Stripped opened earlier in the festival with Chris Ware and Joe Sacco, but the vast majority of the 40-event programme was crammed into a three day weekend devoted to all things comictastic. On the Friday, I enjoyed a not terribly well populated Melinda Gebbie talk (write-up to follow) which got me a little worried about audience turn out, but the remaining events were mostly all near sell-outs.
Not least the main event of the evening, Grant Morrison in conversation with Joe Gordon of the Forbidden Planet blog, with the writer filling the main venue of the festival for the third year in a row. Titled “Superheroes Unmasked” this talk was in fact a little bit like Morrison’s greatest hits, but with plenty of new faces in the audience this went down a treat. And of course it’s always nice to see Morrison having fun on stage, with him on particularly bouncy form for the audience.
I actually did a wee warm up interview with Grant before the event, mostly to try and promote Stripped as something awesome that was happening at a major international book festival, so while I’m happy to take some of the credit I’m sure the copious amounts of wine in the Author’s Yurt helped too!
Warning – this gets long. My previous coverage of the Stripped events are fairly thorough but there are a couple of guests in particular – Morrison and Neil Gaiman – that I really don’t want to be seen as out of context or liable to be misquoted. Because, and not to be mean, I’m seeing a lot of that going about in some of the coverage thus far. So my apologies if you prefer shorter pieces!
We opened with congratulations to Morrison for getting his MBE from the Queen earlier in the year, with Gordon cheekily asking if her maj was a fan. “She likes that early Vertigo [stuff],” Morrison quipped, before revealing that it had been Prince Charles who had presented the award and breaking into a top notch impersonation of Charles extolling how much he loved the Eagle and Dan Dare before dissolving into giggles. “I told you Dan Dare was a fascist,” he joked.
Gordon used the Edinburgh location to ask about Near Myths, an early comics magazine in the late 70s that featured the earliest work of both Morrison and the legendary Bryan Talbot, who was sitting in the audience. “I just want to say that Bryan should constantly be recognised as one of the greatest innovators in not only British comics but everything that followed the 70s,” said Morrison, with enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Joking about Near Myths being so long ago, back when the Normans invaded, Morrison spoke about how Rob King had put together the first “ground level comic” of Britain, the idea coming from the West coast where Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach anthology – “science fiction with tits, it was a simple formula but it promised a lot” – had been an early attempt to create an adult comics scene. (Ground-level comics were neither underground comix nor mainstream or over-ground publications as it were.) Morrison explained how the stories had followed a simple formula, having fantastic spaceships and what not, but a recurring theme of naked ladies.
Near Myths then was an attempt to blend the sci-fi appeal with more mainstream sensibilities and the cosmic touch that Jim Starlin and others had been doing in the early 70s. It should be remembered, said Morrison, “because Scotland, again, was one of the first attempts to do something like this,” cheekily calling for a round of applause for Rob King. Remembering how the meetings were filled with the guys smoking dope constantly, Morrison added, “and I was a super straight-edge little mod, I’d turn up in my suit and I was really fucking disapproving [laughs]… but then I’d come out and I’d go to the chip shop, and I was going, ‘oh wow, chips! It’s just I never thought about chips like this before!’”
Bryan Talbot had eventually taken over editing, said Morrison, because of the vast quantities of swirling smoke and mad ideas. “Marvelous times, wonderful times!” quipped Morrison in a faux old-timey voice, before jokily adding. “Dope and chips is the title of my next autobiography. Dope and chips, nae problem! [giggles]”
Asked whether he stuck to office hours when writing, Morrison shook his head, describing his work as a non-stop job. He gets up at nine and works until he’s fed up, or until Big Brother comes on. Discussing how he juggles different projects, Morrison spoke about how he has a lot of deadlines but each has a different approach. Batman is very “intricate”, Action Comics is “straight forward – well it wasn’t straight forward for the last five issues, but it was intended to be a straight forward, physical comic”, and all his books have a different feel to them that he can jump between. “It keeps it interesting. It keeps it vibrant.”
“Of course it’s fun doing Batman,” said Morrison, when asked whether he’d been having fun writing Batman Incorporated. “…Better than being Batman is writing Batman I think.” Morrison spoke about how culturally important Batman is, that people are still watching Batman movies, and that people are still excited at the idea of seeing “Batman kicking the shit out of Superman! [laughs]”
Speaking about his run on Action Comics as part of the New 52 semi-reboot, Morrison explained some of the thinking behind the t-shirt and jeans look – that it had partly come from all the complaints over the years about Superman’s costume being weird, and wearing pants on the outside and so on. “If we take away everything you hate about Superman, is there anything left that you like? [laughs]”
Taking a young Superman wearing some clothes that approximated the colours of the traditional costume, Morrison then brought Superman all the way through to meet with his present day version, with the Jim Lee costume. Gordon suggested that the story had got quite complicated. “The last five were quite twisty,” said Morrison, “but before that, honestly, I thought they were quite simple stories.” (Our review here!)
Morrison also added that with the New 52 Superman being quite different from the previous version(s), he wanted to show lots of moments from his life to try and give readers a taste of who this man really was, and the transition between his jeans-wearing Superman, and the more recognizable Silver Age Superman we now had. “I’d have kept him in jeans forever… but I had to tie into this new costume, and that’s what the story became.”
Morrison talked about finishing his epic Batman run as something he’d felt needed wrapped up, to allow newer Batman stories more room to breathe. “I really didn’t want to get in the way of that,” he said, talking about Scott Snyder’s run, “and I’d lasted long enough.” He mentions how much he enjoys Snyder’s work again later on.
After working non-stop on DC books for seven years, it’s perhaps no surprise that Morrison is a bit bored of superheroes for now. “Superheroes have been soldiers for a long time,” he said, saying that people have confused the two to such an extent that we now ask for Batman to kill the Joker, and Superman to kill Zod. “I think vigilantes shouldn’t really be encouraged to kill people. [laughs] Perhaps I’m wrong there! Perhaps my morality is slightly skewed!”
“The minute Batman killed the Joker,” he mused, “Commissioner Gordon would arrest him… For me it’s very strange to see all these superheroes being positioned as arms of the military industrial complex.” [I’ll enter two caveats here that occurred to me at the time – when Morrison discussed The Killing Joke on the Fatman on Batman podcast, he posited it as the last Batman/Joker story when interpreted his way, and Morrison has spoken before about how superheroes appealed to him in his childhood as he grew up in fear of the atomic bomb, as superheroes could do anything, they could save everyone, etc]
Morrison added that it was getting a bit tedious for him and that he’d like superhero films to go back to showing heroes helping people or stopping bank robberies, rather than being the soldier figure in this threatening world that we live in. But that those films will continue to be popular until the West stops being scared of itself.
“I think the superhero cinema of the West stands exactly in relation to 9/11 as the kaiju cinema of Japan stood in relation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think these things are all responses to trauma.”
Asked about the upcoming Wonder Woman title, Morrison described it as a “very very beautiful book”, saying he was sure people had seen some of Yanick Paquette’s pages that had been teased. “I expect it will be out next year.” Asked about the title, The Trial of Diana Prince, Morrison referred to what had been in the papers, saying how Diana constantly seemed to be under trial.
I know a few people have complained that whenever Morrison talks about Wonder Woman he discusses the sexuality angle of it, and indeed he was asked once more about that – the trouble with interviews! Morrison spoke about how elements from the original Golden Age series, chains and bondage and so forth, were re-contextualised in his book taking into account the 7000 years that passed on the island after the Amazons set up their own utopian society.
The writer said that “sexuality is a part of that”, perhaps hinting that people are putting a little too much focus on the obviously headline-grabbing topic. He spoke a little about how sexuality had become super-formal and ritualised on the island, saying he didn’t want to give too much away as it would pre-empt how people read the book.
Moving on to another upcoming book brought great enthusiasm from Morrison. “Aww yeah, Seaguy!” he grinned. “He’s my favourite. It’s the final book, Seaguy Eternal. The first book was about childhood, the follies of childhood, and the second book was like being a teenager and rebelling… and the third book is about adulthood and death. It’s about maturity.”
Seaguy Eternal will see Seaguy going to Lostralia, the former mainland now broken into 1001 small islands when the Anti-Dad fell there at the end of the superhero age. Morrison talked about how the script had been completed and announced when he saw Cameron Stewart saying online that he hadn’t received it, with non-comics sites announcing the subsequent arrival of the script as actual news. “Well that’s fucking important,” he laughed, before adding in a faux-posh voice when Gordon suggested comics were now big news, “… everybody loves the graphic novels these days!”
Asked about his previous thoughts on how the pendulum in comics had swung too far towards writers at the expense of the artists, Morrison said that he thought that comics in general had reacted against that pendulum swing recently, with less of the cinematic panel spreads that had become somewhat standard. Chris Burnham, he said, had been inspired by a far wider variety of media than just looking through proscenium arch of the cinema, while Paquette was using wonderful decorative work around his panels, and he highlighted Greg Capullo’s work on Snyder’s Batman too.
Morrison confirmed that he still wanted to do a Flash story at some point, a simple sci-fi story about the hero getting faster and faster and not being able to stop – and how that would effect his life and relationships. Man, I wish DC still did Elseworld tales!
The writer was happy to talk about the still upcoming Multiversity. “What’s between a mini-series and a maxi-series?” he asked. “I dunno, a multi-series or something?” The nine issues are each drawn by different artists, each focusing on a different parallel world. One includes a Nazi Superman, which tries to get away from the typical parallel world Nazi tropes, and examines what would happen to a man like Superman who has grown up in that culture and created a Utopia that is quite grotesque.
Pax Americana, from Frank Quitely, has an eight panel structure based on musical harmonics that takes some of the techniques from Watchmen and puts a modern spin on them. This one is a particularly intricate piece of work – Morrison likened it to doing calculus – but said it had been great fun to create. The book opens with the assassination of the president.
Cameron Stewart’s book, Thunderworld, is already finished.
The Q&A was then opened to the audience. Asked what he had read recently that he loved, Morrison confessed that he always forgets the names of comics he likes and should really start writing them down. “I read all the DC comics in the bath because they send them to me,” he grinned. “So it will be one of those. Scott Snyder! I really, really enjoy what he’s been doing.”
He added that Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed to Thrizzle is his “favourite comic of all”, and confessed that he used to follow Green Lantern when it was “like Star Trek”, all interconnected and with John Stewart “and all these guys. Before he became a rainbow. No he was fine as a rainbow!” But the Geoff Johns continuity is what he missed.
Asked about MorrisonCon, he said he’d had “no idea what to expect” but that it had been a great experience. “I’ll never do it again,” he said, explaining that it had to be a one-off and unrepeatable event.
Next up the writer was asked whether he missed Batman. “Yeah, kind of,” Morrison replied, “but there’s also a part of me that’s really glad it’s done.” He said he no longer had the hectoring voice of Bruce Wayne in his head anymore: “[growls] ’You’d better get out for a run!’ [simpers] Okay Bruce.”
Gordon asked whether he’d got to keep the utility belt, Morrison joked that Batman couldn’t survive without it. “You could put extra stuff in it. Like lentils.”
Asked by an audience member what he had meant previously be describing one of the Multiversity books as haunted, Morrison said he couldn’t answer that without giving away his secrets. “If I tell you, somebody else will steal it! It’s such a good [idea]. It’s really simple, you’ll go ‘oh fuck, alright… shit I’m possessed!’”
Next up was a question on working alongside other writers on 52. Morrison said everyone had their own strands and arcs, and that he really enjoyed it. “It’s great to work with other people and see how they think and how they organise their stories.”
Asked about whether he’d once pitched a Superman story to Warner Bros and whether he was allowed to talk about it. “I don’t know if I am but yeah…” Morrison answered to laughter. He spoke about working as a consultant at Warners for a few years alongside a couple of other guys, constantly trying to explain comics to the executives and try out ideas. It was, said Morrison, “a strange experience”.
The next question was from a Fatman on Batman listener who had picked up on the writers tendency to walk around his house acting out the lines of his character. Who was his favourite to channel and would he consider playing that role in a movie? “Aye definitely!” laughed Morrison, before saying that while he was quite good at improvisation he wouldn’t be able to learn lines. “So not a chance!”
“Who could I play… Lex Luthor, I could do him,” he grinned. “Now you’re fucked Superman!” he growled, before adding, “You see, the toilet seat was green kryptonite.”
With Gordon pushing for more information on how Morrison talks as his characters, the writer squeaked, “stop talking about this!”, laughing that people just wanted to hear him saying, “[Batman voice] ‘This city stinks, it reeks of hate and shame, and shame and hate. It takes a man like me…’ honestly, is this what you want to hear, that this is what I do with my time?!”
A genuine explosive laugh came from Morrison when the next audience question was asking his opinion on the casting of Ben Affleck. “What do I think about Ben Affleck? Let’s see the performance. Nobody believed Michael Keaton could do Batman and he did a great job… we’ve seen him as Daredevil so all you have to do is get a felt pen and colour that in, and that’s pretty much what he’s gonna look like.”
Asked about how his mammoth Batman run evolved, Morrison said that at the end of RIP he realised it would be great if Bruce stayed out of the picture for a while, saying that he could have done the Dick and Damian run for “a long long time”. With DC wanting Bruce to come back, Morrison thought up the idea of Batman Incorporated. “These things just suggested themselves in each case.”
The next question, I think, was on where Morrison gets his inspiration for the more alien and extra-dimensional concepts in his work. He replied that it was just down to stretching the imagination and being interested in the occult, and that his direct contact with peculiar things had been very inspirational.
Asked by Gordon what his own favourite monsters in fiction were, Morrison replied that the Zanti Misifts of The Outer Limits – ant-like beasties with demonic human faces – were “seriously disturbing” and that he was “a bit worried about them!”
Almost inevitably there was a question on whether there was a chance that Damian would be making a Jason Todd-esque rise from the dead. “I’m sure there is,” Morrison replied. “It won’t have anything to do with me, but… the grave is no object in comics.” The writer spoke again about how he approaches superhero comics as something that could never really happen in real life. “I’m writing about the reality of them. And the reality of them is that they’re made out of paper.” Batman cannot end and it’s that constantly recycling longevity as a cultural object that is interesting.
Was Bat-Cow your idea, came the next question from a younger fan. “What do you think?” Morrison grinned as the audience applauded. “Yeah, Bat-Cow was my idea but apparently there was already a Bat-Cow in Tiny Titans…. He’s in a new comic as well. Other people are writing about Bat-Cow now – that’s how potent and important that character is!”
Asked why he was so good at writing rebellious characters, Morrison cited his father, a revolutionary character, as a huge influence on his life. Growing up going to protest marches, anti-establishment characters appealed to him. But as he got older, he inevitably became part of the establishment, so he enjoys going back to those kinds of characters.
The next question was from a parent who said he always tried to explain why the bad guys are bad to his young daughter – and did Morrison think it was important to write villains that you could empathise with. “Sometimes I think that’s good,” he answered, “and sometimes I think the stories demand just a clear Manichean black and white [villain].” Morrison added that in superhero comics he tended to write more monstrous villains as he felt the superhero was already representing the other end of that scale of absolutes.
“All villains should have a reason for what they do,” he said, noting that some stories needed a complex villain while others required a creature from your darkest nightmares.
An audience member next asked about sigils and whether comics were a good vehicle for working out those kind of ideas. “Absolutely,” said the writer, expanding a little upon his hyper-sigil from The Invisibles, which was extending the sigil through the fourth dimension, adding plot and, most importantly, duration. Morrison added that he’d like to see more people trying that, and in other media as well.
The final question came from a very enthusiastic audience member, asking to hear more about Morrison’s experiences in Kathmandu. “Awright man?” started the question. “Basically Ah’m surprised naebody’s asked you aboot Kathmandu yet, cos that melted ma mind like, and I wid like tae hear some more… Ah’m yir new apostle.” [I’m Scottish, no complaints!]
“This is like [my] greatest hits,” Morrison grinned. “This is like singing My Way.” I can’t possibly do this one justice without reverting to full transcript, so here are a few key scribbled bits and pieces. He went to Kathmandu to achieve enlightenment because he’d “seen it on the telly”. If you could make the 360 stairs to the temple in one breath, you were guaranteed enlightenment. “So that seemed easier work than meditating!”
The next day while writing a bit for The Invisibles, caveating again that he’d taken a little hash but that the “effect” hadn’t been like anything he’d taken before (or after, rapidly firing off the various substances he’d tried). He talked about how the landscape had transformed, “pipes coming out the back, spirituality venting” out of the temple, went to lie down and blobs came out the wall… like “bits of mercury floating in anti-gravity”, communicating with him and saying “Okay, you fucking asked for it…” and off they went to Alpha Centuari.
And I’m really not doing this justice. Morrison explained all about his experiences, his altercations even with the culture there before being pulled out, the blobs telling him “you’re too dangerous to go into any other cultures, you’re just an idiot. You’ve really offended those glass tube people!” A lot of the experience ended up in the pages of The Invisibles.
At this point Gordon tried to go for another, and final, audience question. “Wait, I’ve no’ finished it yet!” cried Morrison, to laughter in the audience. “This guy’s waiting for the big finale!” The entities then told him what they’d brought him to see, to forget time and space, and turning him about showed him the higher dimensional space. All of the space time continuum was a singular object. Shakespeare and dinosaurs, all in the one place, with silver things plugging into a grid and receiving information. They created universes within time, a larva within a universarium. They told him, “’Now you’ve gotta go back and try and explain this.’ Fuck you!” he laughed, adding there was more to it but that was the gist.
Hopefully the video of the event will go up on Youtube because you need to hear it from Morrison himself within the context and so forth. Or use the preceding paragraphs as your impetus to go and read more about it all in Supergods (or The Invisibles!). Morrison spoke a little more about how anyone who has these kind of unexplainable experiences are all learning about how everything is one, that everything is connected, but that sometimes the message gets garbled leading to people thinking that they are the one, the Neo or messiah.
A huge round of applause followed that, before the audience practically stampeded out the tent in order to get to the always-massive signing queue, with Morrison happy to chat away to each and every person who stood in line.
It was a fantastic start to a hectic weekend, and a real boost of energy to everyone that attended I think. My full interview with Grant, some of which was for The Guardian, will be up very soon!