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Trouble with Comics

Morrison @ Marvel: Marvel Boy

About a year and a half ago, I embarked on a project to read (or in many cases re-read) everything I could cobble together written by Grant Morrison. I started with Zenith, and between reading other stuff, working, writing, and occasionally speaking to my wife and children, I finally made it to his Marvel-era work recently.

Looking at the full overview of his career, the Marvel years seem more like a detour of sorts than any sustained period of focused creativity. Morrison’s New X-Men run gets plenty of attention and praise, but other than that, he produced a grand total of two miniseries for the publisher. I’d even argue that while at Marvel, the best work he did may have been for Vertigo, the maxi-series The Filth

Though I have a nasty habit of proclaiming massive writing projects on blogs and then failing to accomplish them, I thought I’d tentatively commit to writing about Morrison’s work while at Marvel, especially from the viewpoint that I’m honestly not sure how good a fit the two were for each other.

Take Marvel Boy, his debut work for Marvel, regarded in some corners as his “mission statement” on the work he was about to do for the publisher. Before we even dive into the quality and themes of the work itself, the mere idea behind it is kind of a dodge. It’s a “mission statement” about the Marvel Universe that’s set on the fringe of the Marvel Universe we recognize. In fact, not knowing better, I assumed it was an alternate reality; thank you, Wikipedia, for setting me straight.

That may be a nitpicky point, but there’s a big difference between engaging a big fat shared corporate superhero universe and working with what you find there (like Electric Boogaloo Superman in Morrison’s JLA run) and taking the easier path of a tiny corner story where you can build only the toys you want, using only the pieces you like, and create work that’s largely without consequences. 

Morrison does pack a hefty dose of thematic and conceptual meaning into Marvel Boy, no question about that. Chad Nevett has a terrific essay covering many of those layers of meaning. And I certainly like Morrison for the resonances he creates throughout his work—resonances with his own past work, other stories from comics history, pop culture, and metaphysical concepts, to just name a few sounding boards off which he bounces his scripts. Morrison himself said in an interview around the release of Marvel Boy, “I wanted to go back and explore some of the possibilities of comics as music,” which is like some kind of quintessential Morrisoninan statement — completely lucid yet absolutely inscrutable. 

If Marvel Boy is “comics as music,” then it’s a pretty thin pop single with some assymetrical guitars and cliched lyrics. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it, but it’s not clear why you would want to. It’s a lot of surface with no heart, no insides — though certainly a gorgeous surface by J.G. Jones with the kind of metatextual hijinks Morrison is known for. It’s got enough good ideas packed in its six issues to fuel a lesser writer’s career in comics. Beneath those ideas, it’s just empty.

In reading all of this Morrison stuff, it’s striking how little credit the man gets for the true scope of his talents. Morrison himself complained about this very thing in a piece he wrote for the first issue of Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s Irredeemable:

"…no matter how watertight I might try to make my plots, no matter how well-structured my narratives became, no matter how conventionally I organized my ideas, I would always be regarded in comics fan circles as the madcap purveyor of free-form gibberish."

Morrison is certainly known for his “free-form gibberish.” He’s the “giant crazy idea guy” and he has plenty of those. But he’s also remarkably adept at characterization, dialogue, and relationships. His Animal Man run gets remembered for its “I can see you” metafictional elements, but the backbone of that series is the warm and surprisingly normal relationship Buddy Baker shares with his wife and kids. Even years later, when Morrison again wrote Animal Man in 52, the foundation of his character arc was a pretty simple desire to get back home and see his family. 

Given those gifts, it’s disappointing that
Marvel Boy is an fundamentally cold work, with little of the character and dialogue abilities Morrison has brought to his other projects. It’s telling that Marvel Boy occurred shortly after his work with Mark Millar, on Flash and Vampirella. There’s a definite Millar flavor in the way Morrison sets up his scenes and character interactions; Morrison’s notorious for having the story often happen between the beats he depicts, so that the reader must piece together events for himself. But where he’s usually expert at selecting just the right moments to construct a plot and reveal character, here his characters speak in slightly-polished superhero cliches. It’s the kind of action movie surface writing that exists only to propel the plot forward with an “aw KEWL” veneer of aspirational bad-assery, the worst elements of “widescreen” decompressed comics. Perhaps that’s his intent, but it doesn’t necessarily endear a reader to what’s happening. 

At the risk of attempting to criticize
Marvel Boy for what I think it should be, rather than what it is, I have to wonder where Morrison was aiming with this. It has elements of a “Marvel universe in a blender” piece, such as the villain Doctor Midas, who seems to be an Iron Man/Doctor Doom mash-up. But then Doom himself never appears; nor do the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, both of whom are referenced in the piece. Without engaging the Marvel Universe at large, what kind of statement can he make, really? 

Ultimately, I don’t know that Morrison is a good fit for the Marvel Universe. I think there are characters he would work well on; his
Fantastic Four and X-Men material, as we will see, has much to recommend it. But those are characters where you have not just the foundation of strong characters to work from, but plenty of opportunity for that “free-form gibberish.” He’s a well-rounded writer but his “sweet spot,” for me at least, is that goulash of the cosmic, the personal, and the inexplicable. Just dropping Grant Morrison into the midst of Smilin’ Stan’s 616 to do what he does…if this is the result, then I’m glad he ended up back at DC.

— Matt Springer