Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human

Supergods book review Grant MorrisonSupergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSupergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (2011), 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.

Published in 2011. From one of the most acclaimed and profound writers in the world of comics comes a thrilling and provocative exploration of humankind’s great modern myth: the superhero. The first superhero comic ever published, Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, introduced the world to something both unprecedented and timeless: Superman, a caped god for the modern age. In a matter of years, the skies of the imaginary world were filled with strange mutants, aliens, and vigilantes: Batman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the X-Men—the list of names as familiar as our own. In less than a century, they’ve gone from not existing at all to being everywhere we look: on our movie and television screens, in our videogames and dreams. But what are they trying to tell us? For Grant Morrison, arguably the greatest of contemporary chroniclers of the “superworld,” these heroes are powerful archetypes whose ongoing, decades-spanning story arcs reflect and predict the course of human existence: Through them we tell the story of ourselves, our troubled history, and our starry aspirations. In this exhilarating work of a lifetime, Morrison draws on art, science, mythology, and his own astonishing journeys through this shadow universe to provide the first true history of the superhero—why they matter, why they will always be with us, and what they tell us about who we are . . . and what we may yet become.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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11 comments

  1. Bummer! It sounds like it would be so good, too.

    • Marion: I’m just reading over old Fanboy Friday reviews out of curiosity, and I must say that I absolutely loved this book, even though I agree with Bill’s breakdown above. It’s just that I love Morrison’s over-the-top language and his swing into the overly personal memoir and questionable evaluations. It’s an inconsistent book in a number of ways mentioned by Bill. However, I thought it was consistent in one way: quality! As a Morrison fan who thinks his work lives up to the hype, I loved all the overly personal insight and borderline TMI. It was a 4 1/2 to 5 star book for me. At the time of this review I hadn’t read it yet. But I’m almost ready to read it again. For general comic book fans who aren’t particularly opinionated one way or another about Morrison and aren’t likely to be put off by Morrison’s extreme quirkiness accurately described by Bill, I would rank it 4 stars. I think it’s an important book with a ton of playful ideas that usually make me think. For the many readers interested in either a biography OR an overview of the history of comics but not an odd hybrid beast of the two, Bill’s dead-on: 2 1/2 stars. I just wanted to put in a word for those of us who thought it was the bomb and not a bomb.

      • One of my students is currently reading it and also loving it (and no, I won’t be automatically failing him . . .)

        • I was on a total Morrison kick at the time, and, as you know, when you are in that kind of mood, anything by an author is so much fun!

  2. Derek /

    Beware. Not everything Grant Morrison puts out is golden (as much as his hardcore fans like to think). The guy is really good but he has some ho-hum stuff out there.

    His Animal Man stuff is supposed to be really good. His New X-Men run was very good. Another positive review would be his JLA (Justice League) run–if you can find any of these in graphic novels which you should be able to.

    I would also highly recommend his All-Star Superman run. This one or the New X-Men run.

  3. Derek, I don’t think I have read any of Morrison’s stuff. How is his All Star Batman & Robin?

    I was very disappointed to see Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder just abruptly end. :(

  4. Derek /

    Greg, if you were to pick a trade paperback / graphic novel of Morrison’s to read, I would probably go with his All-Star Superman run. Great writing and Frank Quitely’s art flows with it. It is a stand alone story so you don’t have to worry about any continuity interaction with other DC titles. Highly recommended and I’m more of a Marvel guy.

    As for Frank & Jim, most big names in the comic business are only good for 6-12 issues. It’s a rarity to see a major artistic team last more than a year, unfortunately. Kind of like players on sports teams.

    Another superhero title to seek out that has been stellar in recent times would be Daredevil. You can either start with Kevin Smith’s short run or jump into the Bendis / Brubaker stretch. Or even the current Mark Waid run which has been receiving major accolades.

  5. I read Miller’s Daredevil:Man Without Fear. I liked it but I haven’t read much that Miller has done and I didn’t like.

    A buddy of mine is big Bruebaker fan and he turned-me-onto Criminal and Fatale. I’m curious about Bruebaker’s take on Iron Fist.

  6. Derek /

    I loved the Brubaker Iron Fist run and David Aja’s illustrations were made perfect for it.

  7. OMG Derek- Now I’m wondering
    how long it will be before I buy that one off Comixology too. At this rate, they’ll own my house by next year.

    I so loved all of Marvel’s Martial Art comics in the 70s & 80’s. Master of Kung Fu was freakin’ awesome!

    • Derek is right: All- Star Superman is one of the all-time greatest comics. And I’m not a huge Superman fan.

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