When Words Collide

Wed, May 27th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

THE BEST OF MORRISON / THE WORST OF MORRISON

Aztek and Millar Are Ignored in this Column

One of the questions I'm asked all the time -- presumably because I write about Grant Morrison far too much -- is "What do you think is Morrison's worst? Which of his comics are worth skipping?"

I've thrown out a few suggestions here and there, at fancy cocktail parties, in the back alleys of San Diego, on Facebook, but I haven't really taken the time to write about Morrison's failures and discuss what went wrong. Until now.

First, a few ground rules. I don't have enough backstage access to know what might have caused such failures. I'm not going to assume the all-too-easy "editorial edict" or the even-easier-and-downright-stupid "he was taking too many drugs." Instead, I'm going to look at the story as released and describe why it fails on a narrative level. Also, I'm not going to touch the Mark Millar collaborations at all. Some of the Morrison/Millar comics might very well have made my "Bottom Five" list, but because Morrison had varying degrees of influence on those stories (often using his name to get Millar scripts published, even though Morrison merely provided plot advice) I've eliminated the likes of "Aztek" and "Swamp Thing" and "Skrull Kill Krew" from contention. I'll write about those collaborations someday, but not today. Not in this context.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, although I've come up with a list of Morrison's Five Worst Comics, I would much rather read any of these "failures" than the collected works of Daniel Way, or Scott Lobdell, or Dan Jurgens or whatever inoffensive and generic writer you can name. Even the worst Morrison has something to enjoy, and though some of his lesser work aims too low, it still contains that Morrisonian spark of imagination that makes him one of the most critically-acclaimed comic book writers of this generation. Yet, the things on my Bottom Five are comics I wouldn't really recommend to anyone who wasn't obsessed with Morrison. They aren't comics I'd tend to reread very often.

And to put everything into context, I'll start by identifying the Morrison Top 10, the ten best Morrison comic books ever (not individual issues, but runs or series). Every time I come up with a list of Morrison's Top 10, it changes a bit, but as of this week, the list looks like this:

THE MORRISON TOP 10

1. Animal Man
Perhaps this is a sentimental choice for the number one slot, but I think "Animal Man" #1-26 is Morrison's most perfect balance of metafictional exploration and humanistic concerns. He makes the Baker family matter while telling a story about the relationship between fiction and reality. It's accessible and vibrant, even over twenty years later.

Muscle Mystery by Morrison

2. Flex Mentallo
While "Animal Man" is what I termed "accessible," the four issues of "Flex Mentallo" are amazingly insular. But they aren't insular the way most superhero comics are, concerned with the minutiae of continuity and relying on fresh ideas grown stale. "Flex Mentallo" is a poetic parable of transcendence, using the dream-like mythology of the superhero as its spine. It's so difficult to track down that it might never live up to your expectations, but once you have a copy, you'll revisit it again and again.

3. All-Star Superman
Some might consider the twelve issues of "All-Star Superman" to be the kind of insular comics that I dismissed above, but what I love about this series is that Morrison taps into the essence of the greatest superhero and celebrates everything about it. Basically, this is a simple story about a sun god come to Earth, but it's also about the power of the superhero archetype, the power of Superman, and why we need him.

4. Zenith
The four phases of "Zenith" are as difficult to track down in America as "Flex Mentallo" is, but like "Flex," this is a series that's worth the effort. This is Morrison's "Miracleman," his prototypical superhero epic, an early glimpse at all of his thematic concerns. It's also a hell of a read, full of humor and thrills, demonstrating an amazingly assured narrative voice throughout its multi-year run.

Possibly the Best Doom Patrol Issue Ever

5. Doom Patrol
Morrison's "Doom Patrol" starts strong, becomes shockingly brilliant with the Brotherhood of Dada appearances, and then drifts into weaker territory with the Insect Mesh and the Candlemaker. Still, it ends with a strong finale, and the heights of this series cannot be ignored. Some of my favorite individual issues ever come from Morrison's "Doom Patrol," and there's no doubt that Morrison's idiosyncratic influences came together here to create a unique superhero comic.

6. Arkham Asylum This Jungian symbol-fest is almost completely useless as a Batman action comic, but why shouldn't it be? It's an exploration of the idea of Batman, of the way that the Batman villains represent the inner struggles of the caped crusader, and it's a haunting portrait of an insane asylum founded by an insane man. Dave McKean's no slouch, either.

7. Marvel Boy
The original "ultimatization" of the Marvel Universe, "Marvel Boy" brought the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby concepts into the 21st century. Sure, the series ends with an unfulfilled promise for more, but the small taste we got over its six issues was enough to show that Morrison could do something fresh at Marvel. His "New X-Men" run was exceptional as well, but this takes a slot in the Top 10 over that series because of the consistently great artwork of J. G. Jones.

8. The Invisibles
Perhaps "The Invisibles" shouldn't be lumped into a single entry -- volumes 1, 2, and 3 are distinctly different in quality -- but it must find a way onto any list of Morrison's Best. Sure, volume 1 is kind of a mess, and volume 3 requires serious effort to fully decipher, but that's part of the magic of this series. It's an imperfect masterpiece, and with the compelling volume 2 as its centerpiece, it's an imperfect masterpiece that's viscerally thrilling.

Batmania by Morrison

9. Batman
Though "Batman R.I.P." left some fans disappointed because of unfulfilled promises, and though Morrison's artistic collaborators weren't always equal to their assignment, Morrison's "Batman" run is a weird, wild ride that's one of the most interesting takes on the character ever. We'll see how Morrison wraps it up with "Batman and Robin" and whatever follows, but even as an incomplete work, Morrison's "Batman" is pretty damned good.

10. Seaguy
The third issue of volume 2 hasn't come out as of this writing, but I'm willing to put the five released issues into the Top 10 just because this comic is so different from everything else on the superhero stands. "Seaguy" taps into the same inkwell as other mainstream comics, but it uses illogic and uncertain paranoia to drive its narrative, so it veers off into wonderful directions while its colorful peers walk a predictable line. Plus, Cameron Stewart!

So with all of that in mind, knowing my biases and preferences, knowing what I think deserves a place on the Sacred Shelf of Best Morrison, now it's time to look at what doesn't deserve much acclaim. Here's the stuff that belongs in the Bottom Bin of Best-Forgotten Morrison:

MORRISON'S FIVE WORST COMICS:

Even Superman Can't Save This

5. DC 1,000,000
This is an essential piece of Morrisonia, what with its introduction of the Prime Superman (the Superman of gold) and the menace of Solaris, the Tyrant Sun, but it's a terrible series. A read-through of Morrison's just-outside-the-Top-10 "JLA" run comes to a screeching halt when the "DC 1,000,000" crossover arrives. It's a series with so much potential, with so many ideas, but the storytelling becomes so fragmented, the plotting so scattered and diluted, that it ends up reading like a parody of 1990s superhero excess when it aspires to so much more. Almost everything that's good in "DC 1,000,000" is used to more powerful effect in "All-Star Superman," and Val Semeiks is no Frank Quitely. Semeiks is one of the worst artistic collaborators in Morrison's career. Say what you will about Chas Truog, but his wide-eyed characters fit the initial innocence of the "Animal Man" universe. Semeiks archly angular characters and generic layouts suck the life out of this series, and while Morrison's overly-ambitious story may have some merit in it, it's impossible to tell beneath the insipid artwork. (But the dialogue is pretty terrible, so writerly merit is unlikely.)

4. Kid Eternity
Duncan Fegredo has always been a superior artist. From his work on Peter Milligan's "Enigma" to his current romp through Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" universe, Fegredo has shown himself to be a stylish storyteller with an ability to do horror and humanity equally well. Such skill would have served him well on the three issues of "Kid Eternity," but his painted artwork is garish and sickly. It hasn't aged well, either, looking like something out of a poor-selling Eclipse back-up series. But we're here to talk Morrison, and even without the hideous artwork, "Kid Eternity" just misses the mark. It's a muddled mess of a comic, taking a character whose very power draws upon the heroes of the past and turning him into an agent of chaos without much purpose. There's horror-laden stand-up comedy, gruesome death, and a whole lot of portent. Unfortunately, even with its chaotic core, it lacks the absurdism that might have balanced its too-serious tone. If there's any truth to the idea that Morrison comics can suffer under the weight of their own pretension, its "Kid Eternity" that's the poster boy.

You Can Probably Tell This Is No Good

3. JLA/WildC.A.T.S.
This one-shot, which will supposedly be reprinted in an upcoming volume of the "JLA Deluxe" hardcover line (even though it's not an essential part of Morrison's "JLA" run at all), is not a mess, not a possibly pretentious disaster, not a fragmented failure. It's just dull. Like "DC 1,000,000," this features the vapid stylings of Val Semeiks, but it doesn't even have the sense of innovation that underlies that overwritten time-travel event. Instead, we get a pointless team-up of a conventional JLA squad and Jim Lee's soulless post-X-Men Image heroes. Remember that "Countdown" tie-in issue that featured the Wildstorm characters? That was better than "JLA/WildC.A.T.S." There's just nothing here that you couldn't get from any bland inter-company crossover, and with Morrison, one expects something with more personality.

2. Spawn
There's nothing wrong with the art here. I mean, it's "Spawn." It's Greg Capullo. So you pretty much get what you'd expect, and though it's not my favorite style, it's one that climbs the rafters and sings "Spaaaaaawwwwnnnnn" like a rock star. And the Redeemer, the angelic Anti-Spawn, is an appropriate character for such a series, and shows that Morrison didn't have to abandon his delightfully absurdist instincts to play around in Todd MacFarlane's world. But either Morrison is providing a pastiche of early-Image dialogue or he's just totally without interest in these characters because every word balloon is flat and uninspired. There's nothing of substance here, either in the dialogue or in the characters and the plot is nothing more than Spawn vs. a guy who is trying to punch Spawn really hard. This is a groan-worthy comic that makes Alan Moore's "Violator" comic read like something written on purpose.

Worst. Morrison. Comic. Ever.

1. Steed & Mrs. Peel
Maybe it's some kind of cultural ignorance, but I don't see any redeeming qualities in this three-issue "Steed and Mrs. Peel" series. Ian Gibson has done much better work elsewhere, and though this series can be somewhat difficult to track down outside of eBay, there's nothing here that would make it worth owning. The narrative crime here -- such as it is -- is that there's little of Morrison's voice in this comic. Anyone could have written this licensed comic published by Eclipse. It's just a Steed and Peel adventure, a third-rate episode in comic book form, and as if to prove how generic the story is, Eclipse throws Anne Caulfield in as the writer of a two-part back-up story that occupies the second and third issue. Caulfield, who has never written another comic book as far as I know, provides an equally bland tale and by the end of the third issue, this whole "Steed and Mrs. Peel" comic book experiment just looks like a poorly-planned way to give Ian Gibson a few months worth of work. It's certainly the most un-Morrison of all the Morrison comic books, and that alone probably warrants its position as the Worst Morrison Comic in History.

But as much as these comics might disappoint, even the Worst Morrison Comic in History is better than Jericho's silly machinations or the latest attempt to kill or not kill the mutant messiah. Stick with the Ten Best, though, and you're much less likely to be disappointed.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, grant morrison, batman, superman, doom patrol

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