Recent Dorkiness

Modern-Day Kirbys: Grant Morrison, Part Three

But getting back to Kirby... In our Modern-Day Kirbys feature, we look at present-day funnybook creators who we think are operating in the same spirit of excellence, innovation, and wild creativity as the King of Comics, Mr. Jack Kirby. Aaaand, we're back! In the first two parts of our examination of Grant Morrison as a Modern-Day Kirby, we looked at how he handles Jack Kirby's signature creations, and at the first two decades of Morrison's own career. Like Kirby, he's a man who's worked in a variety of genres, deploying jaw-droppingly idiosyncratic concepts and pushing at the boundaries of funnybook storytelling all along the way. But the last decade has seen the market slowly decline for the kind of intensely personal stuff that defined his 90s work, and in response he's turned increasingly to work on pre-existing work-for-hire super hero properties. This is somewhat in contrast to Kirby, who very seldom agreed to work on anything other than characters he himself had helped create. Of course, Kirby was one of the comic book industry's founders. He was in at the ground floor of both the Gold and Silver Ages, eras in which comics publishers still sought out new characters and concepts for sale to an audience that still wanted to read about them. That's an opportunity very few comics creators have had in the modern era, and most of those have come from outside the work-for-hire environment Kirby worked in. And considering the lessons learned from the piss-poor treatment that founders like Kirby received from the corporations that have grown rich off their ideas, is it any wonder that you don't see modern funnybook people selling their ideas off to those same corporations? Of course, Morrison's done just that. Co-written with Mark Millar, Aztek was an odd book, a purposeful examination of the gap between traditional super heroic ideals and the grim-n-gritty ™ atmosphere of the post-Watchmen Nineties. That gap's even explored in Aztek's costume, a fairly snazzy underwear-on-the-outside number festooned with 90s-style armor and spikes. The bling's a little overwhelming, but rip off those shoulder pads and get rid of that horrible armored neck thing, and you might be left with a pretty good super-suit. Fashion sense aside, though, Aztek has a lot of big fun ideas powering him. He's the champion of QUETZALCOATL, trained from birth to avert the END OF EVERYTHING at the hands of rival god TEZCATLIPOCA! His armor gives him TECHNO-MYSTICAL abilities that include not only super-strength and flight, but also more esoteric powers like INVISIBILITY and PLASMA BEAMS! He also has access to the SKILLS AND MEMORIES of all the previous Quetzalcoatl champions, MULTIPLE LIFETIMES of fighting and life skills that make him... THE ULTIMATE MAN! The book should have been a lot of fun, but unfortunately, the execution wasn't all that great. You'd think that Morrison's subtlety and Millar's gift for bombast might combine to make for great reading, but somehow their collaborations never manage to capture either man's strengths. So Aztek, though packed with intriguingly weird ideas, was kind of a flat read, and died an early death after only ten issues. Of course, that's two more than OMAC, the Kirby title most like this one in my mind (though I wouldn't presume to compare the two series beyond their short life-spans and “ultimate warrior” concepts). As Morrison moved on into the 21st Century, he did increasing amounts of work-for-hire super hero writing. And, much like Kirby, he had a falling-out with his publisher over it. Unlike Kirby, however, Morrison's break with DC was not over receiving proper credit and pay, but over a rejection. After his huge success with the JLA, Morrison was asked to pitch a Superman proposal along with fellow writers Mark Waid, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer. Which they did, in spades, turning in one of the more legendary pitches in mainstream funnybook history. Their ideas were green-lit, and everything was  set to go... until DC executive editor Mike Carlin returned from vacation and killed it, telling Morrison to his face, “Do you honestly believe DC will ever give YOU the keys to the family car?” Faced with that attitude, Morrison took his services across the street to Marvel, who were more than happy to give him the keys to the X-Men. He and artist Frank Quitely dragged that book's minority themes kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, establishing an actual mutant culture, and placing a new emphasis on Xavier's school that, for the first time, made it feel more like an an actual educational facility and less like a paramilitary training compound.

Artwork by Frank Quitely

Cool as all that was, though, it falls outside the confines of our discussions here, as it’s a refinement rather than a Kirby-style original creation. Why bring it up at all, then? Well… The run also gave us Jumbo Carnation, MUTANT FASHION DESIGNER! Martha the DISEMBODIED MUTANT BRAIN! Barnell Bohusk, aka BEAK, a spindly CHICKEN BOY with HOLLOW BONES! The U-Men, the ultimate BODY MODIFICATION FREAKS, who graft MUTANT BODY PARTS onto themselves to gain SUPER POWERS! Angel Salvadore, a ghetto girl with TOTALLY GROSS FLY POWERS! The Stepford Cuckoos, a set of TELEPATHIC TRIPLETS who share a SINGLE MIND (or seem to, until one of them FALLS IN LOVE)! And then there’s this dude…

XORN! The man with a SUN for a BRAIN!

Morrison’s most controversial contribution to the X-Universe, Xorn appears to be a sort of mutant zen master and all-around enlightened dude. But then, in one of the GREATEST PLOT SWERVES EVER, he turns out to be MAGNETO IN DISGUISE!

Ahem. I realize that being Magneto should probably remove Xorn from consideration here. But, damn. He’s such a cool, weird character that I can’t not mention him. And besides… I’ve always suspected that, had Morrison not fallen out with Marvel just as he was getting around to the reveal, we might have discovered that Xorn was a real guy Magneto replaced, rather than an entirely fictional identity. But that gets us deep into textual analysis, as well as the mess Marvel made of the story after Morrison’s departure. And we just don’t have time for that.

But speaking of Morrison characters that Marvel totally botched…

Artwork by JG Jones

Though technically an off-shoot of Captain Marvel, Morrison’s Marvel Boy is really an original creation, an arrogant young alien hero who decides to conquer our primitive planet to save us from ourselves. Or, as he puts it, “I’ll show you people what paradise looks like if I have to level every city on Earth and rebuild it stone by stone!” Heh. Morrison tapped into what made the Golden Age Namor such a great character here, giving us a snotty, punk rock kind of super hero and then giving him even less likeable characters to fight: HEXUS the LIVING CORPORATION! Oubliette the EXTERMINATRIX! And MIDAS! The Man with the SUPER-TOUCH!

It’s honestly one of the most joyously anarchic funnybooks Marvel’s published since their 60s heyday. So of course, once Morrison left, they immediately grounded the character, beating the entertaining arrogance out of him and turning him instead into some kind of flavorless cipher. Of course, it’s exactly that sort of take that lead to Morrison’s falling-out with Marvel president Bill Jemas. He wanted Morrison to humble Noh-Varr in the sequel, having him get a job and struggle to make ends meet or something. Apparently, the discussion became rather heated, and ended with Morrison walking out on Marvel and back into DC’s waiting arms.

Once there, he launched off on a trio of creator-owned projects: Seaguy, an absurdist super hero dystopia…

Artwork by Cameron Stewart

…the under-rated Vimanarama, a Bollywood-style adventure romp that does for the Hindu pantheon what Jack Kirby did for the Norse…

Artwork by Philip Bond

…and We3, the story of three household pets turned into cybernetic killing machines. All three of these books are good, genre-busting reads, but it’s We3, which teamed Morrison once again with Frank Quitely, that most impresses. It’s tragic, heartwarming, and thrilling in equal measure, and features both men at the top of their technical game, creating new ways of approaching storytelling and page design that the industry’s still digesting even now. My favorite of these is Quitely’s “tiny panels” effect, a method of conveying action in a compact space. He’d used it a bit on Flex Mentallo, but here it became something more:

click to embiggen

Following these books, Morrison moved back onto the work-for-hire material, primarily working on other people’s characters but now always adding his own into the mix. For the ambitious 30-issue Seven Soldiers mega-series, for instance, he was mostly revamping existing characters for modern audiences, but he also gave DC concepts like the Sheeda, a seemingly immortal race of elfin raiders who are actually mankind’s own far-future descendants come back to rape their own past.

Artwork by JH Williams

Where Morrison’s additions to the work-for-hire universe are most obvious, though, is in his six-year (!) run on Batman. The Ninja Man-Bats are really just a (brilliant) combination of existing concepts, but he’s also given us… The insidious DR. HURT and his evil cartel THE BLACK GLOVE! The deadly SCORPIANA! French criminal mastermind Le Bossu, aka THE HUNCHBACK! SENILE NAZI SUPER-SPY Dr. Dedalus, who TRAPS HIS FOES in MIND-MAZES of THEIR OWN MAKING! Mr. Toad! KING KRAKEN! Flamingo, the EATER OF FACES! And, of course, the best new Bat-Villain to come down the pike in over 20 years… PROFESSOR PYG!

Sexy disco hot!

That’s a lot of ideas to give away for page rate. Of course, I’m sure Morrison’s page rate is pretty healthy. Certainly healthier than Jack Kirby’s ever was. Hell, for all I know, he and Quitely might get a piece of the toys that will no doubt be made once Glen Murakami’s Beware the Batman cartoon begins next year. Though now that I’ve said that, the very idea of children playing with Professor Pyg fills me with dread…

Wonder if they'll make a Wire Mother Playset?

Actually, I doubt the contracts are THAT good. So who knows? Maybe one day down the line, we’ll be seeing a Morrison vs DC Pyg-Royalties case hitting the courts. But until then, I’ll live happily thinking that Morrison feels well-compensated enough to give away his ideas. And I’ll live even happier thinking that he’s being compensated that well because of the battles fought by Jack Kirby and other funnybook pioneers to gain better treatment for comics creators.

Which is as good a place as any to end this discussion. I’ve over-looked a few Morrison originals, I know: The Filth and Skrull Kill Krew, in particular, highlight sides of his writing that I may not have discussed. And I can’t believe I forgot to talk about Flex Mentallo. I mean, seriously… Good lord. But maybe that one deserves a piece all its own.

At any rate. There are certainly major differences between Morrison and Kirby. Morrison, for instance, is all about artifice. He dresses things up in a way that Kirby never would have, and maybe never could have. Kirby was just too forthright for some of the stuff Morrison gets up to. And yet, I find that both men write honestly. That’s what makes this comparison I’ve been making feel so right. Sure, they share a few thematic obsessions, and both seem to pour raw, molten creativity right onto the page. But ultimately, neither man ever writes from anywhere other than right from the freaking heart. And in the final analysis (which you’re reading right here)… That’s all that matters.

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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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