**/**** Image A- Sound B Extras C
directed by Patrick Meaney
by Jefferson Robbins Patrick Meaney's Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods is an excellent documentary if you like being told how cool comics writer Grant Morrison is for an hour and twenty minutes. That's too bad, because Meaney knows comics,1 knows his way around documentary structure, and might have been able to tease out the drama in Morrison's rise from artsy Glaswegian youth to anointed guru of the weird for the most iconic funnybook publisher in the world. He has a charismatic polymath storyteller as his subject, as well as influential collaborators who profess their love for Morrison unabashedly. But offscreen, Morrison draws criticism like a Catwoman cosplayer draws fanboys--none of which rises into the babble of Talking With Gods.
"Talking With Heads," more like, as Meaney trots out the man himself and 40 different comics creators, journalists, and culture theorists--all people of no small renown in their fields--to dilate upon why Grant Morrison is so magnificent, how his brain is uniquely wired to receive hidden wisdom, and what transgressive impact he's had on mainstream comics. It's a professional-looking, by-fans-for-fans sort of project, and there's distinctly a market for it, given the subject's admiring audience. From his first scripts for DC Comics in 1989, Morrison's work was discomfiting, aggressively metafictional, and frequently a source of head-scratching. He wrote himself into ANIMAL MAN, surrealized obscure heroes of the Silver Age for DOOM PATROL, and positioned his six-year original series THE INVISIBLES as a revolutionary techno-cultist manifesto for the new millennium.2 Alongside the stories of Neil Gaiman, Morrison's work became a hinge for DC's mature-readers imprint Vertigo, drenched with pop counterculturalism and fuelling that early-'90s wave of condescending press articles which declared comics "not just for kids anymore!"
Morrison came from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a Scottish anti-nuclear activist, plunging first into indie comics as both writer and artist, then into the rock scene with his band The Fauves (never named herein), then back into comics at the legendary British mag WARRIOR, under publisher Dez Skinn. The magazine's most famous alumnus, Alan Moore, had been profitably headhunted by DC Comics, and his SWAMP THING editor Karen Berger swooped down on the UK comics scene with a very large butterfly net. Among her recovered specimens: Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano, and Morrison.
Of these, Morrison was apparently the only one who didn't get on with Moore. On camera, Morrison says the still-going feud began when Moore roughly refused to bless the young writer's ambition to take over the famed MARVELMAN (a.k.a. MIRACLEMAN) series once Moore hung it up. "Alan, I guess, like any writer who owns material, didn't want anybody else touching his material," Skinn says, and Morrison alleges to have received a long letter in which Moore threatened to asphyxiate his comics career aborning. "Thus began our slight antagonism, which," according to Morrison, "continues to this day." This is Talking With Gods' best bit of gossip, putting a famous writerly spat3 into perspective, but I'm not sure I trust the perspective. For one thing, Moore didn't own the MARVELMAN property--he was doing it for hire, perhaps under fraudulent circumstances masterminded by Skinn himself. For another, neither Morrison nor Meaney produces any printed evidence to back up this claim of a threat. It's that kind of documentary, with its subject's viewpoint completely unchallenged.
Morrison's career highlights are nodded at and his primary themes assessed, though Talking With Gods overlooks some crucial elements of his storytelling. He's at his most compelling when he writes about thought control and the sublimation of the self. His most disturbing supervillains--Mister Quimper, Cassandra Nova, the FINAL CRISIS depiction of Jack Kirby's Darkseid--are puppet masters who turn adversaries into vehicles for their horrid will. Yet he's also an optimist, certain that goodness will triumph, as his great works ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and WE3 attest. Talking With Gods has larger, zeitgeistier concerns (i.e., how does this book reflect or resonate with the culture?)--which is a shame, because Morrison's gift for little things like character is at least on par with his gifts for concept and plot. Without "real" people in danger from dark cosmic forces, dark cosmic forces have no context, so why should readers care?
Talking With Gods posits Morrison as a game-changer, yet he's been a mainstay among DC writers for the last twenty-five years, barring his 2001-2004 run on Marvel's NEW X-MEN. There, he's curated and repurposed Batman, Superman, and, with 2008's FINAL CRISIS, the entire DC Universe. His contributions have made waves in the moment but in truth haven't changed the DC landscape all that much--the editorial nature of corporate comics ensures the status quo will reassert itself, venturesome crossover stories will get manhandled en route, and the Big Two will remain creatively moribund as they nurse their movie properties, where the real money is. This matter isn't addressed in Meaney's film.
Critic Matt Seneca's point--that Morrison is the token punk at the table of corporate comics, who's come down firmly on the side of Superman's owners against his creators--may be impolite, but it's not inaccurate. The documentary was completed before the publication of Morrison's 2011 prose history of the hero-comics field, Supergods, and before he launched the latest round in his spitting war with the man who made Morrison possible--an action that dovetailed, as it happens, with DC's plan to launch its lucrative WATCHMEN prequels over Moore's objections. This is where Morrison serves comics most palpably, as a stylish hitman for corporate concerns, and this is the aspect Talking With Gods absolutely ignores. Some Kind of Monster, a chronicle wholly owned by Metallica, nonetheless honestly exposed the band's messy human mechanics. Apparently, the bar it set is impossible when we're talking about comics.
This two-DVD "deluxe special edition" reissue from Halo Eight offers a quality 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced image. DP Jordan Rennert's videography may not be Blu-ray sharp here, but it's impressively passable when upconverted for HiDef displays. Complexions (most photographed in the sun at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009 and 2010) are a bit rougey, and the frequent reds in Meaney's backgrounds and visual F/X tend to burst hot onscreen. The DD 2.0 track comes off clean and conversational, fully suited to the talking-head approach, while Morrison's steep Scottish accent is by and large comprehensible upon close listening. (Still, some viewers may appreciate the optional English subtitles.) Meaney and Rennert conduct the onboard commentary, the former proudest of the moment where Morrison reveals the roots of his antipathy for Moore. Helpfully, he suggests ALL-STAR SUPERMAN as the best entry for a Morrison neophyte, followed by WE3. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the 1989 Batman graphic novel that sold 120,000 copies in one day and paid Morrison a dollar for each of them, "is more significant for him in terms of commercial development than in terms of artistic development," Meaney says. And I agree. The pair reveals that pieces of their dramatic web series The Third Age are interspersed to illustrate the narrative. When you don't know that, these segments look mostly natural, but once you do, they look like product placement.
The second disc is 65 minutes of stuff that didn't make the final cut, including the seemingly unflappable Morrison betraying a bit of hurt at the way his mainstream superhero work's been received. Fan reaction to FINAL CRISIS, in particular, seems to have really torqued the magus's aura, because he's smarter than the readers. "People accuse accuse me of not knowing what I'm doing," he burrs, "when they don't seem to know the world I've been given to work with and its parameters and how it began and how it plays out in terms of an actual object in your hands." You can see from these outtakes why Morrison dominates his own hagiography: He talks and talks (eloquently) and never stops. Along the way, he gives a long statement on his belief in "magic" that more or less decloaks it as rank self-helpism: being the maker of your own reality. (Apparently, Grant Morrison knew The Secret before it became The Secret.) Sound is dicey in these latter bits, sometimes dominated by ambient noise or traffic, and the image is a touch waterier than Talking With Gods proper. A highlight is 15 minutes with artist Frank Quitely, Morrison's best and closest collaborator. Trailers reside here for The Third Age and the motion comic Godkiller, but surprisingly not for Meaney and Rennert's next comics-maker doc, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts. My feelings on Talking With Gods aside, I'm looking forward to that one.
1. Meaney contributes essays to Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, one of the production firms on this documentary--as has Tim Callahan, a Grant Morrison biographer and one of the commentators interviewed for this film. return
2. There's a magazine-length piece to be written on how DC's horror/SF scriptors of the late-'80s and early-'90s turned pop readings of chaos theory, fractal mathematics, quantum mechanics, and Jungian synchronicity into major plot points. Guess who started that train? Alan Moore. return
3. The spat has gone on in print since at least 1990, when Morrison suggested Moore had ripped off the cult parody novel Superfolks. Morrison verbally ribs Moore at least twice in Talking With Gods, and blogger Duy Tano goes so far as to characterize Morrison's definitive DC work, FINAL CRISIS, as an extended satire on his forerunner. It all feels a bit Oedipal. return