Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, by Grant Morrison, examines comic book superheroes from the early days up to the present. Part memoir, part history, part literary/artistic analysis, it’s both an outsider fan’s view (from Morrison’s early years) and an insider writer’s view (from his working days at several comic shops, including DC and Marvel). The result is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, but unfortunately by the end the mix is unbalanced toward the negative.
The first third or so of Supergods — the more historical aspect — is a relatively quick overview of how the superhero rose, lived, and crashed. While Morrison’s history is solid, several other books out there do a better job with the topic. One aspect of Morrison’s summary that improves on these other works, though, is his focus on the artwork, which offers up some truly eye-opening insights. Unfortunately, the impact of what should have been a major strength is marred by the lack of accompanying illustrations of most of the scenes he discusses. There is little more frustrating than having someone describe an artist’s work to you. I kept asking, “Would it really have killed the budget to show me the da-n panel itself?” (As a disclaimer, it is possible the art is yet to come or that the lack of it is not Morrison’s fault but due to rights issues.)
This section is also weakened somewhat by Morrison’s sometimes overly exuberant language, which came at times in a torrent of superlatives. This first became noticeable, then a bit wearying. I believe Morrison is sincere in his admiration for what he is describing, but the language loses its impact when it comes so often and is so constantly elevated. Along with the over-use of superlatives, at times I found his statements to be a bit too sweeping, or at least, I would have liked a bit more support of them rather than have to take them on faith. On the other hand, when he avoids the hyperbole, he can write some simply wonderful passages, as he does for instance when he discusses Captain Marvel’s trigger, “Shazam,” and how “everyone searches for his own magic word.” There were enough of those types of passages that, combined with his artistic insights, kept me happily reading through the book’s opening chapters, even if I winced now and then.
But when Morrison begins to offer up more memoir, when it becomes more fully his story, the book started to devolve for me. At that point, Supergods became unfocused, spending too much time on his drug use and ensuing visions involving aliens and multiple dimensions. There was too much time spent as well paying back others in the business, either for good or ill, and I began to distrust his criticism the more it seemed he was discussing friends and enemies rather than artists. I started to become impatient at the halfway point and by the latter third was admittedly skimming through, stopping off at what looked like interesting points. By then the book had pretty much veered off the rails for me. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments of insight in the latter half that were worth reading; it’s just that I felt I had to wade through too much to get to them. There’s a wholly enjoyable and fascinating, well-written 200 pages or so here. Unfortunately, though, the book comes in at nearly 500. I wouldn’t recommend buying Supergods, but I would recommend checking it out of your local library and reading the historical section that begins the book, more for the art criticism than the historical overview itself, which adds little to prior books on the same topic.