When this column debuted at the beginning of 2000, readers and editors scoffed at its occasional subject matter, the comic book. Kids' stuff, they growled, junk food for adults who still live in their parents' basements. And maybe they were right back then. The industry was dying; the art form was moribund. Sales were dwindling to an all-time low, comic shops were shuttering faster than ever before and publishers were desperately scrambling to attract new readers without alienating the few remaining faithful. A marginalized industry teetered on the brink of extinction, and even its best and best-known practitioners welcomed its demise, if only so they could begin again without decades' worth of garbage dragging them further into a dank basement filled with worthless back issues and tattered spandex gods.
How long ago yesterday was. Today, you can't turn around without a teen-age wallcrawler peering over your shoulder and lifting your wallet. The "worthless" have become instantly priceless: Spider-Man scampers further and further up the charts, breaking box-office records on its way to becoming one of Hollywood's all-time moneymakers. Children too young to even read comics now know at least one spandex hero, and every few weeks comes news of another actor signing on to don the formfitting togs of a crime-fighter endowed with some power, be it radiation-induced strength (the Incredible Hulk) or senses heightened by blindness (Daredevil). Comic stores' racks, once filled with moldy and mindless product, are now rich veins tapped again and again by studios developing the Next Hot Project.
At long last, technology has caught up with the imaginations of men (and, sadly, few women) who've made immortals soar through space and time for decades. The once impossible has become the inevitable, and the cash-poor have grown wealthy. As a result, the writers of comic books are slowly emerging from the long shadows of the underground. With pale faces and shaved heads and dark specs (most, anyway), they appear on talk shows, in glossy magazines and in the business pages and lifestyle sections of family newspapers. They're no longer anonymous scribblers of dork literature but revered visionaries masterminding profitable product.
"And I am happy to be interviewed, and I think it is cool that we're finally getting on TV shows and people are talking about what we are doing," says one such writer, Grant Morrison, who pens the industry's best-selling monthly title, Marvel Comics' New X-Men. "It does affect the entire culture, because of the movies and because CGI special effects are allowing movies to be more like comic books. You are seeing the images of the comics everywhere. You are walking down the street, and you see Spider-Man suddenly everywhere you look. It's Buffy, it's The Matrix. Kids are watching the movies; they're playing the games. It doesn't matter whether they read the comic books or not, really. I think what comics should do is maybe try to position themselves as basically this fountain of popular culture, the source or spring of popular culture. If you want to see what you guys will be watching five years down the line in movies, come here and read our stuff."
In the current comic-book star system--where titles sell because of who writes them, not who appears in them--Morrison shines brighter than almost anyone. Of the veterans, he's as revered as Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), as beloved as Neil Gaiman (Sandman), as feared as Alan Moore (Watchmen, Tom Strong). And though there are writers receiving substantial ink in and outside the comics press--among them such authors as Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Azzarello, even filmmaker Kevin Smith--none has had the impact of Morrison.
Morrison, a Glasgow native and resident whose Scottish brogue makes his words sound as though they're being spoken underwater, has been writing comic books for more than 15 years, during which time he's been a fan favorite whose esoteric writings have filled such titles as Animal Man (about a hero who would do well to double as PETA spokesman), The Invisibles and Kid Eternity. One of his earliest titles--Arkham Asylum, a rich and hellish Alice in Wonderland tale in which Batman descends into the loony bin to battle the Joker and nearly loses his mind--remains among his best-known and best-sold, no doubt because it was published just as Michael Keaton donned cape and cowl.
His stories, all variations on a theme that questions such things as identity and free will and celebrity, have inspired not only other comic-book authors but filmmakers and video-game creators. The Matrix so echoed his work in The Invisibles--about a troublemaking kid recruited against his will to join a band of freedom fighters, who believe him a god--he contemplated a lawsuit.
"Grant is one of the most fertile minds right now on planet Earth," says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor in chief. "As evidence to this, I'm hard-pressed to think of any creator that is so sought after in all entertainment media. From movies to comics to video games, Grant is a force unto himself."
At the end of the '90s--around the time Morrison was included in Entertainment Weekly's list of the top 100 creative people in America, making him the first comic-book writer to be so mentioned--Morrison was creeping toward mainstream success. He lived out a fanboy's fantasy, penning Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman stories for JLA, DC Comics' long-running book featuring its best-known characters.
By 2000, he was tapped by Quesada to resurrect Marvel's commercially viable but critically loathed X-Men title. Rechristened New X-Men and starring Cyclops and Wolverine and Professor X and other heroes Morrison loved as a child, the book now moves some 150,000 to 200,000 copies each month (thanks, likely, to the hit X-Men film). And writing X-Men, especially in the shadow of the popular 2000 film and its forthcoming sequel, has made him a star at comic conventions, where he's swamped by acolytes seeking autographs. Walking through comic-con crowds is like "moving through glue," he says, though it sounds a little like "moovin tru gloo."
"More people are aware of me than ever before," he says. "It is the Marvel crowd of kids who didn't know my name before, no matter what I'd done. Writing the X-Men really makes a difference. There is definitely more glue per yard nowadays than there was last year, much more so. I think the DC audience is quite different and maybe a little bit more conservative. But the Marvel audience is quite...rabid is the kindest word."
But Morrison was revered well before his work on New X-Men, by a smaller but equally fanatical crowd--those who devoured his work in such books as The Invisibles and Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, all written for DC's adult-oriented line, Vertigo. They're the psychedelic daydreams, hallucinogenic poems and occasionally indecipherable visions of a writer who practices magic, insists he was abducted by aliens during a 1994 trip to Katmandu and once cornered a man dressed as Superman at a comic convention to chat him up for inspiration. He might be a little nuts, but it's part of his charm--the charisma of the slightly demented guy who, were he not working in comics, might be deemed a genius by more than a few thousand shut-ins loitering about in comic shops. More than once has Morrison referred to these books, filled with gruesome imagery and cross-dressing (and hermaphrodite) superheroes and trips back and forth through time and space, as autobiography--"my diaries," he says. "Comic books are the most purely magical form I am aware of. It is the best art form for doing sorcery."
His latest book for Vertigo is perhaps his most inexplicable yet: Titled The Filth, it's a seedy little comic book that makes you want to shower after reading it. The first issue, just in stores, begins as a booger-eater with a hideous comb-over named Greg Feely rifles though a magazine rack for jack-off material; he cleans up his jizz with "man-size tissues," only to wind up getting sucked off in the shower by a woman with the same grotesque haircut. Greg Feely, it turns out, is but a bag of bones housing Slade, an officer in a secret society called The Hand--an organization that stops "the world's back yard from stinking," that "wipes the arse of the world." Damned thing makes no sense--The Hand practices such things as the Venereal Arts and employs a Science Gestapo--but it's a hypnotizing read, as though someone turned The Invisibles (or, well, The Matrix) into the world's longest hard-core anti-porn message.
"Yeah, well, The Invisibles was filled with sexy, beautiful people, and The Filth is filled with ugly, hopeless people who can't get sex and all the sex is bad sex," Morrison says, laughing. "The fashions are ugly, and everything is wrong, but there is a kind of real heart to it, which The Invisibles doesn't have. The Invisibles is more like Vogue, and I just wanted The Filth filled with flapping comb-overs and hopelessly degraded paunches. I think it's funny, because it is basically about super spies--but the super spies are garbage men. Everything about it is kind of taking the worst aspects of existence and kind of turning it into super-computer-generated DVD glamour."
Morrison can feel the tug of Hollywood, which does now to comics guys what it has done to novelists for decades--lures them with promises of gold, then lines their pockets with lead. He insists The Filth will become a feature film in five years' time--or some time after he gets The Invisibles on the big screen, something he's been working on for years. He's also just signed a deal with DreamWorks to write a non-comics-related film; it will instead be a Halloween story for children.
"I am following the superguys into celluloid," Morrison says, sounding like Clark Kent about to up-up-and-away. "But the next jump is off the screen and into real life. That is going to be when it starts to get interesting. Another reason I love comics is because I think they are so far ahead of what's about to happen to the human race. I mean, here we have cloning technology; we have genetic engineering. We have all kinds of interesting things on the horizon, and it won't be too long before the first superperson climbs out of his tank. I mean, it is not science fiction anymore."
Maybe. But will Morrison celebrate that day, or should we be utterly terrified by it?
"Not at all," he insists. "I think that is just the inevitable way things move, and the comics have seen it coming. The comics are the only place where these superpeople can look when they do emerge from their tanks, because no one else thought of it and no one else gave them role models and maybe sort of moral codes. So, if the first übermensch climbs out of his box, I think he should read Superman. I mean, much better that than Mein Kampf."