Posted by Matt Nadelhaft
For all his stature in the world of comics, Grant Morrison took the stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival – for the first time in twenty years – with a bashful smile and an affable charm. He spoke primarily about his new book, Supergods: Our Lives in the Age of the Superhero, before fielding questions from the audience. While some of the questions, predictably, revolved around his specific plans for and work with Batman, Wonder Woman, and other icons, it was the broader theme of the superhero as idea and archetype that held sway over the event.
Just a few days earlier in a nearby tent Cory Doctorow spoke of science-fiction writers not predicting but inspiring the future by creating narratives to herald, to promote, and to motivate. Grant Morrison discusses superheroes in much the same way. Superman isn’t Clark Kent’s alter ego; he’s ours: the nobler, wiser, bolder ideal to which we aspire. Morrison mentioned the emerging technologies he thinks will help us become superhuman but is more interested and more moved by the powers of the imagination to help us think like superheroes. Superman isn’t going to end poverty or hunger. But a world in which we can picture there being, picture ourselves being, Superman, is a world in which we can envision – and enact – solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty.
In Supergods, Morrison illustrated this concept with examples from his own life. Growing up in a household of antiwar protesters, he was terrified by “the bomb” as a child, until he came to understand and believe two things: Superman is more powerful than the bomb and, like Superman, before the bomb was real, it was an idea. Throughout his career as a writer, Morrison has explored the relationship between ideas and reality and, like Doctorow, although perhaps in a more profound way, he finds ideas don’t just stand behind reality – they shape it. Nothing is real without having been first, and continuing to be, an idea. And only ideas can be made by us into real things. Which ideas we choose to make real depend on which narratives we select as our inspiration.
In his gorgeous and stirring four-part series Flex Mentallo Morrison imagined a world of superheroes forced to become fictional and waiting, latent, in our mundane and bleak world for human imagination to make them real again. All superheroes have their origin stories, and this is an origin story for a superheroic reality that begins when we decide to accept it. Maybe we’re too old to believe in Tinkerbelle. And, no doubt, we’ll find it too embarrassing, too ridiculous to believe in superheroes. But if, like me, you reach the final image of Flex Mentallo (no matter how many times you read it) with a lump in your throat, you’ll wish we could.