Book Reviews

Book Review – Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics

GRANT MORRISON: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. By Marc Singer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2012.

Marc Singer’s important and comprehensive study covers Grant Morrison’s career from early work in the British press in the late 1970s to his contemporary role as one of the central creators in DC Comics’ mainstream superhero universe. The “worlds of contemporary comics” of the subtitle provide an organizing principle for Morrison’s career, moving back and forth between mainstream superhero work for both Marvel and DC and independent, “creator-owned” work in fantasy and science fiction genres, most notably for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Singer proves that Grant Morrison’s career, which has, for the most part, serviced the intellectual properties of large multimedia corporations, is worthy of such an extensive scholarly study.

Singer follows a rough chronology of Morrison’s career. Following a chapter on Morrison’s early British comics, including Zenith, Dare, and The New Adventures of Hitler, Singer focuses on the writer’s first American comics for DC: the Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, Animal Man,and Doom Patrol. Examining the latter two series, Singer traces the early stages of Morrison’s postmodern project which would carry on into most of his later works. One of Singer’s major contributions is in identifying the unifying theoretical and philosophical concerns that bind such sprawling, extensive projects like The Invisibles (1994-2000), including Enlightenment philosophy, Romantic utopianism, post-structural linguistics, postmodern literary theory, the ethics of writing, and the unique relationship of image and text that comics provide. Later chapters examine Flex Mentallo, Morrison’s treatise on the superhero genre; his work for DC’s Justice League and Marvel’s X-Men franchises; his shorter, genre-collapsing Vertigo projects like The Filth, We3, Seaguy, and Vimanarama; and finally his later position as an architect for DC’s superhero universe and caretaker for some of their major properties, including Superman and Batman.

Singer argues that Morrison has used the unique visual and verbal qualities of comics to push the medium in general, and the superhero genre in particular, to serve a more progressive and transformative role in contemporary culture. As such, Morrison has collaborated with several artists who share his experimental sensibility, including Frank Quitely (Flex Mentallo, We3, All-Star Superman) and J. H. Williams III (Seven Soldiers, Batman). Singer highlights two of Morrison’s techniques that are well served by comics’ image/text relationship: hypostasis and synecdoche. Hypostasis, as opposed to figurative modes like symbolism and allegory, allows Morrison to use comics characters as “physical incarnations of fears, desires, or abstract concepts” (16); therefore, Morrison can combine the visual and verbal elements of comics that transcends the limitations of language alone. Morrison also uses synecdoche to create a kind of fractal structure to his works, where, for example, an individual issue of a series or even a single image “reflects and reproduces the whole” (19), and that “whole” could include the entire series, the superhero genre, or the comics medium, thus providing a vehicle for Morrison’s metatextual commentary.  Synecdoche and hypostasis are underutilized concepts in Comics Studies, and Singer’s study opens the door for such concepts to be applied to other creators.

Throughout the book, Marc Singer deftly weaves various threads of contemporary literary criticism through dozens of individual works in Grant Morrison’s career. Most significantly, Singer has written an essential scholarly study on an important contemporary author whose work transcends the limitations of the genres and medium in which he operates. Singer also has provided a model for any similar future Comics Studies projects, especially those focused on other creators with auteurist sensibilities.

Andrew J. Kunka, University of South Carolina – Sumter

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