All good books about superheroes, and the comics and films in which they appear, end up to some extent being memoirs. For people who stay interested long enough to think deeply and write, superheroes are tokens of memory and aspiration; we remember where we were when we first picked up a Spider-Man comic and why it spoke to our needs. Comics provide us with useful metaphors, ways of thinking, points of view.
Grant Morrison's sometimes informative, sometimes maddening book about comics and his career as one of the major forces in the industry does all these things. It talks of a Scots adolescence as a child of a slowly crumbling marriage with no clear sense of how you want to apply your talents; of early success fuelled by strong drink and a rock-star lifestyle; of the excitement of magical thinking and a sense of hope in the face of a world that could make us all despair.
In passing, it is stunningly good on the utopian dream that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster kick-started when they invented Superman, and the dark twin that Bob Kane created for the Man of Steel in Batman. As one of the best writers of both characters, Morrison knows what he is talking about, though he attributes much of his sense of how to proceed to a conversation he once had with Superman himself. In Morrison's rational mind, he knows this was a costumed fan who had the good sense to play along, but Morrison chose to regard the encounter as an actual visitation. That, he points out, is as good a definition of ritual magic as you are likely to find.
There has always been a crying need for a good book on superheroes that is about the characters as archetypes that fill a need, rather than about the artistic achievement. Such a book almost had to come from a British creator. Superheroes are such a quintessentially American myth that even the most talented American writers and artists are too close to be objective.
Morrison is, of major current UK creators, probably the one who believes in superheroes as a worthwhile topic most whole-heartedly. Alan Moore has burned out on his love to the point of denying them; Neil Gaiman was only ever moderately interested and tends to make them over into his own gently ironic image; Warren Ellis is torn between intellectual disdain and the money; Martin Millar sees them as essentially political counters with which to make ideological points. Morrison actually thinks of them not as a way of satirising America but of talking about human potential. This seems to me to be an approach that pays proper respect to what superheroes have always been for.
Sometimes he is funny and sometimes scabrous – and sometimes he goes off on tangents from which such things as logical argument never entirely recover. Though he ends up discussing many high points of the genre, his taste is not infallible; sometimes he would rather spend more time discussing in hilarious anger why the George Clooney Batman and Robin is one of the worst films ever made than why Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight is definitive. His account of his own best work - All-Star Superman, The Invisibles, Seven Soldiers - is patchy. He tells us what he feels like telling us in an account that is, like the book, essential without being definitive.
Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes!' is published by IB TaurisReuse content