A creative genius takes a stand against the militarization of the superhero
At this year’s Comic-Con (a huge event in the worlds of comics and superhero blockbusters), celebrated writer Grant Morrison:
“…told a crowd of 2,600 that he’s done all he can with traditional superheroes. He’s sick of the ‘military entertainment complex,’ in which today’s characters always seem to be working for the government…” [Rolling Stone]
The creative industry’s booming superhero sector would be wise to take this criticism to heart, as Morrison is the preeminent genius of the genre. He wrote the most commercially successful graphic novel ever, his 1989 Batman: Arkham Asylum, as well as the comic series All-Star Superman (2005–2008), widely acclaimed as one of the all-time best stories about that archetypal superhero.
The Scottish scribe is not only a master practitioner of the genre, but is even its foremost philosopher, having written the definitive book on the superhero, the national bestselling Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which the Memphis Flyer aptly described as:
“…at once a well-researched history, an entertaining memoir, intriguing cosmological analysis, and a surprising personal revelation…”
Morrison’s disdain for the militarization of his art form is in line with his upbringing. As he relates in Supergods, his father was:
“…a working-class World War II veteran who’d swapped his bayonet for a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge and became a pacifist “Spy for Peace” in the Committee of 100.”
As Morrison has explained in interviews, his father did not suffer from “shell shock” so much as from a “political shock.” His dad remembered first believing that he was going to war to “fight fascism,” and then realizing that “we were just as bad as they were,” after witnessing atrocity after atrocity.
Raised by both parents according to “pacifist principles,” young Morrison once told a Boy Scouts recruiter:
“I refuse to be part of any paramilitary organization, and that includes the Boy Scouts.”
In the sixties, his father was arrested protesting the American nuclear missile bases then located in Scotland. Morrison tells of growing up in the terrifying shadow of:
“…the Bomb, always the Bomb, a grim and looming, raincoated lodger, liable to go off at any minute, killing everybody and everything. (…)
Accompanying imagery was provided by the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political bookstores on High Street. Typically, the passionate pacifist manifestoes within were illustrated with gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange.”
In his childhood home, these horrific images contested with the “shiny futurity” of the covers of his “mum’s beloved science fiction paperbacks.” This struggle played out on his TV screen as well, until victory was claimed for optimism by the dramatic arrival of superheroes into his life:
“On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable. And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything.”
Ironically, these saving superheroes entered Scotland in the duffle bags of the very same American soldiers who also delivered the Bomb. As Morrison put it in an interview, they brought with them both the disease and the cure.
The sunny, scifi superheroes of the “Silver Age” of comics flew and swung into Morrison’s psyche, saving him from the debilitating existential terror of the Bomb. For the Hulk, having a Gamma Bomb blow up in his face was only the beginning of his career. The Flash could outrun a nuclear blast wave without breaking a sweat. And Superman could stroll out of ground zero without so much as a sun tan.
“Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him.”
For Morrison, the superheroes were a hopeful, defiant answer to nuclear nihilism, because they were:
“…the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project…”
Since childhood, the superhero represented to Morrison the antithesis of the ultimate form of warfare. It is no wonder that he would now speak out against its military conscription.
Morrison later turned his love for superheroes into a career as comic book writer. Early in that career, Alan Moore, a fellow Brit, revolutionized the genre, starting in 1982 with his dark, deconstructionist Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman for fear of Marvel Comics’ lawyers). In this revised origin story, Moore recast Britain’s classic Superman-type character as having been engineered as a living weapon by the Royal Air Force.
Moore inaugurated what Morrison calls the “Dark Age” of superhero comics. Realism, political analogy, dystopia, mass carnage, graphic violence, and antiheroes characterized this new age, as well as higher literary standards.
Moore’s first American title was Watchmen (published in 1986–87 and made into a Hollywood movie in 2009). Written during the heightened nuclear tensions of the Reagan years, Moore’s Watchmen was also haunted by the Bomb. Morrison described it as a:
“…murder mystery set against a familiar backdrop of Cold War nuclear paranoia, but located in an alternate history where the appearance of one single American superhuman in 1959 had deformed and destabilized global politics, economies, and culture itself.”
That single superhuman was Doctor Manhattan, who placed his godlike powers in the service of the US government, swinging the Cold War’s balance of power in America’s favor, and making the Vietnam War a cakewalk instead of a quagmire.
Watchmen launched the comic world’s analog to pop music’s “British Invasion” of American culture, an invasion that also included writers such as Neil Gaiman and Morrison himself.
America’s answer to the British “Dark Age” Invasion was Frank Miller: especially his hardboiled 1986 Batman story The Dark Knight Returns. The story also features Superman, and in Hollywood influenced both The Dark Knight Rises and the upcoming Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice. Morrison wrote:
“The thoroughly modern Batman of The Dark Knight Returns was an antiestablishment rebel and ruthless pragmatist, but Miller’s Superman was an idealistic government stooge in the pay of an all but mummified Ronald Reagan, president forever and ever, amen. A memorable sequence of panels introducing Superman to the story depicted a visual dissolve of the flag on the White House roof, where the rippling stripes of Old Glory morphed into an abstract close-up detail of the famous S shield.”
Morrison further characterized Miller’s Batman as:
“…no bleeding-heart liberal but a rugged libertarian.”
…and his Superman, in contrast, as a:
“…compromised champion of the powers that be, serving the letter of the law, no matter how corrupt its administration became.”
Miller’s story, like Moore’s, also featured the threat of nuclear war and such themes as superhero registration/regulation. And both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returnsare often assigned reading in university courses.
The Cold War, Reagan-era superhero could sometimes be a government stooge, like Moore’s Doctor Manhattan and Miller’s Superman. But in such instances, he was recognized as a stooge.
This has often not been the case for the post-Cold War super-stooge. Starting in the “humanitarian interventionist” Clinton era, the western superhero began celebrating what Charles Krauthammer called America’s “unipolar moment” by strutting the globe, not as government lackeys, but as government badasses.
This was especially the case in the title Stormwatch under the authorship of Warren Ellis, yet another Brit, starting in 1996. Ellis’s heroes were, as Morrison put it:
“…UN-sanctioned operatives with a mandate to monitor superhuman activity and to police violations of the various protocols and sanctions governing the use of extranormal abilities. Costumes became functional field outfits, designed for espionage and black-ops work. Ellis suggested a new take on the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents–S.H.I.E.L.D. model, combining spy thrills with grimy, violent superheroics in a world of genetic manipulation, weaponized flesh, and budget restrictions.”
In 1999, Ellis went even further in this vein with The Authority. Ellis’s new superteam was an updated “Justice League,” with its own parallels of Superman and Batman. The powers and costumes were alike, but the similarities ended there. As Morrison wrote:
“The Justice League never resorted to lethal force, but Ellis’s heroes would happily cut off your head and beat you to death with it if that’s what it took to stop you from being a dictator or a “bastard.” These hombres meant business, and the bad guys could no longer rely on that handy code against killing, which had kept superheroes in check for so long.”
The “heroes” of the Authority decapitated, dismembered, and impaled with abandon. In Marvelman, Alan Moore graphically showed what would happen in the “real world” when supervillains got their hands on frail mortals. Now superheroes too were gleefully exploring the myriad ways to disrupt human anatomy.
The Authority was as ambitious as it was severe. As Morrison wrote:
“The opening page of The Authority no. 1 showed Earth as seen from space accompanied by a single caption. ‘They think there’s no one left to save the world.’”
But the classic superhero trope of “saving the world” had a distinctly imperial ring with this team of, in Morrison’s words, “strutting imperial warrior superhumans.”
“Unlike Alan Moore’s troubled heroes, the members of the Authority were comfortable with their powers, using them sensibly to fight “bastards” and improve the lot of everyone on planet Earth. It was the utopian vision of [Superman creators] Siegel and Shuster strained through British cynicism and delivered on the end of a spiked leather glove. It… suggested a new kind of superfascist, one who was on our side.”
Also unlike the superheroes of yesteryear, these “friendly” imperial superfascists did not shy away from incurring extensive “collateral damage,” if that’s what it took to terminate the superhuman dictators, terrorists, and other “bastards” plaguing the planet.
In one storyline, to defeat an enemy empire on a parallel Earth, the Authority wages total war on the planet. In the last battle, the team’s shaman, called the Doctor, floods the entire Italian peninsula with a move of two fingers, killing everyone on it, man, woman, and child.
The team leader then issues a triumphal global broadcast, announcing the regime change:
“This is Jenny Sparks for the Authority. Albion is free of the Blue. Sicily and the Italian capital infrastructure are gone. If needed, we can annihilate the Hanseatic regions within the hour. If we’re asked to, we will go into China and Japan. If we have to, we will personally expunge the royal blood and military rape culture from the face of the planet. We’re here to give you a second chance. Make a world worth living in. We are the Authority. Behave.”
Morrison liked both Stormwatch and The Authority, and was even creatively involved in the latter. But in hindsight, he now sees that their spirit presaged dark things to come, both in superhero fiction and global superpower reality.
“For a while, it was exciting. In The Authority, the no-nonsense army toughs were on our side for a change, but it was a particular kind of power fantasy: that of impotent liberals, who feared deep down that it was really only force and violence that got things done and not patient diplomacy, and that only soldiers and very rich people had the world figured out. Gifted Irish writer Garth Ennis had occupied this territory for years; his soldier-hardman heroes influenced the new generation of supermen and women. These books were a capitulation to a kind of thinking that would come to dominate the approaching first decade of the new millennium. Soon the no-compromise bomb and ‘cripple what you don’t agree with’ approach of the Authority would be put to practice in the real world with horrific results. And it wouldn’t be liberals doing the damage”
Throughout the 90s, Morrison’s own career was taking off as well, but in a decidedly non-militaristic direction. After the smash hit of his 1989 Arkham Asylum, he was a hot commodity in the comics industry. But his subsequent explorations of the superhero were worlds away from the “grim ‘n’ gritty” comics of the 80s and 90s.
In his titles Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles, Morrison preferred to explore the intersection of the cosmic, the quirky, and the counter-cultural. Morrison’s gonzo inventiveness and bubbling-over genius quickly made a splash. With obscure superheroes, he felt free to take the genre in radically experimental directions, infusing it with such elements as transcendentalism, surrealism, and even dadaism, making his books cult classics among more discerning and literary comic readers.
But sometimes quirkiness just isn’t called for, so in 1997, when he got a crack at the Justice League itself and its all-star roster (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc) in the title JLA, he gave these iconic characters the iconic (yet still boldly and brilliantly inventive) treatment they deserved.
“There would be no obtrusive postmodern meta-tricks in JLA, just unadulterated, gee-whiz, unadorned sci-fi myths in comic form, giving back to the superheroes the respect and dignity a decade of ‘realism’ and harsh critique had stripped away.”
Morrison had no interest joining a paramilitary organization as a boy, and he had no interest writing one as an adult. And so Morrison’s Justice League members were not “operatives” or “imperial warrior superhumans,” but genuine superheroes.
In the first storyline, the Justice League repelled an alien invasion: and unlike the Authority, did so without harming innocents. In this story, it was the villains and not the heroes who promised to “make the world a better place” by taking it over and remaking it. Morrison ends the adventure with an exchange that cautions against interventionism:
Wonder Woman: “When does intervention become domination?”
Superman: “I can only tell you what I believe, Diana. Humankind has to be allowed to climb to its own destiny. We can’t carry them there.”
In another storyline, the League takes on the “Ultramarines,” who, like Marvelman, were bio-engineered, duped, and exploited by the military.
And in his final story, “World War III,” the great menace is not a person, but a psychic weapon on auto-pilot called Mageddon, which causes its victims to destroy each other by instilling in them “war fever.” Ages ago it destroyed its godlike creators, and now it threatens to destroy humanity by pitting it against itself.
The Justice League manages to temporarily confer superpowers to all the people of Earth, who then together vanquish Mageddon. For his finale, Morrison has an embodiment of war itself as the villain, and regular people rising up and becoming superheroes to defeat it. Thus, a decade before he wrote Supergods, Morrison had already manifested his vision of the superhero as:
“…the best current representation of something we all might become [represented by the population of Earth becoming superheroes], if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses [represented by Mageddon] that seek to undo the human project…”
Morrison returned to the Justice League in his 2000 graphic novel, JLA: Earth 2. The villains of that tale, the Crime Syndicate of America, are basically the Authority taken to its logical conclusion: a team of JLA-doppelgänger super-tyrants ruling an alternate Earth with an iron fist.
In a scene that will warm the hearts of hard money advocates and fans of George Orwell, paper money is seen raining down on the alternate-Earth city of Metropolis, causing brawls to break out as the impoverished subjects scramble for it. Next we see that the bills are being cast from an overhead satellite by Ultraman, the evil-twin version of Superman, who tells his robotic servant Brainiac:
“By the time they realize the notes are fake, the economy will be in ruins again.”
Down below, one of the citizens reaches his breaking point, a la Orwell’s Winston Smith.
“…not real! It’s crap! It’s just more crap from the sky! From Ultraman! I can’t take any more of them looking down at us as though we’re-”
A red light is seen penetrating the clouds, and “Winston” is incinerated mid-sentence. Ultraman, his eyes still glowing from his use of heat vision, says:
“They insult me within earshot. They know what to expect. Big Brother is watching you.”
He might have just as well echoed Ellis’s Jenny Sparks and said, “We are the Authority. Behave.”
Of course unlike in The Authority, the swaggering imperialists of the Crime Syndicate are obviously villains. And it is gratifying to see Morrison’s Justice League show them what real superheroes are made of. A similar feeling can also be had reading Morrison’s JLA/WildC.A.T.S. inter-series crossover, in which the League tackles (though later teams up with) another obnoxious paramilitary (C.A.T.S stands for Covert Action Teams) super-group of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” tradition.
Then 9/11 happened, and the militarization of the superhero, like the concurrent militarization of the police, went into overdrive.
What must have been particularly grating for Morrison, was that it was spearheaded by his own protege Mark Millar, a fellow Scot who had made his name after he was selected to take over writing The Authority on Morrison’s recommendation.
In his hugely influential The Ultimates, Millar gave the Avengers (Marvel Comics’ chief super-team) an Authority makeover. Captain America cut villains in half with his shield while shouting jingoistic catchphrases. The Hulk ate innocent people while rampaging, causing little more trouble for the team than a PR headache. And the whole team was a government project.
Morrison’s analysis of his friend’s title was as withering as it was perceptive and eloquent.
“The Ultimates, re-created with Mark Millar’s gleefully right-leaning heroes, gave a voice to Bush’s America’s posturing, superheroic fantasies of global law enforcement in a posttraumatic world. (…)
President George W. Bush himself turned up to welcome Captain America to the new millennium with the words “WELL, WHAT’S YOUR VERDICT ON THE 21ST CENTURY, CAPTAIN AMERICA? COOL OR UNCOOL?,” to which the Captain replied, “COOL, MISTER PRESIDENT. DEFINITELY COOL.” With photorealistic renderings of George W. Bush embracing an equally believable Captain America, there could be no mistaking the dizzying, stifling collapse of fact into fantasy. (…)
The fear of a sinister military-industrial underworld that haunted Moore’s Marvelman was inverted to become a joyous embrace of Republican America’s undeniable access to the best guns, the best soldiers, and the best superheroes in the world. For Mark Millar, it was a given that any real-world superhero would be co-opted by the powers that be and recruited as a soldier. The Moore-Miller Superman of the eighties, that helpless, unreconstructed tool of the ruling class, became the template for a new generation of reengineered characters. In The Ultimates, everyone worked for the government, but it was all cool. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, superheroes strove to preserve and embody the values of a defiant military-industrial corporate complex or they didn’t work at all. The brief era of The Authority had passed and left the “bastards” in charge as usual.”
For Morrison, all of this had a bleak upshot:
“The last pirate art form had swapped its Jolly Roger for the Stars and Stripes once again, and this time it looked as if there was no turning back.”
This is the key background to Morrison’s Comic-Con pronouncement discussed at the beginning. At that conference, he told ComicBook.com:
“…for the last fifteen years at least — certainly since 9/11 — I think America’s been processing the horror of those images through their art, through their popular art in particular.
That’s why I think superheroes became from ordinary people who went out at night to make the world a better place, they’ve become I think agents of the military-entertainment complex. The Avengers work for the government, and it’s been like that since Mark [Millar] did The Ultimates. Batman as seen by Christopher Nolan and subsequently is a soldier. He wears military gear with his ordinance and his machines. For me, it became quite reductive. It was an interesting way to look at it for a while, but it’s persisted for so long that I’m quite bored with the idea that the best superheroes can represent is some aggressive version of the military.”
Millar’s Ultimates seem to have been a major influence on the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Not all of that influence has been bad; two great characterizations — Tony Stark as a cocky billionaire playboy genius, played so perfectly by Robert Downey, Jr., and even the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury — both came straight from the pages of Ultimates. But the tight integration between the Avengers and the SHIELD government agency did too.
Thankfully, the Avengers of the films are not nearly as fascist as the Ultimates. In fact, to a large extent they take a marvelously anti-authoritarian and anti-militarist stance. See for example my articles on Captain America: Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Yet, the militarization of the Avengers is bleeding into its merchandise, even targeting its most impressionable audiences. For example, the title of an Avengers sticker book for children, “Top Agents & Most Wanted,” seems to recast the Avengers as some sort of super-FBI.
Fortunately, even after Ultimates, Morrison had not given up trying to remind people what a true superhero is. Superman and friends had saved Morrison’s psyche from the Bomb. Now Morrison would return the favor by saving Superman from possibly imminent militarization by writing All-Star Superman. Morrison wrote of how doing so brought his life full circle.
“I wrote my personal best story of the world’s greatest superhero, for my favorite artist to draw, overlooking a loch where Trident submarines still sailed in all their stately satanic splendor, with black bellies full of hellfire sufficient to blind and vaporize me in a fraction of a heartbeat, even as it liquefied the ancient stones of my walls, cracked Scotland in half, and turned the world into a refrigerated postnuclear litter tray. I wrote it scant miles from the former American navy base, where my parents had protested, where Dad had been arrested, and where American comics had arrived in Scotland with the sailors and submariners. It felt like ground zero, the center of a web of coincidence and personal mythology…”
All-Star Superman was Morrison’s defiant response to post-9/11 culture and what it was doing to the genre. In it, he even outdid his own work on JLA in beautifully distilling the essence of the superhero.
“As the first few years of the twenty-first century wore on, I wondered just how badly people, especially young people, were being affected by the overwhelmingly alarmist, frightening, and nihilistic mass media narratives that seemed to boil with images of death, horror, war, humiliation, and pain to the exclusion of almost everything else, on the presumed grounds that these are the kinds of stories that excite the jaded sensibilities of the mindless drones who consume mass entertainment. Cozy at our screens in the all-consuming glare of Odin’s eye, I wondered why we’ve chosen to develop in our children a taste for mediated prepackaged rape, degradation, violence, and “bad-ass” mass-murdering heroes.
And so All-Star Superman: our attempt at an antidote to all that, which dramatized some of the ideas in Supergods by positioning Superman as the Enlightenment ideal paragon of human physical, intellectual, and moral development that Siegel and Shuster had originally imagined. A Vitruvian Man in a cape, our restorative Superman would attempt to distill the pure essence of pop culture’s finest creation: baring the soul of an indestructible hero so strong, so noble, so clever and resourceful, he had no need to kill to make his point. There was no problem Superman could not solve or overcome. He could not lose. He would never let us down because we made him that way. He dressed like Clark Kent and took the world’s abuse to remind us that underneath our shirts, waiting, there is an always familiar blaze of color, a stylized lighting bolt, a burning heart.”
One scene bottles the lightning that is the superhero concept most elegantly of all. In a fleeting interlude between mega-crises, Superman’s super-hearing picks up the voice of a therapist stuck on a train, desperately trying to keep a suicidal patient on the phone until he can reach her. The troubled girl, with purple hair and facial piercings, drops her phone off the roof of a skyscraper. She closes her tear-streaked eyes and prepares to jump. Suddenly Superman is standing behind her with his hand on her shoulder.
“Your doctor really did get held up, Regan. It’s never as bad as it seems.”
As she turns wide-eyed to face him, he says:
“You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”
Regan collapses into Superman’s arms, and he hugs her in silence as his cape billows in the wind.
These five panels and two dozen words have literally saved lives. At Comic-Con, Morrison spoke of how moved he was to meet actual kids who decided against committing suicide after reading this scene. It made him more convinced than ever that superheroes, when written as superheroes, can make a real and positive difference in people’s lives.
The Grant Morrison superhero is no souped-up super-soldier taking twisted pleasure in the hunting of men, like an American Sniper or an American Cop, using “saving people” as a mere excuse. He is not some semi-sadistic adolescent power fantasy.
The superhero according to Morrison takes what’s best in us, personifies it in a sigil-draped figure, and shows it springing into action, inspiring us to emulation. It imparts that not even the sky is the limit if we choose to bring out in ourselves those noble qualities which the superhero personifies.
Like Superman with the suicidal girl, the superhero reminds us that we’re stronger than we think we are. Stronger than despair. Stronger than hate. Strong enough to someday achieve scifi marvels. To even be stronger than the Bomb. Stronger than War.