The Philosophy of Grant Morrison – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Grant Morrison!
Written by: Matthew Theriault
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Grant Morrison – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, Wisecrack? Jared, again. We saw your requests, so today, we’re puttin’ the crazy hat back on to dive into the philosophy of Grant Morrison, writer of such acclaimed works as All-Star Superman, Flex Mentallo, and Multiversity.
Like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison was part of the British Invasion that revolutionized comics in the ‘80s. And also like Moore, he’s a self-proclaimed magician with an affinity for psychotropic drugs. “To me it’s just a very simple equation is that life plus significance equals magic.”
But there are major differences between them, beyond their obvious discrepancy in their haircut philosophy. As insane as Moore seems, Morrison might be even crazier. He wrote some fictional girlfriends for a fictional version of himself in The Invisibles, and then later claimed they appeared in real life. “So, as a result of all this, I’d just split up with my girlfriend. And I was like: ‘okay, I want a new one, and I want her to look exactly like this chick in the comic, ‘cuz she’s cool.’ So, I did a sigil; a month later, the girl turns up. Then, another one!”
And when he wrote the about this fictional Grant Morrison being attacked by bacterial gods, a demonic attack and/or Staph infection brought real-life Grant Morrison to death’s doorstep — “I found that if I put the character through a situation where he’d been tortured; where his lungs had bust and he was being held in captivity; subjected to all these awful things. Three months later, I’m in hospital, two bust lungs, dying of blood poisoning, and facing exactly the same shamanic trial I put my character through.” — then, Christ appeared to him, after which he was healed and gained the superpower to cure cancer in cats.
But all of that pales in comparison to his experience in Kathmandu, — “I’d been abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994.” — where he was abducted by “rippling, dripping blobs of pure holographic meta-material angels” and brought to a “mega-medium in which entire universes are suspended” and shown the nature of reality. Allegedly. It was like a burrito of religious revelation and alien abduction all rolled into one.
Whether he actually ascended to a heavenly hyperspace or was just trippin’ balls is beside the point. There’s a surprising amount of sober-minded philosophy and physics that seem to agree with certain aspects of Morrison’s Kathmandu experience, including why he believes that the universe is essentially just a giant comic book and how he’s the midwife to an incredible future wherein we become god.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Grant Morrison. Spoilers ahead, and if you wanna dive even deeper into the mind of this mad genius, join us over at wisecrackplus.com for an hour-long podcast interview with the creators of this video.
To be clear, Morrison is not suggesting we could ever become the capital-G God described in the Bible, Torah, or the Koran, you know, a single almighty creator of all things. When comic writers use the word “god,” it’s more often with a lowercase “g,” like norse-deity-turned Marvel hero Thor or other immensely powerful beings. With this logic, Morrison regards the Justice League as the pantheon of American Mythology, and deliberately structured his roster in JLA to parallel their Olympian counterparts. Now, we want to be very specific in saying he doesn’t merely mean humans will become super-powered posthumans one day. He means something much more.
It’s Captain Atom who uh… “inspired” Moore’s Dr. Manhattan that gives us our first hint as to what Morrison means by “God.” Both Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan achieve god status because of their view of time, they experience every event in their lives simultaneously. It’s not that they have perfect recall of the past and total knowledge of the future. For them, there’s no past or future. Instead, every single moment is equally, eternally real.
Picture a film reel: as it rolls forward at twenty-four frames per second, the light projects one image on the screen at any given moment. In this analogy, the screen is reality; and only that single frame is “real.” A frame pops into existence as the projector illuminates it and pops out of existence as we move onto the next frame. This is what philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart calls the A-Theory of Time. It’s how we, as humans, perceive time. McTaggart’s B-Theory, on the other hand, is that events do not have objective tense. So, imagine if we were to illuminate each frame of the film reel all at once, so that we could simultaneously gaze upon every single moment in the movie.
The main school of thought among B-Theorists is Eternalism, which claims every moment in time is eternal, from the Big Bang to the Heat Death of the Universe. Nothing ever pops in or out of existence. Rather, events exist alongside one another.
The shattering of this illusion is a frequent trope in Morrison’s writings. In The Invisibles, Lord Fanny’s initiation into magic is accomplished at the age of eleven when the remainder of Fanny’s life – getting raped and beaten in Rio, drugged out in a drag club in London, even eventually dying – is experienced as if it already happened. The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl reveals to Fanny: “Time is not a river. Time is more like a bubble but is to a bubble what a bubble is to a circle drawn on the ground…”
So, Morrison philosophizes about the nature of time in his stories. Cool, right? Well, he takes it further. Way further.
To Morrison, a slightly more literal version of this B-theory of time lies in the very medium of the comic book. On any given page, if were we to ask the heroes, they’d tell us that page and that panel was the present moment, so far as they could tell. But as the reader, we see that all the panels, all the pages, all the printed issues, are all equally now. Their time is an illusion, but one to which we’re not subjected.
Even the two-dimensional flat piece of paper on which comics are drawn may be an apt analog for the structure of spacetime. Per Morrison: “Our universe… may even all be a hologram, projected onto a flat, mega-membrane, which is, in turn, embedded, along with many others like it, within a higher dimensional space[.]” “Oh, gnarly!”
He’s referring, in his own way, to the Holographic Principle. Per Stephen Hawking, “Information associated with all phenomena in the three-dimensional world can be stored on a two-dimensional boundary, like a holographic image. In a certain sense the world would be two-dimensional,” like the pages of a comic book.
So far, everything Morrison’s said seems like a reasonable conclusion to draw from mainstream theoretical physics, and if all he had to say was that, just as a film reel is a fitting analogy for A-Theory, so, too, is a comic book an apt analogy for the B-Theory of Time, his contribution would be entirely warranted. But then “The Kathmandu Experience” went down, and things got weird.
Now, although his more out-there ideas don’t necessarily hold up to scientific scrutiny, they’re still worth exploring because they take comic books and superhero stories and turn them into a compelling worldview. Whether warranted or not, many look to figures like Superman and Captain America for moral inspirational. Morrison offers some justification for emulating fictional heroes, treating them as gods, and even goes so far as to say that, “The idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God,” and suggests we’re even more super, even more godlike.
It’s for this reason that Morrison depicts philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the pages of All-Star Superman delivering his famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man.”
As he later said in his autobiography, “[Pico’s] Oratorio is without a doubt urging us to go far beyond the human, into the realm of angels and gods. It asks us to accept the superhuman as an undeniable fact of our nature, and the goal of our future evolution as a people… Although his metaphors are Biblical, suggesting Cherubs and Seraphs and Thrones as our role models and intermediaries on the road to ‘God’ or ‘cosmic consciousness,’ we can just as easily call them superheroes.”
So, what happened at Kathmandu that made Morrison believe that the universe really is a comic book, and that humanity really is a superhero? Well, he claims to have stepped outside the multiverse and seen reality from the outside: “The universe – the entire space-time continuum, from big bang to heat death, no less – was not a linear stream of events with beginning, middle, and end. That was only how it felt from the inside… All life on Earth was one thing, a single, weird, anemone-like mega-Hydra with its single-celled immortal root in the Precambrian tides… a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism… ‘It’ was all of us, all life as seen from the perspective of a higher dimension.” “Whoooa.”
Whereas Eternalism is content to conclude that spacetime is a timeless, four-dimensional object, Morrison goes beyond Eternalism by claiming that by the same principle, every human being is actually a mere cell in a single super-organism that is Humanity. And therefore, if each one of us is part of a larger whole, then altruism and beneficence and charity are in our own self-interest.
The simplistic divide of Right and Wrong, and Good and Evil, in superhero comics suddenly seems less silly because our morals aren’t arbitrary social constructs; they’re the genetic programing instructing this superorganism not to destroy itself. Indeed, this view, as a basis for ethics, is the very conclusion Lex Luthor reaches when he gains Superman’s powers and, upon seeing with his super-senses all the fundamental forces and how they’re interconnected, he begins to weep: “This is how he sees all the time, every day. Like, it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”
Okay, so if Humanity as a whole is like a superhero comic book, we should therefore behave like these costumed do-gooders. It’s a compelling case, but if you think that’s weird, he also saw 5th dimensional aliens, or what he called “mercurial hypersprites”: “Five-dimensional intelligences could, as a condition of their geometrically elevated position, get into our skulls quite easily, and we could expect their voices to come from inside. They, in turn, could hear our thoughts as easily as we can read Batman’s private inner monologues on a 2-D page.”
This is illustrated in Multiversity: Pax Americana #1. While reading a comic book, Captain Atom muses to two scientists: “The story’s linear, but I can flip through the pages in any order, any direction. Forward in time to the conclusion. Back to the opening scene. The characters remain unaware of my scrutiny, but their thoughts are transparent, weightless in little clouds. This is how a 2-dimensional continuum looks to you.” Then, staring straight ahead he says, “Imagine how your 3-D world appears to me.”
Atom’s fourth wall break brings us to another major theme in Morrison’s works, metafictionality, which is the exploration of the relationship between the fiction itself with the real world of the writer and reader. Morrison first wrestled with metafictionality in the final issue of his run on Animal-Man, in which he donned what he calls a “fiction-suit.” He inserts himself into the comic itself to interact with the character.
He notes: “I explained to my character how the people who wrote his life needed drama and shock and violence to make his story interesting. The implication was that our own lives might be ‘written’ to entertain or to instruct an audience in a perpendicular direction we could never point to, interacting with us in ways we could scarcely understand but that could be divined in the relationship of the comic world to the world of the creator and audience.”
This is the crux that connects Morrison’s metafiction to his musings on spacetime: if comic books reflect the nature of our universe, can we say that the physical comic-like universe reflects the nature of some higher reality? Who are our cosmic “comic” creators? Who writes the plot lines of history, pencils the particle interactions, letters the thought balloons of intelligent minds? Morrison’s answer is the fifth dimensional aliens that we can’t grasp with our feeble three-dimensional minds, but he admits the particulars are less important than the implications that follow from there being intelligent designers. If the analogy of our universe being like a comic book extends so far as to suggest that it has something like a writer, then the mere fact that it is a “written” work implies a purposefulness to our existence.
Now, of course, being created doesn’t necessarily impart dignity. We might be like Morrison’s Animal Man, with all our suffering for no greater purpose than to provide drama in a piece of cheap entertainment. We might be made by a hack. Our whole purpose might be to pass butter.
But contra his younger self when writing Animal Man, the more mature Morrison became more optimistic. In Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, Morrison once again used metafictionality as a means of exploring questions about our own purpose. Just as Morrison sees reality as having a three-tiered structure, with his Fifth Dimensional imps at the top, the 2D comic book characters at the bottom, and us in the middle, so too is the story of Flex Mentallo set across three levels of reality.
There’s the cartoon world of Flex Mentallo, the “realistic” world of Flex’s writer, Wallace Sage (an avatar of Morrison himself), and yet a higher reality inhabited by superheroes more real than their writers’- or the 5th dimensional aliens.
In the story, it’s revealed that superheroes, instead of being merely a product of the imagination of writers like Wally, were in fact the beings that created Wally’s entire world, after which they retreated into the imagination, seeding our culture with superhero stories in anticipation of the day that mere mortals are ready to become like them. As a result, humanity only needs to resolve their uncertainty about whether superheroes are real or not and decide to believe them into existence.
Here, Morrison is suggesting a much more dignified purpose to our existence. We’re meant to discover our fundamental purpose in the pages of comic books and to believe into existence the idea of the Superman, to incarnate him in ourselves.
For Morrison, the medium of comics and the plot structure of superhero stories are so closely connected in our culture because both are parts of the same pattern that explain everything else in existence. In recognizing this pattern, Morrison writes his own autobiography Supergods in the style and structure of an archetypal superhero story, including a secret origin in Glasgow, the call to adventure atop Kathmandu, and a death and rebirth in which he brings the hidden knowledge he gained on his Hero’s Journey to the comics community. And while that hidden knowledge is parsed out in piecemeal in his comics writing, it’s in Supergods where he’s most explicit about just what makes humankind itself a “supergod.” Already, we can see Humankind as having all the attributes of comic book superheroes or even pagan gods.
Whereas Mercury carried messages at the speed of thought to the Roman gods, we have instantaneous interconnectivity via the Internet. Whereas Heimdallr’s all-seeing eyes could spy everywhere in all nine realms, our satellites can zoom in on any spot on earth. Like Superman, we’ve flown faster than a speeding bullet. Humanity, when viewed as a whole, is already a “supergod.” Insofar as there is no future frames of the film reel popping into existence, we are not “becoming” this supergod – we already always are.
This epoch of human history is merely its secret origin story as to how it gets its superhuman powers, but all of its ongoing adventures and never-ending battles to come are all already written, published, printed, and on the shelves of some higher dimensional comic shop.
If mankind is this superorganism with all these stupendous superpowers who’s supposed to act according to the simple morality of a superhero, whose whole history is structured like a superhero story, and who’s living in a cosmos that’s constructed like a comic book, then Morrison’s obvious conclusion is this: mankind’s purpose is to be a superhero.
It’s for this reason that Morrison calls the Sun-god from Smallville “our greatest-ever idea as the human species.” Not because Superman was the prototype on which all other superheroes would be based, because he is the template for which the supergod of humanity must become, all-powerful and all-good, all at the same time.
This is the summation of Morrison’s philosophy, articulated best by Jor-El to his one and only son regarding the essential truth about man and Superman, and not the mankind within the comics, but about the mankind reading comics: “You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall, and crawl, and curse, and finally … they will join you in the sun, Kal-el.”