Thanks to all my regular readers who come here in search of slightly more traditional essays on the “classics,” however defined, for holding on tight through my now year-long re-reading of comic-book writer Grant Morrison.
My own perhaps too hasty disparagement of Morrison in my review of Greg Carpenter’s The British Invasion was my initial impulse to revisit his work, and I have had another powerful stimulant in the Morrison discussions going on at Dave Fiore and Elise Moore’s excellent podcast. Dave and I were discussing Morrison back on the comics blogs in 2003 (“bliss it was in that dawn” etc.), and I’ve enjoyed hearing his and Elise’s considered responses to Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, The Filth, and now Seaguy. It makes my own re-reading feel like what our friends on BookTube call a readalong, and it has helped to change my perspective on the writer, or changed it back to what it was when I was younger.
As I wrote earlier this summer on Tumblr: 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 will probably always rest in the end with Moore, I have had periods of my life where I was more interested in, or persuaded by, the worldview of Morrison, and this is one of them. Something in his wilder style, his refusal of neat artistic formalism or political formulae, his odd mixture of aggressive experimentalism and grotesquery with no less flagrant sentimentalism, speaks to me now.
Even so, 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 likes to tell interviewers he doesn’t read anything and is 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 (note Dave and Elise) the geopolitical projection of the post-Cold-War “end of history.”
In the wake of Anti-Dad’s defeat, the pacified world is now a consumerist pseudo-paradise under the corporate control of Mickey Eye, a cross between Disney and Big Brother. Artist Cameron Stewart’s superb art evokes the disquiet of this seeming utopia, the uncanny unease of a bad normality, most unforgettably 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 demonstrates through his naive and brave hero 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.
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 tech monopolists 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. It was Morrison who was counseling his audience in the early 2000s to accept the fact of corporate dominance and to use it to disseminate counterculture aesthetics and ideals; by the middle of the decade he was 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, whose insistence on interpersonal love generally overpowers the political as such to provide an image of redemption in his work.
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, 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.
 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. Early and late in his career, from Arkham Asylum to Nameless, Morrison has used various magical systems to structure the meaning of his stories, which he has then elaborately explained 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.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!
In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.
In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.
In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.
In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.
Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?
Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.
The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.
My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.
Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.
Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).
Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”
The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.
Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.
This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.
Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.
Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:
A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)
Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.
Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.
Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:
And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)
The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.
So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?
Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.
Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.
Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:
Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.
I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.
In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:
I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)
So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.
I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:
Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.
Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.
Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?
Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.
By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:
Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.
The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.
Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:
These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)
And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.
In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):
The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.
Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”
The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.
The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:
He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.
Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?
Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.
As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!
I had not read The Invisibles all the way through since about 2001 or 2002. I assumed, because it was so timely, almost reading at moments like a journal Morrison was keeping about 1990s cultural trends, that it could not possibly hold up. But rereading it over the last month, I was surprised to find that its time has come round at last. So what is The Invisibles? Why should you read it?
First, its author: Grant Morrison, a Glaswegian working-class magician, punk, and failed pop star, became one of the most notable writers of American comics during the late-1980s British Invasion. He wrote a metafictional treatment of Animal Man and an avant-garde superhero saga in Doom Patrol; most consequentially on the material plane, he wrote the delirious Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, which, coinciding with Burton’s Batman movie of 1989, made him rich. He traveled the world, took all the drugs he had theretofore avoided, got abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994, had the secrets of the universe explained to him, and began a new creator-owned series for DC Comics’s adult Vertigo imprint about a cell of anarchist terrorists called The Invisibles who war against evil insectoid Archons bent on controlling the world.
Morrison’s series begins when The Invisibles need to add a new fifth agent to their cell, which consists of the glamorously violent Englishman, King Mob; the fragile psychic waif Ragged Robin; the former New York City cop, Boy; and a trans magician from Brazil, Lord Fanny. This quarter tries to recruit a Liverpudlian teenaged delinquent named Dane MacGowan, who may be a new Buddha.
The 1500+ pages of the series narrate how Dane’s becoming an Invisible coincides with the mounting crises leading first to the millennium and then to 2012. On this date, humanity is due to ascend into what Morrison calls “the Supercontext,” or a matured experience of spacetime as an integrated simultaneous totality to which terms like good and evil will not apply. Early in the series, Morrison reveals that what looked like a “war” in the first few chapters, a cliched fight between rebels and empire, is in fact a “rescue mission.” Images of medicine and midwifery abound: our heroes aim not to kill but to cure and to convert the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend. Evil is just misrecognized good, usually misrecognized by itself.
While The Invisibles is, in practice, about as didactic as I’ve made it sound, its moral is nonetheless dramatized through a compelling and often very moving story: it is the tale of Dane’s growth from aimless violence to supernal serenity; of King Mob’s seduction by and then weaning from the habitual practice of brutality; of Boy’s quest for revenge against the racist powers-that-be who murdered both of her brothers and her slow realization, like Dane’s and King Mob’s, that force is not the solution; of Fanny’s endless initiation into her family’s matriarchal magical practice; and of Ragged Robin’s (bear with me here) composition of much of the tale we’re reading in a sensory deprivation tank in 2005 and her subsequent (or is it?) travel through time.
(Time travel is an important image for Morrison, since the time-suit Robin uses to navigate the temporal rapids is just a picture of ourselves as we would look sub specie aeternitatis, not only an extensive body but an unfolded life.)
There is more to the story even than the above, though, since Morrison creates an expansive and global story with a multitude of characters. He affectingly tells villains’ tales. The rueful story of a foot soldier shot by King Mob in the first chapter even becomes a kind of moral compass for the series and is the first episode in which we hear, albeit garbled, the crucial advice to call on the Buddha of compassion. Then there is Sir Miles Delacourt, an occultist who succumbs to the lust for power and control precisely because he, as he belatedly understands, lacks the compassion urged upon us at intervals throughout the whole epic.
Most movingly is the story of Quimper, a character who first appears as a nightmare villain; I might compare him to Robert Blake’s character from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Yet we learn that he was originally a kind of angel fallen into our dimension of matter and tortured and abused until he became evil. His plaintive whisper, “Once I was a little light,” is for me the most moving line in the whole series (because weren’t we all?), and the climax of his tale, wherein he is redeemed by a kiss, saved by love, is the climax of Morrison’s evolving ethics.
Morrison recommends an evolution beyond politics, beyond violence, beyond us vs. them. This, like postmodernism in general (or even Romanticism in general), might be described as the internal conservative critique of the radical left: a warning of where the way of Robespierre and Lenin leads. (Hence the unsoundness of now-fashionable pronouncements that postmodernism is “cultural Marxism.” It would make far more sense to call it “cultural anti-Marxism”!)
Early in the narrative, The Invisibles travel back to the French Revolution and meet the Marquis de Sade as Byron and the Shelleys debate freedom and necessity. Sade is the hero of this tale insofar as his epics of degradation allegorize reason at its limit and thus tell the truth about the revolution’s sadism, while Percy Shelley’s idealism is humbled by the suffering of his family. At the end of the book, Sade reappears as a kind of Wilhelm Reich figure, trying to engineer sexual liberation, and he is rebuked in his turn for what we can only assume is a lack of love by another of the series’s heroes, Lady Edith Manning. Edith is an occultist of the modernist era who meets King Mob in 1988 and then later (yes, later: time travel, remember) in 1924. Morrison historicizes his own aesthetics when he shows the future to have begun with modernism, even though he already showed it to have begun in 1792. Every era that opens itself to change prepares the way into the supercontext. King Mob tells Edith to tell Robin to call on Buddha, a message intercepted in infancy by the soldier King Mob kills, a plea for peace echoing through time and unheeded until the conclusion.
My pitch so far has been narrative and thematic, but what about aesthetics? How is this as a reading experience? I won’t, like other ad-men, lie to you: the quality is uneven, for reasons that have everything to do with the exigencies of comic-book serial publishing. The Invisibles has a revolving cast of artists, wildly distinct in quality, and even two different letterers, one of whom is the comics legend Todd Klein and the other of whom is, putting it politely, not.
Because Morrison writes in such various tones and moods, from Pythonesque farce to Lovecraftian horror, and even parodies with Joycean aplomb a host of comics storytelling styles, it is not necessarily a problem to have multiple artists. It only detracts from the book when they are not all as good as Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, and Frank Quitely, who are the standout artists of the series’s three main divisions. Thompson’s sketchy somberness matches the brooding tone of the first third, Jimenez’s superhero art via fashion spread echoes the middle third’s themes of the temptations of glamor and violence, and Quitely’s lived-in Eurocomics futurism makes for a plausible conclusion in 2012. The rest of the many artists aren’t bad, and in fact Chris Weston is in his way positively good (though more appropriate, because disgustingly inappropriate, for Morrison’s later work, The Filth); but they aren’t quite up to realizing Morrison’s extraordinary literary ambition.
The narrative, as well, is spread too thin in places: whatever anxiety of influence Morrison is working out with regard to British detective TV shows of the 1970s is lost on me and feels like an absurdly lengthy digression, for instance, though maybe it works better for British readers. In general, Morrison writes in a kind of cut-up style, raining content down on readers’ heads in what sometimes feels like random order, much of it cynical and ugly, and half the addictive pleasure (and I’ve always found Morrison a very addictive writer) is sorting through it all to find the moving lyrical grace notes that occur and then recur: the story’s threads, heart-red, binding it internally even when it seems to be a meaningless collage. Hence my recommendation for fans of Pynchon and Joyce. For all that, though, a tighter narrative might not have been amiss, especially when without it great characters like Boy and Robin disappear for far too many pages.
All that said, I will, speaking only for myself, never understand people who think the recent spate of “literary” graphic novels from Chris Ware to Richard McGuire is the best the medium has to offer when they don’t seem aware that something like this, which recreates the whole universe to explain it anew, even exists. The Invisibles has not been without influence, but its influence has been too confined to an in-crowd and coterie, and their recent productions (I have sampled some of the Young Animal material as well as the works of Aleš Kot) seem to me like the attempts of a later generation to recapitulate an artistic revolution without having thought through whatever made it necessary in the first place and without trying to make their own advance; Victorian poets in relation to Romantics, for example. Whatever the equivalent of The Invisibles in the present or future will look like, it will probably not look all that much like The Invisibles, except that it will be audacious and irresistible and a mess. But maybe this is too harsh; I leave it to you to decide.
Let’s end with politics. The Invisibles is a story about the necessity and irrelevance or immorality of revolution. It is also about conspiracy theories. I have not emphasized the latter enough yet, but Morrison does explain in the course of his book what crashed at Roswell and why the establishment killed Princess Di, among other things. Perhaps “this hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati like to say. Aren’t conspiracy theories the province of the MAGA/Brexit crowd nowadays? Doesn’t the present state of things necessitate a redoubled attempt at revolution?
One Youtube personality who began on the left and who now retails exegeses of QAnon flatters his audience by hailing them as “the conspiratorium clerisy.” He is friends, moreover, with Roseanne Barr, herself an adept of the same baffling oracle. On Roseanne in the mid-1990s, an Invisibles poster hung on Darlene’s bedroom wall, just as one was taped to my own. Who could have foreseen where we’d all end up? Then again, The Invisibles hasn’t aged a day, give or take a Kula Shaker reference; it is odd to read a book prophesying a future that is now past, when its depiction of the past as a time of befuddling and agitated complexity still feels like the present, only a bit heightened, a bit degraded, and, for now, less optimistic. “Future proves past” after all.
What if the comrades are correct and the simultaneity of time is not a timeless philosophical proposition but just a description of cultural arrest under the reign of the corporation? At the conclusion of The Invisibles, King Mob prepares the way for our ascension to the supercontext by the release of a game that is, transparently, The Invisibles itself. The allegory is plain, and Morrison in interviews made it clearer: we can get free not by fighting the power but by becoming the power. While the Battle of Seattle raged, our author told us to enter the boardroom rather than fighting in the street. He was surely wrong—I think we see this now—to imagine liberation through the counterculture’s seizure of corporate control, to bank everything on feedback rather than opposition; this countercultural control is what has happened, and the results are mixed to poor, with liberal democracy hollowed out by Silicon businessmen and frightful insurgencies rising in reaction. DC Comics, in any case, isn’t publishing any new stuff this interesting, unless I’m missing something.
On the other hand, the comrades must be wrong, or else shooting one’s way out of this problem would have worked the last hundred times it’s been tried. If you fight the forces of repression, you become repressive; this is not a childish moral equivalence but a description of reality. War itself is the ultimate force of repression. Promulgators of salvation-through-arms from Marxists to neoconservatives rage so fiercely against “moral equivalence,” in fact, because acts that are phenomenally equivalent often are morally equivalent. It isn’t better or more justified when we do it, unless there is no such thing as universal ethics and/or unless they are not people. (This need not be a strictly pacifist credo, just an ethically rigorous one when it comes to violence of all kinds.) Despite superficial dissimilarities, Albert Camus is an author very like Morrison in that both oddly end up redescribing anarchism as the essence of political moderation; as the philosopher explains in The Rebel, once you have embraced a politics that postpones the ethical until after the millennium you are, for all practical purposes, already committed to the guillotine and the gulag.
Morrison makes this point not didactically, but through narrative structure: he first incites the reader to swoon at King Mob’s reign of terror by having it surrounded by pop culture and erotic imagery, all conveyed through Jimenez’s deliriously slick linework. But eventually we are repulsed and learn to love the arts of peace: King Mob becomes defined as Robin’s lover more than as a lone assassin, and we thereby find ourselves rooting for love not war. Such an investment in the personal pries us from our desire to be members of anybody’s clerisy. Horizontal, not vertical relations. “Once I was a little light.” How to be so again? Morrison mistook the economic for something other than war by other means (and I am sufficiently non-doctrinaire to think the question remains open, though I am also hostile to corporate monopolies and see no salvation whatsoever coming from that quarter). But he had the end (as in purpose) right, and was moreover correct in his warning that violent means will corrupt the end itself.
“Edith says to call on Buddha”: the moral buried in the heart of this vast, exhausting crypt and cryptogram, like those similarly encoded/entombed in the labyrinths and pleas for peace crafted/coded/cried by Joyce and Pynchon: “Love, says Bloom”; “They are in love. Fuck the war.” If that does not make you want to read The Invisibles, I don’t know what will.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!
[The following essay is divided into two parts: my critical analysis of Watchmen in general, and then a review of this particular edition, a black-and-white oversized hardcover reprint with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger. If you want my assessment of this edition right away, please scroll down to the image dividing this post in two.]
Should Watchmen be the only superhero graphic novel on your syllabus? My own answer is a qualified “yes.” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986-7 serial-turned-graphic-novel brings a European perspective as well as the techniques and the politics of the postmodern novel to this quintessentially American pop culture phenomenon.
But it is possible to overrate Watchmen on the question of its revision to the superhero archetype, as most actual superhero devotees will point out: at every moment in the history of the genre, from Superman’s disruption of domestic violence and US imperialism in his very first appearance in 1938 to Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s 1960s road trip to the polysemous queerness of Marvel’s mutants in their grand-soap-opera phase of the 1970s and ’80s, writers and artists have always brought a political awareness and a critical edge to their ambiguous narratives of characters who try to align morality with power in an often hostile, corrupt society.
Moore and Gibbons, though, carry their revision of the superhero to the point of metafiction. In Watchmen‘s world, men and women become costumed vigilantes because they are influenced by comic books, just as Don Quixote becomes a knight-errant because he is influenced by chivalric romances. In both cases, the results are the same: the heroic idealism our heroes picked up from their reading matter gets besmirched by the mud and blood of the actual: their sublimated motives, their desires for sex and power, cannot be fully repressed. Moore, like Cervantes, shows heroic idealism to be determined and constricted by material circumstance. (Is it a coincidence that the two works often hailed as the first great novel and the first great graphic novel make this same de-idealizing critical gesture?)
Watchmen‘s ultimate joke in this vein occurs when an actual super-powered being appears in its world, the atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan, and immediately enters the service of the US government at the height of the Cold War as a kind of superior nuclear weapon. With more secular critical tools at his disposal than Cervantes had —Marx’s attack on ideology, Nietzsche’s insistence on power, Freud’s exposé of desire, and the broad second-wave feminist awareness of misogyny—Moore is able to reveal the material underpinning of the genre by political and sexual realities. This move to the meta is what sets Watchmen apart from most prior critical superhero comics (an avowed precursor, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” of 1953, excepted).
Moreover, it is not possible to overrate Watchmen as a work of formalist genius. Aesthetically, Watchmen is inflected not only by the social critique of prior European rebels—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—but also and more so by that of America’s own artistic counterculture too, the nightside to Stan Lee’s Silver Age New Frontier optimism, as found in Moore’s admired forerunners Burroughs and Pynchon. Like these writers, Moore insists upon the dense layering of narrative information, the elaborate use of symbolism and motifs, and the deliberate deployment of carefully contrived structures. Watchmen‘s nine-panel grid page layout is a kind of poetic meter, allowing the reader to keep time in this time-obsessed novel. Within the grid, Moore and Gibbons set up a limited series of repeating images—the smiley face, the bloodstain, the pyramid, the clock, the Hiroshima lovers, mirrors and reflections, and more—which turn the book into the very clockwork that is one of its images for itself. All the pieces move in concert.
Yet Watchmen is also a critique of linear, measurable time: comics, unlike cinema, does not progress in time but rather in space. In fact, it turns time into space. Watchmen is as much a metafictional reflection on its medium as on its message: Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time as a simultaneous object in space is instantiated on the comics page when Moore and Gibbons tell Dr. Manhattan’s story as a discontinuous and non-linear array of panels that are chronologically displaced but artistically placed perfectly. When Ozymandias compares his multi-screen TV viewing to Burroughs’s cut-up technique—both of them like comics in that they spatialize and juxtapose multiple information channels—Moore can be heard defending comics as an avant-garde artform, superior to film or literature as a way of halting time and inspecting the clockwork of the universe.
Across multiple dimensions, then—political, sexual, and aesthetic—Watchmen presents itself as the return of America’s repressed. If there is always an element of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement in such a gesture (doesn’t this go to explain the always worrisome appeal of Marx and Nietzsche not only to rebel poets but to totalitarian dictators?), Moore’s postmodern sense of the limits to knowledge save him from this trap.
For what we find when we inspect the universal clockwork is far more chaos and mess than the deists promised. Consider the bravura chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” a chiasmus wherein each page echoes its counterpart across the divide formed by the middle of the issue (the “staple” to avid comics readers). Yet, as a critic on the Internet long ago pointed out in a reference I can no longer find, this is not the middle of Watchmen itself; being twelve chapters long, with each chapter of equivalent length, Watchmen has no narrative middle or center—its middle is a gap or absence. There may be fearful symmetry, but no perfect symmetry. Likewise, chief among the novel’s motifs is the smiley face with a bloodstain occluding one eye: what could be a better image for the human disorder that prevents ideal happiness and obstructs symmetrical vision?
Are all of these themes within the control of our watchmaker-authors? I suspect not. Famously, the character of Rorschach slipped out of Moore’s control: meant to be a caricature of a right-wing lunatic, Rorschach grows into much the most complex character as we explore the traumas that made him who he is and watch him deepen and change; think of the astonishing silent panel in chapter 10 wherein he plainly recognizes his own plight in that of his landlady and her children and ceases to threaten them. Moore and Gibbons themselves palpably come to admire Rorschach more, and to mute his worser tendencies, thus creating their most compelling character.
Rorschach’s ethical stature is helped by the fact that the book’s villain, Ozymandias, is its ostensible spokesman for the political left. His technocratic utilitarian utopianism is presented without passion or charisma, as a fervorless murderous calculus redolent of fascism, just as his plan to stop the deaths of millions by killing hundreds of thousands participates in the very brutal logic of the nuclear planners. For a book plainly intended as a left-wing critique, Watchmen gathers itself into an essentially Burkean argument—or would Moore just want to see it as anarchist, Pynchonian?—against any and all centralized control schemes and systems, even in the best of causes.
More troublingly, Watchmen‘s emblem of what man cannot control is woman. At the narrative level, this expresses itself controversially in Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian, which begins in rape and progresses to love. As verisimilitude, this might be persuasive: that Sally could respond in such a way to The Comedian is possible given her class, generation, and character; her daughter, possessed of a post-feminist consciousness, would certainly not have made such a choice. At the symbolic level, Moore gives us multiple images of the vagina dentata (initially pictured on an activist poster advertising “Gay Women Against Rape”), culminating in the genital visage of the “alien” that attacks New York at the novel’s climax. Moore’s figuration of ungovernable reality quite simply takes the form of the feminine, even the monstrous feminine. (It should be said that Moore pursues the same argument consciously, and thus more critically and humanely, in From Hell.)
Watchmen would not be as compelling as it is were it merely cynical about human possibility. Rorschach’s unforgettable nihilism—
The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.
—is answered in the book, as in the balance of Rorschach’s life, by a commendation of kindness. The symbolic bloodstain is not merely the effluvium of the murdered but corresponds to another of the novel’s motifs, the Hiroshima lovers—the shadowed shape of lovers embracing left by the atomic flash. These two images converge at the conclusion of chapter 11 when two minor characters both named Bernie—an old man who runs a corner newsstand and a young man who frequents said stand to read comic books—run into each other’s arms as New York is destroyed. The ultimate force that spoils symmetry, that runs to excess, that can never be calculated, is love.
Now to the matter of Leslie S. Klinger’s annotations and the overall quality of this edition. I confess I find it promising but disappointing.
First of all, there aren’t enough annotations: sometimes pages pass without Klinger’s comment. This is an expensive book, and most people (like me!) will be buying it as a second copy of a work they already own, so in this case a lapse in quantity—of the one extra item justifying this book’s existence and expense—is a lapse in quality.
Second, Klinger’s annotations seem arbitrary: for instance, at times he will explain the provenance and context of each chapter’s epigraph extensively, as with Blake (chapter 5) or Jung (chapter 9), while he has little to say about others (e.g., the Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello quotations from chapters 1 and 2). Why does the idiom “see you in the funny pages” get a long annotation, while “here’s looking at you, kid” goes without a gloss? Klinger shrewdly notes that AIDS seems not to exist in Watchmen‘s world, without explaining that Ozymandias probably prevented its spread, as is subtly implied in the prose supplement to chapter 11. He mentions Woodward and Bernstein early on, without observing that The Comedian is intimated to have murdered them in chapter 9. Etc.
Third, there are a handful of errors, some just typos (“thtink” “Alan Ginsburg”) and one fairly egregious mistake of interpretation (he confuses a reference in chapter 8 to the Nuremberg rallies for an allusion to the Nuremberg trials, thus reversing the import of one line of dialogue). I generally incline toward forgiveness on these matters—we all make mistakes. But then again, we aren’t all charging fifty dollars for them in the form of what ought to be a scholarly text!
Fourth, Klinger often provides contextual information without showing any consideration for how Moore or Gibbons might have come by their facts and ideas; annotations to canonical literature—to Milton, say, or Joyce or Pynchon—will not just gloss the author’s allusions but will often comment on where the authors acquired their learning, precisely because these means of transmission make an interpretive difference. Now Moore refused to collaborate on this book, and he is not a long-dead author whose papers and personal library can be accessed by a researcher, which makes the aforementioned task of interpretation more difficult. Still, it could be useful and informative to speculate: for example, can’t we be reasonably certain that Moore learned about Kitty Genovese from Harlan Ellison’s “Whimper of Whipped Dogs”? and isn’t that a case of literary allusion, itself in need of a gloss, as much as of historical reference?
On the other hand, I thought of including the fact that Klinger at times editorializes (as when he defends expenditures on space exploration from the “Whitey on the Moon”-style argument made in Watchmen itself) as a flaw, and I even considered making a nasty remark about Charles Kinbote, but on reflection I think Klinger’s incorporation of his own views and sensibility actually makes the book richer and more various—in short, more fun to read. If anything, I might have preferred more of it, just as I would prefer more of the annotations generally.
Likewise, Klinger’s quotations from Moore’s notoriously verbose scripts (still in Gibbons’s possession) are very entertaining, as is his charting of the book’s repeating motifs (smiley faces and the Hiroshima couple especially); he also catches a few important allusions, particularly a near-climactic one to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that I had never noticed, and that expand the novel’s range of reference.
Finally, I was at first put off by the subtraction of John Higgins’s coloring from this book’s reproduction of the artwork. Higgins’s palette does so much to set the book’s tone, and, more broadly, color should no more be regarded as detachable from comics than music should be from film. Even so, everyone will come away from this book with a new appreciation for Dave Gibbon’s work, his incredible deep-focus, his delicate brushwork, his enchanting braid of three dissimilar elements—US Silver Age superhero art, European ligne claire, and a ruthless gritty de-idealizing sensibility that, though it has antecedents (Wood’s “Superduperman,” Ditko’s Spider-Man), is largely his own.
All in all, Watchmen: The Annotated Edition is the kernel of a great book, but I wonder if it would be too much to hope that future editions of this particular text might add more material, expanding on Klinger’s qualities and correcting its flaws.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!
In my review of Boris Groys’s In the Flow, I somehow failed to note the thesis in art history for which Groys became famous: his main claim was that, as the avant-garde’s dream before the Russian Revolution was the total transformation, along artistic lines, of their entire society, then the “official” Socialist Realist art of Soviet Russia was in fact the legitimate successor and fulfillment of the avant-garde since it inherited the function of aesthetically recomposing the social. The avant-garde totalizes art to the level of the polis, whereas realistic or romantic art before the avant-garde just decorated or illustrated a polis otherwise designed by priests, aristocrats, or money-men. (This is why the avant-garde had to discredit the characteristic artwork of the modern period before the twentieth century—the figurative painting, the realist novel, the expressive lyric—in all its monadic powerlessness, its timid refusal of the crucial becoming-Stalin task of the total artwork.) Artists in the avant-garde utopia replace priests, aristocrats, and money-men and become important social authorities in turn. Like much supposed anarchism, then, avant-gardism may be a fascism in disguise—there being but a few short psychological steps from “I should be able to do anything I want” to “Everyone should do anything I want.”
So much for Stalin’s Russia, but what about the avant-garde in western capitalist society? It is well known by now that at midcentury avant-garde art, most notoriously Abstract Expressionism (which Nelson Rockefeller called “free enterprise painting”), was in part a front for US/UK intelligence services meant to work as propaganda against Communism and for apolitical art and American individualism. But this rather lurid-seeming fact, which is probably no more or less significant than Michelangelo’s having painted that ceiling for the Pope and Shakespeare’s having written those plays for the Queen, can distract from the bigger picture: in capitalist society it is popular culture, not government propaganda, that takes up the avant-garde ambition and function of the aesthetic reorganization of the polis. Fashion, design, and architecture are the obvious examples: the MacBook Air on which I now type owes its sleek minimalism to Bauhaus and related aesthetics while the Starbucks in which I now type boasts some kind of Frank Lloyd Wright atmosphere (faux artisanal—medievalist, localist, etc.—resistance to mass production is the original avant-garde style going back to the Pre-Raphaelites).
All of which brings me around at last to Grant Morrison’s classic run on DC Comics’s Doom Patrol from 1989-1993. The Doom Patrol was created by Arnold Drake and his collaborators; a Silver Age superhero team of “super-powered misfits, whose ‘gifts’ caused them alienation and trauma,” to quote Wikipedia, they may have illicitly inspired Stan Lee in the creation of the X-Men. By the late ’80s, the X-Men under writer Chris Claremont were the super-hero team, and Claremont’s approach set the generic standard: a liberal political allegory (mutants as oppressed minorities, primarily queer) wedded to soap operatic plotting and a passionately (or painfully) earnest literary style. Grant Morrison, a working-class Glaswegian punk magus from a left-wing family who began work with DC as part of comics’s celebrated British Invasion, sought to explode all that (along with primary series artist Richard Case and a host of inkers and fill-in artists).
Admitting he wanted to overturn Claremont’s aesthetic, Morrison not only pushed the outsiderdom of his heroes past the bounds of Reagan-era liberal respectability (two of his heroes, Rebis and Danny the Street, are gender nonconforming; another one, Kay Challis AKA Crazy Jane, is a childhood abuse survivor living with dissociative identity disorder) but confronted them with villains like The Brotherhood of Dada, who wish to “let unreason reign” (whom most of the team eventually does not even want to fight); and the Shadowy Mr. Evans, who releases a sexual apocalypse until he is stopped by the Sex Men, a repressive parody of conventional superheroes. This vein of genre parody runs through the whole series, from Morrison’s first-page allusion to the opening of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns to episodes mocking Alan Moore, Rob Liefeld, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—as if to highlight the inherent absurdity of superheroes “in the name of Duchamp and Tzara and Breton,” to quote Mr. Nobody, leader of The Brotherhood of Dada.
The drift of the series is toward the undoing of the superhero’s normalizing function, the liberation of the suppressed energy abjected by mainstream society as madness. This is shown most clearly in the series’s most memorable character, Crazy Jane, whom Morrison based on Truddi Chase, author of the bestseller When Rabbit Howls, wherein she claims to have multiple personalities as a result of dissociation brought on by childhood sexual abuse. I’ve never read Chase’s book, but it was ubiquitous in its time—I remember it around the house when I was a child—and I certainly saw her on Oprah; her story and the Crazy Jane character coincide with the wave of repressed memories as well as the allegations of Satanic ritual abuse that were prevalent in the ’80s. Which is not to say at all that Chase was lying, only that Morrison, with his extraordinary eye for trends, was cashing in on one. The Jane character is underdeveloped, though, and Morrison does not always handle her situation very sensitively, tricking it out with heavy-handed metaphors and obvious Sylvia Plath allusions. She is given Morrison’s concluding chapter, and her rescue from a repressive and abusive male psychologist, narrated through the eyes of a lesbian psychologist beginning to believe Jane/Kay’s stories about the Doom Patrol, provides one of the most moving conclusions to a superhero story I’ve ever read.
In his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature,” Gilles Deleuze praises writers who create “a true break,” “the line of flight…(even if one has to become animal, to become Negro or woman).” Doom Patrol can be seen as joining Deleuze in seeing female or black (or queer or trans) identity as identical to animality, as the abjected underside of western reason, functioning not so much as a metaphor but as a synecdoche for all that is repressed in the construction of the rational subject of the modern polity. But their seeming advocacy will almost certainly now read as offensive, if it was not so read then (see here): as women or black people or queer people claim their rights as subjects and their share of reason within the same polity, this synechdochic function of their identity, Deleuze’s or Morrison’s equating femaleness etc. with the irrational, seems absurd, patronizing, and dehumanizing. It is meant to be dehumanizing in the sense that the straight white male writer is trying to overthrow a monitory concept of “the human” by siding with all that was left out in its construction. To those who did not want to be left out in the first place, this gesture is downright threatening, and I am sure a lot of young people encountering Crazy Jane, Rebis, and Danny the Street today will take it as such. On the other hand, a charitable reading might say that Morrison’s or Deleuze’s indubitably “problematic” deployment of the trope of marginality may be a necessary stage in the becoming-subject of the marginalized, insofar as it brings the margin itself to a valorized position of cultural visibility it was not previously allowed. On the politics of these tropes, readers will understandably come to different conclusions.
From politics to aesthetics: one paradox the literary avant-garde has never quite solved, and which explains its pragmatic usurpation by Hollywood and pop culture, is that nothing more emancipates audiences from mundane reality than an absorbing linear narrative about relatable or likable characters, a reliably immersive and anti-quotidian cognitive enhancement; whereas the avant-garde’s destruction of story and sense, its Surrealist automatic writing or Futurist words-in-freedom or Burroughsian cut-ups, tend to bounce off retina and tympanum, to leave one stranded in the workaday world, staring out the window in search of superior entertainment. Too much of Morrison’s Doom Patrol fails to avoid this pitfall; a stream of clever nonsense, lacking in characterization (this latter frequently supplied by tediously symbolic dream sequences and hallucinations), the series is to my mind often unmemorable from page to page or after multiple readings.
The best parts tend to come in the poetry of single panels—but then, I find this true of all Morrison’s work, including such crowd-pleasers as All-Star Superman. I have often thought that Morrison is a lyric writer more than a narrative one.
But he works in narrative modes, and, after Doom Patrol, often in the very popular and populist narrative modes that he construes as egregores or hypersigils, because of his traditionally avant-garde commitment, as expressed in his famous 2000 Disinfo speech, to aesthetically reorganizing western culture:
Let’s go in there and give them something they cannot digest. Something they cannot process. Something so toxic, so dangerous, so powerful…that it will breed, and destroy them utterly. Not destroy them—turn them into us. Because that’s what we want. We want everybody to be cool.
Groys could not have put the aspiration of avant-garde art better: “We want everybody to be cool.” But if revolutionary terror is the result of forcing people to be free, per Rousseau, then the avant-garde—whether in the statist form Groys discusses or in today’s commercial culture—may be guilty of forcing people to be cool. It is to Morrison’s credit that his vision is complex enough to encompass this possibility throughout Doom Patrol.
Hasn’t the avant-garde become just what it despised—tradition? Doesn’t Penguin Classics now publish Deleuze? Isn’t Doom Patrol itself hailed as a classic, its author garlanded with a Member of the Order of the British Empire? Cultural revolution becomes cultural tradition in the end: conservatives dislike this truth because it means that revolutions can be necessary to a living culture, while radicals dislike because it means that there is no ultimate subversion and that every successful revolution installs a new regime.
This paradox is allegorized in Doom Patrol during the team’s first fight against The Brotherhood of Dada, when the avantist villains swallow all of Paris into a painting that contains all modernist styles. But the painting also harbors inside it “the fifth Horseman,” a Norse-helmeted Wagnerian figure evocative of fascist art (in In the Flow, Groys offers Wagner’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk as one of the first avant-garde ambitions). The team ends up destroying the fascist horseman when Crazy Jane guides him into the Dada zone of the painting: “The rider requires ideas and meaning to give it power, but Dada is the anti-idea! Dada destroys meaning!” And so dissolves fascism. Yet the experience re-traumatizes Crazy Jane, and we understand why when we see her tormented by the word “Dada,” playing on the alternate meaning of “dada” or “daddy” or “dad” and evoking her father’s sexual abuse. This slippage between artistic anarchy and paternal authority in a single word shows the potential for the seemingly emancipatory signifier “Dada” to flip back over into the patriarchal force that had harmed Jane—the potential, that is, for anarchism to become fascism, because when all restraint is removed it is no longer possible to explain why might is not right. (I owe the point about the pun on “Dada” in this sequence to an essay I read on the Internet in about 1998, which I can no longer find and which probably no longer exists.)
Morrison’s warning is writ large in the overall arc of his Doom Patrol narrative when it is revealed that the team leader, Niles Caulder (a kind of Professor X figure), actually engineered the horrible and grotesque accidents that led most of the team to become superheroes:
You see, Cliff, ever since I was young, I have been driven by one blazing ambition. To create life. I remember watching old Frankenstein movies on television and, strangely, identifying not with the tragic monster but with his creator.
He creates life by creating catastrophe, better to make the world more interesting:
We need shocks in our lives. We need radical change and the new understanding it brings. Catastrophe forces us to think in new ways.
Like Morrison—like Breton and Marinetti—Caulder wants everyone to be cool, and it makes him a murderous villain.
Doom Patrol, then, is more ambivalent about is own vision than it appears at first; it is honest about the trauma and the coercion that underlie its liberatory values at the other end of the avant-garde century. That vision and those values triumph at the conclusion, though, when the trans street Danny becomes a world (no fear of a queer planet here) and Kay Challis is reclaimed at the end for the heroism of saving weirdness. The series’s final words (unwittingly echoing the nearly contemporaneous anti-capitalist Zapatista slogan) say it best, and here I’ll end too:
There is another world. There is a better world. Well…there must be.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!