Up, Up and Away with Morrison, Kring, Mignola & Lethem

Mon, October 8th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Michael Climek, Guest Contributor

The New Yorker Festival was a series of events and talks put on by The New Yorker magazine last weekend. The festival catered to a diverse crowd with dozens of events on a variety of topics at locations through New York City.

Of the many events, one was particularly relevant to comics readers, a panel entitled "Superheroes: Up, Up, and Away," featuring comics writer Grant Morrison; comics writer, illustrator, and creator of Hellboy, Mike Mignola; novelist and writer of Marvel's new "Omega the Unknown" series Jonathan Lethem; and creator of the popular television show "Heroes," Tim Kring. The event was moderated by magazine editor and fiction author Ben Greenman.

Rumors that the New Yorker Festival events typically sell out were certainly fulfilled at this event, as The Highline Ballroom was filled to capacity before the panel started.

Before the panelists took the stage, images of several comic book superheroes were displayed on a projection screen. Famous depictions of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and others were presented in both their comic book versions and their live action-film versions as well. Obscure characters were often accompanied with audible whispers of "who's that?" such as Ultraman, The Maxx, Infinity Inc, Prez, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Brother Power the Geek.

Once the menagerie of images concluded, moderator Ben Greenman opened the discussion by asking all the panelists to recall their first superhero experience.

Lethem said his first encounter with a traditional superhero was the Adam West "Batman" television show and that after he saw his first episode, he immediately went out and bought a Batman comic.

Jonathan Lethem, Mike Mignola,Ben Greenman, Grant Morrison, Tim Kring
Mignola said when he was very young he would go to a store with his older cousin who was into Marvel comics. Even though he was forced to buy "Richie Rich," he noted that the copies of "Fantastic Four" seemed to look a lot cooler and he eventually found a way to read them.

Morrison responded that his first encounter with superheroes was the infamous "Marvelman" ("Miracleman" to us here in the Untied States), the original Mick Anglo black and white stories. Morrison added that he first read the stories while he had a very high fever, which may have contributed to his current "unique" outlook on comics storytelling.

Tim Kring was first exposed to the old George Reeves "Superman" television series and, like Lethem, the Adam West "Batman."

As the panelists had long been exposed to superheroes, Greenman continued the discussion by asking the panelists what they think is the longstanding appeal of superheroes.

According to Lethem, the paradox of a superhero is the ability to be both famous and celebrated, but also simultaneously have a shy secret identity. To audiences, Lethem said, the superhero can then be famous but also sulky and weird. Lethem says this is very similar to a paradox he thinks most middle school and high school males go through. As he explains it, it's common for school-aged males to hate the popular kid in school, yet at the same time still want some of the fame that he has, just as it is sometimes fun to be the "trenchcoat" sulky kid who is misunderstood and has an air of mystery about him.

Kring, however, said the appeal of superheroes comes from the drama that their powers or calling represents. Their abilities, while fantastic, are also an affliction. He referenced the early Spider-Man stories in which Spider-Man had to be a hero, but also find ways to pay the rent and have a social life, whereas if he just didn't have the powers, things might have gone a lot easier for him. The affliction of the powers and the internal struggle gives the superhero characters their appeal, according to Kring.

For Morrison and Mignola, the two panelists with the most comic book credits to their names, Greenman narrowed down the parameters and asked if, in their opinions, there was anything essential that a superhero absolutely must have in order to be called a superhero.

Mike Mignola, Grant Morrison, Tim Kring, Jonathan Lethem
Morrison said superheroes are representative of certain qualities and as such they need to be allegorical of other concepts in order to appeal to more adult readers. As an example, Morrison explained that when he was young he liked The Flash as drawn by Carmine Infantino simply because his bright yellow boots looked so cool due to their "awesome huge treads." Now that Morrison is older, boot design isn't enough to make the character appeal to him. Now Morrison likes The Flash because he feels he is representative of urban living and urban culture due to his speed. Morrison explained that lives of superheroes are huge cosmic version of the way human beings live, and that if they were not based in the lives of ordinary humans, they may not have an appeal.

Morrison continued to say that succinctly, superheroes must have a symbol in order to exist. He pointed out that Superman is classic because he was the first hero with a giant symbol on his chest.

Like Morrison's explanation of symbols, Mignola talked about how a specific, iconographic look is required to be a superhero. He pointed out that while Hellboy has no secret identity and no official costume, Hellboy is red and he looks like a superhero by default. Mignola was careful to say, however, that in his opinion visuals aren't everything and a superhero still needs something that differentiates the character from everyone else. Hellboy, for example is the beast of the apocalypse.

Launching off of this idea of differentiation, Greenman then asked how writers deal with finding new approaches to established characters. As he elaborated, the superhero comic book is a rare fictional form in that most often the writer is using characters created by previous writers that first appeared, in some cases, almost 70 years ago. There are not many other genres where the writer is "given the keys to the old car." How do the writers cope with making sure everyone discovers something new about the characters while adhering to the already established situations?

Since, as Kring pointed out, he does not come from a comic book reading background, he said that for "Heroes," he began with the idea of saving the world because he wanted to tackle large questions and issues. He thought about characters that had a calling and could affect changes; ordinary people called upon to do something. For the characters. he worked in terms of large, relatable archetypes: cop, politician, cheerleader, and a single mom. He created their powers based on the needs of the characters.

Kring elaborated on the character of the single mom, Nikki, and how, since it must be tough to be a single mom, he thought she was probably stretched very thin and could really use the power to essentially be in two places at once, which is similar to how her powers work on the show. Kring said he purposefully didn't read comics while he was creating "Heroes" in order to guarantee that his thoughts were not influenced by previous work.

Morrison, who is working on Superman in the critically acclaimed "All Star Superman" series, pointed out that Superman is reinvented for every generation in order to seem fresh. In Morrison's view, when Superman was first created, he was very much a socialist hero and then during World War II Superman becames very patriotic. While the publications of many other superheroes halted after World War II in the early 1950's, Morrison believes Superman survived by reinventing himself as a sort of "Super Dad" in the "family-oriented" era. Superman acquired a whole super family with the bottled city of Kandor, Superboy, Supergirl, and the various Super pets and was, in a way, living a suburban lifestyle.

The stories became all about self-esteem as Superman dealt with very average problems such as becoming obese or suffering from leprosy. To typify the point, Morrison talked about one of his favorite 1950s era Superman stories, in which Superman lost all of his powers but gained the ability to shoot a very tiny Superman out of the palm of his hand. This tiny Superman went around solving everyone's problems, but Superman became jealous of the tiny Superman and the adoration the public gave him.

Luckily, in the '60s Superman's attention was diverted as he became very concerned with social issues and then, as Morrison joked, in the '70s he became "very confused."

Morrison finished off his by-decade description of The Man of Steel by saying how in the 1980s Superman became a yuppie and in the '90s he grew a mullet, and they killed him, "mercifully."

So what is Superman now? According to Morrison, "All-Star Superman" is about the biggest possible human emotions. It is about loss, greed, and fear using big, mythological archetypes.

Lethem chimed in with his thoughts on using a character that he did not create. Lethem said he was in talks with Marvel to create a run of a title, but Marvel didn't care what the book was or who it was about. They told Lethem he could have any character he wanted and, after pondering for a while, Lethem told them he wanted Omega the Unknown. According to Lethem, the editors were shocked. He likened his choice to "ignoring all of Marvel's gold goblets and instead choosing an ashtry made by a 13 year old in art class."

Lethem said that Omega the Unknown truly lived up to his name because of the two editors he was in talks with, only one of them had even heard of the character. Indeed, Omega was truly unknown. Lethem said this granted him a tremendous degree of freedom, allowing the author to essentially write whatever he wants in "Omega the Unknown" without having to worry about reinventing the character, as so many readers are totally unfamiliar with him.

Mignola also talked about new takes on old characters. He pointed out things were different for him because he entered the industry as an artist. He started with "Rocket Raccoon" at Marvel and, according to Mignola, nobody really cared what he did at the start. Mignola said that, while he "limped along doing things no one cared about" like "Rocket Raccoon," all he really wanted was to draw monsters.

After a decade at DC and Marvel and finally gaining notoriety for the first Elseworlds story, "Gotham by Gaslight," a tale of Batman and Jack the Ripper. Mignola then plotted a Batman story for fun and quite enjoyed it. According to Mignola, "Hellboy" was initially an excuse to draw monsters and he simply thought it would be fun to have a good guy look like the devil. In fact, said Mignola, drawing Hellboy is a lucky break for any artist because even with a bad drawing of Hellboy he's big and red so everyone can always tell which character he is in a panel.

The idea that Hellboy, looking like the devil, is such an unconventional superhero prompted Greenman to ask the panel if it's more fun to write bad guys.

Mignola asserted that Hellboy is a good guy and that an early "Hellboy" fight scene created the idea of Hellboy being the beast of the apocalypse out of necessity for dialogue. Essentially, Mignola had to have some dialogue to fill a four-page fight scene and the villain had to have something to say. Mignola claimed he was just as surprised as Hellboy was when it was mentioned during the scene that Hellboy was the beast of the apocalypse.

Mignola discussed the fact that he can only write bad guys he understands. "The bad guys have to be doing something that, from their perspective, is the right thing to do," he said. In reference to "Hellboy," ending the world might be the right thing to do from Rasputin's perspective, because to Rasputin this world has run its course and though its destruction will displease its current population, the next world's inhabitants will get a clean slate and be very pleased. Thus to Rasputin, ending the world is not really evil.

Morrison said villains, too, are reinvented to match the current generation. He said that Lex Luthor, who used to be just a "science gone wrong" type of character, then evolved into his current self through the idea that it is really Superman who is preventing Lex from being great. In the 1980s, writer Marv Wolfman took Lex and reinvented him as this billionaire businessman, a move that was very representative of the politics of the time and as such Lex was imbued with Reganism and Thatcherism.

Morrison said that, similar to Mignola, he couldn't engage himself in "radical insane villains." He said he had trouble with Lex at first, until he realized that, in a way, perhaps Lex Luthor isn't as smart as he likes to think he is. Essentially, in Morrison's view, Lex uses the "Superman steals my glory" excuse in order to mask his own laziness. Lex could cure cancer and solve world problems but he's too self-involved to do so, according to Morrison. Rather than admit that to himself he blames his perfect foil, Superman.

Also in terms of villains, Lethem said he basically removes villains from his fiction because to him, villains are essentially silly. But in "Omega the Unknown," Lethem realized he "needed something for Omega to punch a lot." So, Lethem said, he embraced the clich and defaulted to the very simple idea of "villainous dumb evil robots" for Omega to constantly encounter.

Switching gears, Greenman asked the panelists to talk about the limits that must be placed on heroes in order for drama to occur. "How vulnerable should the heroes be in order to make their stories have threats?"

Mignola said that Hellboy isn't that motivated and really he often just wins by dumb luck. The danger for Hellboy is an internal struggle in that, if he is not careful, he might well become the beast of the apocalypse.

Morrison said that he doesn't try to limit the powers of Superman. "Sure, Superman can essentially do anything, but the drama comes from the fact that Lois Lane can say something mean to him and he'll be instantly cut to the quick," explained the writer. "Superman is not invulnerable because he's a man and he has normal human emotions that can be hurt."

Greenman briefly discussed how during the 1960s, Marvel Comics was very well known for ensuring that its characters had personal problems and issues, whereas DC often didn't deal with its characters personal lives. Greenman asked Tim Kring how dealing with the mundane personal problems of his characters factor in to "Heroes."

Kring said the characters in "Heroes" often have no agenda. "They don't know where their powers are going or why they are happening. They are in a constant state of discovery. Their powers take a while to perfect so they deal with other problems while also learning about their powers."

From a more technical standpoint, Kring said that "Heroes" is a TV show that's pretending to be a several million-dollar feature film, meaning that often, because of fiscal restraints, the character's powers must be used sparingly.

Switching gears again, Greenman explained that he thought the character of Bouncing Boy in the Legion of Super-Heroes was very silly and pointless, he asked the panelists what super hero they thought was the most foolish or silly.

Lethem said that when he was younger he and his friends would try to invent a superhero with the most useless and illogical powers, such as characters named Inaudible Girl who had the power to be impossible to hear or Chronos, who always knew exactly what time it was. However, if forced to choose an existing property, Lethem admitted that to him another Legion character, Matter-Eater Lad, was probably the most silly.

Mignola responded that he did work on the Rocket Raccoon character and that the entire group that Rocket Raccoon traveled with was silly and pointless.

Morrison had to mention the infamous 1940s joke character The Red Bee, who had trained Bees that he kept in his belt that would help him when he fought crime (his most well trained bee was named Michael). Morrison also joked that he came up with an idea of an even sillier character but DC wouldn't let him run it. "The idea was a time machine that moved in 'real time,'" Morrison said, "so the character could say, 'I'm off to the year 2020' and would hop in the machine, and then the comic would just be pages and pages of the guy sitting in the machine."

Kring claimed that during a "Heroes" writing session, he and his staff were discussing very silly powers and he pitched a character whose power was the ability to smell feces at great distances. The character will not be appearing in the show.

Greenman then asked the panelists why super heroes are regarded as a mostly American phenomenon.

Kring stated that "Heroes" is not a show about superpowers. It's about world issues and a global experience.

Morrison pointed out that there are other superheroes, but what is different about American superheroes is they always seem to be very moral, unlike some British characters, he said, who often seemed more immoral such as The Spider, a raving psychopath. Morrison remarked that British authors grow up reading about both very immoral British heroes and very moral American heroes. According to Morrison, this caused the "British Invasion" of the 1980s and clearly influenced works like "Watchmen."

Mike Migonla questioned the assertion that superheroes are mostly American, but did point out that certain eras seemed to produce more superheroes. World War II created a lot of superheroes in the United States because issues were so black and white, a perfect time for superheroes, in Mignola's view. He then said this is the reason why the character of Hellboy was introduced in a World War II setting.

Jonathan Lethem said he found this subject interesting because, while he grew up reading Marvel comics, which published the most American superhero, Captain America, Lethem hated the character because Lethem grew up in what he called a "commie, hippie family." Thus, the patriotic character didn't necessarily appeal to him except for the time when Cap briefly became the Nomad character during the Watergate political scandal.

Lethem continued, saying that what did appeal to him about Marvel was that it was set in New York City, where he himself lived. "For example, Dr. Strange lives in Greenwich Village and Peter Parker is an outer-borough kid," Lethem said. "This is why 'Omega' is very local. He is based in Washington Heights, an area of Manhattan, which to is still an unexplored, almost mysterious area."

Before the panel was opened up to audience questions, the panelists reminded everyone what projects they're working on.

Mike Mignola is currently writing but not drawing "Hellboy," and he said he is going to continue to change Hellboy "because I can," as Hellboy is his own property.

Grant Morrison said he is excited to be writing a new "Seaguy" miniseries as well as "Final Crisis," which he revealed no details about other than to confirm that he is attempting to include every DC character within its pages. He is also writing "All-Star Superman" and a run on "Batman."

Tim Kring said he is shooting episode 10 of the next season of "Heroes," but is also working on the spin-off series "Heroes Origins." He said that the "Origins" series will be in the style of "Rod Serling-esque" cautionary tales.

A fan asked Morrison about the archetypes he was discussing earlier in the panel. The fan wanted to know what overall story and idea was behind Morrison's controversial run on "New X-men."

Morrison stated that the X-men can be used to signify any group. According to Morrison, while writing "New X-Men," he was thinking about what he sees as a current "war on kids" by society. Morrison thinks that, "in a way, the current generation of those in power hate kids because the kids will eventually take over. There is a 'hatred of our own success' feeling about it all. So 'New X-men' was dealing with this, how the mutants were evolving and were going to replace normal humans over time, and the problems this caused."

Another fan asked the panel which work of fiction influenced their writing the most.

Lethem said the two Alice books by Lewis Carroll, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," have probably had the largest influence on his writing.

Mignola said that the basic tales of "Dracula" and "Pinocchio" have influenced him greatly.

Morrison wasn't as sure of his answer, but he to go with the mystery stories by British author Enid Blyton solely because they made him want to write.

Kring cited "The Catcher in the Rye" as being a large influence on his work.

Another fan asked if Morrison and Mignola were concerned for the future of comics as a genre due to what the fan called "their inaccessibility and lack of appeal."

Mignola questioned the fan's assertion. He said that comics are not inaccessible; that the pamphlet format might be inaccessible but the graphic novel is not. "Graphic Novels are easy to acquire as they do not require a direct market store, they can be purchased at many bookstores or through Amazon," he said. Mignola also said that he thinks of the pamphlet as a teaser for the final product.

Morrison said that comics have always been a bit despised. "But," he continued, "comics are currently a licensing farm for Hollywood, and as long as that keeps happening, comics will be okay.

"Comics are the wellspring of imagination; comics can tell stories cheaply that other mediums cannot express. Today it costs 100 million dollars to do special effects on film in 'Fantastic Four' that Jack Kirby could create 40 years ago with a pencil." This was met with applause from the audience.

Another fan expressed frustration with the lack of diversity in comics, particularly in terms of the medium's lack of gay characters. This fan wondered if the panelists were going to address this issue in their work.

Kring said that though a gay character has not appeared in "Heroes" yet, he is trying to work one in.

Morrison said that he does write gay characters but he thinks authors shy away from writing them for a very specific reason. Morrison believes that most comics writers are white, middle class males, and therefore comics authors are not a very diverse group. Morrison explained that when this group of white middle class men attempts to write African American characters, or gay characters, or lesbian characters, they encounter hostility because they do not have the life experiences and reference points to adequately portray the characters.

As such, Morrison believes that the best way to diversify comics is to have more comic book creators that represent groups other than white, middle class males. Morrison of course welcomed the idea of a more diversified creator base, and said he hopes it happens soon.

Lastly, a fan asked each author what their favorite work was out of their large repertoires.

Jonathan Lethem cited his novel "Fortress of Solitude" as his favorite because he felt it was most representative of himself.

Mike Mignola said he created "The Magician and the Snake," a short story his young daughter plotted, and that might be his favorite. He's also pleased that he was able to create at least one new character, Hellboy, that resonates with a large audience.

Tim Kring stated that his position is a bit different as he came up with the initial idea for "Heroes," but the final product is very much developed by a group of writers. He is pleased that he can take credit for the initial ideas and then can leave the finer points to others.

Grant Morrison said that he prefers his works that start with the letter F. He explained that he is very proud of "The Filth," and he also was very proud of "Flex Mentallo."

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