Since the Doom Patrol days, Grant Morrison has helped reshape superhero comics—and his recent Multiversity has been a fascinating experiment. But now, he’s taking on a new challenge as EIC of Heavy Metal, the venerable comics magazine. We talked to him about the future of comics.
We caught up with Grant Morrison at San Diego Comic-Con, at the Heavy Metal booth, and our whole unedited 14-minute conversation is above.
Morrison isn’t completely finished with DC Comics, or superheroes generally. He’s doing a followup to Multiversity called Multiversity Too, which is a series of graphic novels. Plus he’s doing Batman: Black & White, and Wonder Woman: Earth One. But now, he’s going to be pretty busy with Heavy Metal.
Morrison says he’s pretty much reached a dead end, or maybe a cul-de-sac, with American superheroes for now—especially after Multiversity, “which was all about the relationship of the creator to the audience, which has changed so much in the last few years.” He feels like he’s said enough — plus American culture is still grappling with the aftermath of 9/11, and dealing with dark themes of invasions, zombies, and horrible infections. So to the extent that he’s interested in superheroes, he’s looking to places like China and India, where there are more “positive, forward-looking” portrayals.
“America’s kind of lost its sense of the future right now,” says Morrison. “The idea is that the future is going to be the collapse of empire, or the rise of the zombies, or something that wipes us all out. I kind of feel that I want to oppose that feeling, because I’m not that depressive, unfortunately. So I kind of laid down American superheroes for a while.” At the same time, he’s excited about the Wonder Woman comic, which has “changed my head about how to tell comics.”
And Morrison wants to drag the magazine’s aesthetic out of 1985, into 2015. “It’s worked for a long time,” says Morrison, who then quickly adds, “I haven’t read it for a long time, since Richard Corben was doing those Den and Neverwhere stories.”
So he’s coming back and trying to immerse himself in it and ask, “How do I move this forward?” He wants to update the “slightly dated” view of sexuality, and bring in more foreign creators and more women. “More perspectives.” He wants “broader types of sexuality” and more types of stories. “I want it more psychedelic. I want more science fiction. I want more 1970s influences—the paths that we never really followed in comics, that we could have gone down in the 1970s.” Right now, Morrison’s thoughts are “slightly incoherent,” because he just took the job. He kind of knows what he wants, but hasn’t seen the work yet.
Speaking of dated sexuality, when we think of Heavy Metal, we think of this:
“It’s kind of Los Angeles, Sunset Strip, you know? Kind of heavy metal video,” Morrison says. “Unfortunately, we’re in a world now where teenage boys have grown up [and] they’ve seen everything from the age of twelve... that stuff doesn’t titillate any more.”
Nowadays, we live in a more sophisticated world, where sexuality is more complex and there are more options. And Morrison wants to reflect that in Heavy Metal — he doesn’t want to dial back the magazine’s sexuality, because sex is part of its DNA. If anything, he wants more sex, but “it’s just that I don’t want it to be a 1980s Mötley Crüe sexuality.”
Morrison will write some comics for Heavy Metal, but also wants to do a lot of editorial content—to his mind, the best era of the magazine was when it had William S. Burroughs writing for it, plus interviews with Douglas Adams, talks with scientists, reviews of underground comics, etc. He wants to bring back that editorial content and have a “clubhouse feeling,” like “here’s a place we can all go to.”
And in general, Morrison wants to get more of an “esoteric” feeling of absurdity back into the magazine.
One thing that’s striking about older Heavy Metal comics is the cool futuristic cityscapes by artists like Moebius. How do you make the city cool again, in the 21st century?
Morrison says part of it is that in a lot of pop culture, the city is a ruin—in the Batman video games and movies, Gotham City is a hellhole that nobody would ever want to live in. It goes back to what he was saying earlier about only being able to imagine the fall of civilization. So Morrison wants to get back to saying, “Let’s imagine again, let’s see: What would the city of the future look like? It wouldn’t necessarily be soaring phallic towers any more. It would be something new, that we need to think of.” He wants “forward-looking, progressive science fiction,” that imagines going to the future.
In the era of gentrification, how do you make cities feel relevant and interesting? By “letting everyone speak. By giving everyone a voice.”
But meanwhile, what about awesome, larger-than-life, Frank Frazetta-style sword and sorcery? Morrison says he’d like to feature some of that, but it depends what people send him. One of the things he’s been thinking about doing himself is a kind of sword-and-sorcery comic. But he wants to update everything, and make it contemporary—so “everything that was never questioned in the past, I want to question.” That means if they do sword and sorcery, it has to dig into “the basic assumptions of how that stuff works.”
Morrison was doing Multiversity, which deals with a multiverse of DC universes, at the same time as DC was also exploring the multiverse in Convergence, and Marvel was doing its own collection of alternate universes. Have we gone as far as we can with superheroes and alternate realities now? Are we done with that?
“I hope so,” says Morrison. “I started Multiversity in 2006. Most of the issues were written then. All I’ve done is refine it. We waited three years for [artist] Frank Quitely to do his beautiful work.” But to Morrison, this is something he did several years ago, as a followup to 52 and Final Crisis. “So it’s kind of amusing to me that everyone’s started doing this kind of multiple stuff.”
But part of the rationale behind exploring alternate versions of superheroes is just the logic of capitalism, not creativity, says Morrison. “It’s the same idea as, if you look at Kit-Kats—you now have orange Kit-Kats and toffee Kit-Kats. [So] now you’ve got an orange Wolverine and a toffee Batman. So all we’re doing is fractioning the characters, to appeal to ever more distinct consumer groups.”
At this point, because we misheard Morrison saying “toffee Batman,” and thought he said “Tofu Batman,” we started asking him questions about Tofu Batman.
What kind of car would Tofu Batman drive? “I don’t know that he’d need a car. He’d just bounce down the street.”
Would he have batarangs made of tofu? “He just flings it into your mouth, and that’s enough to stop you. You’re too busy enjoying that lovely tofu to commit crimes.”
What kind of Batcave would Tofu Batman have? “I think he’d have a Chinese soup Batcave, so he could just be dropped into it and float. And stuff would float around him. You know, like noodles and stuff. Which would be like computers and screens. It would be more like a soup bowl, it wouldn’t even be a Batcave.”
Comics went through a Golden Age and a Silver Age, followed by a kind of “Dark Age” in the 1980s and 1990s. But then, in the mid-1990s, there was a “retro-nostalgic thing that appeared,” which “yielded a lot of interesting stuff.” That’s when Morrison took over the Justice League, and suddenly he was allowed to do huge, ambitious, somewhat absurdist science fiction stories, instead of small stories of “Batman weeping over his torn tights.”
But it’s been 20 years since that started, and Morrison believes “that era is now over.” We still don’t know what history will call that era, but “it’s over now.” And now, we need to start thinking about what comics—including superhero comics—are now, and what they can do. “No-one’s yet defined it, and it’ll be interesting to see.” What we need is new young voices to come along and redefine it, he says.
Will American superhero comics ever stop catering to the core demographic of aging male fans? Morrison thinks we’re starting to see that, because on a business level, the creators realize those people “are going to die soon, and in some cases are probably going to die tomorrow.” So you’re starting to see more of an effort to move beyond that demographic already. “I think ultimately that demographic will become a shrinking minority, that we should all listen to because maybe they’ll have a weird perspective that by that time, no-one will have thought of for twenty years.”
As a European person who’s obsessed with delving into Indian and Chinese cultures, does Morrison worry about getting it wrong? Or about appropriating aspects of someone else’s culture, without understanding their real context?
“The best you can do is try and be sensitive,” Morrison says. “I love other cultures. I want to immerse myself in other things. I want to change myself and be metamorphic and fluid. And it’s hard to do.” Morrison says he doesn’t know “every person’s experience.” All he can do is reflect the people he meets and the experiences he has, and “try to be honest about that. And if I get it wrong, then all I can do is apologize. But at least I think we have to acknowledge it. Because if we don’t acknowledge it, we’re turning our backs on everyone.”
Writing about other cultures is “a very difficult tightrope, and sometimes you fall off it,” adds Morrison. “But honestly, I believe it’s important to immerse yourself in other people’s experiences as best you can, to try and understand it. As a creative person, you want to reflect that.” He can’t tell you how China feels to a kid growing up there, but he loves Shanghai’s indy scene and its bands, and “I can talk about it on that level. And sometimes, an outsider’s perspective is helpful.”
We’ve been waiting years for movies of We3 and The Invisibles. As for We3, “I wrote the screenplay 10 years ago. James Gunn, the Guardians [of the Galaxy] director, is desperate to do We3 movie. But it’s been snarled up in a bunch of different development things. You know, typical Hollywood stuff.”
As for The Invisibles, it’s been copied so much elsewhere that there’s probably nothing left to adapt. Morrison sees bits and pieces of it everywhere he looks—there are bits of it in True Detective and Kingsman, for example. But he doesn’t mind, because the comic “is just what it was, and it was there at the time,” and it represents something that was important at that moment.