Grant Morrison: Psychedelic Superhero
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 carries himself 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.”
As he ages, Morrison looks increasingly like Professor X, the hairless, psychic leader of the X-Men, which happens to be one of the many comic books he’s written over the years (the winged character Zoë Kravitz plays in this summer’s X-Men: First Class is his creation). Like the professor, he’s comfortable as a mentor and guru, in his case both to other comic-book writers and to rock stars, teaching Robbie Williams about magic and becoming close friends with My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, helping shape the direction of that band’s last album. “I definitely learned so much from him,” says Way. “It takes courage to go into the commercial arena and say, ‘Let’s push this, let’s make something crazy.'”
Growing up, Grant didn’t have to look far for a flawed-but-powerful hero. His father, Walter Morrison, was a militant pacifist and well-known leftist activist in Glasgow who frequently faced police harassment. “He was a known figure, but he had a secret identity and everything,” says Morrison, “a name he used when he’d leave these anti-nuclear messages.” But Walter’s devotion to his causes left the family without much money and tore his marriage apart. Grant’s parents divorced when he was on the cusp of adolescence, and his world turned dark. He had won a scholarship to an elite boys’ school, but the long commute left him without a social life. He spent his free time trying to write and draw his own versions of the American comic books that had illuminated his childhood world.
He was rejected by art school and ended up skipping college altogether, spending his post-high-school years playing in punk bands while quickly picking up professional work in U.K. comics, which he treated as the minor leagues. He broke through in America in 1988 – part of a wave of glamorous, groundbreaking U.K. writers that also included Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore – by reviving an obscure DC Comics superhero named Animal Man and inserting himself as the villain of the piece. Animal Man slowly realizes he is fictional, and in one infamous sequence, gazes out from the cage of his comic-book panel and yelps, “I can see you!” at the reader. The character ends up meeting Morrison, who apologizes for killing Animal Man’s family in an earlier issue, and brings them back to life. As Morrison saw it, he had invented a “fiction suit” that allowed him to enter the comic-book universe, and he had no intention of taking it off. “I was trying to become fictional,” he says, “because I had all these mad ideas.”
Morrison made his first real money with 1989’s wildly popular graphic novel Arkham Asylum — a surreal, psychosexually rich tale of Batman and the Joker that informed Heath Ledger’s unhinged take on the character. “The mainstream superhero stuff in a lot of ways has been more experimental than the stuff I’ve done for myself,” says Morrison, who’s also been writing monthly Batman comics since 2006. “It’s going to look good in the context of 70 years of Batman – I’ve tied a knot in it that will be there forever, and that’s as meaningful as anything I’ll do.”
Morrison had just hit his thirties, and Bat-cash in hand, he was ready to have the kind of fun that had eluded him in his teens. He traveled the world, visiting India, Thailand, Bali, New Zealand, Nepal. He started wearing leather and vinyl, shaved his balding head and abandoned a lifetime of sobriety, dropping acid, shrooms and Ecstasy, smoking hash. In Katmandu, he had a spiritual experience that has guided his work ever since, a revelatory vision from some kind of fifth-dimensional perspective. He saw the universe from the outside, met silvery bloblike entities who explained the connectedness of all life on Earth. “I felt it was a higher intelligence, and there’s no proof it wasn’t,” he says. “I remember space and time being just a flat surface.”
It wasn’t merely a drug thing. “I was only on a little lentil-size piece of hash, and that won’t give you that experience – God knows I’ve tried,” adds Morrison, who knows how insane all of this sounds. “I was utterly sure for a long time after that when I died I would just wake up there, like looking up from a video game, realizing you’re in your room, but now I don’t feel like that anymore.”
Morrison never considered “pulling an L. Ron Hubbard on this stuff.” Instead, he just kept writing comic books. He put as much as he could of this experience into The Invisibles, a brain-bending comic-book series he created about mystic kung-fu-fighting adventurers, which seemed like an obvious influence on The Matrix when it hit theaters five years later. “I was told by people on the set that Invisibles books were passed around for visual reference,” says Morrison, who wouldn’t have minded some credit. The Invisibles starred a bald, leather-clad guy called King Mob who looked just like Morrison. He tried to blur the lines between himself and the character, adopting King Mob’s lifestyle and fetish wear. “I became the character,” he says, “and he was copying me instead of me copying him.” Around this time, a young Gerard Way, then an intern at DC Comics, encountered Morrison. “I saw Grant, and he was King Mob,” Way says. “He had actualized into this piece of fiction, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I have to do.’ That’s what started me on my path.”
But by Morrison’s account, the connection with King Mob turned on him. After the character hallucinated that his face was ravaged by bacteria, Morrison’s own cheek fell prey to a staph infection, which spread and put him in the hospital, nearly killing him. (That much is definitely real: The scar is still there on his pale, stubbly cheek.) So he decided to use the apparent voodoo bond to his advantage, setting King Mob up with hot women, making him rich and successful.
Another Invisibles character, the transvestite Lord Fanny, also drew from Morrison’s life. In the bedroom of his town house, near a painting by Emil Schult of Kraftwerk, is a female mannequin wearing a purple coat and white-feather boa over a shiny black bodysuit. They belong to Morrison – he used to wear them while doing magic, based on a shamanistic belief that demons won’t recognize you in ladies’ clothes. “I was pretty sexy,” he says. “It was a complete turn-on, but I was using it as an energy to try to manipulate it.”
Morrison was into some dark stuff at the time, trying to summon monsters from the work of H.P. Lovecraft. “You can say I’m fucking nuts,” he says, “but anyone can find these rituals online, and if you’re too scared to do them, you’re the one who believes in the devil, not me.”
He tried the same trick with John Lennon: “I put all the Beatles albums in a circle, a magic circle, wore my clothes from the band, tight trousers, Beatle boots, had a Rickenbacker guitar, and I had ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on a loop and I just played it, and I took this tiny lick of acid, just to give an edge. Basically, I got this image, this thing, like a huge Lennon head made out of music. It gave me a song – it’s a pretty convincing John Lennon song.”
Around the turn of the century, Morrison had his fill of madness. He cooled it on the drugs (“9/11 happened, and you can’t be a globetrotting psychedelic anything anymore”) and married Kristan Anderson, a corporate insurance broker who dressed like Barbarella. They split their time between the town house, Morrison’s Nineties home base, and a house in the countryside.
He also took on more mainstream work, writing DC’s Justice League, Marvel’s New X-Men and an upcoming major relaunch of Superman. “When I wrote Superman, it was like contemplating Buddha,” he says. “I really felt elevated. Everything seemed more beautiful, more precious. Batman’s different. I try not to go into Batman that much because he’s nutty, and I don’t really want to feel like Bruce Wayne.”
After all this time, he remains enchanted by the essential optimism of the super-hero narrative. “How do we fight against the idea that we are doomed?” he says. “We are fighting against it with the super-human story, which is that there is a future, something beyond this, if we can just get better. You may look at superheroes and just see trash, toilet paper. I’m looking at them and seeing William Blake angels.”
Morrison continues to practice magic, most recently trying to heal his sick cat. He’s had some success with supernatural veterinary work in the past. “I don’t think you can get evidence of this stuff – it’s like trying to prove that water boils on the sun, you can’t do it. But I’m still trying to not sound like some insane person.”
Whether or not Morrison’s most outlandish tales are true, there’s no doubt he believes them. And occasionally he’ll surprise you with something like proof.
At a Los Angeles book signing for Supergods with Way in late July, Morrison whips out a guitar and plays the song given to him by the floating Lennon head. “Keep taking the pills/Keep reading the books/Keep looking for signs that somebody loves you,” he sings in a rough tenor. The audience laughs at first, then falls silent. He gets to the bridge – “One and one and one makes two/If you really want it to” – and the melody suddenly sounds like it could be on the White Album, or at least pass for Oasis.
Way, for one, is convinced. When Morrison performed the song in front of his two-year-old daughter, she started to dance, something she’d never done when her dad played guitar. “I was like, ‘Well, clearly this is a John Lennon song,'” Way says. “Clearly!” Or maybe not. As Morrison observes in Supergods: “Things don’t have to be real to be true. Or vice versa.”
• Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics
• Essential Guide: The Best of Grant Morrison
This story is from the September 1, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.