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Grant Morrison: Psychedelic Superhero

Can the comic book great really talk to the dead, channel John Lennon and see into the fifth dimension?

August 22, 2011 2:30 PM ET
grant morrison, 2008
Grant Morrison
Photo by Emiliano Machado, Courtesy of Grant Morrison

Grant Morrison is, at the moment, on deadline for five comic-book scripts – three Batmans, two Supermans – plus the first draft of a screenplay about heroic dinosaurs fighting rapacious space aliens. But he won't be getting to any of that today. On this bright early-summer afternoon in his native Glasgow, Morrison has some far more implausible stories to tell, and they might even be true. "This is the house that can't be lit," he says, striding into the green-walled, wood-floored living room of one of the four homes his lucrative comic-book career and intermittent screenwriting work afford him – this one a 130-year-old town house in a wealthy enclave known as "millionaire's row." "It swallows light. There was a séance in the backroom, and the place never recovered. We keep changing the bulbs, but they won't turn on."

It's not hard to imagine serious weirdness going down in this shadowy place, decorated as it is in a haute-bohemian Euro-creepy fashion that makes it look like the home of a hip Satanist – or just that of a 51-year-old writer, spiritual explorer, countercultural hero, occasional crossdresser and rock-star whisperer. Morrison is one of the most adventurous and commercially successful comic-book writers of the past 25 years, retrieving superheroic and science-fictional dispatches from the fringes of consciousness, splattering his chaotic visions onto the page.

Even as Hollywood transforms itself into a superhero-industrial complex, struggling to find "gritty" and "realistic" takes on flying Übermenschen in rubber suits, Morrison revels in the glorious madness of these stories. "People say kids can't understand the difference between fact and fiction, but that's bullshit," he says. "Kids understand that real crabs don't sing like the ones in The Little Mermaid. But you give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like 'How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile's tires?' It's a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!"

Morrison's just-released book, Supergods (his first book-book, no pictures), is a maniacally enthusiastic stream-of-consciousness narrative, 70 years of superhero history with erudite analysis and autobiography thrown in – an account of what it's like to plunge your brain into these fictional universes for decades, refusing to come up for air. "I wanted to say, here's what happens if you engage with this to the exclusion of all else," he says. "Here's what you're like – and it's kind of weird."

In the center of Morrison's high-ceilinged living room is a blood-red leather couch, paired with a fuzzy crimson rug that looks to have been made from the fur of a poached-and-skinned Elmo; a silkscreen image of what appears to be a female ghost hangs above the fireplace; on a table in the corner sits a hypnotic, unnerving painting of a pentagramish figure etched with quotes from both the Kabbalah and Orson Welles' The Shadow radio drama – the work of a freaky outsider artist named Paul Laffoley. "He's a fascinating guy," Morrison says. "He had to have his foot amputated, and he wears a huge clawed lion's foot that screws into his leg."

Morrison has all of his original limbs, and décor aside, is no Satanist, although he'd make a convincing one: He's utterly, magisterially bald, with impenetrably charismatic black eyes and pointy ears. He has excellent posture, possibly from the martial-arts training he undertook to make himself more superheroic, and he manages to look elegant even in his current outfit of pale-blue T-shirt, black pants and Prada boots – nothing like the old-school geek creators he once derided as "fucking American fatsos with sweat stains on their Superman T-shirts." Instead, he looks and acts like the rock star he always wanted to be, back when he played in bands such as the Mixers, once opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream.

Morrison hasn't felt any malevolent presence in this house, but he's pretty sure he's met a few demons over the years. Morrison considers himself a magician, and not the rabbits-from-hats kind – magick with a "k" style sorcery. He's been conducting occult rituals since age 19, summoning various entities and gods and such – ranging from a flaming lion's head to what he believes to have been the spirit of John Lennon, who, he says, gave him a song (we'll get back to that one).

Morrison and a bandmate from one of his not-quite-successful-enough rock groups conducted their séance in 1990, using a homemade Ouija board to try to identify a mysterious Glasgow serial killer known as Bible John. "We had letters arranged and a glass in the middle," says Morrison, "and we're sitting there, like, 'This is never gonna work – is there anybody there?' And the glass goes whoosh, and it started to spell out stuff." They didn't crack the case, but as with much of Morrison's life, the incident ended up in a comic book.

Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru, is a fan of Morrison's work (which he first encountered via his comic-book-loving son) and is convinced of his mystical bona fides. "The potential shaman exists in everyone," says Chopra, who befriended Morrison after they spoke together at a Comic-Con panel on spirituality and superheroes, "and definitely in him. That's why he's special."

For Morrison, the "most magical thing" is the way he makes his living. "I find it quite fucked up, to be honest, the notion that the most outlandish thoughts could pay for your existence," says Morrison, intelligible syllables poking their heads up from the bog of his working-class Glasgow accent. "The most bizarre thoughts you may have had in 1994 on an Ecstasy tab can turn into money, which turns into houses, which turns into cat food. It's the Yukon in our brain, it's a gold rush, it's all sitting there, and it's worth money."

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