Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics

Grant Morrison has created some of the world's coolest comic books over the past three decades, with a sprawling body of work that includes original works like The Invisibles, We3 and The Filth as well as fresh, imaginative takes on familiar characters such as Batman, Superman and the X-Men. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Senior Writer Brian Hiatt travels to Glasgow to profile the Scottish comics auteur, covering everything from his dabblings in rock music, magic and psychedelic drugs to his new book Supergods, which presents his unique take on the history and cultural significance of superhero comics. This online exclusive Q&A, in which Morrison muses on the comics industry's sales decline and weighs in on fellow comics superstars Chris Ware, Mark Millar, Alan Moore and Brad Meltzer, compiles some of the best outtakes from the interview.

You're about to relaunch Action Comics, DC Comics' longest-running title. Will your revamp of Superman be as major as John Byrne's back in 1986?
Yeah, possibly. Probably as much, although he changed things quite considerably. I'm not using the costumes, just jeans and t-shirt, a Bruce Springsteen Superman. The original champion of the repressed Superman, the socialism and stuff, I wanted a bit of that.

Was this done in consultation with a bunch of people?
DC came to me in March and said they're relaunching all this stuff, and did I want to do Superman, and I didn't, but then when he said, "Would you do Action Comics #1?" I said, 'This is a nice ending to Supergods," so I agreed, and I was quite surprised that they let me do everything and let me change it so radically.

DC is relaunching its entire line – is there some desperation there?
There's always going to be a bit of that because comics sales are so low, people are willing to try anything these days. It's just plummeting. It's really bad from month to month. May was the first time in a long time that no comic sold over 100,000 copies, so there's a decline.

Is it frightening to you personally?
Only in the sense that it would be a shame not to write superhero comics, but at the same time, I figure I'd just do something else, so it's not that frightening.

Do you think this is the death spiral?
Yeah. I kind of do, but again, you can always be wrong. There's a real feeling of things just going off the rails, to be honest. Superhero comics. The concept is quite a ruthless concept, and it's moved on, and it's kind of abandoned, the first-stage rocket.

Abandoning comics?
And moving on to movies, where it can be more powerful, more effective. The definition of a meme is an idea that wants to replicate, and it's found a better medium through which to replicate, games, movies. It would be a shame, because as I said in the book, one of the most amazing things about those universes is that they exist, there's a paper continuum that reflects the history, but people don't die, it's like the Simpsons, people don't age, they just change.

Pop music is the same. When it's not selling, things are going down, it's nothing to do with the quality. With comics, the quality now is better than it's ever been, there are more people now who are really good at what they do, doing what they do. Everything's available for free, I think that's the real problem, nobody wants to buy it anymore. One comes out, you see it immediately online and you can read it. That's the way people want to consume their information, the colors look nicer. I think that's more the problem, but that's a problem for everybody, it's not just for comics, everyone's going to start feeling that one.

There have been histories of comic books, but your book Supergods is all superheroes. It's a counter-narrative to the idea that comics need to outgrow this superhero stuff.
I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it's unhelpful to all of us, and it's coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the others, and it's indefensible.

So I never liked that stuff, I always thought that I had a real Scottish working class thing against the fact that these were done by privileged American college kids, and they were telling me the world was flat. "You're telling me the world is flat, pal?" And it's not helpful, it doesn't get us anywhere. OK, so it is, then what? What are you going to do about it, college kid? My book wasn't academic. I can't take on those Comics Journal guys, they flattened me, as they did, it's just defensive, smartass kids.

This is what I'm into, and here's how, through my eyes, it's exalted. You may look at the same thing and just see trash, toilet paper, I'm looking at this and seeing William Blake angels. This is how it looks through these eyes, this is all I've got, I can't talk about it in half degrees, but I can talk about it in the sense of a practitioner of it, someone who has thought about it intensely for an awful long time, and again, I thought, "What can I make, a book that reads the way Nick Kent talks about music," those guys, it at least gives you a personal connection to someone who takes this very seriously.

Do you still hang out with your former protégé Mark Millar at all?

Is that an estranged situation?
It's a can of worms. I met Mark when he was 18, and I really got on with him, because he laughed at all my jokes. He has the same sense of humor as me, he's very dark, and has that sense of humor, so we bonded. I used to phone him every day, and we ended up doing some work together on 2000 AD, which went well. It was funny stuff, we'd meet in the pub and get drunk and do this Big Dave strip, which was a comedy strip, and obviously, he was trying to get into American comics, so I got him on in Swamp Thing, and they asked me to write the book but I said, "Let's get Mark in, let's give him a job," so I consulted with him on the stories, and so on through the Nineties.

When he got the Authority book, his star started to rise, and at that point, he felt he was in my shadow and he had to get out, and the way to get out was to do this fairly uncool split. It was quite hard, I felt, but he had to make his own way, and he was in denial that I'd been there, because I saw a lot of his work had been plotted or devised, even dialogue suggestions were done by me right up until the point of The Ultimates. It was seen by him as a dimunition of his position, even though it wasn't, I was quite proud of him as a mentor. He's done well without me, he has his own style, he does his own stuff. It was kind of that archetype, you get caught up in that story.

You came out and acknowledged this, but that was after the estrangement?
Yeah. Before that, everyone in the business knew that I was working with him, it was obvious, I was 10 years older, I was already successful. His star rose, and that history became sidelined.

He still lives in Glasgow, is there a chance of bumping into him?
There's a very good chance of running into him, and I hope I'm going 100 miles an hour when it happens.

You were very kind to Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis in Supergods.
I was trying to be kind because I like Brad Meltzer. He's a nice guy. I have a lot of interesting conversations with him so I tried to focus on what I thought was good about it and there was actually quite a lot when I read it again. The first time I read it I was kind of outraged. I thought this was just… why? What the fuck is this, really? It wasn't even normal. It was outrageous. It was preposterous because of the Elongated Man with his arms wrapped several times around the corpse of his wife. I thought something is broken here. Something has gone so wrong in this image.

That plotline faced a lot of criticism, in part because people saw it as misogynistic.
It's hard to tell because most men try to avoid misogyny, really they do, in this world we live in today. It's hard for me to believe that a shy bespectacled college graduate like Brad Meltzer who's a novelist and a father is a really setting out to be weirdly misogynistic. But unfortunately when you're looking at this beloved character who's obviously been ass-raped on the Justice League satellite, even saying it kind of takes you to that dot dot dot where you don't know what else to say.

Maybe it's for the best that DC Comics is starting over now.
But I don't know. There's been lots of things, the sexism in DC because it's mostly men who work in these places. Nobody should be trying to say we're taking up a specifically anti-woman stance. I think it would be ignorance or stupidity or some God knows what. I was reading some Alan Moore Marvelman for some reason today. I found one in the back there and I couldn't believe. I pick it up and there are fucking two rapes in it and I suddenly think how many times has somebody been raped in an Alan Moore story? And I couldn't find a single one where someone wasn't raped except for Tom Strong, which I believe was a pastiche. We know Alan Moore isn't a misogynist but fuck, he's obsessed with rape. I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape!

I like that you find the word ‘geek' offensive.
Yeah, it is, it's circus freaks, degrading circus freaks who eat chicken heads. I came from the opposite, when people would call someone a geek, and I was like, "What's the difference between someone who collects comics and someone who collects Britney Spears records or someone who collects football programs? You wouldn't call those people geeks, so why are you calling these people geeks?" Not all of us who love comics collect them, there are other hobbies. They're no different from most people who consume things and put them in the corner or put them in a drawer, that's what I was trying to say. Anyone who's into anything could be called a geek, but they don't call them a geek. It's just easier to use than any other word.

Do you regret not having kids?
Slightly but I don't know. Every time I think of it I think of the reality of it. I really like kids and I get on with them and it's that aspect of it but I see people with actual kids. The trauma and the trouble. And if I'm worried that my cat is sick it's the thought of everyday worrying about a kid would be even more hellish.

How did you know you were ready to get married?
I'd done it. I hadn't done everything. I wasn't involved in massive orgies but I did everything I needed to do. When I met Kristan I thought there's nobody in the world I could fancy more than her so I just kind of stopped with just one person and it's stayed that way. Just can't see past her. It's great.

Were there actual comic book groupies?
Yeah. I didn't do anything with them. I was always very nice to them. They would send beautiful letters and give them a peck on the cheek and it was all very romantic because I was thought if you were a young girl. There were some people in the business who were fucking every girl in sight. I just couldn't do that. I love the little girl-ness and the whole idea that they were really bright and they read Batman and Robin or they read Death from the Endless. It meant something to them and you don't want to ruin that and make them think that the guys that do this stuff are sleaze bags and mess up their lives. There are some amazing smart beautiful girls but I never had anything to do with it. We would go out and dance for a while, things like that but just that then put them in a taxi and say have a nice time.

And you were also able to meet girls other ways?
I had a good life. I was a clubber in the Nineties. I went dancing every week.

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