REVIEW: Grant Morrison’s SUPERGODS

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

Written by Grant Morrison
$28.00 / 423 Pages / Hardcover
Pubished by Speigel & Grau

There’s that thing we say about great professors of history. That they bring history alive. They take the ashen and stuffy and conjure something altogether vibrant and vital and thrilling. If the ability to locate history’s pulse is a higher calling, Grant Morrison walks barefoot in a field of burning bushes. History thrives and thrashes for the writer, often quite literally, if his anecdotes are to be believed. Late in the book, when the story morphs from a third person chronicle of a beloved industry into something of a mescaline memoir, Morrison journeys to Kathmandu. He recounts his climb on a single lungful of air up the steps of a temple called Shwayambunath, a ritual said to ensure enlightenment in the hiker’s lifetime. Some days later, Morrison claims to have witnessed the transformation of that same temple into a gargantuan chrome lion. This is how Morrison experiences history. As a hulking, perspiring life form.

Even if we’re not smoking what he’s been smoking, we’re still along for the trip. Call it a contact high.

Supergods is many things. For one it is Morrison’s exhaustive history of the comic book medium as it pertains to superheroes. At the time of this writing, Morrison is a few scad months from his tenure on Action Comics, starting with a new #1 issue. With this milestone undoubtedly weighing heavily on his mind, he opens his chronicle with some four pages of analysis on the original 1938 cover of Action Comics #1. This isn’t simply the account of an industry or a business. This is art history. Unsurprisingly, Morrison proves especially insightful when it comes to identifying symbols, connecting that iconic image of Superman lifting a car to the paintings of Edvard Munch, the films of Charlie Chaplin, and a wide array of cultural deities like Odin and Ganesh. He goes on to evaluate the cover to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a composition he views as dramatically inferior. To summarize Morrison’s voice in these extensive history sections, he’s largely enthusiastic about this tour, but never so blinded by his lust for the Golden and Silver ages of comics that he’ll pull any punches. It might be his sublime optimism and sense of wonder that makes the sections where he does transition into scathing criticism so compelling. Morrison does not rant, though he’s capable of some laugh-out-loud bursts of condemnation when its warranted. His commentary on Dr. Frederick Wertham in regard to the Seduction of the Innocent scandal is nothing short of a totally cathartic character assassination for every comic fan who’s ever heard of the travesty. That his vitriol feels so satisfying is a testament to just how dearly the author presents the medium as a noble American art form evolved from sources as diverse as ancient world mythology and the struggles of the common man during the Great Depression and the Civil Rights riots of the 60s.

Morrison reserves a special appreciation for characters like Captain Marvel and the Flash, heroes with close ties to Hermes, the god whom Morrison views as the patron of all superheroes. The Silver Age Flash stands as Morrison’s favorite hero, and he references Billy Batson’s sacred “SHAZAM!” battle cry as emblematic of his own search for a mystical incantation of self discovery. His detailed character study of Namor the Sub-Mariner in his exploration of Marvel Comics’ beginnings left this writer convinced that no living comic creator has given the character nearly so much consideration.

As the history progresses, Morrison’s own entry as a contributor and architect in the industry becomes as palpable as a coming cyclone. We witness his own education in the world of superheroes as a child reading British originals and American imports. Slowly but surely, he paves the way for the British comics he sees as tedious and anemic to evolve into the new wave under a regime of shaggy haired young turks. And though he lends the same respect and exhaustive analysis to the opening page of Watchmen #1 as he did Action Comics #1, you may be surprised at a few dropped bombs.

Morrison didn’t much care for Alan Moore’s opus when it first hit. He’s comes to appreciate the craft of it in subsequent years, but take a look at his description of his own philosophy at the time of his first gig at DC. This was his mindset at the time he pitched Animal Man.

“I chose to see writers like Alan Moore as missionaries who attempted to impose their own values and preconceptions on cultures they considered inferior—in this case, that of superheroes. Missionaries humiliate the natives by pointing out their gauche customs and colorfully frank traditional dress. They bullied defenseless fantasy characters into leather trench coats and nervous breakdowns and left formerly carefree fictional communities in a state of crushing self-doubt and dereliction. Anthropologists on the other hand, surrendered themselves to foreign cultures. They weren’t afraid to go native or look foolish. They came and they departed with respect and in the interests of mutual understanding. Naturally, I wanted to be an anthropologist.”

I’ve paraphrased this bit to several people since I first read it. A few have wrinkled their nose at it, saying it sounded like Morrison was full of himself. I can’t really deny this, though I didn’t see the quote quite so pompous as all that. Morrison is merely telling us where his heart lies and how he likes to approach his entries into the folklore of superheroes. It’s his methodology and it seems to work for him. This is merely how he conducts his own work and less a condemnation than a personal mantra. Even still, there’s a provocative sizzle wafting off the page.

If there’s any real flaw to the story it’s that the weigh is front-heavy. The third person history is more fascinating than the modern accounts of the Dark Age or the Hollywood invasion, even with Morrison’s own tales out of school, dishing the gossip about living creators and co-workers. There’s juice there, but less wonder and awe. Morrison devotes two chapters to modern film adaptations of superhero comics, but in his efforts for a complete summary, he often rushes through his capsule reviews. This often feels like copy writing, lacking the depth of the topics he finds truly captivating. Surprisingly, he spends very little time on the original Superman live action films, though he goes to town on the Batman franchise, from its roots in film serials to Schumacher’s percy Uncle Alfred and the now legendary Bat nipples.

I mentioned that this book is many things aside from history. There’s that lengthy subtitle, right? What’s it all mean. Morrison has some interesting arguments about the existence of actual superheroes. I think for him it’s a question of when and not if. If some view these capes and tights books as trifles, he suggests we look at them as guides of conduct for future metahumans. Morrison touches on his own experiences with the supernatural, from curing his ailing cat with a bit of arcane ritual to dressing in drag when communing with summoned demons in order to charm his way through the discourse. He also sees in a few more dimensions than most can, able to stare at a cup and view on the temporal plane as it exists throughout time. These sections aren’t for everyone, and he concedes that many of his claims are farfetched. But they’re never not interesting, regardless of your level of belief in his conviction.

Even beyond potential superheroes of the future, Morrison has some interesting metaphysical arguments for the existence of…well…

“Individual humans are not super, but the organism of which we are tiny cellular parts is most certainly that. The life form that’s so big we don’t know it’s there, that turns minerals on its planet into tools to touch the infinite black gap between stars or probe the obliterating pressures at the bottom of the oceans. We are already part of a superbeing, a monster, a god, a living process that is so all encompassing that it is to and individual life what water is to fish. We are cells in the body of a singular three-billion-year-old life form whose roots are the in the Precambrian oceans and whose genetic wiring extend through the living structures of everything on the planet, connecting everything that has ever lived in one immense nervous system.”

With that quote, I think we can conclude that the book delivers on at least two fronts. It’s a grand history, sweeping and insightful and glowing with enthusiasm from one of its most devoted fans and practitioners. It’s also a veritable font of wacky, out-there, cosmic conjecture about the ever-broadening boundaries of human perception and understanding. In other words, a peek into Grant Morrison’s fevered dreamscape. If you want a love for superheroes, it’s very much present. If you want biting criticism and honesty, that’s there too. If you want Dadaist prose and absurdist musings on metafiction, bingo bango.

It’s impossible to view history with complete objectivity. History by its very nature is subjective. So why not look to one of the industry’s strangest minds to illuminate a familiar mythology. To make things new again. To put some wind back in some threadbare capes.


5 Stars

(Out of 5)

Supergods is on sale today.

For more of my thoughts on Supergods, check out the 2011 Summer Reading episode of the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast.


  1. Ok, you’ve convinced me.  I am picking this up. 

  2. Been waiting for this review for what seems like forever. I’m on my way to the bookstore to pick this up right now

  3. supergods … not to be confused with supergod.

  4. Sold!

  5. Mr. Montgomery, I think you just sold a copy of this book.

  6. Very interesting.  Added to my wishlist.

  7. yeah i t hink i’ll have to get this. I’ve been interested in reading books about comics recently, and this seems right up my alley. 

  8. It’s times like these where I wish Paul reviewed for the New York Times instead of this guy:

    I trust iFanboy’s review more.

  9. This book is fantastic, but it kind of requires a familarity with Morrison’s work.  Otherwise you’ll think he’s a madman.  If you’ve read his work, you’ll still think he’s mad, but you have to admit that it works.  

  10. I enjoyed reading this review and probably would like reading parts of this book. I guess I’d prefer the third person parts.

  11. The Ten Cent Plague was great but it’s historical account ended where I would like to start.

  12. Great review of an amazing book. Supergods feels like the acknowledgement superheroes deserve.

  13. Looks good I will check it out!

  14. Considering Borders is going soon, might get this SUPER cheap.

  15. Great Review Paul. I unfortunately have to wait a couple weeks to pick this up, but very excited to sit down and read it.

    Question. has it greatly changed the way you look at comic books and superheroes? or does it give you a better appreciation?

  16. Avatar photo Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @WeaklyRoll  Better appreciation. I found myself nodding a lot. I have a similar view of fiction and mythology as Morrison does. 

  17. I just got my copy at Midtown Comics where Grant Morrison was signing the book.  He seemed like a really cool guy, just as you’d expect.  Can’t wait to read the book, especially after this glowing review.

  18. thanks for the review Paul! I just downloaded the book and am verrrrrry much looking forward to reading it…

  19. I dunno. I love a lot of Grant’s fiction but all of his views seem to have inaccurate personal bents to them.

    Alan Moore didn’t “bully” characters into trenchcoats. To me, this idea seems like Morrison’s own psychological projection, because Morrison himself definitely wore big leather trenchcoats for about a decade and a half. Did Moore force him to dress that way?

    Also, all of the zany ideas about what Superman really “means” to our society. Well, Superman hasn’t really been all that popular with the masses since Reagan left office, so I’m not sure how that really fits into Morrison’s skewed and simplistic reading of things.

    Morrison seems to be clinging to a very gullible and hopelessly optimistic view of things. It’s also a simplistic view. He characterizes JFK as some sort of “sun god” who’s so cool because he banged Marilyn Monroe? If that’s all he gets out of learning about JFK, then it’s a pretty childish, reductive viewpoint, imo.

    In the end, I still really like Morrison as a writer. He’s probably my favorite comic writer. But a book like this doesn’t really add anything to the picture. Morrison has already implied (if not outright stated) all of these ideas many times before. It seems like a huge indulgence on his part to keep insisting that we’re going into this bright shiny age where everything is fun and shiny. I’m not a pessimist, but Morrison has been singing this song for several years now, and more often than not he’s been proven wrong.

    At the end of the day, I think Alan Moore said more about the significance of superheroes just in the pages of Miracle Man #1 than Morrison has said his whole career. Morrison is STILL playing catch-up, STILL acting out his Oedipus Complex that he feels toward Alan Moore, and even though he STILL puts out great comics, as far as pop-philosophy goes Morrison still comes off as too simplistic, naive, and just plain inaccurate about where he thinks society is going.

    • Remember Morrison is not American. So his perspective on JFK and Superman (in reference to the U.S.) is very different. Also I don’t think Morrison wants to make babies with Mr. Alan Moore.
      I am about halfway through Supergods at this time. I really feel like Morrison has strung a together his thoughts well but did not go over the grammar. Some sentences just don’t flow like I’d expect. Has anyone else noticed that his vocabulary is everywhere. I have a feeling he (or an editor) had a thesaurus on hand and switched words to give it an academic feel.
      Anywho, it has been a great read and I am enjoying his perspective on the medium. Sorry Paul, but I’m not quite there yet; once I finish I’ll have a better idea.

  20. Avatar photo Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Okay. Great!

  21. How can someone be inaccurate about the unknowable future?

  22. @ResurrectionFlan  on the internet, anything you say leads to somebody, somewhere, saying you are wrong.

  23. Can’t wait to read this. Too hot and too sunny to read this while waiting for the signing.

  24. @froggulper  Also, all of the zany ideas about what Superman really “means” to our society. Well, Superman hasn’t really been all that popular with the masses since Reagan left office, so I’m not sure how that really fits into Morrison’s skewed and simplistic reading of things.”

    Bugs Bunny has also waned in popularity over the years; that doesn’t reduce the impact he’s had on comedy and pop culture. At the core of every superhero and every thing that has come out of the superhero ideal is Superman himself.

  25. Nice review, I can’t wait to read this.

    Incidentally, I just watched the Morrison documentary, “Walking with Gods”, last week. If your interested in him at all, do yourself a favor and add it to your Netfllix Queue.

  26. I am buying this tomorrow 

  27. Not gonna rush to get it. It’s still Morrison which I’m mixed on. Once I get a chance to flip through it, then I’ll decide.

  28. @lifesend  Color me ORANGE.

  29. @alanrob It’s ‘Talking with Gods’ 😉 

    Reading Supergods now. It is mostly familiar territory if you’ve read as many Morrison interviews as I have and know your comics history, but still very enjoyable. 

  30. @PaulMontgomery

    just curious as to how you rate your stars?
    5 Star book…to you, what does this mean exactly?
    Do you rank this with the best examples of other non-fiction throughout history?
    Was this just a non-stop entertaining ride with no major flaws?
    Or is there an abacus deduced equation involved?
    I will take my answer off the air.

    thank you. 

  31. I like his paragraph on Alan Moore. His superhero work makes me depressed. I don’t want to read about Superman having a nervous breakdown, I want to read about him overcoming against all odds. I really didn’t like “Whatever happened to the man of Tomorrow?”. I found it a terrible final Superman story. A good one is, ofcourse, All star Superman. That’s a superman that inspires and give hope, not one who gives everything up.

    Btw: I don’t hate everything about Alan Moore. I’m a big fan of his Swamp thing and some of his short stories. Watchmen, well makes me depressed.

  32. Avatar photo Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @jokingofcourse  If you want context on the star rating, read the full text of my review. That’s all I can really say. 

  33. @PaulMontgomery: I’ve picked up a copy of the book this morning. Really looking forward to it after reading your review. 

  34. I read about 40 pages of this last night and I’ve got to say that so far it’s really impressed me. Morrison’s in depth description of Action Comics #1 is almost like poetry at times. You can really feel the love that he has for the character, the ideas and the creators of the Superman mythos. same can’t really be said for Batman (which itself wasn’t bad, but wasn’t approached with the same level of praise). So far, it’s only had a few moments of the typical morrison-y headiness that turns so many off. I think if you have any interest in Superheroes, this book is the perfect love letter and is worth the price of admission

  35. Great Review!
    Call me cheesy but I think dogs are real superheroes 🙂 They are so diverse in their different breeds because of genetic mutations which makes them kind of like X-men and many different breeds have specific traits/superpowers. Above all they are loyal and kind to their owners and many have saved lives.

  36. @JohnVFerrigno  you are wrong about that

  37. @PaulMontgomery You ought to Booksplode this mamajama. Maybe get Dave Itzkoff from the NYTimes to play counterpoint. Nice review.

  38. Great review as always. GMo’s one of my favorites so I was planning on picking this up anyway. But now I’ll have to get to the bookstore ASAP. Really pumped for this.

  39. Ok, I’m impressed; I think Morrison has accurately represented (with that missionary remark) what I don’t like about Alan Moore.

    It also brings to relief what I don’t like about Warren Ellis, which is a slightly different thing.