It may not be the Ten Commandments, but as a set of moral guidelines for the secular children of an age of reason, the Supermen of America creed was a start. This is the story of the founding of a new belief and its conquest of the world: With a stroke of lightning, the spark of divine inspiration ignited cheap newsprint and the superhero was born in an explosion of color and action. From the beginning, the ur-god and his dark twin presented the world with a frame through which our own best and worst impulses could be personified in an epic struggle across a larger-than-life, two-dimensional canvas upon which our outer and inner worlds, our present and future, could be laid out and explored. They came to save us from the existential abyss, but first they had to find a way into our collective imagination.
I’m a fan of Grant Morrison. His run on Animal Man in the 80s (in which Animal Man SPOILERS meets his creator and convinces him to change history) expanded my vision of what comic books could do. Such postmodern conceits are so common now that even Stephen King has used them, but at the time, it seemed fresh and, reading it now, it’s still an exemplary piece of comic writing, working on both an emotional level and as a satirical look at the grim-and-gritty ethos that was devouring comics at the time, in the wake of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Reading SuperGods, Morrison’s history of comic book slash autobiography, I had a realization that now colors my view of his work: writing a get-together with Animal Man was easy for Morrison because he truly believes that superheroes exist. Reading SuperGods reminded me of reading Harold Bloom, in that, while Bloom seems to want to replace religion with poetry, Morrison has, in his own life, replaced supernatural belief with belief in the ethos of the characters he creates. He speaks of the 2 dimensional comic book universe as though he’s spent as much time there as he has in the real world, and that’s not all. Morrison also practices chaos magic, writes extensively, in an almost unreadable chapter ostensibly covering his ultra-weird Flex Mentallo series, about a series of drug trips he had while traveling Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment. It’s weird stuff, interesting but also somewhat alienating.
As a history, Morrison’s book is extremely interesting. Unlike Men of Tomorrow, the comic history I read back in 2009, it doesn’t attempt to be unbiased, instead offering Morrison’s unique take on comics from the Golden Age onward. He skims over some important creators to talk about obscure characters like Killraven, and spends as much time comparing superheroes to obscure Hindu gods as does recounting milestones of the industry. It also glosses over Morrison’s feud with contemporary luminary Alan Moore, who badmouthed Morrison’s breakthrough Arkham Asylum resulting in Morrison savaging Watchmen, but time seems to have softened Morrison’s views—nearly every book mentioned in SuperGods is praised for something.
If you’re a comic nerd, you probably don’t need my recommendation to read SuperGods, and if you’re not, it probably won’t interest you no matter how good it is. It’s snappily written, packed with anecdotes, and, even though its focus is weird, so is Morrison, so it all works out.