I was surprised by how incredibly sweet the comic is. I wasn’t really expecting that. The basic premise, for those not in the know, is Lex Luthor finds a way to essentially give Superman fast-developing cancer, leaving Superman to do a lot of bucket-list things: give Lois Lane the chance to experience his powers for the day; nail one last scoop for the Daily Planet; go back and visit the grave of Jonathan Kent, his adopted father; save the world one last time.
However, the hallmarks of Morrison's work, according to renowned comic scholar (and Alyssa's occasional interlocutor) Douglas Wolk, are:
reality-bending metaphysical freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag; metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative; a touch of feel-good self-improvement rhetoric; faith in the the power of pop and popularity to do magic; and skinny bald men who are stand-ins for Morrison himself, heroically conquering sadness and making the world evolve. (Reading Comics 258)
If those two descriptions seem at odds, that's because they are. Morrison is a talented but unintegrated artist. What do I mean? He can be as aggressively annoying as Wolk's flattering account of him suggests. Incorporating proxies of himself into narratives about the nature of narratives and claiming that magic makes these metaphorical selves visible? That is, to quote my advisor, pure "postmodern gee-whiz wankery." It's cleverness for the sake of being hailed as King Clever, and it grates on my every last nerve because it's so clinical and intellectualized.
I came to graduate school to study the works of James Joyce, whose complex wankery far outstrips anything Morrison's attempted, much less accomplished. So why does Morrison bother me in a manner Joyce doesn't? The short answer is that, at his best, Morrison doesn't bother me at all. When is he at his best? As Alyssa notes, it's when he's stripped a story to its emotional core and presented its complexities not as worthy subjects in and of themselves, but as natural consequences of a human narrative. Of course, the protagonists of these "human" narratives are rarely human: in All-Star Superman, it's Superman; in We3, it's a trio of weaponized house-pets.
That is to say: Morrison seems to have a problem elevating actual humans to a position worthy of simple human sympathy. A kidnapped pet or an orphaned alien are worthy of sympathy because they aspire to be more than their outsider status allows them to be. But an average human being? He or she is what he or she is—short of a magical authorial intervention that's as likely to land him or her in Sade's castle as provide anything resembling hope or help. The only transcendence average people can acquire is by proxy, e.g. Lois's "acquisition" of Superman's powers on her birthday.
In short, I don't find in Morrison much in the way of human sympathy for ordinary humans. This is where—their shared love of verbal and narrative pyrotechnics aside—I find Morrison lacking what Joyce possessed in abundance: because behind the modernist wankery that is Ulysses is a simple story about a man dealing (poorly) with a crisis he knew was coming but couldn't avert. It's a powerful story because of its fundamental humanity, not, as would be the case with Morrison, despite it.
Two or three years back, tomemos and I were discussing Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and he said something like, "Morrison is the ultimate 'either/or' author writing today: you either love and appreciate him or hate and are incapable of understanding why other people appreciate him." Until this week, I never understood quite what he meant.
With most polarizing literary figures—Pynchon, Barthelme, Acker, Wallace, and so forth—even when a person chokes on the air of consuete affectation, he still understands why other readers happily inhale it. Pound might not be your bag, for example, but you understand why someone else would stick his head in it. It also works the other way around: I love Ulysses, but I can understand why an intelligent person would just as soon chute the book as read it.
Except with Grant Morrison.
The chapter Wolk devotes to him in Reading Comics scans like a fanboy's paean to a body of work he barely understands:
What can a critic do with a paragraph in which someone praises Morrison for writing an obliquely-allegorical new-age amphibian with a fun-button? Nothing. So this past week I sat down and read reams and reams of Morrison (about 70 percent of the material on this bibliography) and came to the conclusion that tomemos knows of what he speaks—because now I both hate Grant Morrison and am incapable of seeing why anyone appreciates him. Why?
Because in the end every Grant Morrison story is about Grant Morrison writing stories. Consider the final issue of his run on Animal Man (1990):