In addition to the editors, the participants are: Kate Roddy, Keith Scott, Darragh Greene, Nick Galante, Tommi Kakko, David Coughlan, and Roy Cook. Although she gave a presentation on Thursday via Skype, Clare Pitkethly was unable to participate in the roundtable.
The roundtable lasted for approximately two hours and 45 minutes, and has been edited for inclusion in the journal. The excerpts present the sections of our conversation in which our discussants offer their insights into complex themes such as work methods and authorship; fiction and reality; politics; gender; ethnicity; and animal rights.
After a series of papers, which used different theoretical approaches to dissect Morrison’s comics, the roundtable began with a discussion on each participant’s favorite work by Morrison. All the different choices showed that ultimately a serious academic interest rests on the sheer pleasure of reading, and research, in turn, adds to that pleasure of reading comics. It was clear that reading Morrison very much transformed the participants’ appreciation of comics as a medium and their reading habits in general.
The subsequent discussion of the topics of authorship and craft showed, if anything, the complex nature of this issue and betrayed the old quarrels between the realities of the industry and the creativity of the writers and artists. Though both the industry and the academy seem to require certain uniformity for categorizing purposes, a brief overview of Morrison’s works showed that there is no consistency even in the case of a single author.
After brief remarks on Morrison’s philosophy on the reality/fiction binary, which stipulated that Morrison is less interested in the reality in fiction as much as he is keen on revealing the fictions of our reality, the discussion turned to the issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and of course politics. Except perhaps in the case of The Filth, the participants revealed several problems with Morrison’s recourse to stereotypes, his attempts—both successful and unsuccessful—to rework clichéd notions of femininity, masculinity, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Although several participants showed that there are certain elements in Morrison’s treatment of these perennial themes that complicate the picture, they identified more problems.
Identifying an almost binary split in Morrison’s treatment of politics, a constant struggle between tyranny and anarchy, the participants showed a certain consistency throughout Morrison’s oeuvre; for instance, the effects of Thatcher’s England on his early works and his development of some form of anti-political politics that really boiled down to basic ethical principles of mutual kindness and a profound resistance to grand political solutions and the paradoxes of utopias.
The roundtable finished with a note that the discussions contributed to the creation of a toolbox of theories and approaches useful not only in the future studies of Morrison, but also the amazing world of comics in general.
The organizers wish to thank the Department of English at Stockholm University for supporting the conference. We hope that you will enjoy our conversation and its vibrant contents, as we did on the day of the workshop. To listen to an excerpt from the roundtable please visit: http://www.english.su.se/about-us/events/conference-on-comic-guru-grant-morrison.
Note on the transcription. Although this is an edited version, we have tried to maintain the oral character of the discussion while being true to the spirit of the exchange. We have also maintained the linearity of the topics in the discussion.
GRANT MORRISON’S CRAFT, AND THE PROBLEM OF AUTHORSHIP
KEITH: I think that Grant Morrison’s career is like Alan Moore’s. He too started off drawing and writing. He did the cat in Sounds magazine. And what’s interesting about Morrison is he does know something about the graphic importance and the placing. There’s probably more to be said about that. I haven’t seen enough of Morrison’s scripts. What’s the move from script to work?
FRANK: You know that’s what I was trying to ask Clare yesterday when she was talking about the disintegration or the fragmentation of characters and panels and all this. I don’t know how Grant Morrison works, I don’t know how specific he is, how much direction he gives his artists. The collaboration with Frank Quitely on All-Star Superman speaks to an energy that is syncretic—it’s synthetic. They work together and work off of each other, so I just wonder to what extent his artists have an influence on him.
DARRAGH: Well that gets covered in Talking with Gods, Patrick Meaney’s documentary. In it, you’ve got a range of Grant Morrison’s frequent collaborators speaking about process. And really a lot of them say they have no contact with him once they get the script. And they shoot it back to him. He adds dialogue, whatever it may be. Sometimes things might change when they see it in print. But the one person who is singled out as having a more particular access to Morrison is Frank Quitely that they do get together, and talk, and hash things out. It makes sense that there is that synergy in their collaborations that may be lacking from some of the others. I think Cameron Stewart was somebody who said he never talks to Morrison at all, and yet Cameron Stewart is an excellent collaborator too. He seems to have an intuitive grasp of what Morrison’s going for, or works with great complementarity for Morrison. I find Cameron Stewart’s interpretation of Morrison to really flow really well. And as I said, Cameron suggests in the documentary he doesn’t have very much contact with Morrison at all.
KATE: Also another example of a script is the end of Seven Soldiers Deluxe. I don’t know whether the amount that he puts in the scripts has gotten less over the years, or whether he’s mastered the art of being concise. But it seems like his instructions there—to J.H. Williams, is it?—are very concise.
DARRAGH: Also, in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting (1999), Morrison is interviewed by Mark Salisbury on writing process and a sample from a script’s included
KEITH: It makes you think of the sheer horrendous challenge of doing an adaptation of a Morrison script. I think that’s why in The Invisibles, the Westminster Abbey sequence goes so badly awry because what Morrison has in his head and in words is incredibly hard to visualize in a 2-D image. Even if you were doing it in CGI. The pictures are better when you don’t have pictures sometimes. But it is a visual textual medium.
NICK: The obvious example is Arkham Asylum. Again, the fifteenth anniversary of it has not just the full script in the back but Morrison has footnotes that he’s added. And reading that, after reading the actual graphic novel is really interesting. Because he has some very specific instructions in there. He does admit in his footnotes that McKean kind of ignored some of them. Some of them he was quite happy with and some of them he wasn’t.
DARRAGH: In that documentary, Talking with Gods, you see him in his house, and he has these thick notebooks, in which he doodles and draws and writes up notes. We see in the documentary him flipping through one he’d filled while he was working on All-Star Superman or coming up with the concept. You see all these different designs for the Superman shield and costumes and so on and so forth. So that would be a fairly rich resource for study if somebody could get their hands on that and went through it.
FRANCESCO: Since we are here I would like to ask a question about something I don’t know much about, and I would like to hear everybody’s input. What do you think of authorship in comics? Because I tried to cite The Invisibles properly. Then I started within the APA rules on how to cite comics and I got a headache. And then I started to wonder, who’s the author in comics? When Morrison gives information to the artists is he just the writer? Or, let’s say, is he the layout designer, or somehow the penciller, and so on and so forth. So who actually produces comics? Is that something like a joint effort?
ROY: Well first of all I’ll recommend a paper by a friend of mine, Christy Mag Uidhir, that is in my anthology The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach. But he addresses the issue. I’m not sure I agree with everything in his paper but it’s a really good start.
I mean there are two separate questions floating around here—one that’s of practical interest, which is the best way to cite comics and to attribute authorship in an official capacity. And then there’s a deeper philosophical question of who counts as the auteur, right? I mean a simple, straightforward but ultimately unhelpful answer to the latter question is the authors are just going to be anyone who is significantly and substantially responsible for aesthetically or narratively relevant aspects. And that may vary from comic to comic or even from issue to issue. In some cases lettering is super important. In other cases, not so much, especially in the day where 90% of comics are lettered digitally. So I think it’s going to be a case-by-case basis. But of course we can’t do citation on a case-by-case basis, right?
I think the authors are the people who are responsible for the art. And I think that with Morrison it’s hard. I think there’s no doubt All-Star Superman is a Morrison-Quitely work, right? I mean, it would be absurd to attribute that to Morrison as a Morrison work. Other of the more work-for-hire stuff, the contribution of the artists seems not unimportant, and perhaps they still count as auteurs, but at least there’s a difference of degree. It’s a hard hard question.
ADNAN: Do you think it’s also partially decided by the industry as well? If we have Watchmen or All-Star Superman, it says on the cover, you know, Morrison & Quitely. Whereas The Invisibles, there are so many artists who have done it.
ROY: And this brings up a third issue, and I think all of these are interrelated. But this has to do with marketing. You know, how are you going to convince people? And you’re going to highlight those artists on the cover who are known, who are sold, who are thought of by the public as the artists, the people that they track and pay attention to. But those aren’t necessarily the people that were exactly the same people responsible for the aesthetic properties of the work. Who gets cited on the cover of works typically has to do with the role and the fame and the influence that they garnered because of their role on previous works, and can hence be used for marketing. And this is not that the questions are irrelevant to each other, but they’re different questions I think.
DARRAGH: Currently, there is a huge omnibus, DC One Million, and that is a cross-over that Morrison engineered back in the late 90s. And for the cover of this thick omnibus volume all it says is Grant Morrison. But there’s only four issues’ worth of material actually written by him, and it’s huge. There are cross-overs with every single series that was being published. So you look at that and you think, “Wow look at all that Grant Morrison,” but it’s not the case. But I think, too, when it comes to comics’ authorship you’ve no problem if you are looking at a work like David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. You know that he has designed absolutely the object, everything. There is nothing that you’re picking up that is not David Mazzucchelli. The only thing he didn’t do was maybe chop down the trees and mulch the wood to turn it to paper. But maybe he’s gonna get to that at some stage.
TOMMI: There’s a precedent for this sort of thing in philology as well. There’s a book called Attributing Authorship by Harold Love. It has a big list of different functions of authorship. This is tracing who wrote what, the idea of historical manuscripts, and all that. So there is an awareness of different functions of authorship and different roles that people play in producing a text in literary studies as well. So it’s not quite that simple. It’s not just the author, at least not in philology.
ROY: I want to mention two things that I think further complicate the picture. Because it’s not complicated enough. One was with respect to the Morrison omnibus Darragh was talking about earlier. It says Grant Morrison on the cover. I think the way you put it was he was only responsible for four of the issues in there. And as writer that’s clearly right. But of course he was also the person that at some higher level organized the big event. The ‘evil genius’ of it. And if we take Keith’s idea that anybody who contributed something aesthetically important to the work, including letters and colorists and all that, should be attributed, then presumably Grant Morrison, in a proper Keith-style citation, should be in that list somewhere for all of those comics, even if not as writer.
But this brings up my second worry. And I think as an actual matter of how it’s happened I think there’s an easy explanation for this. But it’s the order we cite people in. There’s an implicit understanding that we’re citing them from most to least important in terms of their narrative or aesthetic contribution. That’s why letterers are going to go at the end. They make an important contribution but it’s small compared to the writer.
But then I think we need to rethink the assumption of how it’s done. Like Keith said, writer, penciller, right? Then inker and color. And that assumption never seems to be challenged in all the different citation formats you get for all these volumes that are coming out. And I suspect that the actual practical story of why that is is the vast majority of people doing comics studies are coming from backgrounds where they’re interested in literature. And … not that this is a bad thing, it’s just an unbalanced thing. If you look at comics studies, much more attention is paid to the narrative, to the story telling. To the literary aspects than to the art. You don’t find a lot of serious academic books on artists, Hatfield’s Kirby book notwithstanding. It’s one of the few exceptions. You find these nice big coffee table books about the artists but you don’t find the academic scholarship as much.
And imagine a situation like this where there are 10 art historians. And this discussion might go very differently if it were art historians who were interested in or even more interested in the visual aspects. And I think that’s something to keep in mind, that we’re coming from a very particular point of view, or many of us are, when we’re having these sorts of discussions.
DARRAGH: Just to add more complication to the mix. In some cases the editor also is quite important. And there have been some very autocratic editors in charge of certain characters in the history of comics. Like Weisinger in the 50s, who is probably the author of much of the main features of the Superman mythos, rather than the writers who were just pure kind of craftspeople, working up his ideas. Or you could think about for instance what happened with the X-Book line in the 90s. Bob Harras really was the controlling author of what was going on generally among that welter of books in the mid-90s after Chris Claremont was kind of edged out of a franchise he built himself.
But also in terms of credits, Marvel has more variety of credit types. You get the likes of for instance someone being credited with story, somebody else with words. An artist can be credited for breakdowns, then someone else for finishes. You get more varied credit in Marvel comics than you do in DC ones.
KEITH: The construction process is different.
DARRAGH: I think it goes back to Stan Lee’s ethos in the 60s where he was keen to introduce all the artists and creative people to the readers because of his investment in wanting to create a fan readership.
KEITH: That’s when you get the mythologizing of the creators as characters.
DARRAGH: Yeah, exactly. But he seemed much more inclined to dole out very specific credit, even though of course now there’s ironies concerning who’s responsible for the creation of this or that character, let’s say. But the co-plotting credit for writer, artist is something that I think originated with Marvel comics in the 60s because of Lee’s recognition of just how much heavy lifting Ditko and Kirby were doing. And maybe even ‘co-plotting’ was a little bit too spare a credit for some of those cases.
FRANCESCO: Do you think that Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison can be seen as some kind of plural entity when they work together? My ideas that appear on the paper are not just the ideas of Grant Morrison as an author or Frank Quitely as an author but the combination of the synergy, the combination of Morrison and Quitely as a couple. So when they work together, in some sense, they are a third author. Their synergy is the third author.
ROY: I would be a little bit skeptical of postulating this new Morrison/Quitely object. I don’t think we need that. I think that’s a little theoretically excessive. I mean there’s certainly something to the idea, and this goes back to when we were talking about scripting, and the interaction after the script is passed off. As Darragh was saying, in the documentary, that Quitely interacts with Morrison, once the script is finished a lot more than other authors. And I think that’s something we should track. But I don’t know that it’s analogous to these sorts of collectives. The border may be much fuzzier in a Morrison/Quitely work about who’s responsible for what, but they still put separate names on it. We’re still meant to, intended to assume that much of the narrative and story is Morrison’s. And much of the look of the story, the visual aspects, how we see the story, you know the literal sense of imagining certain visual experiences is Quitely, even if that border is blurrier than it might be in other collaborations Morrison has.
Also one thing to keep in mind when we’re thinking about Morrison and Quitely in this respect, and this was brought up earlier, comics is first and foremost a business. We’re talking about the mainstream stuff, we’re talking about stuff with a DC or a Marvel stamped on the spine or the cover. And the practicalities of how this works, right, I mean the books need to come out on time, in most cases limits the amount of interaction. The Marvel method is there partially for pure business efficiency, Ford Model-T sort of reasons, right? And part of the reason that a Morrison-Quitely combination can have a lot more interaction, a lot more back and forth, or how Watchmen was created—you know, driving to each other’s houses, and talking about pages and stuff—is because these people were at a level where they could turn things in late or demand another month or they could say, “I’m going to give you 3 issues over a year.” And most comics don’t work that way.
Oh, and in the case of Watchmen they lived close together. Now with technological communication, that’s less of an issue. The Morrisons and Quitelys of the world are allowed to get contracts and get deals where they have much more freedom to interact with much more freedom about time frames than the standard sort of you know, whichever X-Men title is being drawn by whichever sort of mid-level guy who’s just expected to churn out the issues on schedule.
KEITH: There’s another complicating issue. Just for the hell of it. If you think about the range of Morrison’s work. Think someone like Fernando Pessoa—Portuguese—who splits his identity into creative heteronyms. Alberto Caeiro, Federico Reis, and so on. And each of his personae writes in a different way, which is a really clever and deranged approach, which I love. With Morrison, look at what he’s done. Is it really diverse or is it all the same Morrison? Is it the same thing through different filters? Or is he actually trying to stretch what he can do and experiment?
KATE: I think that he often tries to vary or change what he’s achieving kind of narratively, in terms especially of metatextual ideas. But in terms of his preoccupations, they’re pretty much the same as you say from Zenith.
KEITH: Isn’t it like Moorcock? Moorcock creates the multiverse. And again all his works are tied together under the banner of The Eternal Champion. Are they all one? Is it all one fictional universe?
GRANT MORRISON’S ONTOLOGIES
DAVID: Morrison does see the universe as a living thing, doesn’t he?
KATE: In Talking With Gods by Patrick Meaney, there is this discussion with one of the guys he works with, I don’t know who he is. When you talk to Morrison, he describes the DC multiverse as somewhere that you can go.
ROY: Do we want to have the discussion about whether Grant Morrison really thinks he goes and talks to Superman? I think that Grant Morrison really believes this. So, we’re real people, right? We live in the real world, with tables and chairs and it’s real. And then there’s fiction. Yesterday in my presentation I talked about the Waltonian view on this issue. There’s things we’re supposed to imagine. They’re not real. And Grant Morrison, when you hear him talk, whether it’s about aliens, or about magic, or about fiction suits or just straight metaphysics, or whatever it is, you hear his claims about entering DC continuity. And you think that’s crazy, because he’d have to make himself not real, right? Or he’s claiming DC continuity is a real place, raising its status, ontologically, up to the real status that this world has. And I think that might be the wrong way to look at what he’s getting at. It’s not that the fictional world is really a real place, right? It’s the other way around. It’s that the real world is just another fictional world. It’s just something we construct, right? It’s all constructed.
KEITH: Reality is composed of fictions, we narrate texts that we always tell to ourselves. Reality exists? So where is the past then? The past is no longer touchable, right? Morrison’s view that time is happening simultaneously. He’s read a couple of issues of New Scientist and/or seen an episode of Horizon. You wonder how deep his knowledge is of these issues, but I have no problems with him saying: “I have gone to …”
KATE: I am gonna play devil’s advocate here. I think that he’s also a self-publicist and you should take everything he says with a grain of salt. I think he knows that everything he says about fiction suits, “I go into the DC multiverse,” is a great story! And, a great story, or true, they’re probably of equal value.
ROY: I agree that is a great story, but everything is nothing more than a great story, and just as real. It’s just all good stories. This is something that has come up in the editorial process in my paper, but, there’s different kinds of avatars, right? He has a lot of characters that clearly represent him. I mean, King Mob is one of them. There is no sense in which King Mob is Grant Morrison, right? It is supposed to be this surrogate for him. Not in the sense of Animal Man, right?
NICK: He talks about fiction suits, putting himself into the fiction.
ROY: Yes, he talks about both in terms of fictions suits, and entering it, but in very different ways. The things he said about King Mob, the claims about interaction, this is a story about King Mob, for him. What happened to Morrison happened to King Mob, and weirdly what happened to King Mob happened to him.
KEITH: As above so below!
ROY: Exactly! But it was a cause-effect relationship. But when he talks about the writer in Animal Man, there is an identity claim. His language changes. It is interconnected, and importantly connected, but they are not the same phenomena. They are two different things, of course. And that’s where it gets interesting, and that was what I was talking about in my paper for Darragh and Kate, for the previous Morrison conference, when John Ostrander kills the writer. There’s this great quote that Morrison has, that I put at the end of the paper. Somebody asks, “How does it feel now that you’ve been killed off? Now that Ostrander killed you off in Suicide Squad.” And Morrison said, “Well, like many superheroes, I died but I came back stronger and stranger than before!” And of course, it could be a tongue-in-cheek joke! I am not sure at what level that was intended to be, but at another level he kind of believes that. But again, I think that he is not trying to raise the ontological substantialness of fiction, but he’s lowered his view of the ontological substantialness of reality to where it’s all fictions. We’re just fictions in the minds of the glowy aliens that you see if you take drugs in Kathmandu.
GENDER AND SEXUALITY, RACE AND ETHNICITY
FRANK: So, what we decided to do was to change the topic a little bit, and talk about some things we might have not covered yet, yesterday or this morning. One suggestion is that we revisit our discussion of gender and sexuality. We can start there and be very productive. We also think we haven’t really touched on the notion of race yet. If you’d like to start with sexuality, we think this question is worth re-visiting. Is The Filth really filth? Is The Filth really filthy? Is it really sexy?
DAVID: Yes. It is and has to be, because otherwise it wouldn’t work. If we don’t consider it filthy in the sense of degraded and off-putting, it is at least filthy in the sense of representing abject characters.
ROY: I think that there are a couple of questions here. There is a question of interpretation and evaluation. There’s a clear picture of what counts as filth, and it is presented in the comic, right? And a question is, is this Morrison’s view, on filth/non-filth distinction? Is he trying to reflect society’s view? Is this the right view? I think that Frank’s quick comment yesterday was sort of challenging the view that this was mapping filth/non-filth correctly. Whatever we think filth is in a relevant sense.
DAVID: But if you talk about whether he thinks he has distinguished them correctly, that’s suggesting that he has identified what is filthy and what is not filthy. I think that he is more interested in the processes by which we arrive at a situation at which something is described as filthy or not filthy. It’s not about evaluating: “has he done it correctly?” It’s about interpreting his interpretation about how we arrived at our so-called correct evaluation. I think that’s what’s important.
FRANK: One question that I have in my own work generally is how these distinctions are made across groups. So, does one group construct this particular thing as filth, and does this other group construct this same thing as something that is not filth? So somebody says that ear wax is filthy, but some other group can be like Shrek, and say that ear wax is useful, we can make candles out of it. And it’s not filth, it’s useful material.
KATE: But aren’t all … effluvia useful?
FRANK: But that’s the question, isn’t it? If it’s filth, is it useful? Or is it trash?
KEITH: But wasn’t David’s idea that we grow stuff on the shit? But the question is, is it transgression? How many of us have been really offended by something that we have read in a Morrison work? I mean, one aspect about gender he attempts is Lord Fanny. That’s his attempt to do gender performativity.
KATE: Yes. I find Lord Fanny very problematic. I see that he does not distinguish between a transvestite and transgender. I’m not sure that he’s doing that ambiguity on purpose.
ROY: I think that an interesting thing about Sebastian O is that Sebastian is supposed to be this dandy, clearly biologically male, but sexually ambiguous, an androgynous character. There are lesbians in the book, and it was an attempt to address in a very nineteenth-century Wildean way what were at the time these very taboo sub-cultures and diversions. There is a sense of characters, including the ones that are overtly female, they kind of read like, you know, dialogues and characterizations kind of read like men. You know: “Lesbians are men with boobs!” Sebastian O is a man who just dresses like a dandy, but you just get the feeling that the exploration of identities is very superficial and visual.
KATE: Yes, very performative.
ROY: It is very performative but not analyzing the performance. Just scratching the surface, it’s more the notion of dress, of appearance.
KATE: We were talking about this yesterday, when hyper-masculine characters are often feminized, when we have Superman, we have Flex Mentallo as well, who is a profoundly gentle character.
KEITH: That’s interesting. When you look at The Invisibles, that line between Jolly Roger and Lord Fanny: “Dykes and trannies never get on.” Which someone picked up in a letter, if you go back to the original issue, somebody saying: “It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
FRANCESCO: Okay, let’s bring out the filth. I mean, I have friends who asked me: “Where’s the video with you and your wife having sex and so on? Should we share?” There is this de-tabooization of voyeurism, and at the time the comic was presenting a view that was very bold: “Oh my god! We will all be voyeurs! We will share videos and everything.” Now it’s become standard. I am fairly sure that in several countries amateur sex is by far the biggest market. Are we going from filth to normal things to do? Is this something that Morrison said, “How do we get to the notion of filth?”
FRANK: This goes to Keith’s question about transgression. About what lines of propriety are okay to cross. About what is okay to cross in comics versus what is okay to cross in w0 (world zero). It also goes back to my question about filth, really. How filthy is it? Is it a little filthy?
KEITH: It goes back to situationism! Is the recapitulation of the hegemony transgressive? Porn becomes mainstream! We know about this. We know the sexualization of modern culture, the increased gendering of childhood.
DAVID: I think that gentleness is important. Francesco, you said that you really loved The Filth because you really liked Greg Feely. And I think gentleness is actually transgressive. We can talk about the presentation of women, or gay men, or transsexuals, but he also just allows men who are also presented as hyper-masculine characters to also see a softer, gentler representation. I also think that it is Frank Quitely’s art, because of the gentleness of his characters.
When Frank was asking about transgression in The Filth, and I was talking about Tex Porneau being transgressive, I was trying to argue that Max and Greg are transgressive, because they are gentler men. They are viewed by the Hand as transgressive for that reason. It would be easy to position Max Thunderstone if he was Spartacus Hughes, this random killer guy, but because he loves his mom, he’s more problematic within existing social structures. But you are asking something different, aren’t you?
FRANK: Well, I’m not sure. The way I’m thinking about this, if we go back to the multimodality of comics. When we read a character and read something about gender characterization we need to realize that we get cues from different modes. So we get the visual, the physicality, the dress, the hair style, posture, gesture, all those physical cues. But we also get language, which is a different set of cues. So transgression, for Lord Fanny, there seems to be a level of variability, of the way that the physicality of Lord Fanny is presented versus her language. Sometimes she is visually tougher, visually more masculine, sometimes she is visually more feminine, sometimes her language is more masculine or more feminine. I don’t know if outside of this there is a trend, but the extent of transgression then varies for that character. I don’t know if that’s true for other characters or if it’s true in The Filth. That’s what I am trying to ask.
KATE: One of the main differences in terms of narrative between The Filth and The Invisibles is this idea, again, that Morrison is writing The Invisibles over a long period of time, and not having an absolute idea of where it’s going and how it’s going turn out. I think that he’s making up the characters as he goes along in a way that he’s not in The Filth. He has a clear idea of what every character in The Filth represents, and I don’t think that they vary. I don’t know if David agrees with that.
ROY: One thing I want to mention when we talk about different cues and norms and, you know, the script and the story, and then the art, and what the art gives us content-wise with the narrative. I think that we too quickly slip into this idea that Morrison writes the story, and especially in the non-Quitely cases, then he gives it to an artist who then just illustrates that story but it’s Morrison’s story and anything added to it by the artist is more stylistic. But it’s not. It’s content.
Different artists are going to draw things very differently. It’s going to have massive effects on how we understand the story to be. And The Bulleteer is quite a striking example of that. Because there is a temptation to think that the artist—I don’t want to say something quite as strong as ‘failed’ to understand Morrison. An optimistic reading of what Morrison was up to, he was sort of interrogating the world of gender and superheroes. And the artist’s rendition of that somehow undermines the point. One wonders if maybe there was an intentional tension there. Maybe the artist missed the point, maybe somewhere in between.
FRANK: Could we change our topic of conversation from gender to race? On the covers of The Invisibles, we see Lord Fanny represented in different ways, different styles. Sometimes race is more prominent, sometimes race is less prominent. One of the things I talk about in my classes on sociolinguistics and language and ethnicity is in some communities in the United States in the past there was something called the “paper bag test.” If a person of African-American heritage had skin lighter than the color of a paper bag, that was a way to pass in the white community. So I ask my students, when you see someone who is darker or lighter than a brown paper bag, what do you think about their identity, their ethnicity, or their race? So I look at these covers, I think: “How are we supposed to conceive of race in The Invisibles by just looking at the covers versus what we see when we thumb through the contents?”
KEITH: But there is the thing that race and ethnicity are separate things. They’re often combined like sex and gender.
FRANCESCO: I must also say that the way he represents the aboriginal dialect is very stereotypical. I mean I lived in Australia and I’ve studied sociolinguistics, and I started studying English dialects in Australia for fun. Basically nobody speaks like that and I recall these very old generations that want to make you believe somebody still speaks like that. So there’s something very stereotypical about the way the aboriginal English that doesn’t exist is represented in those episodes. Let’s say if anyone is Aboriginal and uses “fella” he gets a slap on the face. And still that is part of the plot.
KEITH: I have a similar problem with Vimanarama. Hindu gods? These characters are Muslims! It’s this stereotype of the Pakistani shop owner, which he’s playing with deliberately. That’s interesting. As with race, these issues are problematic. He’s a white British writer. But Boy is the character in The Invisibles that is problematic.
FRANK: Say more about this, why is Boy problematic?
FRANCESCO: Keep in mind that I come from a country in which the immigration became an issue when The Invisibles were being written. We were starting to have serious discussions and problems about the immigration in the early 90s. So when I started reading The Invisibles, I thought it’s not just Boy, but also Jim Crow. I felt that he was giving a representation of African American people that was completely off, and I had never been to the US before, but what I knew about the US in general, really clashed with the way he represented. For instance, Boy looks like Martha Washington in Give me Liberty. She’s this kind of stereotypical mother figure.
KEITH: Jim Crow is much more interesting, because what you get is a deliberate guying of the stereotypes of minstrelsy. I’m thinking of Season of Ghosts. The Jim Crow issue, which was produced as a series of one-shots in the first volume where eventually he possesses the [ethnic] white board [of directors] who had been possessing the bodies of black ghetto kids, to pursue all sorts of entertaining acts. At the end they become self-devouring minstrel shows with the great line “Straight out of camp time.” That’s interesting. That’s doing something more entertaining with these stereotypes.
FRANCESCO: I don’t like the way Boy is represented because she looks like the motherly type. I don’t know much about it, but she looks like a type of magical negro character, something like the stereotype of the black person, the African American person who has wisdom that she has to bestow upon the other characters.
FRANK: I think this comes back to the relationship between the writer and the artist, who is drawing Boy, who is drawing Lord Fanny, doesn’t it depend on the issue? My second point is, is it okay to say, “Hey, he’s this white guy from Britain, and we have to understand.” Okay, maybe we should understand a little bit, but we cannot understand too much, I don’t think we can give him too much leniency here about the way that these characters are being represented.
ROY: With regard to dress and a certain kind of stereotype in the story, it’s slightly more complicated because all these themes of dressing up (which is very Morrisonian even in his own life) of adopting certain symbolically resonant personas, I mean King Mob dressing up in different ways for various kinds of battle. There is this idea of adopting a kind of persona, and of costuming and disguise, and some of it could be playing, though I don’t think this excuses any of it, but there are these themes of adopting a persona, of adopting a look. Somehow a part of going to battle is dressing for it the right way. These are the themes of costuming that run throughout The Invisibles. So I think a some care needs to be taken at not looking at particular images out of context, especially with Jim Crow maybe, and judging it based on the content of the image outside the context of the other weird thematic things that are going on. I don’t think this is going to save Morrison, but this is an aspect of the story that complicates the picture somewhat.
TOMMI: What we talked about yesterday about the fast-food identities—it seems to parody that sort of thinking. I’m not sure it’s intentional in this particular sense, but the idea that identity is somehow completely malleable and you can do whatever you like with your own. There’s something wrong with that idea, I think.
KATE: It has to do with the privilege.
KEITH: Performativity is the privilege of the powerful.
KATE: And it’s not, as Frank said, a paper bag test. Somebody is not looking at you and immediately saying you’re not who you say you are.
KEITH: Then you look at the Boy story-arc, where you have Cell 23 generate autocritique! I think it’s brilliant, I love it, but it’s meant to be Boy’s point of view of the story, and it isn’t. Boy is the catalyst for putting all the other characters through the mill, so she disappears until the very end of the story, she gives up trying to save the world, “Saving’s what misers do,” which is a great line, but she goes off and has a child, which is a great story-arc, because she’s happy now and all that. And we always come back to King Mob, who is of course Morrison, and Jack Frost.
FRANCESCO: I was very puzzled about Jolly Roger. She’s not a very big character in The Invisibles. But the way she’s represented throughout the whole story like lesbians were men with boobs. She’s so utterly stereotypical.
KEITH: Whereas Batwoman I think was slightly more interesting as a character. But then the artwork is so stunning you forgive it almost anything. Jolly Rogers is a stereotypical bulldyke. It’s that clichéd butch, hypermasculinized female character.
FRANCESCO: I always felt that. Sort of badly stereotyped that wouldn’t make any sense. And also because I do know a fair share of homosexual women and when I was in Sydney I knew lesbian women and as a play they would play one form of the stereotype of themselves (which would be the butch type lesbian woman) as if to say: “This is how we would be represented in the mainstream.” I don’t know what she was supposed to be. I don’t know what Morrison was trying to do with that kind of character.
KEITH: It’s that trap of conflating sex and gender, which is so easy to do because we’re programmed to do it. The most feminine character is Lord Fanny, who is after all still a man. Patriarchy wins. Doubly.
FROM POLITICS TO REALITY
FRANCESCO: We could perhaps switch to a topic which is fairly delicate: politics and the way political issues are represented in The Invisibles. So we have the fascist state, they are in charge, the status quo. And then we have anarchy and there’s nothing else in between. One of the reasons for which I really like Greg Feely is that he looks like he’s somewhere else. Since it looks so black and white, so chaos versus order, so Moorcockian. Is there room for something else? Has he tried to have a different picture of how politics, life, can work?
DARRAGH: I think the run on New X-Men is a kind of cancelling out of extremes that don’t work that are revealed to always end in disaster and failure, and the suggestion or the implication of the conclusion—and it is open because you don’t know what happens after that next panel—but the option that everything is tending towards is a rejection of all the attempts to transform society in one fell swoop, by dint of a very developed and programmatic manifesto, and everything is scaled back to the level of basic human relations. I think Wolverine’s advice or point in the concluding arc is very interesting: you’ve got to take care of what you have that’s working. Wolverine is a character who’s very grounded and there’s two reasons for that. Number 1, he has his beastly side. And number 2, his control of that side, which was originally worked out by Claremont and Miller to operate out of practices of Zen-type meditation. This is how Wolverine originally got control over his animal instinct. But nevertheless, whether he’s animal or whether he is very controlled, civilized, it’s always about being in the present and taking care of what you’ve got now.
The conclusion with Emma and Scott coming together, with hope for the future is really grounded in an honesty between each other. Jean Grey in Morrison’s handling of her in the storyline is as quite a controlling character. She is a number of times represented as eavesdropping on people’s thoughts, and Wolverine explicitly tells her to, “Get the hell out of my private fantasies.” She’s somebody who is manipulative by virtue of having the emotional goods on everyone around her. Emma, when she turns her interest to Scott, is very open with the fact that she’s attempting seduction. There’s no kind of manipulation. It’s all very much, “Here I am, if you’re interested. Let’s do this.”
KATE: Is it what you’re saying about Wolverine and Emma is that it’s all about present-ness? And anybody that spends all their time looking into the future is likely to become corrupt, because they’re always wanting to manipulate and sacrifice things for the ideal future.
DARRAGH: The tragedy or the flaw in the future is Scott’s despair in the feasibility of this pristine dream that he’s supposed to be the custodian of. And when Emma brings him just to the present to the just-you-and-me now, and what we can do with these kids and the school now, that’s where I think everything tends to, over the course of all the rejection—this won’t work and that won’t work—it’s personal, personal relationships, and it’s very scaled back, very local.
KEITH: This is very adolescent in the idea that there is a complete denial of a possibility of any ideal political, ideological engagement.
KATE: It’s polarized, as Francesco said, that it’s either chaos or tyranny.
KEITH: Think of where Morrison comes from. He’s the son of a peace campaigner who grew up in Scotland with the UK submarines coming in and out of the loch. But there is no political politics, the politics is all human. It’s why can’t we all be nice to each other, as a basis for existence that’s a really good one, but let’s see, there’s this stuff called economics, there’s money in it. Look at Dare, the stories that were in Crisis, the magazine, they were explicitly engaged with the realities of Thacherite Britain. What we see now is this move away from the idea of the political. V for Vendetta engages with the problematization of anarchy so much better than the anarchy there (in Morrison). There is a critique there.
ROY: I just wanted to quickly point out how consistent that story is, before things changed I think quite right with the X-men, as Darragh said. It’s super consistent, so that the descriptions we started with, The Invisibles being sort of authoritarian, controlling reality, and there is this group of rebels, anarchists, trying to overthrow it. At that level of broad political description, The Invisibles and Sebastian O are exactly the same comic. One is set in the 19th century and one set in the 20th century. Same plot, political-wise, I mean, a recurring and relatively consistent political message of a lot of Morrison’s early comics until we get this dramatic shift in X-Men.
KEITH: Action Comics. Morrison’s Action Comics. He’s returned to the blue-collar Superman. Because, Superman, he’s a red-stater. He’s Bible Belt. He should be a Republican voter, because he stands for family, truth, justice, and the American way. But Morrison’s Superman, particularly in Action Comics, he explicitly says I wanted to return him to his roots, to the guy who stuck it to the man. That was cool.
DARRAGH: Here’s a good line from the text, regarding the encounter with the Kryptonians, who arrive and want to dominate, and they discussed it with Superman that he hasn’t done anything similar, and that he hasn’t become a tyrant, and one of them says to him, “Look at you boy, you could have built a new Krypton, in this squalor, you could have laid the foundation stones of tomorrow,” and Superman says, “That’s not fair. What right do I have to impose my values on anyone?”
KATE: Oh but he does. All the time. Twenty four hours a day. [Roundtable laughs.] Forcing them to be nice to each other.
KEITH: It’s partly like in The Invisibles. We’re trying to create a perfect world for everyone, including our enemies.
KATE: This is what Darragh was saying, that any utopia is always a utopia for one person. There’s no collective utopia.
FRANK: And what are Superman’s values? If he can’t impose his values on other people, what are his values?
KEITH: Being very nice to people.
FRANK: In All-Star Superman, I think that’s right. I’m not sure that’s always right.
ROY: There’s a sort of paradox here, right. The Superman of All-Star Superman is a Superman who we probably wouldn’t mind forcing his values on us, but a part of his values are not forcing his values on us. Whereas if you take some other authors’ interpretations of Superman, where he’s not quite the nice guy, wants to let us get there on our own, picks us up when we fall, the sort of Jesus Superman, that’s the Superman we probably don’t want imposing his values on us. He’s sort of the Republican Superman.
DAVID: Darragh, you pointed out another way in your paper, you were talking about the teacher, and Superman as an example. You can impose your values, or you can be an example. Inspire people. That’s a different way of being political, in a way. Living a life that you think is good, that you don’t necessarily force people to be good, but that you hope they will follow you in some way.
ADNAN: We may trace certain slippages between what Morrison may intend to do, what we may trace as intentions. It came up in terms of gender, that there may be a certain intention there, but then he just maintains some of these stereotypes. I was thinking of the polarity between his politics and his philosophy, that sometimes he maybe has a certain philosophy which clashes with his politics. Well, I’m thinking of this mainly because my MA student wrote a paper on Animal Man in which we can see Morrison clearly trying to advocate certain animal-right politics, but the way he’s philosophizing, his philosophical understanding of the human/animal boundaries does the same, just repeats the same old things that underpin those kinds of politics that work against animals. So there is that difference there. He comes in as a character and gives a lecture, “This is what I think,” but then the way he describes animals and humans, the way he creates these divisions between us, he just reinforces the old stuff, so I feel there is a conflict. Do you see other kinds of conflicts between politics and philosophy?
ROY: With regard to this specific animal-rights arguments that are given in Animal Man and how they reinforce these perhaps very artificial distinctions between humans and animals, it’s very interesting to then look at We3 in that regard where there’s the very overt sense of not only blurring those distinctions, but the actual plot makes these animals very human-like, and sort of overtly blurring that distinction.
DAVID: In Marc Singer’s book, where he discusses Animal Man, he talks about how the metafiction, which we may describe as metaphysical, is inseparable from the political/ethical, because, rather than moving the animals up to the level of the human, what he’s doing is, by placing Animal Man in the position of the authored character, he puts him in the position of the animal, so therefore, the way Morrison treats his character Animal Man becomes a model for the way we should treat animals. So therefore the metafictional aspect adopts a political and ethical aspect too. Which in a way makes Animal Man more interesting than We3, because they came up to the human level, and now they’re going to kick our asses.
ROY: Now when we talked about animals—and this notion that humans stereotypically are above animals—do the arguments raise animals up to the level of humans or push humans down to the level of animals? It’s exactly the same structural phenomenon we were talking about in the first hour, with fiction and reality. Is Morrison lifting fiction up to the level of reality with his crazy claims about fiction suits, or pushing reality down to the level of fiction?
KATE: This is a fractal.
KEITH: Or it’s a layer of pages. The universe is a stack of universes lying on top of each other, according to a few scientists. Morrison allows us to move through the pages, but none of them is more than the other. There is no w0.
ROY: Some of the things we were saying about Moore versus Morrison earlier. I mean this is a little too simplistic, but there is a sense in which you can almost understand Moore as wanting to pull the superheroes down to our dirty, real-life level, where Morrison is trying to push us, to get us to aspire. I mean especially in All-Star Superman, he’s always pushing us to rise to the level of the superhero because the superhero is an inspiration, rather than dragging them down into the mud with us the way Moore does.
KATE: Isn’t it in Talking with Gods that he says that Moore was about bringing the dirt into the superheroes’ lives, and messing them up and hurting them, and “I don’t want to destroy the best idea we’ve ever had.”
KEITH: I disagree with him about Moore. I think they’re both transcendent writers. They’re both all of it, reality-fiction, it’s all Maya, it’s all an illusion.
ROY: I think the plausible reading is, say you were to compare All-Star Superman to Watchmen, and you’re right, it’s much less plausible if you’re working with the entire bodies of work. This is also related to a problem with Moore’s public perception. Moore’s work is often more associated with the effect Watchmen had on superhero comics, rather than what Moore did after Watchmen. They forget about the work, they worry about the influence.
KATE: Can I ask a question since we’re finishing up? We’ve had two conferences on Morrison now. What have we learned? Is there more still to do on him?
ROY: I think there’s definitely lots more to be done. He’s written enough things and they’re cool enough and interconnected enough. We’re not going to run out of ideas on papers to write and things to say. We’ve now got a toolbox. In the two conferences combined, we’ve developed a theoretical toolbox, of different ways to think and approach the study of various kinds of work. I think we’ve got a lot to say, we got a much better idea of how we go about saying it, how we write a paper on some aspects of Morrison. We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the starting points. I think that’s important.
FRANCESCO: The question is if we’re onto something bigger. Here’s the toolbox, and we start with Morrison and from there we move on to the other authors.
KEITH: I think the tools we’re coming towards here, if we can crack how to do Morrison, doing anything else ought to be a piece of cake.