My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My hasty disparagement of Grant Morrison in my review of Greg Carpenter’s The British Invasion was my initial impulse to revisit the Scottish mage’s work. In the middle of the 20th century George Steiner tried to explain modernity and modern literature by asking, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? I wonder if by the middle of the 21st century some critic will try to produce a book-length investigation of postmodernity by positing a similarly rival pair of powerful imaginations: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? While my heart rests in the end with Moore, I have had periods of my life where I was more interested in the worldview of Morrison, whose wilder style, refusal of neat artistic formalism or political formulae, odd mixture of aggressive experimentalism and grotesquery with no less flagrant sentimentalism, offers a sometimes persuasive challenge to Moore’s greater solemnity of vision. But how persuasive is it really in the end?
After Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, and The Filth, I was hesitant to revisit Seaguy, a projected trilogy of three-part miniseries, two of which have so far been published by DC/Vertigo, the first in 2004 and the second in 2009. Not only didn’t I grasp Seaguy at all the first time around, I was not alone. It sold poorly and was received mostly with bafflement. I seem to recall Morrison in interviews around 2004 berating the bewildered audience for not understanding it because they had not read Chrétien de Troyes or someone like that—this from an author who these days claims not to read anything and to be only influenced by TV.
Seaguy is set in the (imaginary) city of New Venice in a dystopian—or, more accurately, falsely utopian—future. The eponymous hero, along with his comic sidekick Chubby Da Choona (a floating cartoon tuna fish who talks like a character in a gangster movie), is one of the few remaining superheroes after the cataclysmic defeat of Anti-Dad, a cosmic villain whom the world’s superheroes took down in an apparently pyrrhic victory. This apocalyptic liberation parodies DC/Marvel’s habit of using regular crossover catastrophes (or crises) to reboot their continuity as well as the geopolitical projection of the post-Cold-War “end of history.”
After Anti-Dad’s defeat, the pacified world has become a consumerist pseudo-paradise under the corporate control of Mickey Eye, a cross between Disney and Big Brother. Artist Cameron Stewart’s art evokes the disquiet of this seeming utopia, the uncanny unease of a bad normality, most memorably through his scary-funny illustrations of anxious adults and traumatized children shuffling through an amusement park. After this set-up, Seaguy becomes an essentially unsummarizable sequence of bizarre adventures, involving sentient food-stuffs, a mummy on the moon, and a first shot at liberating the Mickey-addled world.
In keeping with Morrison’s ingenious crossing of two very different genres, the medieval romance and the modernist dystopia, the themes that emerge from Seaguy’s sojourns are twofold and at odds. First, Morrison uses a naive and brave hero to demonstrate a constant need for heroism, a refusal of the merely given, even when the given entertains or pacifies, just as the romance hero is urged ever onward toward the transcendence embodied by the Grail. On the other hand, every exercise of heroism in Seaguy’s world seems to generate in its turn new forms of authority and control, from the mummy’s tale of his own overweening performance as Pharaoh to the new normal brought about at the conclusion of the second miniseries, where the restored superheroes who have defeated Mickey Eye speak of protecting the status quo. (There is not only a post-Cold-War resonance to this, but also a post-9/11 one.)
As a political polemic, Seaguy might be considered an attack on corporate monopoly and its mask of benevolence. The mask has been growing ever more benevolent since Seaguy‘s first publication—Benetton was once more of an outlier, but all the corporate monopolies now parade as “woke,” whatever their actual labor practices, environmental impact, or stultification of culture—so Morrison can be credited with prescience. The narrative is probably better read biographically, though, than as some kind of political statement. Morrison counseled audiences in the early 2000s to accept the fact of corporate dominance and to use it to disseminate counterculture aesthetics and ideals and by the middle of the decade had become one of DC Comics’s chief writers, a development that would have been unimaginable in the ’80s or early ’90s.
Seaguy, also published by DC though a creator-owned property, reads to me like an expression of bad conscience in the midst of this success: it suggests that, despite Morrison’s hopeful rhetoric to the contrary, heroism in collaboration with the powers than be will always find itself compromised, will always function as a ruse of control. Reverting to my allusion above to the Morrison vs. Moore feud, this Pynchonian or Dickian or Foucaultian paranoia powered by wistful ’60s anarchism is a characteristically Moore-like point (as with the false utopias that conclude Miracleman and Watchmen), not one we associate with Morrison’s work, where an insistence on interpersonal love generally overpowers the political as such to provide an image of redemption.
Seaguy gives us two moving relationships in this vein—that between Seaguy and his animal sidekick Chubby and that between Seaguy and his love interest She-Beard—but the tone of the book remains, from first to last, alienating and ungraspable. Maybe this is itself the point. Morrison is a writer often accused of perpetrating “weirdness for weirdness’s sake”—but what is the sake (that is, the purpose) of weirdness? I suggest the surplus of the inexplicable and incomprehensible in Seaguy, its extraordinary weirdness that so put off the initial audience, is a desperate and wishful demonstration that even in corporate comics sheer unbridled imagination can do its best and its worst.
Yet in this costly display of almost intransitive imagination, we see the limits of an aesthetic so apparently free in its belief in magical transformation and so truly limited in its submission to worldly power. Moore’s censure of Morrison for promoting a magical vision that slights the aesthetic and celebrates selfishness here seems compelling. And to query both our comic-book magi, when Theodor Adorno claims in Minima Moralia that occultism lazily elides the real distinctions between mind and world negotiated seriously by Judaism, Christianity, and Hegelian philosophy, he hints at why the question Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? may in fact never supplant Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? for the most serious, passionate readers.
 One more Moore/Morrison observation: Moore has resentfully and accusatorially noted points of convergence in the two writers’ careers, which he interprets as vindictive imitation. Seaguy, then, may be read as a response to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If that series came out of Moore’s desire to trace the superhero archetype back to its roots in 19th-century popular fiction, Morrison in Seaguy goes Moore one better by finding the roots of superheroes in 12th-century Arthurian romance.
 There is also the dispiriting possibility that the weirdness in Seaguy has precise meaning available only to occultists. From Arkham Asylum to Nameless, Morrison has used various magical systems to structure the meaning of stories and has then elaborately explained these systems in afterwords, interviews, or published scripts, like Eliot annotating his own Waste Land. I dislike this artistic practice; as Coleridge explained 100 years before Eliot and 200 years before Morrison, the symbol is preferable to the allegory because both more grounded and more open-ended. A story you have to read a grimoire before you can understand is not a very good story; Eliot, anyway, was in his rather dryly macabre fashion being ironic, which many subsequent writers failed to understand.