Grant Morrison’s Playboy Interview, And The Argument For Change In Comic Books [Op-Ed]

Like nearly anything involving comic book creator Grant Morrison, his recent interview with Playboy – which honestly boiled down to a few clearly off-hand sound-bites, and nothing more – created a flurry of discussion on comic blogs, forums, and Twitter. Most of it focused on the following statements about Batman:

“Batman is very, very gay.  There’s just no denying it.  Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay.  I think that’s why people like it.  All these women fancy him and they all wear fetish clothes and jump around rooftops to get to him.  He doesn’t care—he’s more interested in hanging out with the old guy and the kid.”

…And sure, pretty much any time someone says anything about homosexuality in society, you’re going to get the firmly conservative comic book fan base’s panties all tied in a notch (provocation with that sentence very much intended). In fact, reaction went both ways, with fans coming to the “defense” of the Dark Knight, explaining that he’s bedded lots of women; and other fans pissed off for Morrison seemingly using gay in the pejorative… This despite Morrison’s assurance in an expanded version of the quote that he’s not using the word negatively (though you could also argue that anyone who needs to specify they’re not using a word negatively is giving a negative association to the word, so…)

There’s a bigger problem with his statements than his tempest in a teapot causing remarks about Bruce Wayne, though, and its that each of his breakdown about DC’s comic book characters showed a lack of interest – or focus – on a possibility for change and character growth… And that, if anything, is far more dangerous.

Now, before we get into discussing this, a note on change in comics: I realize that mainstream comics is a static medium in order to sell merchandise and books. I also realize that any change that happens (a character’s death, new characters, a new status quo) is usually only temporary, with everything being rebooted to normal in five to ten years time, if not an even shorter amount between reboots. The original versions of characters, as introduced, are often the most compelling, hence our constant revisiting of their origin stories, and constant lack of change in the comic book industry. I get all that, and whether I agree or disagree, it’s the way things are.

What I don’t get is Morrison talking about all this, or why his current MO is to return characters to their most basic forms… When for most of his career, Morrison’s byline has equaled massive, seismic change.

Maybe this is a reaction on his part, as any time Morrison has tried to heavily influence the status quo of a book or franchise, it’s been largely misunderstood by subsequent creators, and frequently erased. Take a look at what he did for Marvel’s X-Men, and how all those changes were wiped away pretty much as soon as he exited the title. It’s interesting, actually, that Morrison’s only contrary statements in the Playboy interview correspond to his breakdown of what he did for Magneto:

“Magneto’s an old terrorist bastard. I got into trouble—the X-Men fans hated me because I made him into a stupid old drug-addicted idiot. He had started out as this sneering, grim terrorist character, so I thought, Well, that’s who he really is. [Writer] Chris Claremont had done a lot of good work over the years to redeem the character: He made him a survivor of the death camps and this noble antihero. And I went in and shat on all of it. It was right after 9/11, and I said there’s nothing f*****g noble about this at all.”

It’s interesting to here him use specific phrases here, particularly “shat on,” which in no uncertain terms has a very, very negative connotation. It almost smacks of a creator who feels, well, shat on himself, saw himself get in trouble for actually creating a different take on a character, and – to really go out on a limb here – decided, “Fine, comic book readers, if you want the same old thing, I’ll give it to you.”

To be fair, he is talking about returning Magneto to his roots, but if you look at what he actually wrote in New X-Men, that’s not what happened at all. The Magneto of New X-Men (after a certain big reveal involving a certain character named Xorn) was almost not the Magneto we know at all… Like he said, Magneto, even in his pre-Claremont redemption years, was always noble in his villainy; in New X-Men, by the end, he was just an a-hole… And fans hated it.

That isn’t to say that he hasn’t continued to innovate, and push characters beyond their initial origins… His run on Batman added new details like Batman Incorporated, and revamped the Dark Knight’s origin involving a Bat God, prophecy, and more. With the recent Action Comics, Morrison dropped in new wrinkles appropriate to the New 52. Even with Final Crisis, an event which ostensibly brought every character to the ultimate end of their stories, he continued to throw in new details and play with DC Continuity.

This has always been Morrison’s strength, to look to the past in order to innovate for the future… But this interview, to wrap things back around, shows an alarming look squarely at the past to an almost myopic extent. It’s evident in his statements about Batman, and it’s certainly there in his take on Wonder Woman:

“William Moulton Marston, the guy who created Wonder Woman, was a noted psychiatrist. He’s the guy who invented the polygraph, the lie detector. He was one of those bohemian free-love guys; he and his wife, Elizabeth, shared a lover, Olive, who was the physical model for Wonder Woman. What he and Elizabeth did was to consider an Amazonian society of women that had been cut off from men for 3,000 years. That developed along the lines of Marston’s most fevered fantasies into a lesbian utopia. Although they’re supposedly a peace-loving culture, all these supergirls’ pursuits seem to revolve around fighting one another, and this mad, ritualistic stuff where girls dress as stags and get chased and tied up and eaten symbolically on a banquet table. The whole thing was lush with bondage and slavery. Wonder Woman was constantly being tied up or shackled—and it was hugely successful. When Marston died in 1947, they got rid of the pervy elements, and instantly sales plummeted. Wonder Woman should be the most sexually attractive, intelligent, potent woman you can imagine. Instead she became this weird cross between the Virgin Mary and Mary Tyler Moore that didn’t even appeal to girls.”

…And I’m sorry Mr. Morrison, but you think having a Wonder Woman that gets tied up and sold into slavery is going to get young girls into comic book stores? Seriously? Yes, there are times we need to look to the past, but there’s a reason ideas like Marston’s are left to comic book history. I’m not saying they didn’t have their place, I’m not saying they’re not interesting, but they’re history, and Wonder Woman as a character has moved beyond the perverse sexual elements that began her long journey to heroics.

In a similar way, his statements about Batman are just a slightly more intelligent take on schoolyard kids giggling that Robin is Batman’s “ward.” That’s not to say the interview is without worth… His take on The Joker implies real change – it’s all based on change, and the fact that the character is essentially reflective of whatever the world is like outside. Similarly, his comments on King Mob, about how writing and inhabiting a character can affect you physically are a unique look into the writing (and in a certain sense, acting) process.

The concern here is that he’s slipping more and more into predictable behavior, relying on looks at the past, rather than moving comics into the future. Sure, it’s a tough battle, given you’re on the losing side: fans and companies complain they don’t want change, so why should you go out on a limb to provide it? But really, the first superheroes weren’t created based on expectations, they were created as a way of inspiring the world outside comics to be better than itself. And the world did change… So can’t superhero comics change with it?

We used to look to Grant Morrison, for better or worse, to provide that change, and to be the guy who was mostly misunderstood in his own lifetime. It’s a thankless job, but for years, he took the position and embraced it. Ironically? We don’t want him to go changing on us now.

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