Grant Morrison is a man with a reputation: a lunatic practitioner of the occult, eyeball-deep in drugs, with transvestite tendencies and a shaven-headed snarl.
The man sitting in front of me, however, is a different entity entirely: a softly spoken and quick to laugh gentleman, poured into a chair and eager to talk about his beloved superheroes. Here in Edinburgh to promote his new book Supergods, a fascinating mix of superhero history, autobiography and positive thought manifesto, Morrison is at ease in the sweltering hotel tucked behind the book festival grounds, musing about his latest creation.
"God, I don't even know what it is now, because after you finish it, it becomes something totally different. Now it's out there and it has its own life, so it's kind of like a Viking child I just threw in the snow," he laughs, smiling for what must easily be his 100th interview this month. "It was just a runaway thing, you know. Because I got bored with telling a history that I thought only the fans of comics would care about, I wanted to also talk about what happens if you subject your entire life to the radioactivity of comic books and superheroes."
Currently writing Superman stories for the newly re-launched Action Comics, after switching from his hugely successful Batman run, it's no exaggeration to say that Glasgow-born Morrison is at the top of his profession. Since the late-Eighties British invasion of comics, when Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Morrison launched themselves at an unsuspecting American public, Morrison's work has garnered a reputation for heady brilliance and complexity. After his gothic Arkham Asylum, which inspired the successful videogame series, his brain melting The Invisibles, which influenced The Matrix, and his iconic X-Men run for Marvel that set the tone of the brilliant films, Morrison is an authoritative voice on comics culture.
"Doing something like Superman or Batman," he later tells an audience of adoring fans, "you're part of a 70-year continuum, and to be able to go in there and tie this little knot in the story of Batman somewhere ... you know, when I'm dead and gone and forgotten in a couple of generations, Batman will still be around and my name will still be there on those Batman stories. I've kind of scrawled my signature on his arse."
It's interesting to note the difference between Morrison's persona behind the scenes and on stage. After his talk, there is a slight sense of nerves, and perhaps with good reason: his words are reported the next day without mention of the cheeky grin or the laughs on either side. The snarl is kept intact.
Supergods is far from a conventional history of an artform. The structure is built around the progress of a human life from child to adult; the recurring lightning flash motif in superhero comics represents the instant connection between the divine and the material; Superman is Apollo, Zeus, Christ. Superheroes are ideas, constructed by humanity to be indomitable, and 70 years later they are as prevalent as ever before, allowing willing audiences a utopian escape from a bitter reality.
"That optimism that comics bring is a kind of outrage now, and quite appeals to me because of that," he grins. "It's so against the prevailing trends to say, 'Hey, maybe everything's OK.' People just lose their shit if you try to tell them that perhaps we're part of larger-scale processes that are working themselves out, and that we barely have any comprehension of. You can't say that."
The power of ideas and stories is perhaps the main thrust of Supergods, a proclamation on how to improve our broken world. "You watch Big Brother and it's the exultation of idiocy," Morrison tells me, hastily explaining that he just happened to catch it the night before. "And it's hard to posit alternatives to it, because it's so popular, but superheroes kind of do so. It's in a small, crude way, but at least they're doing it."
Morrison, a famous practitioner of chaos magic, is passionate about his theories in Supergods, and how they are misinterpreted. "A lot of reviewers were freaked out. They say, 'I loved this book until I got to page 224 and this guy's in a dress summoning Voodoo gods! Who is this man?! How dare he enter my history of superheroes!'"
But his contentious reputation will only build now that his radical new take on Superman has been revealed: "My big thing was to do a Superman who was a bit more pro-active and a bit more socialist. Because that seemed, again, like a nice bomb to fire into the heart of Americana." Then again, Morrison insists that society is crying out for a superhero who is a champion of the poor and oppressed. "I thought it was a great chance to seize the reins, and take Superman away from being a patriotic figure, a representative of the American flag in some way, and instead do a Superman who's clearly for justice – but not necessarily for the law."
Morrison is a big fan of final statements: Leviathan is his final statement on Batman, Final Crisis was his final statement on DC, Multiversity will be his final statement of final statements, and Supergods, already a New York Times bestseller, is his final statement on superheroes. And what is Morrison's final statement on Supergods? "It'll change your life," he laughs. "No it will! If you read Supergods it will change your life."
Action Comics #1 is published by DC, priced £2.90
Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, By Grant Morrison (Cape £17.99)
'There were real superheroes, of course. They did exist. They lived in paper universes, suspended in a pulp continuum where they never aged or died unless it was to be reborn, better than ever, with a new costume. Real superheroes lived on the surface of the second dimension. The real lives of real superheroes could be contained in two hands.'Reuse content