“One Nervous System’s Passage Through Time”: GRANT MORRISON interviewed by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 12/Sept. 2004

“One Nervous System’s Passage Through Time”: Magic works, says genius comic book scribe GRANT MORRISON, and he would know—he’s been exploring it for 25 years. He talks with Jay Babcock about what he’s experienced and What It (Maybe) All Means.

Cover illustration by Cameron Stewart.

Although he has claimed to be an heir to an immortal space dynasty who stays cheerful by imagining that aliens “will probably be turning up to rescue him any day now,” Grant Morrison was in fact born in 1960 to a pair of liberal activist Earthlings. Growing up in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, where he was brought up by his mother while being “barely educated” in public schools, Morrison developed an early enthusiasm for all things pop and fantastic: rock n roll music, science fiction and fantasy literature, mythology and the occult, punks, mods, beatniks and, of course, foxes and cats.

But the early love that would bear the most fruit was for comic books, which he began writing and drawing as an adolescent. Foregoing higher education and living on his own in a Glasgow ghetto from age 19, Morrison gradually built a career as a comics writer of prodigious imagination, armed with a sense of humor: the title of his first published story was “Time Is a Four-Lettered Word.”

After years of toil writing in the British sci-fi comics world while making psychedelic mod-pop with his Glaswegian band The Makers, Morrison landed work at American publisher DC Comics, where his deeply unsettling Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, illustrated by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean, was published in 1989. It remains Morrison’s bestselling work but in the wake of his work since then—his two-year run on Animal Man, in which the lead character, refashioned as a superpowered animal-rights activist, gradually becomes aware that he is a character in a comic book; four years of Doom Patrol, a deeply Surrealist four-color romp starring a superhero team of mental patients; shorter works like the multi-meta-superhero comic Flex Mentallo and the controversial-for-obvious-reasons Kill Your Boyfriend; The Invisibles, an epic for would-be technoccult anarchists; and The Filth, a seriously dark and bizarre 13-issue series, discussed at length in this interview—it seems relatively minor.

“You don’t get much time on Earth to do stuff, so I like to keep busy,” Morrison told one interviewer last year, and so he has: in addition to the aforementioned work, Morrison recently completed a 40-issue run on New X-Men and Seaguy, a picaresque three-issue series drawn by this Arthur’s cover artist Cameron Stewart; an original screenplay for Dreamworks; and scripts for two more three-issue series debuting in the next few months, We3 and Vimanarama.

Recently returned from a wedding honeymoon that included a week’s stay in Dubai (where “they’re building the 21st century out of sand,” he says), Morrison spoke at length by phone from his Glasgow home about the whys and wherefores of his work, his life and the Present Situation in Our World.

Arthur: Did you see the news about the super-strong German toddler? I was reminded where you were saying your run on X-Men was a set of fables for the coming mutant, which you thought might already exist or be on their way.

Grant Morrison: I figured even within 50 years we’ll probably have quite a few superhumans on the planet. There’s something about the superman idea that’s pushing itself closer and closer to reality, to the real-life material workaday world that we can touch. The supercharacters began in the pulps and then worked their way through comics, and they keep moving to more and more extensive mass media. Now it’s everywhere, and it’s become the common currency of culture. I said, way back, almost joking, that I thought the super-people were really trying very hard to make their way off the skin of the second dimension to get in here. They want to be in here with us. They’re colonizing people’s minds, and they’re now colonizing movies, so the next stage is to clamber off the screen into the street. I think what you’re starting to see, with things like this weird kid, and also the experiments that are going on with animals, the cyborg experiments and genetic manipulation that is now possible, is that pretty soon there’s gonna be super-people. You’ll be able to select for superpeople: “I want my kid to have electric powers.” That kind of thing.

And when supermen do come along, what are they gonna want to find? A role model. Like everyone else on the planet. We all want to find people who’ve trod our path before, who can suggest some ways to help us feel significant. So the idea behind a lot of what I was doing in X-Men and really all of my comics is to give these future supermen a template, to say “Okay you’re a superhuman, and maybe it feels a little like this. I’ve tried really hard as one of the last of the human beings to think what it might be like in your world.” Rather than bring them to us, which is what a lot of superhero fiction in the past has tried to do, I’ve tried to go into their world and to understand what’s going on in the space of the comics, and to try and find a way to make that into a morality, almost, or a creed, or an aesthetic, that might make sense to someone who has yet to be born with powers beyond those of mortal man. I think we have to give them images of rescue and ambition and cosmic potency, rather than images of control and fascist perfection.

Arthur: Can a cartoon code of ethics really deal with real-world subtleties?

In a sense it is a cartoon code of ethics, but these will be cartoon people, having to live in a real world. And I think the cartoon code of ethics stands up as well as anything Jesus came up with. Don’t kill. Don’t let bullies have their way. Use your powers in the service of good. I think we should be focusing towards that, rather than providing images of destruction or of despair.

Purely on a conceptual level, the Justice League were created to solve every possible problem, right? [chuckles] That’s what they’re there for. They never fail. These are things that the human imagination has created and put on paper and they exist – they have a more than 40 years’ lifespan. Still existing, still clinging to life, these images. So I think if we’ve created something in our heads that’s so beautiful and so strong and so moral that it can solve all our problems with justice, intelligence and discrimination, then why don’t we use it? Tap into it a little more and understand what these images mean and what they can do for us beyond the obvious. Why was Superman created? That’s the really important thing. What kind of imaginative need was being served by that? And to access that again, to make it vital again, to empower the fiction again, I think, would help our culture deal with some of the implications of its own future.

We have to hang onto the immense power of that imaginative world. Every creed, every weapon, every invention or symphony began as an idea in someone’s head. We’re very good at making insubstantial ideas into physical artifacts or systems of conduct—which is magic, of course, humanity’s greatest skill.

Yeah, you can imagine that the first Aryan superman will probably crawl out of his test tube and want to subjugate us all with the hammers of his fists, but by using the power of imagination right now maybe we can provide his mighty brain with something better than conquest to think about.

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