Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Moore and Morrison and Deconstruction

I received an interesting, insightful e-mail from Jason Faris a couple of weeks ago. According to Jason, he's an "autodidact, comic book enthusiast, energetic fictional advocate, moral philosopher and budding comic book author; currently posing as a mild mannered 33 year old father of twin seven year old boys and working as a cubicle jockey in the Midwest." Well, that sounds pretty good (except the cubicle jockey part, since I keep picturing a tiny little man surrounded by large gray walls covered with memos and photos of cats).

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?

18 comments:

Rolando said...

I think fantastic. This piece is great and I don't have much more to add other than it's something I will bookmark and pass around. Thanks!

Dean said...

I think Moore and Morrison are geniuses, but are not capable of containing all of literary history within their combined bodies of work. Jason is right to point toward their backgrounds as the source of their perspectives.

That is what makes their work special. Moore and Morrison are writing about what these pop culture figures mean to them. For Moore, they are primarily expressions of an establishment that is corrupt. So, he delves into the corruption in their natures. For Morrison, they are primarily sigils that convey power. So, he is interested in their iconography.

What is remarkable is how rare the personal approach to superhero writing still is. It turns up from time-to-time in creator-owned material (i.e. ASTRO CITY), or out-of-continuity material (i.e. KINGDOM COME, NEW FRONTIER). However, for the most part Big Two comics still feel factory made.

Justin B said...

Great thoughts from both Jason and Tim. When thinking of these two writers' careers, I find it frustrating that most people like myself haven't had the opportunity to read or even heard of their earliest deconstructive work--Miracle Man and Zenith.

Jason Faris said...

I would argue the two have more to do with constructivism and dadaism than modernism and postmodernism. But then I learned my 20th century history via Greil Marcus not Literature 101, as you could probably tell by my grammar (or lack there of). hehe

Chad Nevett said...

Interesting ideas, but a little too simplistic and easy for me to have two guys represent the two major movements in 20th century literature for comics. Also, that presumes that Morrison is a postmodernist when he's always seemed more a modernist.

Timothy Callahan said...

Oh, yeah. It's completely oversimplified.

But Morrison a modernist? How so? (Unless you're saying all postmodernism is just modernism, which might as well be true, I suppose.)

Chad Nevett said...

Andrew Hickey lays out a pretty good argument: http://andrewhickey.info/2009/09/12/modernism-vs-post-modernism-–-why-can’t-comics-reviewers-define-terms-hyperpost-9/

But, when in doubt, yeah, postmodernism and modernism are the same thing...

Timothy Callahan said...

Wow, I completely disagree with Hickey. Johns is a romantic, not a postmodernist, and Morrison may not have the postmodern tone, but he has the structural characteristics and appropriated styles.

(Though I'd also argue that his earlier work was more postmodern than his post 9-11 comics. Seven Soldiers is probably only postmodern because of Williams's ironic appropriation of other cartoonists style, honestly.)

But I think of postmodernism as an offshoot of modernism anyway. It's an aspect of modernism, though not everything that's modern is also postmodern.

This is a dumb argument, and I will probably stop arguing for or against such labels. They are merely convenient shorthand descriptions for me.

Chad Nevett said...

The labels are useful is causing us to call one another names on the podcast.

I could see Morrison as a postmodernist if you see Moore as a modernist since so much of what Morrison writes seems to be in reaction to Moore. In that respect, the labels work quite well.

Anonymous said...

Great, thought-provoking stuff.

First thought: On the "modernism IS postmodernism" idea, I think that to a large extent the difference consists of the depth of the reader's evaluative tools. In other words, the same work or author can seem "only" modern when you're studying from a Cliff Notes-ish point of view, but that same work or author can seem a clear product of postmodernism after you've read, err, a lot of literary theory (especially books on postmodernism!). This obviously isn't true in every case, because the actual content of the texts matter, but something like Joyce's Ulysses or much of Samuel Beckett's work can be understood as "only" modernist...or you can bring more ideas to bear on the texts, and then they will reciprocate the effort you put into them and seem very postmodern. It's not a matter of quality, necessarily, though I think in general increased complexity and varied stylistics of a work makes it more likely to be postmodernizable. Some of Beckett's texts, however, aren't all that varied or complicated, and yet they're easily made postmodern. On the other hand, The Waste Land is more complex and varied than most of Beckett, yet Eliot is completely modernist, impossible to make postmodernist, imo. Hemingway's text are thoroughly modernist as they don't contain enough complexity or ambiguity to foster postmodern readings. And whereas Ulysses can be modernist or postmodernist (usually just modernist, unless you're a Joyce scholar), Finnegans Wake seems postmodern by its very nature--through its difficulty, strangeness, and varied textuality it simply CAN'T fall back into modernist territory.

Timothy Callahan said...

That sounds about right.

But where, in your opinion, does Moby Dick fall? Or Tristram Shandy? Don Quixote?

Those are difficult to categorize and always make much of the "postmodern" label fuzzy in retrospect. Not that I'll ever stop using it.

Anonymous said...

Second thought: The reactions to industrialization from Moore and Morrison are interesting, especially coupled with the knowledge that they both came from liberal households. Interestingly, Moore's Swamp Thing (the GREEN comic par excellence) starts off with an arc featuring the Floronic Man, who comes to represent the limit of Green agenda gone completely crazed. For the sake of the planet, Jason Woodrue would kill all of humanity. The complete antithesis of the Green agenda is thus built into the very first arc of Moore's Swamp Thing...almost to get it out of the way, since the series proceeds--after Woodrue is overcome--to argue against industrialization and conventional humanity for the rest of its run. This isn't a judgment call, by the way, just an observation. Moore's Swamp Thing is my favorite run ever, and I don't think its "Green agenda" is a negative; I don't think Moore's conjectures in the series are preachy or undue, either. But imagine if Woodrue had arrived at the END of the run rather than the beginning: at the end he would have seemed like a smart, stark, deeply insightful, critical counterbalance; at the beginning, he only serves as a somewhat wacky caricature.

As far as Morrison goes, I was heartened to hear Tim say on the Splash Page podcast that he had trouble watching himself on the Disinfo video. Maybe he's rethought some of his New Age beliefs since then, and--not that it's HORRIBLE--but in that 2000 speech he came off as totally falling for "Don't worry--we are all ONE" hooey. In the speech he basically tells us crowd to throw away their identities, toss out all individualism. Today in 2010 (I don't think it's just me) but that seems to be a very trite, dated, literally self-deceitful way of thinking. "Kill Your Self!" seems to have been the end of the phony New Age movement. Today it seems obvious that neither individualism nor collectivism are totally the way to go, but that anyone with a thoughtful view of real-world reality needs to take a bit from both and not totally reject either: individualism and collectivism have positive and negative aspects, period. (What a simple concept; too bad it took the entire 20th century to sort that out.) Maybe before all of the annoyingly REAL crises of the past decade it was easier for Morrison to indulge in totally utopian ONE-ness, but I've seen some evidence of a change, a refinement, in this thought since the Invisibles. I mean, in his Batman run the antagonist is (in some way) The Devil--and The Devil is made out to be REALLY BAD. The guy who wrote the Invisibles seemed unlikely to go that quasi-Biblical good vs. evil route. Through 2000 the cutting edge of fiction still seemed to be saying "Nah man, nothing's GOOD, nothing's EVIL--that's all just a trick!" But now THAT wishy-washy way of thinking seems like a trick in its own right, and the post-Invisibles Morrison, though optimistic about the future, seems more likely to include notions of REAL GOOD (Superman) and REAL EVIL (Dr. Hurt) alongside all of the shades of gray, moral ambiguities, and various relativisms.

P.S. Tristram Shandy is definitely the rare pre-1900 postmodernist work! Moby-Dick seems a very encyclopedic example of realism. Quixote--maybe the second half of it is a forerunner of modernism the same way Shandy is a forerunner of postmodernism; and the first half of Quixote would just be MODERN, with no -ism?

Kris Krause said...

Wait, I thought these types of labels were supposed to be for convenience...

I do like Jason's focus on Moore's deconstruction versus Morrison's iconography. But what I don't see many people touch on when talking about the Moore/Morrison differences is how, in at least one comparison of more recent works by the two creators, their roles seemed to have switched.

That first involves talking a bit about the differences between Moore's "Modernist" period, as Tim put it, and Moore's later work. Everyone working in comics reacted to Moore's Modernist period works, but no one's reaction seems more severe to it than Moore's himself.

So what we see in works like Supreme and Tom Strong is a total abandonment of Moore's trademark deconstruction, replaced with a heavy dosage of pastiche. I must confess right here, though, that I only read about half of his work on both of these titles. I can only take so much pastiche before I grow tired of it. Moore arguably used pastiche way back in his first issue of Marvel Man, however since he spent the rest of his run deconstructing that first issue, what Moore was really doing there was more of a parody. Moore's later work, as far as I could get through, was devoid of that cynical edge deconstruction brings to a story.

Now compare Tom Strong #4-7 to Batman and Son and Batman #666. It's a very similar story: our hero learns he has a son who has been raised by an evil former girlfriend figure, some sibling rivalry between the hero's current junior partner and the new child, and finally a look into the distant future to see how it all works out for the new child, now an adult.

Moore's version, which came out first, ends with the hero, still alive in the distant future, engaging in a traditional superheroic battle with his twisted son. He saves the day, without sacrificing his morals (as a superhero is supposed to win), by rendering his son unconscious through a standard super-battle.

I don't know if Morrison wrote Batman and Son and Batman #666 as a reaction to this Tom Strong story, but it's interesting that Morrison's future ending, as we're all no doubt very familiar with, involves a world where it is strong implied that the original hero is dead. The formerly twisted son, now our only hope for a hero, freely admits that he is a poor imitation of his predecessors. After a physical battle, the day is saved through a deal made with evil incarnate and by the hero's son apologetically abandoning the hero's moral code.

These more recent works by the two creators in question seem to continue the trend of Morrison reacting to Moore, but their roles are reversed in these specific examples. Moore holds fast to the iconography of the superhero in ending his story, while Morrison's story ends in a morally dubious dystopia closer to a setting Moore would have written during his Modernist period.

Timothy Callahan said...

...and if you watch that Moore documentary, you'll see how much he now (or whenever that doc was made) sounds like Morrison with his philosophies.

In Morrison's documentary, he doesn't sound like Moore. He just sounds like a person.

Jason Faris said...

I see my snarky -ism comment was a little to veiled to get us away from this front. While I realise it is mostly my fault for including a couple of "realisms" and one "deconstruction"; couching these two into some sort of literary context wasn't really my aim.

This letter was written in response to a splash page podcast where Tim and Chad were talking about "energy" in different authors work. The Moore Morrison dichotomy was merely chosen as a vehicle to describe where I think that energy comes from.

A simple metaphor would be once a hammer (tool)is invented one can either bemoan the human frailty of needing a hammer (tool) how many people it is putting out of work, etc. Or one can go build some sh8.

I would seriously argue though that Comics are more performative than literary, and framing them in terms of 20th century literature is a little stuffy.

Let's ask ourselves, "What's next" instead.

Jason Faris said...

Oh, on Morrison aping Moore. I think that to the degree that Morrison recognizes Moore's work in his own it is merely to say that if you shave off the shaggy beard and hobo haircut you can get the King of The Beach Again.

Gerry said...

The biggest difference between Modernism and Post Modernism is that modernism comes with nostalgia. Both are reactions to the loss of faith in the grand narratives or "isms" after the atrocities of the World Wars. But, modernism still yearns for a return to the past, where as POMO basically just accepts the chaos.

A basic consequence of this in POMO is the loss of meaning in signs. This relates to Morrison's assertion of the characters being more real than reality. It's right from Baudrillard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation).

I'm not sure where I would place Moore, but Morrison has much more POMO tendancies. At the end of the day, though, I doubt either one set out to write a modern or POMO book or woke up and said "I AM A MODERNIST!!"

Geoff Johns is most definitely not a post-modernist, though. He is nostalgic for the past, which is not POMO in the least.

spiderboris said...

They're basically both the same person aren't they?

Both brilliant, cutting-edge, experimental, iconoclastic writers.

Both serious, highbrow thinkers with radical, lft-wing sensibilities, pop-culture nous and a sense of the absurdly surreal.

Both British creators of American comic books.

Both weirdo occultists obsessed as much with the ideas of Aleister Crowley as with those of George Orwell.

Both convinced that all of reality is accelerating inevitably towards eschatalogical heaven, or hell.

ie, a right pair of hippies.

Perhaps as a consequence of pondering this and my desire to finally bring this nightmare of Hegelian dialectic to an end, every so often I have a disturbing vision of the two of them stripped to the waist, ready to cage-fight one another to be crowned king of comics deconstruction and post-modernism - ideally with Neil Gaiman trying in vain to referee.

Or perhaps in some hideous Brundelfly-style teleporter accident, the two would become fused together to produce...

Gralan Moorison! Just think of the comics this grotesque monstrosity would churn out!

I for one would definitely read The League Of Extraordinary Invisibles. Then feel my brain explode.