For the better part of the past 20 years, Grant Morrison has been leading the charge for groundbreaking superhero stories at both DC and Marvel Comics. However, as 2012 zooms to its possibly Apocalyptic end, the writer is looking to change up where and how his counter-cultural ideas will manifest next.
This September, Image Comics will publish its first creator-owned series from the writer – the crime noir/psycheadelic pony/Christmas fable "HAPPY!" with artist Darick Robertson. And to hear Morrison describe it, the book is only the first step in a new set of stories that will see him break off from regular superhero work for the foreseeable future.
Below, Morrison tells CBR News how a cascade of events from the publishing of his superhero manifesto "Supergods" to the plans for the September Las Vegas meeting of the minds called MorrisonCon have all combined to launch him on a new phase of his writing career – one where Batman and Superman will step aside for a new wave of characters, starting with an insipidly cute cartoon horse.
CBR News: Before we get to the books, congratulations on being named a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire! What's that whole experience been like for you?
Grant Morrison: It was absolutely unexpected. I’ve always been treated as a fairly marginal figure round our way, and it was nice to get a little recognition, but I have no idea who put me up for the honor. You have to go through a strict and rigorous check from Buckingham Palace and the government. It was funny to think that all these people had to read some of my wilder stuff in order to pass me for the award. [Laughs] But I was quite touched that I’d been acknowledged at all.
And so did you get to go to Buckingham Palace for a big ceremony?
Not yet. I'll be doing that in the next couple of months, I guess. They do the recipients in batches. The weird thing is that my dad got one of these things back in 1998 for a completely different reason – for his community work. So I've kind of done this before with him. I've been to the Palace before, but I've never been up close with any of the royals. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's all about.
Do you feel more chivalrous? This is supposed to be an honor of chivalry, right?
No, it actually made me feel more evil, I think. [Laughter] I mean, when a howling witch hunt turns up on cue to accuse you of "joining the Establishment" as if you’d signed up for the Secret Society of Super-Villains, what else can you do but cackle and rub your hands together?
I’d love to tell you I’m now qualified to join the Round Table and declare war on Narnia but the truth is, absolutely nothing has changed.
This award has kind of brought around the latest round of attention for you in the mainstream media, the last of which came for "Supergods" which is just out in paperback. I got the feeling that going out and talking so much with the readership was as much of a process for you as writing the book was. Did you learn anything about the form after all that discussion?
Once you finish these things, it really is like squatting out a bizarre, book-shaped child you've been labored over. [Laughs] Honestly, once I'd wrapped ‘Supergods‘, I felt like I'd said everything I needed to say about that stuff. Besides wrapping up "Batman Incorporated" and my Superman work right now and "Multiversity" kind of getting done, it felt like a farewell. I love the book, and the paperback edition is even better, with new material and corrections but the ideas were ones I had in my head for a long time and I've kind of moved on to thinking about different areas of interest.
I think a lot of people are surprised that you've remained dedicated to writing superhero comics for this long. Did you always foresee a waning of that work, or did it sneak up on you that "I'm not sure if I need to write anymore superhero stories"?
The idea was always that I'd keep doing it as long as it gave me a lot of pleasure and allowed me to express myself . And it still does, but I can see the end coming closer. I'm coming to the end of long runs and stories I've had planned in my notebooks for years and the stuff I’m developing now is quite different.
The "Action Comics" run concludes with issue #16, "Batman Incorporated" wraps up my take with issue #12, and after that I don’t have any plans for monthly superhero books for a while. "Multiversity" is eight issues and I’m 30-odd pages into a Wonder Woman project but those are finite stories.
I'm not saying that I'll never write superheroes again. It's just that my relationship to them has changed especially after finishing the book and I’m not sure if I want to maintain the same kind of relentless level of production.
Do you think that's come from the process, or has something happened with the proliferation of superheroes in the wider culture that's impacted how you view them?
I think I've kind of worked through everything I’ve ever felt about these characters. It was a bit like going to the psychiatrist and lying on the couch for just long enough to realize "What was I thinking?" [Laughs] I don't know. I know there are plenty of different ways to use them, but right now I feel like I'm coming to the end of a long intensive period where I was talking about certain ideas using the language of superheroes, if that makes any sense. I want to try out some new ideas and explore the opportunities that keep coming up to write novels and screenplays.
I think it's safe to say that "HAPPY!" is the first project we're going to see in the wake of this change. For a while, we'd only seen a teaser and it was hard to parse what you and Darick Robertson were working up. Now that the solicits are out, it may be even harder! What's the genesis of this book? Did you want to do your own version of the kind of "hitman crime fable" we see so often these days?
I've always wanted to try a crime story. I wanted to do my take on that type of book – the hard-boiled anti-hero and the mafia villains and all that but I never had a strong enough story hook. I was looking for a way to put my own stamp on the genre and it finally clicked with "HAPPY!"
I was ambushed by this track by The Hollies, the '60s band, and it was like the most saccharine, sweetie pie music you can imagine – "Pegasus The Flying Horse." I like quite a few songs from the band’s psychedelic mid-period but this is just a hideous piece of twee. It even has this neighing sound as the last few bars play out! [Laughter] It's so sugary and weird and although it‘s probably about LSD, the lyrics of the middle 8 section bring a weird "pervy uncle" presence to the whole sordid affair. You can look it up on YouTube if you want because I just can't do it justice.
But I was listening to this music and thought, "Imagine the most cynical, fucked up man in the world having to deal with this - with a sickeningly upbeat little cartoon character - each trapped with the other." What would it be like if the Bad Lieutenant teamed up with Pegasus the Flying Horse? By this time, I knew the Happy the Horse would be tiny. And it struck me that I could throw “Christmas story” in with this as well. I've always wanted to have a go at a classic Christmas story like "It's A Wonderful Life" or “A Christmas Carol“ but with characters drawn from the shock headlines of the 21st Century. So this idea seemed to lend itself to that and it gave me a chance to do the kind of wider, symbolic pop cult critique that I like. It just grew from there. Adam Mortimer who’s directing "Sinatoro" is good friends with Darick Robertson and put us in touch. I've met Darick in the past, but we’ve never worked together. I found out that he was free, he loved the idea, we pitched it to Image and now we’re half way through a four-issue series which starts in September. It all came very naturally out of this weird combination of ideas.
Have you ever been to Disneyland and experienced "It's A Small World"?
I've never actually been to Disneyland and probably never will. My parents wanted to take me there when I was younger, but we had no money. So I was cruelly cheated! [Laughs] It just wouldn’t be the same now.
You description of the Hollies song reminds me of how that ride's music repeats over and over again and kind of drills its way into your brain. When you mash those kinds of things up against "heartwarming" stories like "It's A Wonderful Life" it can be tough to separate a positive ideal from an ingratiating experience. Do you see any aesthetic pleasure in something so saccharine?
Well, what excited me was the notion of not necessarily the song...but the story possibilities it suggested. In that sense, there’s definitely aesthetic pleasure in something saccharine but for me the pleasure only comes when you slam that rinky-dink magic kingdom stuff into its opposite and watch it all kick off, particle accelerator style. After doing all these noble super characters for so long "HAPPY!" is like the chains coming off the cellar. It’s bile and loathing, and relentless foul-mouthed scatological dialogue on every page – and Happy the Horse.
I loved the idea of dragging this bright creature into a very unpleasant world – a creature who is absolutely cheerful and will not give in. To the point of irritation. He's this indefatigable spark of positivity, and I'm pitting him against the absolute darkness and damnation of the world of the story. The tone and setting of the book is closer to what I was doing back with "The Filth" than anything I’ve been doing on "Batman." It's a really super noir comic, though I don't want to explain what Happy is or what he looks like. You'll see that when the book comes out. But circumstances bring him into this hitman’s life, and he says, "I need your help to save a kid who's in trouble." Cue pedo-Santa. Three days to Christmas with a new twist every day. I poured everything I know about making comics into this and I‘m really pleased with it. It’s a crude, sensationalistic, trashy piece of work but it runs like a death machine.
What's it been like to work with Darick? I get the feeling that he's done so much long form work on creator-owned comics, but he's often overshadowed because he's working with Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis or whomever. What does he bring of his own to make this series uniquely what it is?
That's exactly it. Once I started to see the series' pages come in and saw how he'd designed the Happy the Horse character...I mean, it's like a special effect what he's done with this little...thing. It's quite amazing. And he’s set against this sleazy world of New York in the bleak midwinter, and there’s snow falling and filthy slush in the gutters, and everyone's fucked up, and everyone else is a bastard. Darick really captures the grime and the violence, which I knew he could do, having seen the stuff he did with Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis but I had no idea how brilliantly he’d render Happy. What I like most about the work is that it’s all very personal. It’s not airbrushed and light boxed. It's old school art with big Indian ink shadows and zip-a-tones. It's really very hand-drawn looking, and that totally suits the visceral nature of the action.
You are one of a number of guys who after years of working for DC and Marvel are packing up and moving over to do a project at Image. Of course, you were just talking about a bit of a personal sea change for what you want to do, but there does seem to be a lot of guys flocking to that publisher right now. Do you feel a part of that wave of creator-owned sentiment?
The majority of my creator-owned stuff is published at Vertigo but I’ve been putting out creator-owned stuff through all kinds of publishers since the late '70s and I still own everything from "Captain Clyde" and "Abraxas" to "St. Swithin’s Day," "The New Adventures of Hitler" and "Bible John" all the way up to the more recent stuff with Liquid. I've always put out my own books in tandem with the DC Universe trademark stuff I like to do, like "JLA" or "Batman," so in some ways this is business as usual for me. But there's definitely some kind of centrifugal movement away from the mainstream toward new and more personal, expressive, creator-owned stuff, and I think it's partly because cinema has appropriated so much of the stuff we’ve been doing in comics for the last thirty years. Movie superheroes finally look better than their comic book counterparts. And creative people are more informed and want to own their ideas, and to be able to protect them or profit from them. The audience has developed a fresh appetite for new characters and stories which is driving a shift toward those kinds of stories again. Writers and artists are experimenting again. The future’s back and you could feel the floodgates opening at Image this year, in particular. It seems like everybody’s got something new coming out.
So yeah I'm happy to join the bandwagon if only it’s to remind people I’ve been riding it for decades!
"Happy!" Seemed right for Image. Karen [Berger of Vertigo] doesn't like stuff that puts children under threat and this book definitely does that. Robert [Kirkman] and Eric [Stephenson] at Image have been great and I've agreed to do some more stuff with them. I have a few ideas brewing after "HAPPY!" It's good to feel a little afraid – to try a different company and a different way of working and get familiar with different strategies of publishing. I have more Vertigo stuff planned too so I definitely feel the pull more strongly toward the creator-owned end of the spectrum and that seems to be the general consensus. I just read Ed Brubaker talking about his farewell to trademark superheroes and moving on to concentrate on developing his own stuff. So something's going on. Migratory patterns are changing. The superhero monthlies can always use new blood anyway.
MorrisonCon is coming in a few months time. Ron Richards and James Sime brought this idea to you, but as I understand it, you dove right in. What does that opportunity to have an entire weekend of discussion and art provide to you that you haven't had before?
The idea for MorrisonCon came from James Sime and his partner Kirsten Baldock and from Ron Richards. They had this idea of doing something less like a comic convention and more of an event like a music festival where you paid to hang around backstage with the acts and everyone stayed in the same hotel in Vegas.
I saw the opportunity to stage one of those weird, life-changing events where the boss takes you out and you go hunt each other in the woods. [Laughs]. I saw the potential for a kind of Happening, as they used to say. A chance to rewire heads and get some creative sparks flying.
They asked if I’d lend my name to it and I did but I should say - if only to answer critics who’ve accused me of profiteering - that I don’t make a single cent out of this. I’m doing it for free because it seems like a brilliant idea. I wish it wasn't called MorrisonCon though because Robert Kirkman will be there, and he's like 100 times bigger than me! [Laughs] Is it too late to call it KirkmanCon and shift some more tickets? Who doesn’t want to sit around the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas talking to the creator of "The Walking Dead" about why we love the dearly departed?
We're going to have high-level anything-goes panel discussions and we're asking all the writers and artists to do something a bit different like perform eerie candle-lit readings or draw you hung-over at breakfast. You know, Darick Robertson will chase the blues away with guitar and vocals. I’m doing a new spoken word piece channeling Mr. Mojo Risin’, the Egyptian Gods and Howard Hughes with new music by Gerard Way. Stuff like that. We have surprise guests from film, TV and the alternative arts. Some of the most fertile minds in and on the fringes of the comics business will be hanging around talking about where our art form stands, and what happens next, now that we’ve conquered the world. Multimedia opens up whole new ways of creating comics that could involve, music and performance and art, so we’re bringing comics people together with film-makers, photographers, musicians, models, directors and visionaries to talk mad talk and light up the Strip.
One of the interesting things about the change in comics culture over the past ten years is that you no longer have to be centrally located in New York or London or what have you. Now you can exist wherever and collaborate via e-mail. Do you feel like there's a qualitative difference to getting together in the same physical space as a collaborator?
Oh yeah! I haven’t written an e-mail since 2005, and I can’t find the time or inclination to maintain a web presence or keep my Twitter account fed with trivia. I hardly ever talk to my collaborators aside from personal notes in the scripts, so it’s always great to catch up with them in person.
I wish I could be more like Warren Ellis, and have a commanding internet presence but I can never think of anything to say online. I waste days perfecting a few lines of an e-mail or tweet It’s pointless. For me nothing is faster, sexier and more rewarding than communicating with people in person. God knows, it’s a shocking idea, but we've been doing it for thousands of years! I kind of like all the gestures and hesitations and flashing eyes that bring a conversation to life. I've never met Jonathan Hickman, and I‘ll never write him an e-mail, for instance, but meeting him in Vegas to talk about science and futurism in comics and whatever – that's very exciting.
And everybody, including the people who've bought tickets, will all be hanging out in the same space and talking about this stuff that excites us all. Friendships will be made. Lives will be changed. It’s a unique one-off event and if you miss it you miss it forever.
The mainstream press has kind of presented this as an alternative to Comic-Con, which I wonder if that misses the point a bit.
It's nice of them to have us in the same sentence, but Comic-Con is a mega-event and we’re what’s known as "boutique" – in fact we‘re more like a drawer in a small dressing table at the back of the boutique. [Laughs] This is intimate in a way Comic-Con could never be. MorrisonCon an alternative in the sense that it’s pretty much the opposite of Comic-Con. We're not even trying to operate in that space, but it was nice of them to compare us.
Stay tuned later this week for more on Grant Morrison's DC Comics work.