Grant Morrison utterly fascinates me. He’s one of those guys readers tend to have strong opinions about. But I don’t. He’s written both some of my absolute favourite comics ever – Batman and Robin, All Star Superman – and some that still upset me to think about – primarily New X-Men. He’s almost impressively inconsistent. And it results in me having absolutely no idea what I think of his work.
Only an idiot would deny how influential he is to the art form. He came up with a lot of what’s general pop culture knowledge. Emma’s creepy clone quintuplet – and later triplet – daughters? His creation. Bruce Wayne’s only main-universe biological son? His work. And you know what I find most interesting about New X-Men? As much as I hate to acknowledge it, due to the bad taste in my mouth from the way it treated Scott, Jean, and Emma, some of the concepts and characters Morrison introduced were excellent. Emma’s relationship with the Cuckoos was one of the things I liked best about the run.
He upended the status quo, and even though comics are full of various writers contradicting each other both knowingly and unintentionally, parts of it have lasted, from his new characters to parts of the Emma characterization/Emma becoming an essential member of the team to more plot related details, like the reveal of the true nature of the Xavier Institute to the world. On the other hand, his Magneto characterization is a complete canon discontinuity. It’s not acknowledged, it’s not ever mentioned again, it’s completely Morrison’s. There hasn’t been a single writer since him that thought, hey, that’s good, let’s do that.
And now that I think about it, actually think about what happened in his various Batman runs, beyond just the obvious “Dick and Damian as the new Dynamic Duo” bit that I loved, I remember something else: I do not like how he treated Talia at all. As much as I love the Dick and Damian relationship as written by Morrison, to the point where I forget a lot of what happened in his Batman aside from their dynamic, his depiction of Talia was just insulting. Damian’s conception went from being a result of a brief, consensual relationship to occurring because Talia drugged Bruce. It’s a weird vilification of a character that, for a lot of her history, committed criminal acts out of loyalty to her father more so than out of actual gain. Maybe it was an attempt at making Talia a more independent character whose actions are in pursuit of her own interests rather than just alternating between supporting Ra’s and helping Bruce – a valid goal. But I didn’t like the way of going about it.
Her descent into outright villainy wasn’t so much a descent as her waking up one day and deciding, I know, let’s shake things up a bit and do terrible things for the sake of it. She went from being a flawed but loving mother to someone that would stick an implant in him so she could control his body, clone him, disown him, put a bounty on his head, and more. She had her pet the dog moments, but as a whole, her character was highly erratic. The contrast to classic Talia is glaring. And looking at his version of her compared to those that came before, I couldn’t help but notice that the artist actually drew her in accordance with her ethnic background, Talia is often whitewashed in art. She’s supposed to be part Arab and part Chinese, but oftentimes, you wouldn’t know that. That’s not the case in Morrison’s Batman. Which is good…except for how she’s more a villain there than in any other depiction. It probably wasn’t an intentional “play up our villain’s ethnic features” or “make the Arab evil”, and I can hardly pin that on Morrison himself, but all together, it’s uncomfortable.
I think his strength is that he’s not afraid to push the envelope. He’ll introduce new characters or concepts and long running plot arcs and take his time developing them. He knows his vision and he commits to it. And the character part of that clearly works – he’s not one of the writers who creates a character that no other writer cares about or finds interesting. The Cuckoos were his invention, but they’ve been used fairly regularly since then, even becoming prominent characters in The Gifted. He took the different stories that had to do with Bruce and Talia’s child and reinterpreted them, creating Damian. The list of his creations is extensive and includes many well known characters. He seems to even prefer working with his original characters than with established ones, which is an interesting aversion to what a lot of other writers do. Others make the characters they like fit the stories they want to tell. Morrison doesn’t hesitate to create a new one. It speaks to his experience with the medium. He understands the power of using a new character instead of an existing one, and is confident enough to do it and risk them being hated.
New characters, like everything, have positives and negatives to them. For one, readers are protective of existing characters. They have very fixed ideas about what they should be, sometimes justifiably so and sometimes not. So they’ll object to forcing an existing character into a role where they might not fit, but can’t do that as much with a new character. New characters can also bring in new readers, who might find them an easy place to start. It’s much less daunting to get into a character that’s been around for a couple of years than one that’s decades old and has had all sorts of different, contradictory stories. But they can also alienate longtime readers. Comic fans tend to be resistant to change. New characters take time to get accepted, especially when they’re a legacy character. Morrison is good at writing new characters well enough that they’re quickly accepted, or even at rescuing characters he didn’t create from fan hatred.
I think it’s probable that his DC work isn’t actually better than his X-Men stuff (except for All Star Superman, that one is just amazing) and that I’m only perceiving it that way. Most likely, they have the same strengths and flaws and my feelings towards them are more based in my feelings about the characters he handles. Maybe it’s just my personal feelings towards the characters he handles. Dick is my favourite DC character and Scott is my favourite Marvel one. I get prickly over perceived mistreatment of those characters. And Dick came across very well in Batman and Robin, +while New X-Men made Scott look terrible (and that doesn’t even get into how poorly Jean and Emma were treated). In Morrison’s Batman, it was characters like Talia that got the brunt of it, not Dick. I like Talia, enough to notice when she’s being treated poorly, but not so much that it bothers me on the first read through when other characters I like more are being treated well.
Morrison kind of serves as an example of the potential pitfalls of having fans as writers. He writes like a fan. He has the same continuity obsession that fans do, trying to tie everything together and fill in plotholes. If he wants to explore something – a character dynamic, a minor plot point from earlier, anything – he just does it, regardless of what that involves doing to other characters. But this isn’t fanfiction. What one writer does impacts what others can. They can’t just toss aside a character or their established characterization/development/relationships for the sake of focusing on someone else, or making a different character look better by comparison (Or, well, they can, but they usually shouldn’t). Every writer is bound to have their favourites. But the nature of comics, the way they’re created through collaboration, with every issue built off of the years of work before it, means that it’s insulting to disregard other people’s hard work and depict something exactly how you want without attention given to the previous incarnations of a story/character/etc.
Different aspects of all his stories are good. He has lots of great ideas. Even with some of the things that I don’t personally like, I can recognize that there’s probably a good story there. But a problem arises in that he has too many ideas and not enough time. His stories feel overstuffed with many of the plots not having enough room to breathe and developed. They feel smothered by the way so much is happening. With most writers, that would probably make me dismiss them, because ideas don’t mean much without good execution. But I can’t do that with Morrison, because, as I said earlier in this post, All Star Superman is absolutely incredible.
All Star Superman never felt like too much to me. For all that goes on, it never forgets what’s important. The scene with Superman talking down a suicidal teen, where Clark finds the time for one person, is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most memorable panels of all time. That one page was a love letter to Superman and his long history. It was the distillation of all his best qualities into one beautiful moment. If anyone were to ever ask me to describe Clark Kent in one panel, that would be it. It was Morrison at his absolute best, and even if the rest of the run was mediocre (which it wasn’t), that scene alone would have been enough to make me love it forever.
Maybe it’s just this: there are characters that Morrison fundamentally understands. He gets their strengths and their flaws. He understands what people love about them and why. He gets why they’re interesting, and because of that, it’s easier for him to write an interesting story that’s true to who they are. Superman is one of them. Characters like Talia, Magneto, and so on, not so much.
Morrison is a very good storyteller. He’s demonstrated that repeatedly. Do I love all of his work? No, absolutely not. No one’s perfect. And Morrison is, in my opinion, more inconsistent than most. I’ll probably complain about him more than I will most other comic writers. But I’ll also praise him more, because no matter what, his works aren’t forgettable. Even when I don’t like something he’s written, I can recognize there’s something redeeming about it. I still don’t know if my overall impression of him is positive or negative. What I do know is if you disagree with what I say about him on one day, wait a week and come back to me – I’ll probably have changed my mind again.