Multiversity 101: Understanding Grant Morrison

By | March 28th, 2010
Posted in Longform | % Comments

Last week when I wrote the Batman article, I noticed that a few of the comments through links mentioned that it gave the reader “a new appreciation for Grant Morrison’s style.” As much as this is a legitimate site for news, reviews, and everything in between, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a large part of it is an excuse for myself to be a Grant Morrison fanboy. Part of the clue to this is the fact that the title of the site, Multiversity Comics, comes from the title of an unreleased comic book written by Morrison (the fact that the concept of the multiverse fits in well with us covering large portions of comic-dom is convenient too). You can also see it in the frequent referencing of his work, and how high his books often score when reviewed by yours truly. I have been rather shameless about my fanboy-ness for the man’s writing, and I frequently declare him as the greatest writer currently in comics today (Seven Soldiers is the best comic I’ve ever read).

With that in mind, I realize that Grant Morrison is one of the most polarizing writers in the medium today. His high concept style can often times be off-putting to many readers, and it’s through this that Morrison gets called names like “gimmicky.” It’s not a gimmick, it’s a style, and it just happens to be unconventional. Unlike a lot of modern writers, Morrison doesn’t telegraph his writing, and that leaves a lot of casual readers in the dust when he comes in to write a book.

So: having read more than half of his rather large body of work and being incredibly familiar with his writing style, allow me to talk to you today a bit about Grant Morrison and how you can enjoy his comics more.

Without going into a lot of detail about Grant Morrison’s incredibly intense body of work, Morrison started writing comics in the late 70’s for independent British publishers and was part of the “British invasion” that happened in comics during the 80’s with writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Morrison’s first major work was Animal Man, which he wrote 26 issues of and which first introduced his brand of high concept when he himself famously became a character of his book as the writer, with his last issue dealing with him and Buddy confronting one another on why Morrison chose to write in the death of Buddy’s family. He has since written many intense and famous works such as the Invisibles, the Filth, New X-Men, All-Star Superman, Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, JLA, and of course his run on Batman. As I’ve mentioned, he is most known for high concepts and intense over arcing tales that tend to confuse a lot of readers when they first tackle the book.

So where do we begin to “understanding” Grant Morrison?

1. Fourth Wall? What Fourth Wall!
A frequent Morrison trope is that the fourth wall exists specifically to break it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Animal Man, the Filth, or Seven Soldiers – Morrison will literally reach out to you through the book to pull you in. I mentioned the term “telegraphing comics” earlier, and what I mean is that some writers will hold you by the hand and walk you through their story so that it’s not too jarring. In every Morrison story I’ve read, this is not the point. Morrison wants to kick you into his stories and say, “Look at it! Get it? Got it? Good. Moving on!” Frequently this means that he himself will appear, or that the characters will talk to you directly. Just keep in mind that Morrison does not box himself in in any of his stories, and you should expect some craziness (see: #3 below).

2. I (Don’t) Wanna Hold Your Hand
If you’re not used to comic books at all, I would say stay away from Morrison and his writing. While this isn’t the case for ALL of his stories, most will require a little effort on your part to understand and enjoy. Often times this will mean reading an issue multiple time, or studying a panel or two intensely. Remember the first time you read Watchmen, and by the time you finished you were so excited by the end you read it again and got a whole new experience? This is what it’s like for Morrison books, except it’s often time much more exhausting. Morrison has a lot of high concepts he likes to work with (see: #4 below), and for those unaccustomed to it, you’re going to get left behind in the dust. In all honesty, I like this aspect the most about his writing. Too many authors seem afraid to throw you off the deep end, but you can imagine that within five pages, you might just be very confused via tricky dialogue or scenery. If you’re willing to put in the effort like I am, you end up with highly rewarding tales time after time after time, and ultimately this aspect of multiple reads required makes Morrison’s work some of the best books on the market as far as bang for your buck is concerned. If you would rather sit back and read a book, get it, and go home? You’ll need to look elsewhere.

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3. I Remember When I Lost My Mind
A lot of times, it would appear that you are watching a drug trip in a Morrison book, especially in a book like Seven Soldiers or the Filth (see above image). Heck, I recommend the Filth to a lot of people, and often times they come back and tell me that it was too crazy to enjoy. That is inherently true – the book is bonkers (again, see above image). However, I view it as something similar to Alice In Wonderland – we’re all mad here, but if everyone’s mad then the insanity becomes the norm. It always takes the right mindset to enjoy a Morrison book, and I will fully admit that there have been times when I grabbed his book off my shelf to read and I just wasn’t in the mood for it so I had to put it back. I think an important aspect to finding the Morrison book you want to read, though, is to flip through it before you buy it. His imagery is often so OUT THERE that right off the bat, if you see something that intrigues you, you are going to help yourself get into the mindset needed to enjoy the book. If you flip through it and see nothing that you think you’ll enjoy, though, then you might be good with just putting it back on the shelf and coming back to it later.

4. High Concepts
Animal rights. The triumph of the mind over the muscles. A writer and his control of fictional characters. Secret armies behind the universe. Clones and un-clones. Gods descending to humanity. The dystopian future. The death of all living things. Beard hunting.

These are just a few of the things that you’ll come to encounter in Morrison’s tales. As much as there is a story at the front of the page, there is a story in between and under it as well. Often times, there is a LOT going on in a Morrison book, and this is a no-go for the casual reader. I’ve said it a couple times already and I’ll say it again – if you’re not going to put in the conscious effort to tune out the world around you and focus on the page, you’re not going to get the story. If you can’t take at least five minutes to sit and think about what you just read to try and properly process it before throwing it out as shlock, you’re not going to get the story. I would honestly argue this is the case for ALL comics, and that if you’re going to take the time to read it in the first place you should put in the honest effort to focus. However, with Morrison, you need to take your average tuning out and amplify it.

And this brings us to the most important thing about Morrison’s work:

This is arguably the most polarizing thing about Morrison to the readers – you have to read it all. All of it. No, you can’t skip that one issue of Batman that is prose. No, you can’t pick and choose arcs due to the artist he’s working with. You read it all, or don’t even bother.

Here’s the perfect example (I believe): when Morrison was the writer on Batman, a lot of his work later towards his run left his critics confused, especially when RIP and Final Crisis rolled around. However, if you had missed even a little bit of his run, RIP wouldn’t make much sense. You see, the very first scene of Morrison’s first Batman issue didn’t even make sense in the whole story until the story was done. I can also guarantee you that a lot of the unexplained oddities of the opening arc in Batman and Robin won’t make sense until the final arc, and you need to keep it in the back of your mind at all times. That’s the way it works: focus on the minor details in the beginning, see the pay-off in the end, and then read it a second time with the knowledge of the end of the story.

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Another good example is Morrison’s run on JLA, including the Aztek the Ultimate Man series that ran with it. Those that have read it will know what I’m talking about, but keep your ears and eyes open for certain phrases that are frequently repeated.

Just keep in mind that what happens at the beginning is just as important as how it all ends, and unlike a lot of writers who write arc to arc, Morrison writes his endings at the same time as his beginnings, and it will all make sense in time as long as you read all of it.

6. You Have To Read It Again. No Exceptions.
Again, I repeat myself, and this is more self explanatory and ties in with what I was just saying: Especially in the case of Morrison’s Batman run, a second read-through knowing how it ends makes the story a) make a lot more sense and b) enhance itself times a million. If you’ve never read New X-Men after knowing how the story ends, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. Every story requires at least one additional read, or at the very least a browse through to refamiliarize yourself with what happened and how it all went down (and, at that point, you’ll probably be enticed enough to just sit and read it).

7. Everything Ever Is And Will Be Referenced
You know what Grant Morrison has read? Every DC Comic ever. You can be damn sure he’s going to reference all of it in Final Crisis too, and that left a lot of people upset. See, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis both read well from start to finish without a lot of prior knowledge, but with Final Crisis you have a whole suggested reading order to follow (which include some absolutely amazing books like Seven Soldiers). This is another polarizing element for fans (I remember a LOT of people saying, “What the hell is Captain Carrot doing in Final Crisis?!”), and I don’t really have a suggestion for it other than a) be aware of this and b) if there’s a reading order, it’s a good idea to follow.

8. CATS!!!

Need I really say more?

Now, I understand a lot of people will find this to be a series of “excuses.” Some people are of the belief that Morrison’s non-reader friendly style makes for bad writing, but I 100% believe that more writers need to challenge their readers the way he does. That’s why he has such a devoted following of fans and critics. Morrison provides a very different kind of comic experience than your average writer. I’m not saying that there are no good writers besides Morrison – there are. I’ve been very vocal about writers for every company whose work I greatly enjoy. However, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy having a good reason to go back and read a comic book more than once outside of just pure enjoyment. I like sitting and thinking about what I just read, trying to dissect it and connect the dots within. It’s always a very interesting and rewarding experience at the end of the day.

So where can you start reading?

Well, for more toned down Morrison, try books like We3, Seaguy and All-Star Superman. They include rather straight forward stories that still feature Morrison’s penchant for pushing the bar and tackling large issues and arcs.

As you begin to graduate from this school, take on something like his run on New X-Men or JLA, or even Batman. Only a basic knowledge of what was going on with the teams is necessary to reading the stories, and the pay-offs at the end are huge. There is a lot to read in the stories, so it’s a good place to get familiarized with his high concept writing before going down and tackling the condensed stories.

Finally, when you’re ready, check out Morrison’s masterpieces like the Filth and the Invisibles. Also keep your eye open for the Mystery Play (which I still haven’t figured out, and I don’t know anyone who has). Kid Eternity, and Doom Patrol. All of it is highly entertaining and well worth your time when you’re ready to read it.

//TAGS | Multiversity 101

Matthew Meylikhov

Once upon a time, Matthew Meylikhov became the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Multiversity Comics, where he was known for his beard and fondness for cats. Then he became only one of those things. Now, if you listen really carefully at night, you may still hear from whispers on the wind a faint voice saying, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not as bad as everyone says it issss."


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