In comic books, a “team-up” pairs two superheroes in one issue, joining forces to better fight evil. Sometimes team-ups are inspired, as when Spider-Man and The Thing trade wisecracks while clobbering bad guys. But sometimes team-ups create awkward Frankenstein’s monsters, stitching together disparate styles in ways that seem weird, silly or outright desperate. (Take, for example, the time the murderous Punisher visited Archie and Jughead in Riverdale.)
The comics writer Grant Morrison has long been the cerebral enfant terrible of the superhero world. His early work, such as “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Doom Patrol,” famously deconstructed the genre, and Morrison played such metafictional tricks as inserting himself into the narrative. More recently, he’s become a star of mainstream capes-and-tights titles, penning X-Men, Batman, Superman and Justice League comics.
Now he’s written a magnum opus of sorts, “Supergods,” a history of (and tribute to) costumed heroes, and though it’s not a comic — it’s just, you know, words — it’s still kind of a team-up. In this case, the two heroes are two sides of the same man. Let’s call them Grant Morrison-Thoughtful Historian and Grant Morrison-Comics Superstar. When Thoughtful Historian drives the action, “Supergods” is a lively guide to the ways that costumed crusaders have reflected and affected the times in which they lived. When Comics Superstar takes over, though, the book turns into a bafflingly tone-deaf memoir — an ego trip of superheroic proportions.
The early chapters of “Supergods” are lovingly crafted odes to the Golden and Silver ages of comics. Take Morrison’s fascinating discussion of the diametrically opposed heroes of the DC Comics universe: Superman and Batman. One’s the ur-human, an immortal sun god. The other’s a creature of the night, a mortal man turned revenge machine. The small-town hero and the big-city outlaw: Morrison nails it when he calls Superman the Beatles and Batman the Stones.
It’s great fun to read Morrison on Stan Lee’s chummy authorial voice — “The comic itself became a buddy” — and the incandescent art of Jack Kirby, who created “monumental heroic figures to carry the energetic charge of his visions.” And Morrison isn’t always a fan; you won’t often read criticism of Alan Moore’s crucial “Watchmen” as pointed as his.
But when he was born in 1960, Morrison writes, he “joined the continuity,” and “Supergods” turns in its second half from fictional superheroes to the real-life superhero Grant Morrison. For fans, tales of how Morrison’s creations Flex Mentallo and the Invisibles came to be will no doubt be illuminating. But Morrison’s life story is so self-aggrandizing that it’s the memoir equivalent of a hero’s bulging codpiece. “Being young, good-looking and cocky forgave many sins,” he says about his early career, and by the time he describes himself as blowing his “Arkham Asylum” royalties on “champagne, drugs, and spur of the moment expeditions around the world,” non-worshippers may find themselves saying “sigh” aloud, like a comic-book character.
And while Morrison’s comics acumen is unparalleled, he’s less sure-footed when he dips into other media. For every canny criticism, like his praise for M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated superhero movie “Unbreakable,” there’s a head-scratcher like his uncharitable description of grunge music as a “whining, snarling soundtrack to the lives of kids who had to pretend really hard to be scared anymore.”
That’s not even to mention the often creepy male chauvinism on display in his crack about the “baby-fattish” Alicia Silverstone or his explanation that girls are drawn to the comics scene because of “the youth, the energy, and the style-mag write-ups,” not, of course, because they enjoy the stories.
Happily, it’s Thoughtful Historian who finishes the book, with a meditation on real-life superheroes like Angle Grinder Man, a tights-clad British gent who saws the immobilizing clamps off illegally parked cars. In a way, we’re all superheroes now: Thanks to air travel and the Internet, we can soar like Superman and detect like Batman. We’ll never be fabulously wealthy superstud Grant Morrison, of course, but at least the comics let us dream.
Dan Kois is a cultural critic and the author of “Facing Future,” about the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
What masked Vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human
By Grant Morrison
Spiegel & Grau. 444 pp. $28