When Words Collide

Tue, September 7th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

GRANT MORRISON: THE EVEN EARLIER YEARS

In my book on Grant Morrison, I begin with "Zenith," because that's his first major work. I would have liked to have put something extensive about "Captain Clyde" (Morrison's newspaper strip that he wrote and drew as a teenager) into the book, but I just don't have access to those strips, although the Mitchell Library in Glasgow supposedly has copies of the Govan Press issues from that era, and you may be able to track down that super-early Morrison work if you're in that neighborhood. Alas, I am not.

But in preparation for a new edition of the Morrison book, I've dipped into some of his shorter works that I didn't bother to address in the earlier editions. It's not that I thought those earlier stories were without merit, but the focus of the book was on his longer-form works and the parallels between them. Still, rereading some of Morrison's pre-"Zenith" work does offer plenty of points of comparison between his nascent interests and his fully mature work years later.

So, here you have it, my look at some of the smaller, non-"2000 AD" gems from Morrison's back-catalogue, well before he was writing major event comics. Well before he was a comic book celebrity.

ABRAXAS: GNOSTICISM IN ACTION

"Sunrise" #1 with Morrison's Abraxas back-up story

By 1979, Grant Morrison had contributed a few Gideon Stargrave stories to "Near Myths" magazine and begun work on "Captain Clyde," but he was still years away from anything long-form or fully-developed. Yet, even in those late teenage years, he planned something that he'd later term a "graphic novel," though the project would never get past its own prologue.

Working with artist Tony O'Donnell, Morrison came up with the story for "Abraxas," a planned 100-page tale of cosmic adventure, medieval weaponry, close encounters, and insect sex goddesses. But with only a ten page prologue completed, "Near Myths" magazine shuttered its doors, and that ten-pager didn't see publication for another eight years.

In Harrier Comics' "Sunrise" #2, from 1987, Morrison explains the origin of this "Abraxas" story from his younger days, the prologue of which was published in the first issue of "Sunrise," earlier that year. Morrison describes how he and O'Donnell worked in "Marvel style" and "thrashed out a story involving aliens, Gnosticism, Celtic mythology, the End of the Universe, and girls in leather underwear." And though the first prologue (of three planned prologues) for "Abraxas" was left in publishing limbo by the end of the 1970s, Morrison and O'Donnell didn't give up on the story, though they only produced six more pages in the intervening years. That second prologue appeared in the back pages of "Sunrise," just as the first "Abraxas" prologue appeared in the back of "Sunrise"'s first issue.

In that same "Sunrise" #2 text page in which he describes working up the "Abraxas" idea, Morrison jokes, "if our track record's anything to go by, "Sunrise" will disappear down the toilet faster than last night's Tandoori dinner, and "Abraxas" will be homeless for another ten years."

That statement ended up being partly true. "Sunrise" never saw a third issue, and "Abraxas" became homeless once again. But it has been far more than ten years and it has never been continued since, not literally at least.

Though the story printed in those two "Sunrise" issues would never be continued, the two "Abraxas" prologues show hints of what would come with Morrison's later work, even if a quick glance at the prologues seems to indicate a more populist approach - a stronger "Star Wars" / "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" influence - than you'd find in his comics from "Zenith" and beyond.

Starlin was surely an influence

The first prologue opens with a space chase and a cry for help, just like the opening of George Lucas's famed 1977 release. The second prologue opens with lights in the sky and a distracted driver on a lonely road, just like you might find in Steven Spielberg's 1977 alien encounter film. Beyond the trappings of the popular cinema of the day, Morrison's story becomes more esoteric, and more in line with the types of themes and ideas he'd later explore in his comics.

Morrison names the title character, Abraxas, after an ancient being - a Gnostic god who Carl Jung describes in "Seven Sermons to the Dead" as "activity" as someone who "stands above the sun and above the devil," as supreme archon, the highest god of all. In the first two prologues, all we see of Abraxas is a fierce space warrior - a man who leaps into battle with a giant axe, seemingly unfazed by fear. He is no god in Morrison's story, just an action hero, but the notion of a transcendent hero is certainly something familiar throughout Morrison's career.

Morrison also introduces a cosmic giant in the form of Simon Magus, an enigmatic hero who is part Obi Wan Kenobi and part Jim Starlin's Adam Warlock. Like Abraxas, Magus is a Gnostic icon, and since Gnosticism is based on notions of breaking free from physicality and achieving unity with a higher consciousness, it's in keeping with Morrison's continual themes that such Gnostic influences would appear in some of his earliest works. The Simon Magus in the "Abraxas" prologues seems quite benign, even heroic, contrary to traditional myths of the character, which give Magus a more demonic persona. In Morrison's work, he is not the Faustian character of legend.

"Abraxas" doesn't reveal much of itself in its two prologues. The first one is packed with action and bold declarations about such action, with sci-fi trappings and Gnostic beings made comic book flesh. The second prologue is a smaller story of humans startled by what they see in the sky. Both feature an ominous character in a horned helmet, but we never learn more. The third prologue and the rest of "Abraxas" was never completed, never published. Though many of its ideas would seem to resurface in later decades, forming some of the pseudo-religious underpinnings of "The Invisibles" in the 1990s or even the cosmic psychodrama of "Seven Soldiers" and "Final Crisis" in the 21st century.

BATMAN AND SUPERMAN: IN LIVING PROSE

Decades before Grant Morrison made his mark on the two biggest DC Comics icons - Batman and Superman - by writing a mind-bending extended run on "Batman" and its ancillary titles and the distilled, twelve-issue brilliance of "All-Star Superman," he wrote two brief prose stories featuring the characters published in British annuals in the mid-1980s. In "The Stalking," from "Batman Annual 1986," and "Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine" from "Superman Annual 1986," Morrison detailed brief adventures of the two characters he would later become closely associated with. Though these early stories didn't redefine Batman and Superman the way his later work would, they demonstrate Morrison's willingness to take classic elements of the characters mileu and recombine them into something that resembles his other comic book work of the time.

Superman and Peabody

They may be relatively tame, straightforward superhero adventures, written in direct, uncomplicated prose, but they still seem Morrisonian at their core.

The Batman story, "The Stalking," featuring artwork by Garry Leach, is the more traditional of the two. Morrison tells the story of a night when Catwoman slinked into the Batcave, looking to retrieve one of her weapons. Batman finds her, of course, before she causes too much trouble, and, just as she dashes upstairs to uncover the true identity of the darknight detective, Catwoman finds herself with a face-full of sleeping gas, courtesy of Alfred.

The prose is simple, if a bit clumsy, with a hint at the type of heavy-handed metaphor that would later appear in "The Clown at Midnight," Morrison's sometimes-praised, sometimes panned attempt at a prose Batman story in "Batman" #663, cover-dated April, 2007: "The Batman surveyed the Trophy Room with eyes as hard as diamond shards," reads one sentence. But there's nothing particularly showy about "The Stalking." It's three pages of Bruce Wayne watching television, Catwoman sneaking around beneath Wayne Manor, and a bat-and-cat game that climaxes with Catwoman piloting the giant tyrannosaurus rex in the Batcave, before the timely intervention of Alfred on the stairs.

Yet the Bruce Wayne-at-home scene in the opening evokes the humdrum-life-of-a-hero feel that would pop up later in "Zenith" and "Animal Man." And the almost fetishistic description of the contents of the Batcave Morrison provides in "The Stalking" - setting the scene that the Catwoman would disturb with her antics - recalls his almost gleeful embrace of Silver Age comic book madness in the final chapters of "Animal Man" and in so much of "Doom Patrol" (even if the Silver Age feel was channeled through the avant-garde in that series).

And though Morrison is far from the only writer to tell a story about trespass in the Batcave, his "Batman R.I.P." arc from the "Batman" series in 2008 emphasizes the discord caused by a group of villains who overtake Batman's subterranean sanctuary, with the true nature of his civilian identity at the center of the story. It's an amplification of the events of "The Stalking," with a much more layered plot, but it has a similar core.

"Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine," with accompanying illustrations by a young Barry Kitson, is something else entirely. A Superman story that has more in common with the Mort Weisinger-era Superman than the late-Bronze Age stories of the time in which it was written, Morrison's contribution to "Superman Annual 1986" is full of imagination, spectacle, and superhero splendor, even if the protagonist of the story - Mr. Osgood Peabody - is anything but a hero.

The conflict in the story is basic Morrison: mind vs. body, imagination vs. physicality, dream vs. reality. The set-up, as with "The Stalking," is a simple one, but in "Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine," a cabal of criminals hears a proposal from a devious scientist. Osgood Peabody has found a way to put an end to Superman, by reading his dreams, by finding his greatest weakness through his subconscious mind.

"In the privacy of his dreams will be found the key to the Man of Steel's d-destruction," stutters the timid genius of the title.

Peabody explains how he has hidden a microtransmitter in Superman's costume, and the group of gangsters assembles to see Superman's dreams appear on Peabody's dream display. What they see startles them. Superman seems to dream only of himself, doing great deeds. And something about bones permeates nearly every scene. Superman dreams of "ribcages as big as aircraft, dinosaur skulls the size of trucks, and thighbones as tall and thick as oaks."

They conclude that the mighty Superman - the man with no outward weakness - is afraid of death, and this potentially crippling fear could be used against him. They soon find that Superman has been merely toying with them, as the hero shows up and smashes their equipment, seeming to betray not a single hesitation over the images he sees on the screen or the bones that the villains have set up to frighten Superman.

After destroying the cabal and confronting Peabody, Superman reveals the truth. The dreams of Superman's glory and the constant imagery of bones has a logical explanation: Superman found the transmitter with his super-senses, and those weren't his dreams they were recording. They belonged to his loyal companion, Krypto.

The final line of the story describes Superman's attitude about the whole affair: "And as Superman led Osgood and the others away, the air rang with the sound of his laughter."

Superman celebrates the absurdity of the plot, Morrison celebrates the absurdity of the superhero, while still embracing its traditional tropes and swirling it all around his continued obsession with the relationship between dream and reality.

"Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine," more so than "The Stalking," echoes the kinds of superhero stories Morrison would become famous for, even while it indirectly explores some of the Gnostic concerns of the mind and the body. It's quintessential Morrison, distilled into three prose pages.

DOCTOR WHO: TRANSCENDING CONSCIOUSNESS

Doctor Who by Morrison

Readers of Morrison's work who have also followed the long-running British television series "Doctor Who" may have noticed that many of Morrison's themes and ideas have overlapped with - or been inspired by - the stories of the time traveling Doctor and his adventures aboard the TARDIS. Morrison has gone on record several times about his life-long adoration of the television show, so it's no surprise that he would find inspirations from the series over the years.

But Morrison's relationship to "Doctor Who" is more than just fannish enthusiasm - though he has expressed an eagerness to write the script for a "Doctor Who" movie, if he ever gets a chance - since he has already contributed to the mythology of the "Doctor Who" universe, in the pages of "Doctor Who Magazine" in the late 1980s.

Morrison's first "Doctor Who" story, "Changes," serialized in "Doctor Who Magazine" #118-119 from November and December of 1986 (recently reprinted by IDW, along with Morrison's other Who stories), features scratchy-but-elegant linework from artist John Ridgway, and a story with the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker on television at the time) and a strange encounter aboard the TARDIS.

In the story, the Doctor's companion, Peri, explores the strange, dimension-altering confines of the TARDIS and comes across an alien threat who poses as the Doctor himself, before assuming the role of a Peri doppelganger. It's a story of shapeshifting and uncertainty, and though it's brief, it hits all the customary "Doctor Who" beats: the companion encounters something unfamiliar, as does the reader, and some alien menace is involved, and the Doctor shows up to figure things out and solve the problem with intellect and creativity. In this case, the alien is betrayed by its inability to perfectly capture the look of clothing apart from human flesh, before it's jettisoned out of a space portal.

A year later, Morrison returned to "Doctor Who" again in issues #127-129, again with artist John Ridgway, to tell the story of "The World Shapers." The story saw print the same month Zenith began to appear in 2000 AD, but like "Changes," it's Morrison's attempt at delivering typical - if appropriate - "Doctor Who" fare.

"The World Shapers" takes a more epic approach than Morrison's previous Who tale, and it's in keeping with what we might expect from some of the better "Doctor Who" adventures, with Time Lords and TARDISes, with familiar characters recast in a different light, and with an indignant Doctor expressing his anger at a system that is far from perfect.

In this case, it's the Sixth Doctor and Peri, once again, and they discover the secret history of the Cybermen and their relationship with the inscrutable Voord. The Doctor discovers that the Time Lords - high collars and headgear, all - have allowed the Cybermen to exist. As the Doctor passionately explains, "We have a chance now to stop their evil at the root!" by stopping the Worldshaper from completing the evolution from Voord into Cybermen. They could stop the Cybermen from ever coming into existence, but the Time Lords won't listen, and the Doctor storms off with his companion in tow.

As the Time Lords explain in the epilogue, in a manner that sounds supremely Morrisonian: "Within five million years, the Cybermen will have evolved again, beyond the need for bodies, they will become pure thought - the most peace-loving and advanced race in the universe." Shades of Gnosticism from "Abraxas" and nearly everything Morrison has written since.

Morrison returned to "Doctor Who" one more time in August, 1988, with "Culture Shock!" in "Doctor Who Magazine" #139. With art by Bryan Hitch (before he began using an Alan Davis-influenced style, and long before his career-defining work on "The Authority" and "The Ultimates" at the turn of the century), "Culture Shock!" is much less elaborate than Morrison's previous "Doctor Who" stories. It was published as a back-up story in that 1988 issue, and it reads like one. A slight diversion, rather than a main event.

It's a story about the Seventh Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy on television) and his efforts to save an alien race. He stumbles on the situation accidentally, as the Doctor is prone to do, but he soon finds himself trying to save the "Syntelligence of the Culture," which basically amounts to protecting a collection of microscopic organisms - organisms with a mass mind - from an invading virus. The Doctor keeps the Culture alive, and aid them in reaching the ocean, where they will evolve into something new.

"Our awareness explodes into dimensionless, mythic space. We know union with the Overbody," says the Syntelligence, telepathically, as they broadcast their thanks to their "redeemer," the Doctor. The Doctor, who had been shown to be frustrated and pessimistic in the opening scene, before encountering the Culture, returns to the TARDIS jauntily swinging his umbrella. A smile on his face.

Saving a species and furthering its evolution will have that effect on a man, or a Time Lord.

Even in that short "Doctor Who" story, Morrison's theme of transcendence, and his concern with the relationship between the mind and the body, is written on the surface. It's the same recurring patterns and motifs, throughout his work from that period of his career, whether it's "Changes" with its notions of doublings and pairings, or "The World Shapers" with its sense of apocalypse and promise of transcendence, or "Culture Shock!" with its mental microorganisms transcending their physical form to bond with the Overbody, to achieve Gnostic apotheosis.

And, of course, all of it is embedded in a system of "Doctor Who" storytelling that's about the power of imagination, and the strength of individual achievement to help bring about some new age of consciousness. So many of Morrison's stories - as bleak as they might seem - have an underlying optimism. Things may be chaotic, absurd, fragmented. But there's hope, and, more often than not, a happy ending.


In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE 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 regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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