"Being extraordinary is so much a part of our heritage as human beings that we often overlook what we've done and how unique it all is."
Grant Morrison loves comics. He not only writes them, he lives and breathes them. Or that's how it feels, anyway, while reading Supergods, his new book about comics and superheroes and why we seem to have such a fascination with them.
The blurb on the front cover reads: "What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human," and that's no hyperbole. Morrison has a lot to say about the rise of the superhero in modern culture and how the face of the hero has changed with us.
He divides the book into roughly four sections, each corresponding to a recognized era in comic book evolution: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Dark Age, and the Renaissance. The way he handles each allows the time frames to overlap a bit, as he's talking more about the themes and ideas of the work than about specific dates.
He lovingly dissects the cover of Action Comics #1, the first time the world met Superman, with an artist's eye and a perspective on history and culture. He weaves recollections of the origins of Spider-Man and the history of Batman on screen with comparisons to modern objectivist philosophies, reactions to Nazism and World War II, and the McCarthy-era "Red Scare." He summarizes the complexities of DC's Crisis and Marvel's Civil War and other universe-spanning crossovers into something understandable to the layman, and yet fun for the fan, and puts it in context. The subjects of drugs (in terms of story content as well as their effect on the writers and artists themselves), sexuality, and censorship are all brought to bear. In the more modern era, he shows the correlation of the darker, grittier turn of superheroes and the advent of the hero on film and the new awareness of terrorism and new kinds of evil.
And if he sometimes gets a little too autobiographical, a little too into his own work, it's forgivable. Even if he makes too much (in this reader's opinion anyway) of the influence of his run on Doom Patrol or his work on Animal Man, it also has to be said that he's definitely made his mark with his love-it or hate-it revamp on X-Men and the astonishing and revolutionary Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Where Scott McCloud went with examining the technique and method of comic books in the wonderful Understanding Comics, Grant Morrison takes a different tack in Supergods. With the perspective of both the fan of the form and a creator of it, he pulls back the curtain just enough to give us a tantalising and telling glimpse of the history of the superhero.
And in that glimpse, he shows us the astonishing potential in ourselves.
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