Jason had some things to say about Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, and after I responded positively to his e-mail, he revised and expanded his comments a bit, and so I present it to you now. Jason Faris's thoughts on Moore/Morrison Deconstruction, with my commentary afterward:
It is not to shocking or original to suggest that within the last 30 plus years no writer has had as great an impact on the comic book medium as have Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. These two giants have, in fact, much more in common. Both are self educated, both come from working class but liberal families, both grew up in the British Isles during a period of economic down turn, both are self professed magicians, and both of their work is shrouded in the esoteric with a suggestion of the subversive. How is it then that their work is rarely complimentary and at times directly in opposition? Both are consummate craftsman, both intellectually stimulating and brilliantly playful, but with a very different energy and affect on the reader. Both are innovators of unbridled imagination but have a completely different impact on other writers or would be imitators. How is it that these two men with so much in common could have bodies of work that are so strikingly different. I think the starkest and most telling difference between them is in their approach to the iconic figure and conversely how they use these figures to address or reflect realism.
The iconic figure is something/anything that is instantly recognizable. There are two very basic ways to interact with these figures. The first is to instill them within the bounds and boundaries of realism, to imagine them human. The second is to honor their inherent unreality as something 'other', to mythologize them.
The so called "deconstruction" of the superhero probably didn't originate with Moore. In fact a number of English books featured significantly darker heroes and anti-heroes. That period in English culture was socio-economically predisposed to mistrusting brightly clad primary color optimism. A cultural situation that America found some resonance with in the 80's, most notably with works like the Watchmen. In the long run this was essential for the medium to be elevated literarily. To show what could be done with the form. Additionally, reimagining these pure iconic figures as containing the frailties of the eras and insecurities that spawned them gives us access to them, updates them for a more cynical and more modern audience. It seems in retrospect like a no brainer, inevitable. Moore's real strength and the true evidence of his incomparable genius lie in his remarkable ability to craft a story and imbue a modern literary psychology within the medium of sequential art. Moore’s playfulness resides in this craft.
This deconstruction of iconic literary figures and archetypes is a hall mark of Moore's career; in fact it dominates almost the entirety of his work. The goal of this, one must imagine, being to use these iconic figures as a mirror into ourselves. What would getting the savior who so brilliantly sparks our cultural imagination be like? How small would we seem in his presence?
Morrison is no less interested in "realism" but to him these iconic figures are already "real". To paraphrase Morrison himself, “The real deal offers no emotional weight, no cathartic release, and no dramatic structure”. It is not necessary to "bring these figures down to our level" they are already pure expressions of ourselves, and he respects them as such in and of themselves. The superhero for instance doesn't need a human motivation to do good. The Superhero is simply the figure mankind has invented who always does good. Superman is the greatest invention of man not because he is a perfect expression of man but because he is man’s perfect expression of a savior who “loves everyone and always wins”. This is where Morrison's infamous 'weirdness' comes from. He is dealing with shiny abstract ideals and interacting with them on this mythic level as though their rules are as real as ‘the real deal’. These figures however don’t live in our world accept to the degree that we live in theirs. Neither do they necessarily abide by our rules.
I think asking for faith in the iconic figure in and of itself takes real guts and isn't as obvious a departure in today’s increasingly cynical society. This is why his work pops and crackles with energy. He is looking not to the past for where these ideas came from, or anthropologically into the dark recesses of our cultural psychology (though he does do this at times) so much as using the best tools we have for imagining our own greatest potential, looking to where we are/could be going. This is also why the apocalyptic and/or paradigm shifting event feature so prominently in his work. Morrison is asking where we are going. What is next? Morrison’s playfulness is unchecked (at times recklessly so) as his craft is subservient to the myth. He is always looking for the best ways to manipulate his work to accentuate these alien ideas. Reality is stranger than fiction so a realistic fiction must be very strange indeed.
There is much more one could explore in this exercise. I am not sure of what pragmatic value it would be beyond merely to support what is stated above. I am sure one could explore the Manichean vs Anti-Manichean relationships in their work, their very different views on adaptations and otherwise embracing or refuting the elements of a capitalist and information age. But I think the above is a succinct attempt to outline the root of these relationships.
My first thought is that it goes back to what I've said before about Moore as an ironist and Morrison as an absurdist, but by spinning his thoughts around both writers exporation of "the real," Jason looks at the differences in a fresh way. I think he's basically right when he talks about Moore exploring the psychology of the characters while Morrison explores the iconography, since the characters are, as Morrison has said, "realer than we are" already.
I also think about the development in literature in the ages since industrialization. I'm talking masterpieces of fiction and poetry here, in a simplified, Survey of Lit 101 kind of way. But, basically, as industrialization in Europe grew more oppressive, the poets and artists and novelists turned toward Romanticism, idealizing nature and purity over man-made artifice.
We get that in comics from the Golden Age through the Silver Age, even if the idealized "nature" was the nature of "super-science" more often than not. (But think of how the evils of industrialization have always been at the heart of comic book villainy, from organized crime to brainy scientists to robots.)
In literature, Realism followed Romanticism, so we get Charles Dickens exploring social class and we get Emil Zola exploring the grim working conditions of the common man.
In comics, we get the Bronze Age.
While Modernism and Postmodernism take up the entire 20th century in literary terms, as the disillusionment sets in around WWI, followed by vast influenza outbreaks and tragedy and, in America, the Great Depression. So we get T. S. Eliot and we get Ernest Hemingway and we get James Joyce. All of whom, in their Modernist ways, interested in psychological realism and the fragmentation of society.
That's Alan Moore, circa 1983-1987. Modernism in comics.
Grant Morrison, coming in at the tail end of those years, immediately brings the Postmodernism, and "Animal Man" #5 is the epitome of that, with the metafiction, with the commentary on the Modernist mode.
So I can't help but think that Moore and Morrison compressed 100 years of literary development into about five years of comic books. It took a while for comics to catch up to what literature had been doing for decades, but once they broke away from the simplistic Romanticism, they started catching up really quickly.
Of course, this ignores the influence of the underground comics and even the EC comics and anything else that's not Moore or Morrison. But that's how this game is played.
What do you think?