Narrative Crisis: Story vs. The Idea Men

I’m still working it all out.  But I do know this:

Story matters.

Grant Morrison and the Cerebral Compression Ray

Lots of caterwauling on the forums this week, and much of it aimed at Superman Beyond 3D, the first of a two part Final Crisis tie-in by Grant Morrison. Five clams gets you 40 pages and 3D glasses in case you tossed the pair from your last Kid Cuisine. It’s a book of big ideas from one of the most thoughtful and inventive minds in comics. As Jimski’s mom might say, this is rocket surgery. Make no bones, I’m a Morrison fan. Arkham Asylum, for me, is the Bat book to beat. Miller and Moore were worthy contestants, but my smooches go to the book that weaned Harvey Dent off the coin with dice and cards. I am literally and figuratively buying what he’s selling. But when I hit the mad Scotsman’s corner for some choice and mind altering product and he palms me the Snickelfritz, I will gripe. In the words of countless cats across the internet: “Do not want!”

I was particularly excited to pick this book up. If you gave me the broad outline for the story, I’d still be interested. And having read the book… I’d still very much like to hear the story. As it stands, I feel as if I got my hands on a treatment. Forty pages of dazzling ideas with the flimsiest of narratives. An Eeyore stick tent in contrast to the stately mansion it might have been. An illustrated essay. For the full effect, Superman might as well have been drawn with a script in hand. I set the book down at a complete loss. And not because I couldn’t follow the metapsychobabble. Something was missing. 


In Superman Beyond 3D, Grant Morrison is telling us information instead of showing it. Superman, Captain Marvel, Ultraman? They’re not characters here. They’re analogies. One-dimensional elements in a two dimensional book promising three-dimensional thrills in the 4th dimension. By my math, those are diminishing returns. Proponents for the book all tout the ideas, the substance of the narrative as the selling point. To hell with style, one is to assume. I’m not one to rally against the importance of an idea. Two weeks ago I talked about comics as a vessel for scientific and philosophical speculation. Fiction ought to stand as a challenge to the status quo. Fiction is hypothesis in the ever-expanding universe. But fiction is also about story. Story is connection. It’s an alien voice that gradually becomes familiar. It’s touch. It’s kissing (with tongues!). Story is a shared wisdom. Not knowledge inflicted upon the reader. I’m not asking you to hold my hand. I’m just asking that you shake it.   

Stories come and go, you say. Ideas are eternal. Every story has already been told, you say? Just a mechanism to convey ideas?  

Here’s what I said about it on Sunday:

“I agree that the conflicts are ancient and limited. But why do we still put up with them?

“Story. Detail. Nuance. That’s why.

“It’s not just what you’re saying. It’s how you say it.

“A stick figure can represent a woman. But we’d rather see Jamie McKelvie draw that woman.

“Idea is armature. Story is meat, is sinew, is breath, is heaving bosoms, is the motion of the fucking ocean. Idea holds it up. But story, character, detail, is how you see it. They need each other. Idea is sea and story is swell. And what is one without the other but a mute and passive noun and a verb with nothing to move?

“Morrison wrote an essay this week. It’s an outline. He’s capable of better. As enthusiasts of his bright ideas, we deserve better. He’s capable of better.

“Art isn’t a what. It’s a how and it’s a why. It’s variation. Bad story IS a machine. Good story is seamless. It’s part of the idea. It doesn’t just hide it. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. Don’t tell me your idea. Show me your idea. Story illuminates idea. It brings credence. What is an idea if you can’t see it? If you want me to believe it, you better paint it in the best light possible. Activate it.

“Ask for a little bit more.


I think this is worth addressing because Morrison’s work of late has been tripping the light controversial. Let’s zoom out a little to all of Final Crisis and the fan reaction. It’s a love or hate thing and I’m afraid that it’s being confused as a litmus test for intelligence. And let me assure you, it is not. Many readers are having difficulty with Final Crisis, and though a working understanding of the sweatier crevices of the DCU might help in your appreciation, there’s a bigger problem. Compression. I like Final Crisis, prefer it to Secret Invasion. But I get the sense that I could enjoy it more. It’s not about dumbing it down. It’s about taking a moment and panning the camera around to get the full picture. Decompress and let the story breathe. Otherwise it’s just a montage. And every word balloon is nothing but exposition. It’s a big story, sure. But if the only route to this massive hunk of Russian literature is the Cliff’s Notes, I’m not so interested. Cool thy jets. Where’s the beef?

Brian Michael Bendis and the Tantric Story Extend-O Beam


Take everything I just said about Final Crisis and reverse it. Bendis is literally struggling with the opposite problem, decompressing his story to the point that we have lingered on the same narrative elements (and setting) for a large stack of issues encompassing several monthly titles. If Morrison is shooting a montage, Bendis is filming a decaying animal in slow motion. Every once in a while an antler gets carried off. And we’re always in the forest. I love Bendis. I have no idea what he’s doing. Or I do, and wish that he wasn’t doing it. There’s the beef. Let’s eat.

I find it entirely fascinating that the generals of either big company event are experiencing problems with the same story elements (pace, rhythm), but at the opposite ends of the spectrum. There are those who clearly like one or both of these stories, sometimes at the expense of the other. But could the affection grow exponentially if they’d either slow down or speed it up? 


Mark Millar and the Big Concept Cannon


We often compare Mark Millar to Jerry Bruckheimer, a barnstormer in the war against our synapses. Big and explosive. In the age of Bright Ideas, Millar is cloaked in a halo of light bulbs, a veritable paparazzi chorus of flashbulb ideas flickering to life overhead. In this, our popcorn culture of consumerist escape, the kernel is currency. Ideas! Ideas make the pop. And Mark Millar rattles with enough high concept ideas to make even the most jaded of Hollywood tycoons swoon. Moths to the flame of apocalyptic wreckage.  His books become movies before they become books. Ideas are universal. Like supernovas. 

Millar has a gift and I am glad that he’s found a way to share it. Ideas can be chased, but there are those more receptive to inspiration than others. They’re spontaneous. Pop! They’re the notions you scramble to write down in the middle of the night lest you forget in the morning. Lightning in a bottle. The tiniest cinders, so brilliant, yet so helpless. A good writer, a thoughtful writer, can stoke these fires and make it into the blaze it was always meant to be. That light to show the way. Millar has a gift. A muse of explosive confection. A vision of sugar plums, however violent or vulgar. He’s got the candy and he’s willing to share. 

But I wonder if we’re not blinded by the light. I wonder if we’re all just moths chasing a light, kids in a candy store. Do we leave the theater with anything but a kernel stuck in our molars? Ideas are forever, they say. But is that enough? 

I speak highly of his reception to the muse, but I’m not the biggest fan of Millar’s words. It’s a difficult thing, but for those of us who have questioned the Bruckheimer of comics it comes down to that idea of promise and expectation. A concept is that idea which sells a movie. Which sells a seat and a Coca-Cola. It’s the hook. It’s the dangling bioluminescent bulb of the anglerfish. We buy ideas on faith and anticipation. Often we leave the theater, close the book, flip off the stereo in disappointment. Because expectations were not met. I feel this way when I read something like Kick-Ass. It’s a blitzkrieg of great, inspired ideas. But ultimately it felt like 13 gulps of air. I think any writer who’s gone through a critique of their own work ends up loathing words like “cute” and “clever.” And these are words I mutter when looking at the revised map of North America in Old Man Logan. Much like Morrison’s mind-bending monologues in Superman Beyond 3D, these are merely bullet points. Unexplored avenues. Idea, idea, idea, idea. Page after page of thrilling ideas. Merely a salvo of defensive fire. A big green wizard head to distract from the lost fortune teller behind the curtain. I’m willing to ride this one out because Old Man Logan is one of Millar’s more thoughtful projects. But then it’s also an homage to Unforgiven. Will it transcend that? I’m hopeful. But when it comes to Kick-Ass, I’m ready for some substance to emerge from behind the shock and awe. But I’m not getting my hopes up. 

I feel as if Millar is asking, “Is this enough? How about this?” And to be honest. The answer is no. Millar and Morrison seem to have the same problem. Sure, one is being criticized for being too brainy while the other is getting a dunce cap. It’s not about brain though. It’s about pacing. And attention to detail. A college professor once told me that there were three ingredients to a good argument paper. A clear objective or thesis, evidence to back it up, (the big guns) and the third spice which many writers often forget. Backing up the evidence. Attention to detail. Showing the reader why the evidence supports the objective. Morrison brings the objective. Millar offers plenty of big gun evidence. But are they backing that up and showing us why it all matters? What’s the story?


In this age of Bright Ideas, it’s not enough to simply have an incredible idea. Burnt out filaments are strewn about the floor. Ideas are everywhere, but the only ideas that stick with us, which truly resonate with us, are those that are fueled by powerful, illuminating story. Story is not merely a mechanism to convey a message. It’s the rocket that propels us to the stratosphere. It’s the force that carries us to an epiphany, invites us into a realization. And the mark of a great story is that the force never quite diminishes. It takes us to the stars and keeps on going. It encourages new stories. It demands that the adventure keep on breathing. That the idea which it endeavors to show us will never, ever stop glowing.

Paul Montgomery writes about heaving bosoms, 3D glasses, and angler fish in Philadelphia.  You can reach him at Or see what he has to say on Twitter.




  1. Terrific analysis, Paul!

    Question: Can you give some examples of stories (by these writers or others) where you feel like concept and story are really working together?  That is, in your view, who is doing the story part right, while still serving big ideas?  It sounds like you think ‘Arkham Asylum’ is an example of that — what are some others? 

  2. I certainly agree about Secret Invasion, Mark Millar’s work in general and Superman Beyond but I have to say, I don’t get these complaints about Final Crisis. Yes, it is hyper-paced, jumping from one scene to the next but it very much has a narrative developing, with each issue revealing more and more of the story that Morrison is trying to tell. It might still fall apart over the rest of the series but I still think it is way to early to judge Final Crisis.

    Regardless, great article Paul and really well argued – even if I don’t agree with everything.

  3. For more fun on the topic of Superman: Beyond, check out the iFanboy revision3 board under the new comics discussion for this week.

    Nice, Paul!

  4. Wow, I loved this analysis!  I am a huge Millar fan and sometimes take offense when others seem to just write him off.  But the way you described his style, pros and cons, all of it just made a ton of sense.  It actually an argument worth taking seriously.

     Agree with what you say about Secret Invasion.  I am not a huge Bendis fan and I am getting weary of the story, hopefully he kicks it up a notch in the next issue.  And sadly, I am not reading Final Crisis.  I wanted to pick it up, but as soon as it came out all I heard was it was terribly confusing and felt like as a Marvel fanboy, I’ll admit it, I wouldn’t be able to follow everything that was going on.  On top of that, I know that Morrison’s writing would probably increase my frustration tenfold. 

     Again, great job

  5. I’d say Millar is more of the Michael Bay of the comic industry. He does a lot of great things with violence but when it comes to story….he can just throw the script in the air and do whatever it takes to go from violent scene to violent scene.

    I love Bendis too, but if anything….his big event books are medicore at best. House of M was just blah and brought really nothing to the table in terms of writing. Now with SI he’s given us this big summer action film and it has no depth in it what so ever. Hell we laugh that Maria Hill or Agent Brand has been in the same spot for 5 full issues…that’s just pathetic storytelling.

    Morrison is the god when it comes to stories. He makes it complex, full of thoughts and imagination, and best of all makes us want to read more whether we like it or not. He would be perfect for prose novels and I would personally love to see him try one in the near future.

  6. Hmm, I’d say Millar is the Eli Roth of comics.  There’s a lot of talent there, but often he’s preoccupied with cruelty and violence.  The main problem with Millar is not the violence, it’s that he tends to make his characters unlikeable.

  7. @TheNextChampion – Did you read his all-prose issue of Batman?  I personally liked it (Conor and I are the only ones I think.).  His prose has some neat flourishes but it’s probably a tad overdone and might be exhausting to read 200+ pages of it.

  8. I haven’t read enough Bendis or Millar to really comment on either of their work, but I’ve read a lot of Morrison and also done a fair bit or research on him (two papers for a class), so I feel educated to discuss his work. That said, I can’t speak to Morrison’s Superman Beyond yet because I get my comics in the mail…and it hasn’t arrived yet.

    However, I wonder if your complaints about Superman Beyond might be less of an idea vs. story discussion, but rather a single issue vs. collection problem.

    I love Morrison. He’s one of my favorite writers of comics or any medium. But as awesome as his stuff is in single issues (I, for one, have been enjoying Final Crisis), I think his work shines the most when you can sit down and read the entire thing in one crack. (Or in the case of The Invisibles, a few sittings.) Maybe Superman Beyond is just a mediocre story, I’ll let you know what I thought when it arrives, but don’t write-off the whole mini-series just yet. Wait until all five (it’s five, right?) issues are out. 

    I think this calls for another column, Paul! “Issues vs. collections.” How ‘bout it?

    Of course, to take your side of the matter, Morrison’s All-Star Superman work has been awesome in issues, so perhaps Superman Beyond just isn’t his best work.

    @TheNextChampion I agree, Morrison is a god, but did you read Batman # 663? Morrison and prose do not mix! He should definitely stick to comic script writing. At least in my perhaps-not-so-humble opinion.  

  9. @ultimatehoratio – yeah, I enjoyed that Batman issue, but I agree that the prose was overdone. I would have said more than a "tad," though. 🙂 I probably wouldn’t read that as a novel.

    @TheNextChampion – I love Morrison, but I definitely don’t see Morrison as a god when it comes to stories. He’s done some amazing work — Superman Beyond is not it, IMHO. Ideas are cool, but the story is barely there. That’s what struck up the whole discussion on the Rev3 boards.

    @Paul — Great piece, man. Obviously one near and dear to me, but I’m so glad that iFanboy’s given you and outlet for these thoughts. As I said on the message boards, the whole point of a story is to make you FEEL something. The ideas behind the story are one way to do this. But, as you cite in examples here, they fail when they’re not backed up with some kind of emotional connection. Millar often gives great high-concept, but an empty execution built on shock and twist. Morrison has insane, wonderful ideas, and when he wraps them in an emotionally-connected story, they work incredibly well. WE3 is often cited as a great Morrison work. It’s not because animals with armor and guns is such an amazing idea — it’s because he used the ideas and the story to make us feel for those characters. My favorite Morrison works include Animal Man and Doom Patrol because Morrison allowed us to connect with Buddy Baker or Cliff Steele. They ground his ideas and connected us to them. All the meta-craziness in Buddy Baker’s life was still a way of understand Buddy and, well, Grant Morrison.

  10. @android- It’s only two issues.  Judging a book issue by issue is perfectly fair, since this is how the book is released.  The problem with the book is that there’s no characterization past page 6.  All the dialogue is exposition.  No character moments to speak of.  I wrote a review if you’d care to read it.


  11. Hmmm… it looks like Paul went to the metaphor store and bought one of each.  Fair points, Paul, but you’re trying to "be a writer" just a little too hard in this one.  Still, I’ll say this… it was very cute and clever.

  12. @ohcaroline – I’d generally cite Y: The Last Man as a high concept story which fully delivers.  Vaughan knows where to set the explosives, where to pause, where to digress, where to withhold information.  I guess what I value in a high concept story is restraint.  It’s the invisible work.  What the writer refrains from doing.  Balance.  

    @TheNextChampion – Michael Bay is probably a better example, you’re right.  I went with Bruckheimer because he produced the Pirates movies, and while I loved the first one, the remaining two are sort of a cinematic version of what Millar does.  Good intentioned, but maybe a little lost within its own bombast.   

    @androidmoser – What ultimatehoratio said.  All-Star Superman, even on an individual issue scale is ten times the book Superman Beyond is.  It’s actually a perfect example of storytelling need not be sacrificed to discuss big, weighty topics.  It’s a smart book, but it’s also a great story.  I love that series, and I almost refuse to believe they’re by the same guy.  

    @ohcaroline – Add All-Star Superman to the big concept books that also work as well-rounded stories list!

    @RaceMcCloud – Ouch.  I can’t disagree.  This was a tempestuous bit of writing, and by nature I’m very metaphor happy.  If I were to really edit it, I’d reign the thing in.  So it’s not a matter of trying too hard, honestly.  I’m just not filtering myself.  (Now, where’s that ban button…?)  😉 

  13. "One-dimensional elements in a two dimensional book promising three-dimensional thrills in the 4th dimension.  By my math, those are diminishing returns."

    My mind = blown

    Paul, you did a nice job here analyzing the great debate that took place on the forums.  I think your analysis of these writers is spot on from a current perspective, but there are definitely times where Morrison/Bendis/Millar counteracts your position on them.  I think it’s just a part of being a writer.  Sometimes you write gold, and sometimes you don’t.  These last few months have seen Morrison draw me in as a reader, considering I disliked most of what came before Final Crisis and R.I.P., but I’m sure that in time, he’ll be writing something I just don’t like.  My love for most writers is often very cyclical, depending on what they’re working on.   

  14. @horatio,android: I liked that issue with the Prose Joker story. I didnt love it though, cause initally I’m like ‘what is going on here?’ when I picked it up. But I’ve read it again recently and it works well for what Morrison is doing with his overall run on the title. It’s not perfect, but you need practice and it was a good start if Morrison wanted to get into regular books.

    I think Morrison is a god right now, at least for DC. Him, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka all made some of the best stories this decade and they really made DC a big name again. Maybe it’s too early to state he’s up there with the likes of Lee, Moore, and Miller…but he’s pretty damn close in my eyes to be one of the greatest writers of all time.

  15. @Neb – That’s a very good point.  I really wanted to stress that I have enjoyed and even marveled at books by these writers.  I think the books I cited specifically, at least in the case of Bendis and Morrison, were odd departures from their usual attention to detail and narrative.  I’m hoping that it’s simply an anomaly and not a new direction.  

  16. @ultimatehoratio While it doesn’t bode well that there’s only one issue left, I do consider myself a "true Morrison disciple," so I might get more out of it on some academic or critical level, but we’ll see. Still, Morrison is due for a failure at some point. He can’t ALWAYS be perfect can he? 

    Is my fanboy-ness showing, yet?

    @PaulMontgomery The fact that you also love All-Star makes me a tad more worried. Still, I heard he brings back the realm of Forgotten Heroes, something he used in his run on Animal Man. Animal Man is one of my favorite things he has written, so any connection to that will make me giddy.

    OK, seriously, my fanboy-ness is in full-effect now.

  17. @androidmoser –  Again, I love the ideas and all the elements he’s referencing in the book, but the way in which this information is presented is so flat as to be devoid of narrative conflict.  It’s an essay.  It’s all exposition and no…heart, for lack of a better word.  I’m a character and dialogue guy, so when those elements are lacking, I find it difficult to enter the story and care about what transpires within.  Ideas are passive and lifeless without a story.  Nouns can’t do much of anything without a verb. They just is.  And that may be profound, but it doesn’t move us.  

  18. @Paul – Oh, I overwrite everything.  That’s why I’m so aware of it when I see it.  I recognize it and share your curse.  

  19. Slow clap, dude…. Again. You nailed it on the head with everything. I would LOVE for Kick Ass to have a plot and I would love for Secret Invasion’s plot to get up and move again. I want to like their stuff, I really do… But without the story….

    I just sigh. 

  20. I love his older stuff, but his newer work for DC, excepting All-Star Superman, feels self-indulgent. 

  21. @Paul I really need this issue to arrive…so I can actually discuss it! Gah! Point taken, though. I actually agree with you, character is incredible important. Without good characters, the audience has no window into the story.

  22. This article is so right on, it’s ridiculous. I’ve been able to say why final crisis often fails and why tons of very smart people say they don’t understand it. Compression and story are definitely the two biggest grant morrison issues. I’ve heard a bunch of stuff with people discussing this book, and never have I heard anybody come even close to explaining it this well. This is fine piece of comics criticism. Way to go, dude.

  23. Paper, I think you just wanted stronger characterization in Superman Beyond. Because there was plot and story to be had in the book. In the various Supermen’s motivations for going beyond the multiverse and in our Superman’s investment in going on the journey in the first place.

    Maybe there could have been more pages of Supes crying by Lois’ bedside. But I was satisfied knowing Superman loves his wife enough to brave anything. 

    I am not a reader that needs to empathize with characters, YMMV if you are that type. I am more interested in what one can do with the medium and form.  

  24. @Labor – I equate character to story.  Character creates story.  This is a difficult topic to debate because it’s so abstract.  I’m trying to differentiate story from plot.  Yes, there are events and causes and effects in this book, but that doesn’t really amount to a balanced story.  This feels cold to me.  Obtuse in a way that All-Star Superman is not.    

    You didn’t find the discourse at all sterile?  Is this book just as successful as All-Star to you?  More?  Less?  Even if characterization isn’t crucial for your enjoyment, is there no added value from its inclusion?  

  25. Paul, you summed up exactly how I feel about Morrison perfectly!

  26. @Labor

    "I am more interested in what one can do with the medium and form."

    That’s an elitist non-statement. You’ve said nothing there. 

  27. To clarify:

    Labor, your statement came across as elitist because you didn’t really say anything other than you liked comics that do good things with the medium and the form. Well jeez, so Paul doesn’t care about interesting innovations with the medium (see George Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language" for a better argument! 😉 )  ? Your phraseology is as if all of us who want trivial things like"empathizing with a character" are somehow less in the know as you. 

    Still, I’m not trying to come off as a prick, I just wanted to point this out.

  28. @SixGun, Labor

    I think you might be taking Labor’s comments the wrong way.  He’s talking about being fascinated by innovation in, and deviation from, traditional comic book storytelling methods.   I don’t think he was trying to sound elitist (in this case at least 😉 ). 

    I appreciate that Morrison is trying to do something new to the medium.  After all, in mainstream superhero comics a writer isn’t allowed to do much as far as drastically altering the main character(s).  Under such constraints, what is a writer with such obvious love for the genre to do then except experiment with the storytelling techniques.  Morrison seems to be adding all of these experimental elements to his recent stories in an attempt to not only keep the reader from getting bored, but himself as well.  There’s something to admire about that, and I see where Labor is coming from in his appreciation of Superman Beyond (and also with his well-documented dislike for Ultimate Spider-Man).  For me, the book was like a dish that had a few too many ingredients in it.  The chef is trying to dazzle me with something new, but instead the dish ends up being something that doesn’t suit my palate. 

    And actually, now that I’ve started thinking about it, what Morrison is doing at DC should be lauded rather than lambasted.  More comic writers should be emulating Morrison…though with a bit more heart, hopefully.

  29. @ Paper,

    I found some of the pacing in Superman Beyond a bit wonky. Absolutely. Particularity the middle, with the most exposition, before we get to Limbo and the infinity book. Had some of that exposition been delayed till after those events or (at the least) tightened up before we got to Limbo; I think it would have had more impact in revealing the extent to which the Supermen had traveled beyond.

    Nothing was especially bad compared to dialogue in other comics. Or at least not so much it took away from my enjoyment of it all. Ultraman spoke in the stylized and excited way cartoon villains do for that is what he is. Capt. Marvel behaved and acted as the “gee-golly” Fawcett character he originally was, Overman was melodramatic and somber, et cetera, et cetera.


    Perhaps there was not enough explanation or examination of these other Supermen. I think did Morrison rely on the reader being knowledgeable of them already to some capacity. However, the reasons why the other Supermen are all there and who, when and where they came from is also presented in the issue. Albeit, briefly. Their actions bore their personalities as well.

    Seems there was very much a decision to present the story in a comic book-y way. From the villainous dialogue; “Behold! You are no match for my cosmic power Superman!”, the comic book logic in which the Monitor stops time, the 3-D glasses themselves (we even get a Bronze Age gimmick of “4-D vision” to explain the 3-D glasses) and of course, the scenes which juxtapose the story as a series of panels of a comic book within a comic book. If only Morrison had thrown in a decoder ring and cover of Jimmy Olsen in a gorilla suit as well!

    This is the aspect of comics Morrison is interested in exploring right now. Ludicrous concepts that existed within the comics of yesteryear and have grown into established, accepted legacies of comics today; the Speed Force, Multiverse, Bat-Mites, Grundys’ at Slaughter Swamp, Super-Vision…even tiny Supermen from Superman’s fingertips.

    Throwaways ideas from the past- hell, at one point Mort Weisinger would have invented the “chorno-paralyzer” of Superman Beyond as a plot device- that have developed a life and truth of their own by the process of reader participation in a shared fiction. Taking shape as a plant or symphony as one character in Superman Beyond says in passing.

    In that regard, I find this sort of exploration quite exciting and engaging. This sets my imagination ablaze more so than Spider-Man worrying how to pay the rent or Hal Jordan’s asshole older brother.

    In the case of comparing Superman Beyond to AS-Superman, well that is not really fair. I already said SB had pacing problems for me and that is clearly due to how truncated the story has to be to fit 2 issues. Ideas are literally running off the page in Superman Beyond. Whereas in AS-Superman, Morrison has the time and space to layout a more complex plot over 12 issues for best effect. I think they are both great as examinations of a Superman, the medium and fiction. Though no doubt AS-Superman is the deeper, more tightly focused work. I did enjoy Superman Beyond a helluva lot in any case.

    Stories can never be too meta for me.

  30. It takes intelligence to understand complex concepts, it takes genius to explain them simply.

  31. @JumpingJupiter – Is that a thumbs up or a thumbs down?  

    "You’re like a miniature buddha…covered in hair." 

  32. A good argument and an excellent piece of writing. Well done, Paul.

  33. @Six,

    I do believe Paper is more concerned with storytelling and character than I am. Sure that stuff is nice and I do enjoy it. But if you can tell me a story- it doesn’t even have to be particularly good, that pushes at the bounds of the medium in which you are telling the story; that is truly worthy of my time and praise. More so even.

    I don’t simply want to hear an enjoyable song. I want to hear the song that makes all other songs irrelevant. To watch a film that burns theaters to ground. A book that folds itself into origami as I read it. That is what compels me to keep listening, watching and reading. That there might be a recording more astounding than Funhouse, a film greater than Woman In the Dunes, a book more visceral than Pale Fire.

    That was no elitism. It is enthusiasm.

    It is what gets me excited for new things and interested in the old.

  34. He’s condoning arson now!

  35. "Man, jumping into this discussion’s kind of like trying to get between the ropes in double-dutch." – aaaaaand, you know where it goes from here.

    This week at ifanboy the Declaration of Interpretation vs Len Snart is so cool.  

  36. "metapsychobabble" — Awesome word to describe Superman Beyond 3D!

    Nice artice Mr Paul. I totally agree that it’s not about "dumbing it down", it’s about making the story readable to more than 10% of people reading it.

    I think JumpingJupiter’s quote was a nice way to describe it —

    "It takes intelligence to understand complex concepts, it takes genius to explain them simply."

  37. This reminds of something I overheard.

    "Father Anthony is so intelligent! He wrote a book that nobody can understand!"

  38. Great article – particularly agree with the thoughts on Bendis and particularly Morrison. Every time I hear him explain his stories in interviews, he always harkens back to a particular facet or nuance of the character but some meta-context regarding the history of comics/narrative/human history itself. So bloody interesting but sometimes it does feel like he’s wrapped up so much in the meta-idea that I want to tug at his pants leg and say "please sir, I want somemore (Batman/Superman/whatever)." 

    I’m also glad I reread the comments because I was about to start arguing that a Millar/Bay comparison was totally unfair in my mind when I reread it and realized I was confusing Michael Bay with Jerry Bruchheimer. Much more fair, but the comments further in validate my blather anyway so Bay = Millar is a bit of a stretch. Bay loves exploding stuff and…well…not much else. You can say what you like about Millar’s stories being light on character developement but at least they’re stories. Say what you want about his single-note characters, but with Michael Bay there’s really none of that at all. Bay is too arrested with spectacle, pure and simple, to bare comparison to "high-concept" lighting rod like Millar. Bruckheimer works, I think the Eli Roth comparison is stellar though. Millar seems to forego much "quiet-moment" storytelling in order to put them through physical and emotional torture just because that’s the easiest way to "reveal" something interesting about them.

    He’s still worlds better then me so, *shrugs* he can keep doing his thing. I’ll probably keep reading them.

  39. What kind of "substance" are people wanting from Kick-Ass? It’s about a kid who dresses up as a superhero…

  40. @deadspace – So is Spider-Man.  So is Robin.  So is Invincible.  So is Batgirl.  

    Those stories take the idea and run.  Kick-Ass takes the idea and shuffles its feet.  "Look, Ma!  No payoff!"

  41. @Paul – I’d like to humbly point out that all of those examples cited have a minimum of 50 issues under their belt (and three of those have /arguably/ 250+). Kick Ass #4 just shipped last week. I think we’ll need to wait a little further into the game to decide whether it’s "no" or "delayed" payoff.

  42. I think the comparison of Superman Beyond 3D to a treatment sums up both the issues on the man. He IS an idea man, and none of us can deny it. The problem is he can’t get much further than that.

    I picture him as a fanboy who has somehow ended up at the same party as Dan Didio. Wide eyed he stomps over with purpose and smugness. Without an introduction he launches into the best way to do something the likes of which none of us have ever seen. The best way to make characters into something bigger than they really are.

    "You’ve certainly put a lot of thought into this, haven’t you? Do you think you could write that into a story?"

    "Well. No. I just wanted to tell you about my idea."

    And Dan does like his idea. He looks for him at every party now, because this kid can put a smile on his face and pitch a book better than anyone in the business. He’s content with that. But he will never, ever, let him write a whole book. 

  43. sums up both that issue and my opinions on the man*

  44. @esophagus – That’s taking it a bit far.  The reason I’m so critical of Superman Beyond is that Morrisons is so good on other books.    

  45. @OttoBot – That’s fair.  Still, take the first 4 issues of, say, USM, Invincible, or Batgirl Year One, and there’s more substance, comparatively speaking.  

  46. @esophagus – TOTALLY disagree.  Morrison writes some of the best *stories* around.

  47. As I said on the forums, I eat everything he puts out. I love it.  That was taking it too far. Intentionally. I just think the man puts a lot more work into ideas than story. Specifically lately. Not to be "that guy" but I prefer his older works.

  48. Does that mean you don’t enjoy G-Mo’s current All-Star Superman?

  49. Great article Paul.  I waited to chime in until I finally got to read a copy of this infamous Superman in 3-D book…what’s the big deal?  it wasn’t awesome but it certainly wasn’t awful.  Maybe that’s the real issue, these specific creators are held in such regard with such a spotlight on them that maybe that interrupts the digestion of their work with expectations.  Remove these creators names from the pieces, a die-hard will still be able to tell who’s writiing what based on their syntax certainly, but perhaps the work could just be looked at more objectively (52 for example).  I mean this Superman book was just the first issue and as Ottobott said the listed examples are all mid-storyline.  I don’t think a writer’s merits can really be discussed until the work in question’s completed honestly and with comics it seems like the more popular or prolific the writer the larger the bullseye placed on them by the fans. 

  50. @OttoBot – that’s what my reply was going to be but you beat me to it :p

  51. @kimbo – I’m criticizing the presentation.  The way information is relayed.  This isn’t a matter of waiting to see how it pans out.  This is 40 pages of exposition.  I’m simply not a fan of this style of storytelling.  It felt lazy to me.  

  52. @deadspace – Faster then a timebullet….

  53. @Paul –  I like your example of "Y" as a book that wins at concept and at story.  Vaughan is a writer who lives by high concepts, but he’s equally strong at character and story. I never find myself questioning who these people (or, you, know, lions and dinosaurs and monkeys) are, or what they’re doing.   When I high concept falls flat, for me, it’s usually when the characters only seem to exist to serve that.


  54. Vaughan is a high concept writer?

  55. I would say so…Ex Machina, Y, Pride of Baghdad, those are all pretty high-concept (though Pride might be pushing it). I haven’t read any of his Big Two books, so I dunno about his other stuff but his creator owned stuff is pretty smart/brilliant.

  56. I agree — Vaughan is good at the high concept hook. He’s most similar to Millar in this regard. But he follows through better than Millar. However, I wouldn’t say Vaughan is an "Idea Man" in the way that Morrison is. Vaughan uses the high concept primarily as a hook into the story. From that point on, it’s all about the characters.

    Interestingly, on the note of Bendis: I was listening to him on Word Balloon yesterday, and he made a very interesting reference. He said that with many of his super-hero comics, he was trying to take his Robert Altman influence and push it into books that have never had that feel. I think this can be directly attributed, at least in part,  to his take on narrative in books like Avengers and Secret Invasion.  It won’t always succeed. And it will face criticism, sometimes rightly so, other times because his execution doesn’t match audience expectation. But in the same way I like Morrison for his ideas (and hate it when his storytelling falls short), I like Bendis for trying to do something different within the genre.

  57. Noen of those BKV books have particually high concepts. If that were the case then every comic writer from Austen to Wood is a high concept writer. BKV simply explored a few simple premises very, very well. 

  58. Yeah, that’s exactly what a high concept is. I’m talking Hollywood terms here. "What if all the men died except one." That’s a high concept.

  59. Y and Ex Machina are most definitely high concept. These are really simple elevator pitches.  That’s what high concept means.  

  60. High concept should not be confused with high-falutin’.

  61. What would be an example of not "high concept"?

  62. Incidentally, to avoid further confusion ->

  63. In Hollywood terms, high concept is simply a short way to describe the idea/twist that sets your story in motion. Most comic books, because they are developed as commercial properties are fairly high concept. I would say that Box Office Poison is tough to describe in high concept because it’s so much about slice-of-life. That’s not to say you CAN’T give me a high concept pitch — just that it won’t work as well as a Y: The Last Man or even a Kick-Ass pitch. Now, we also say that Millar and Vaughan are GOOD at the high concept. Well, if we start with the fact that most writers in comics create new series with a high concept pitch, then we can also accept that there are levels quality to the high concept. I’m not talking about the quality of the STORY, just the pitch. Y:The Last Man resonates and excites the imagination… Kick-Ass takes a spin on an old favorite. But there are some concepts that fall a little flatter. I’m trying to think of an example. I don’t think Kirkman’s high concept on Walking Dead or Invincible are particularly exciting — they, in the short pitch, simply aren’t that unique. But he’s taking the concept and telling really solid stories. In fact, didn’t Kirkman actually pitch Walking Dead as being about an alien invasion initially? There’s an example of someone selling something on the high concept, but then leaving that at the door and just writing a good story.

  64. @JumpingJupiter –

    Not High Concept

    Superman Beyond, JSA, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Nightly News (most Hickman things), Jack Kirby’s 4th World, Captain America, V for Vendetta, Doom Patrol

    High Concept

    Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Superman: Red Son, most Elseworld stories, Gotham Central, Fables, Dynamo 5, Runaways, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen




  65. @Labor I haven’t read All-Star Superman. Don’t ask me why, because I really don’t have a reason.

  66. Looking back over the comments, I realize that equating "high concept" stories with the kind of "big idea" writing that Paul is talking about was a little glib of me.  BKV happens to be a guy who is good at creating idea-driven concepts and following them throug.  But Daccampo is right — the "high concept" aspect of a story is about how you pitch it (and it’s not necessarily used as a compliment).  Whether a high concept leads to an idea-driven story is about execution. 

    For example: most of Joss Whedon’s work is high-concept (cheerleader kills vampires; cowboys in space!)  But once he has his premise in place, the stories are character-driven to the exclusion of almost all else.  I can think of an exception or two (the cure story in ‘Astonishing X-men’ is a very well- executed exploration of an idea that’s been lurking in the background of Marvel canon forever) but for the most part he just winds his characters up, in the high-concept worlds he’s created, and lets them go.  I should emphasize that I love Whedon’s brand of storytelling; I just think he falls pretty far on the ‘story’ end of the spectrum.

  67. Whedon’s a great example.  On the spectrum of story and idea, Whedon would be over on the story side, BKV would be in the middle, and Morrison would be on the idea end.  Whedon often strays though.  I know and love him best for his fully realized characters and ability to connect to the audience, there are times where he ventures into Morrison territory.  His Buffy season 4 finale comes to mind.  He gets pretty cerebral with his dream sequences.  But in this instance, it’s a curious and compelling departure rather than a frustrating bout of metapsychobabble.  Fine line, maybe.  But there is a line.  

  68. @Paul   Good point.  I don’t mean to dismiss Joss’s ‘big idea’ stories, but like you said. The Morrison influences on ‘Astonishing X-men,’ directly and indirectly, are undeniable. (And, I’d argue, Whedon actually surpassed G-Mo by taking some of the big ideas and paying more careful attention to how they work with story and character, but that’s a different conversation.)

    But, as you say, the metanarrative-heavy stories are a departure.   That’s also why I’m kind of nervous about the ‘Dollhouse’ show.  What I’ve heard seems so high-concept I don’t really  understand it. 



  69. Heh. Yeah, Buffy’s a great example of a high concept pitch that exists right in the title. I love that. People are used to it now, but remember when it first came out? "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It’s right there in the title. It’s Clueless meets Blade. "Buffy" (at the time) represented such a silly, girly name… tacking "Vampire Slayer" to the end of it creates a wonderful contradiction. It really set up the whole series. But, as you note, ohcaroline, he followed through with it by creating memorable characters and following their journey.