BOOK REVIEW: ‘Supergods’ by Grant Morrison

If you were to make a list of every successful mainstream comics writer of the past 20 years, then whittle that list down to the select few that have truly owned the medium, you’d still have a pretty hefty set of names. Grant Morrison would be on that list, as would Alan Moore, Jeph Loeb, Bill Willingham, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Matt Fraction, Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis and maybe even J. Michael Straczynski. If you were to then ask yourself, really ask yourself, who among these titans of comics has the best grasp on the tangible and often mystical pull of superhero comics, Morrison would stand alone.

It’s not that the others don’t understand superheroes. Their work is proof that they do, but Morrison has a peculiar habit of revitalizing and reinventing superheroes throughout mainstream comics while somehow still staying true to who and what they are. He made the Justice of League of American a pantheon of Olympians watching the Earth from above, then went to Marvel and restored the X-Men to their former glory. Then he turned his eyes on Superman and transformed him from the Big Blue Boy Scout to a sacrificial sun god. Through all of this, he never seems to betray the characters. He revels in them, celebrates their legacy, and adds his own thoroughly original pieces.

Supergods may not be Morrison’s last word on the power and glory of superheroes, but it is his most fully formed. Drawing on his decades as both a comics fan and writer, exhaustive (and probably lifelong) research into the creation of the world’s most influential superheroes and his own approach when it came to writing some of his most memorable work, it’s part treatise, part memoir and part master plan for understanding why superheroes are not just read about, but worshipped.

Starting appropriately at the beginning, Morrison begins his analysis of the superhero culture with Superman, working through his birth pangs in the mid 1930s and his eventual debut on the cover of Action Comics #1. He moves on chronologically to Batman, then Captain Marvel, Captain America, Spider-Man,  and on and on through the Golden Age,  the Silver Age, the Dark Age (that time in the ’70s and early ’80s when the comics industry was, well…gloomy) and finally the Modern Age. He details his own inspirations for his major works, including both his independent masterpieces like The Invisibles and his more mainstream work on Final Crisis and All-Star Superman, and knits everything together through moral, social and even sexual philosophies of superhero storytelling.

What’s most impressive about Supergods is that Morrison seems to deliberately put himself at a disadvantage by setting out to place philosophical and even magical (he’s Grant Morrison; there had to magic) conditions on eight decades of superhero lore. Not everyone wants to hear it. For many readers, superheroes are to be celebrated for exactly what they are, and dissecting what they say about humanity is only cool if it happens incidentally. But for all his immense commercial popularity, Morrison’s work has never been about that. He’s always had an alchemy about him, a way of merging relevance and immense entertainment like few other comics writers ever have. Supergods isn’t exactly an attempt to explain that, but it is an attempt to merge those forces once again in a nonfiction, prose format.

He succeeds, but he does more than that. He knocks it out of the park. Supergods is a book of tremendous insight both for longtime comics fans and people wondering what all the fuss is about, and it also proves to be one of the most entertaining cultural analyses (in long or short form) ever. Morrison develops grand but thoroughly grounded theories on the social and cultural relevance of everyone from the Caped Crusader to everyone’s favorite Webhead, analyzes major works from The Dark Knight Returns to Amazing Fantasy #15, and grounds it all in stories from the annals of comics creation that let us into the worlds of Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Morrison himself.

If you’ve ever found yourself unable to describe to someone why you love superheroes so much, Supergods is for you. If you’ve never been able to understand why someone close to you loves superheroes so much, Supergods is for you. If you want to read one of the great geek works of our age, Supergods is most definitely for you.

Supergods is available in bookstores everywhere July 19.

Category: Comics, reviews

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