Sometime in the late 1980s, the British invaded and changed comic books forever. Superman may stand for the American way — at least most of the time — but it took Scotsman Grant Morrison to write one of the best modern interpretations of the Man of Steel with All-Star Superman. Morrison’s latest work, Supergods, is an analysis of what superheroes, caped crusaders, and masked men can tell us about ourselves and our culture. It’s a fascinating discussion, and one that continued when he got together with fellow comic book icon and Sandman maestro Neil Gaiman to discuss their medium, their lives, and each other’s work in a wide-ranging conversation that EW was lucky enough to listen in on.
NEIL GAIMAN: First off, congratulations! You’ve got a book out.
GRANT MORRISON: Oh, thank you. It’s great after 30 years of actually taking it seriously to finally write it down.
NG: I’m in this wonderfully blank position on this one, because I haven’t actually seen the book. So instead of doing that thing where I say, “I really liked that thing and can you expand upon it?”, we’re now in the position, as we would be over dinner, when I say, “So you’ve got a book out! What’s it about?”
GM: It’s about us. It’s about all the things we went through as kids, with comic books and superheroes. Why have they taken over the world and why are they so ubiquitous on the buses and on the tube trains and such? I devised a theory. That thing that was started in 1938 has been growing and growing and colonizing more minds and is starting to come into our real lives. I kind of think that superhero movies tend to represent this Utopian ideal of humanity because we’ve run out of them. There is no space program here anymore. I’m sure in China people feel slightly different about this, but certainly here in the West, it’s almost a time of disaster and apocalypse. It’s kind of obvious that a superhero would arise in a time of disaster and apocalypse and stand with hands on hips to remind us that we’re all okay.
NG. I find myself peculiarly reminded of these strange stories that it seems everybody who’s written comics extensively has. Was it you that told me of the mysterious Superman pauper?
GM: He was a real person, but he played it all in the character of Superman.
NG. Alan Moore talked about running into John Constantine one time, and…
GM: What happened to you?
NG: I had a few of them. The one that always haunted me — you’d think that it’d have been Morpheus — but it’s always been Death.
GM: She fancies you, Neil, let’s face it.
NG: One of [the stories] was the point where I realized how absolutely sane, in the sense of “lives in the real world,” Dave McKean is.
GM: Oh, God, yes. Thank God.
NG: You wouldn’t think to look at Dave’s imagery. He was going to the San Diego Comic-Con and he got there late. He was coming over from the UK and his plane came in incredibly late. I asked what happened and a guy had died on the plane, and they had to land and get him taken away to a hospital. It was this whole big thing, a guy in the middle of a transatlantic flight just died. “But I could tell I was coming to Comic-Con,” Dave said, “because there was one of your fans on the plane.” I said, “Oh?” And he said, “Yeah, she was dressed as Death.” And I thought, you know, if it were me, I would have wondered, just for a moment, “What are we saying here?” Dave, of course, has that gloriously rational mind that never does that, whereas you and I are both slightly mad.
GM: Yeah, slightly. Only slightly.
NG: But I like to think that some of the great discoveries have been made by the slightly mad.
GM: Oh, definitely. And I think that slightly mad is just an interesting perspective, isn’t it? That the non-slightly mad don’t quite have, so I think it’s well worth having.
NG: If it wasn’t for being slightly mad, neither of us would do what we do, or be willing to take seriously the ideas that we take seriously and then watch as they wander out into the world.
GM: And then other people start to take them seriously, and then suddenly you’re living in it.
NG: Of course, you can’t really say this because you start to sound incredibly big-headed, but you wonder how much of the stuff that exists in terms of the cultural media landscape exists because you made it up, years ago.
GM: We both know there’s a lot of that. We’ve been working long enough that obviously people have been influenced and inspired, which is fantastic, because we, in turn, were inspired by others like us. It’s hard to avoid sometimes. You don’t want to be big-headed about it, but it’s undeniable.
NG: You can point to giant, obvious ones. The one that I saw most recently, which was neither of us but we can talk about him because he’s not on the phone call, is Alan [Moore]. The Egyptian demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta masks.
GM: Wasn’t that amazing? And that’s become the default face for anarchists. They all wear that now. Everyone wears that on anti-corporate demos, and on all kinds of marches and protests. I’m amazed that that thing has become the real version of what Alan set out to create.
NG: Although it’s kind of a candy version. But what I love about it particularly in Egypt was that it wasn’t a candy version. It actually did what it was meant to do. I think there’s a difference between wearing it on a corporate march just so that you can’t be spotted, and the idea that they brought down a government. They brought down a bad government! And they brought it down wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
GM: And hopefully playing torch songs on an old piano, as well.
NG: Singing “Old Gangsters Never Die.”
GM: The Superman guy that we met in San Diego was a real person, but it was very much in the mold of what I would describe as a shamanic encounter.
NG: I remember you telling me it was really late at night.
GM: It was half-past-one in the morning and I was sitting up with Dan Raspler, who was the JLA editor at the time, and we were talking about Superman, that whole idea of trying to revamp Superman in the year 2000 and deal with all the problems that had been created in the 1990s. Remember when all the imaginary stories became true stories and suddenly there was nowhere else to go? We were talking about how Superman couldn’t solve these problems and we went down into that little park that’s across from the convention hall, and as we look up there was a guy walking across the tracks with his friend, but this guy’s Superman. And he’s not just any costumed convention-goer, but he’s perfect. He was like Billy Zane-meets-Christopher Reeve and he really suited the costume. So I ran over him and said, “This is quite amazing, this is the perfect time for this to happen. Could you come over and speak with us?” He came right over and he started talking in the persona of Superman. So if I said to him, “How do you feel about Lois?” he’d say “Well, Lois doesn’t quite get that I’m an alien as well as a human.” He was so in the character, but what really got me was the way he was sitting. It was this absolutely relaxed pose with one knee up and the arm bent over, and that’s what broke Superman for me. Suddenly I realized that Superman wouldn’t be a poser, he wouldn’t be a Muscle Beach steroid guy; he’d actually be completely relaxed because nothing could hurt him. He could be so open and friendly to everyone because no one can punch him or hurt him. He can’t get a cold, or be damaged by anything you’re carrying or wearing. For me that was the power of that, whether you want to frame it as magical or not, it actually informed the stories I wanted to write. I felt I understood him in a way I hadn’t until that moment.
NG: I remember responding incredibly well as a kid to Julius Schwartz’s The Private Life of Clark Kent stories. Just the idea that he would go off and try to solve things as Clark Kent. The stuff that we probably mocked when we were just starting out in comics, because it was close enough to us that we mocked it. Things like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which I now look back and think, “This is actually every bit as good as I thought when I was 14.” But when I was 24…
GM: When you’re 24 you see it in a historical context which has changed and a lot of it seems very shrill and strident, but then you look back on it and you think, well, that’s perfect. The time needed that, after Vietnam and with the President about to betray everyone.
NG: Whenever I see you now, you are this glorious bird of paradise, but I remember, just as for you I will always be a nervous, hungry young journalist, I remember you as a kid in a black raincoat, incredibly shy. The thing that would get you animated was the point where you’d start talking about a story, and you would come to life.
GM: I was really shy around new people, but I was in a band at the time. And when I did comics, it was also a performance. It’s like playing live. You don’t get much time to edit; we don’t really do second drafts in our business. I love that aspect of comics, where you could have a Sandman out and people would be talking about it immediately, and we could be responding to things that were happening all around us and it could be published three months later, or two months later, depending on how late we were. It’s not like writing a book, which is over a span of years like building a cathedral. The comic is so instant. That’s why it covers the seismic shifts of culture very, very accurately.
NG: The truth is, when I was doing Sandman — it may have changed by the end, when I knew it was being collected in hardbacks and stuff — but definitely for the first years of Sandman, I thought I was doing something disposable. And that was part of the joy of it. It’s here this month and it’ll get you excited, but in a month’s time it will be in the bargain bins, and in two months’ time, you’ll have to hunt for it.
GM: Or it will only be in your memories. Like so many of the books I had as a kid and don’t have any more, where I have these images of little teddy bears dressed on gigantic night-black seas in my head, and I’ll never find these books again.
NG: I can read the comics I read as a 12-year-old now through those same 12-year-old eyes, but if I missed any issues and I try to read them now as a 50-year-old, I can’t do that.
GM: When I was writing the book, the things that were the most joy for me was reading those things again and finding new things in them. I started with Action Comics and just went through.
NG: What do you think it’s going to be like for people 50 years from now looking back at the Grant Morrison opus? You’ve got all of these themes, obviously your favorite things, but what else do you think they would find when they go looking?
GM: I don’t know. I never thought of it as lasting. I always considered it, as you said, as ephemeral. The only thing I wrote for the ages was All-Star Superman. Honestly, I believe that in a couple generations I’ll be utterly forgotten except for a footnote in a Batman story, so I don’t know. I can’t even imagine.
NG: I can’t see you being footnoted.
GM: Well, that’s lovely of you to say. But I feel like I’m here, I’ve got a chance to shine, to wave at the public and say, “Hi,” and connect to the people you like and who like you.
NG: Alright, let me throw this back at you. Things that I have loved over the years that you have done. I love the way that you both initially embraced, and then rapidly moved beyond, or moved in a completely different direction from, the ‘80s grim-and-gritty thing. There was a little while where we were trying to take this stuff seriously, and then, we went off in very, very strange and interesting directions. What I love about what you began doing then was initially your narratives were always meta-narratives, and they were always smarter than they needed to be. You’d put in gags, lines, thoughts, going all the way back to Danny the Street. Danny La Rue as a transvestite street, that’s glorious. But you were willing to, for lack of a better word, assert your reality. You didn’t want to mimic anybody else’s.
GM: The big break for me was I got tired of looking at stuff like The Dark Knight and Watchmen, which are wonderful and beautiful works, but for me the idea of taking our problems into the superhero world is ultimately a dead-end. When I was 25 or 26 it occurred to me that trying to make superheroes seem real was insane. They were not real in that way, but what really hit me was, “Well, in what way are they real?” They’re absolutely real in the form of paper, and so I wanted to go beyond that spurious realism of here’s what would happen if Batman got a run in his tights, or, “How does he go to the bathroom?” “Where does he keep his change?” Which I think are very dumb questions. In the book, one of the things I say is that people always believe kids don’t understand the difference between fact and fiction. But they do! A child can watch The Little Mermaid and they know the singing crabs on TV are very different from the real crabs on the beach. You give an adult a piece of fiction, and the adult cannot handle it. The adult begins to ask, “How can Batman afford to run a business and be Batman at night?” “How do the lasers come out of Superman’s eyes?” “Why does he wear those clothes?” And all you want to say is, “Because it’s not real!” It’s made up, and only in the made-up world can these things happen. I find that, in the last 10 years particularly, there’s this idea of grounding Superman, which just seems insane to me. And that’s what you always get from studio executives, is, “How do we ground this?”
NG: The other thing I love that you hear all the time from movie executives is, “What are the rules of this world?” Nobody gives you rules for any world. You figure it out as you go along and weird s— happens.
GM: And obviously rules eventually arise, but it comes from the narrative. And it doesn’t have to be this world’s rules. Adults need to get a grasp of this. These things aren’t real and we can make anything happen. And that’s exactly what’s so wonderful about it.
Read more of Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison’s conversation in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly.