About Mark Brett (404 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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