Cinderella City

And now…a few words about Grant Morrison, the man in charge of the restoration. No spoilers for SSoV #1, please – I am putting myself on a short countdown to reading it, and I’ve been lucky so far to avoid any real spoilery information. Though it’s been exceedingly difficult to do so…

But: a handful or so of days, and I will read it, so have pity on me for just a little while longer, and I’ll be sure to send up a flare when I’m done.

Until then, let’s talk about everything else. You know, I think most comic readers do Morrison a bit of a disservice, in that they’re always on about his “mad ideas”, his Morrisonolalia, and his status as an innovator. I think Grant is tops, obviously; but as time goes on, I’m less and less sure that “innovator” is the best description for him as a comics professional. “Traditionalist” would probably be closer: as much as he relies on ellipsis and chiasm* – I am tempted to say, on a chiastic structure which leaves the matter of what is being crossed up to the reader – a very charming and welcome device – he appears less interested in exploding the conventions of the comic-book superhero/adventure/fantasy/science fiction narrative than he is in liberating those conventions from the narrow-minded revisionist perspective which says they need exploding at all. “Crossing” is a optical strategy**, here, since things as they are seen are eventually shown to be, still, no more than what they always were in the first place. I cackle at Grant’s cleverness at the very moment I translate “Vimanarama” as “Chariots Of The Gods”…but in another moment I wonder if it actually isn’t “clever” at all. Because, why would I be so quick to call it an “innovative” crossing, when it hasn’t broken, or even substantially tweaked, any old rules? This is really insouciance, not iconoclasm; far from being a revolutionary, Morrison seems to me to be an ardent defender of the status quo, a believer in the undimmed power of the superhero as a pop-culture carrier for large ideas. So straight, not clever, is how he plays it: look at all the Doom Patrol scans floating around the web in the wake (sorry) of Arnold Drake’s unfortunate death, and it’s readily apparent that there is nothing in Morrison’s Doom Patrol that is not itself just such a “scan”…though not, obviously, an absolute replication. And the loving attention he pays to the possibilities of the past doesn’t stop with that. His JLA, at first glance so “out there”, so adorned with lush psychedelic flourishes, on a second look shows itself rather to be an almost-austere rehanging of the old mobile of the DC icons – indeed, the only thing that’s different, is that the readers’ familiarity with the concepts of rotation and revolution are assumed. Gone is the expositional dialogue that flowed like a river from caption to word-balloon to thought-balloon; what’s left are only the icons, and the actions.

It’s just the same thing we see with his Fantastic Four and his X-Men: old, tried-and-true dynamics, faithfully embraced by an enthusiastic fan-turned-pro who believes that it was all trashy opportunistic remix culture anyway, in the first place (Alan Moore has Ozymandias call it dub – hmm, maybe I spoke too hastily here, after all), and that just like a dream it was all about the crossing of realism’s subject (the individual meets the world) with its exultantly-fantastic opposite (the individual is the world), from the very beginning. So innovation this is not, although it’s definitely all quite perceptive and admirable; but particularly it is not innovation because Morrison makes sure to tell us just what he’s doing every step of the the way, often in so many words. Well, Alan Moore, so often contrasted with Grant, did much the same thing when you think about it: sure, in Watchmen the world of the superheroes is reimagined as “realistic”, but what does that mean in specific terms? Only that such a world must inevitably become unrecognizable as a close analogue of our own, in other words as an image of what is real – of what is, if you’ll pardon the expression, really real. Consider: we are told that the old “New York faces” are gone, the nostalgia (shades of Philip K. Dick!) is all exclusively for things that never happened, the future in a real sense does not exist, and neither does the past…so that we don’t recognize the clothes, the cars, or the comics is precisely where the realism lies, and anything less would be a cheat as far as that goes, would be (as the physicists say) “not even wrong”…

Morrison doesn’t extend himself in this direction, of course – hey, just because you know how to do “realistic” superheroes doesn’t mean you have to do them, and for Morrison one suspects that there would be very little thrill in this activity anyway. After all, the realistic superhero can only do its one basic thing, which is to riff darkly on superheroes, whereas the superhero itself can riff on a vast number of things, and all while espousing exciting and life-affirming ideals into the bargain, so who in their right minds would bother with “realistic”? Morrison’s ambitions are a bit more vigourous than that. He creates, and he plays, but most of all he rescues: from the needless restrictions of a dumbed-down false orthodoxy, he pulls out a zippy fun which can never be euthanized, only kept under anaesthesia for a period of time. And he wakes it up, along with us.

Which brings us to tonight’s Word: “Cinderella City.”

This will be brief.

It’s my assumption (though I may well be wrong) that the DC Universe’s New York City only came along as a meaningful location at around about the time Marv Wolfman’s Teen Titans came to prominence in it, and thus through its “lifetime” it’s been not much more than a close copy of Marvel’s New York City. This is, for the most part, an unsatisfying arrangement: too “real”, and therefore too unlike the zany symbolic order that underlies the DCU, and that makes up much of its charm. So, see here what Morrison does. He reinvents it. Under cover of the idea that NYC has two “ugly stepsisters”, Metropolis and Gotham, he gives it a meaning of its own that goes beyond this (implicitly) unfavourable symbolic comparison…he makes it a place where the DCU’s B- and C-grade Cinderella characters come to put on their own glass slippers, and step into the heroic role that they “always” deserved. Which is pretty darned clever: because the one thing none of DC’s fictionopolises (your pardon, Scipio, I can’t find the exact link right now) has ever fully appropriated from New York is its status as the premier city of immigrants, who are so famously prone to arrive in the land of opportunity as penniless strangers, who don’t speak the language and don’t know the ropes, but who resolutely make up community for themselves out of whole cloth, and prosper.

Just as the heroes (titular and otherwise) of Seven Soldiers of Victory do, of course: from the DCU’s far corners, they arrive in the Cinderella City to reinvent themselves and their identities, to move past old limitations and find new purposes, and even a previously-unsuspected connection. So it’s a wonderful rehabilitation Morrison achieves, here, not just of these discarded characters but of NYC itself, because with just a few deft strokes he makes it into a DC fictionopolis after all: the immigrant experience fantasized, literalized, not as a person but as a place…and not as the special home place of a superhero protector, either, but specifically as a place without anyone at the top of its symbolic food chain, a place without a symbolic “ceiling” at all…as “Blue Rafters”, a place that itself comes to symbolize that terribly powerful, terribly unspecific thing called character development

Brilliant, Grant! Suddenly this does seem like a specifically “DC-ized” New York, at least to me! Why, a person could set stories there, if they wished to! It’s a fabulous advance in fictionopolis technology, and not realistic at all! Bravo!

He does things like that all the time, you know. It’s kind of his thing. And, sure, it isn’t “innovation”: it’s just reinventing the wheel, that’s all.

But cripes, it’s about time someone reinvented that bloody wheel again, isn’t it?

 

 

* I’m actually using “chiasm” to stand for the way I think Morrison himself would stew up the various dictionary meanings that come off this basic word-root, which as you’ve probably guessed means “crossing”…in literature this is a significant enough term for a couple different ways of writing and of reading, but seeing as how it’s got a meaning as a rather suggestive piece of genetics jargon too, and on top of that even as a piece of medical jargon…well, I just thought he’d approve of my own “crossing”, here. So look ’em all up, if you’re curious!

** This is the medical one: there’s a thing called the “optic chiasmus” which is where the two optic nerves coming from your eyes cross each other…now, an interesting thing here is that if the optic chiasm isn’t “crossed” properly, then you yourself would have to cross your eyes in order to get a proper image…it’s a little bit like that thing about how what your eyes are REALLY sending you is an image of an inverted world, but your brain is compensating for it. Sort of. The idea of course (at least in my little “chiasm” conflation) is that crossing, juxtaposition, the interference of elements with each other, this is all essential for what we think of as normal, unitary vision. So sometimes what might usually be called a “distortion” isn’t a distortion at all, if you see, and produces no hallucination except the hallucination of WHAT IS THERE. Well, but, okay fine, be that way if you must, I never promised it would make an oceanful of sense. This is just a blog, for heaven’s sake, you’re lucky you get any footnotes at all.

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8 responses to “Cinderella City

  1. Now that I think about it…I’m almost using “chiasm” for “kenning” here, aren’t I? Interesting thought, that you can only see something by covering it with something else…

    Oh crap, I have a fever. No one writes things that read like this unless they have a fever.

  2. Feverish or not, well said.

    The notion of Morrison as a traditionalist who seeks to liberate super-hero (i.e. Silver Age) convention from modern tropes sits well with my perception of the guy.

  3. Fake it, Lurker: that’s what I do. And Keeper, as Lorne Greene said when offered the part of Adama: “you’ll get no negatives from me!”

    Jeez, Lorne, who talks like that?

    …And, now I’m thinking about it more and more, you know? Not Lorne Greene’s diction. Crossings. My casual list of new-crossing-as-new-kenning that I just started making up is already up to twelve, and that’s just off the top of my head. Undoubtedly this is a major point…at least, I have no doubt that it is.

    Ooooh, can’t wait to find out how it ends!

  4. Excellent points all around. I’ve always thought of Morrison’s genius as his ability to cull from the best of the past and to show exactly why it shouldn’t be abandoned in this post-wrongly-interpreting-Watchmen era where old conventions are dropped like bad habits. Instead, his genius is widely seen as a case of straight-up innovation – which he does have from time to time! But really, it’s not his most consistent feature. The only reason I can see for people confusing the two is that people just plain forget what came before Watchmen and DKR. Back in the day, people threw a lot more at the wall to see if it would stick than Morrison does – I mean, Kirby alone! Grant didn’t forget that, and he uses the best ideas from the past (and ideas from his other, more esoteric areas of interest) as a springboard for his own stories. That’s where his genius lies, not in exploring uncharted regions of ideaspace, but in bringing us the absolute best of what’s already out there.

    Something that’s always struck me as strange: he doesn’t simply wear his influences on a sleeve, he wears suits made completely out of influences. He states it as plain as day, calls the concept “Fiction Suits”. JH Williams III even draws the Architects to look like older versions of Morrison, dressed in these Fiction Suits. He’s saying, in no unclear terms, that this is how he works, he takes the best of what’s come before and uses it as a tool to create. Now, the strange part – his Fiction Suit concept itself is widely seen as totally original innovation, as evidence of his innovation, when it only exists as a way to tell us that he’s playing with what’s come before. What? I really do think that a lot of people just don’t know or have forgotten what’s come before. That’s gotta be the explanation for why they see him as a Master Innovator rather than a Master Craftsman. I love the man’s work. I try not to rank my favorites, but there’s a good chance he might be it. It’s just odd to see him always described as the Mad Innovator rather than as a (still-mad) Traditionalist.

    Although, on second thought, calling him an anything-ist feels weird to me. He grabs stuff from all sorts of -isms, and it bugs me when I see him labeled as, say, a post-modernist. What? Seriously? I’ve seen the word thrown around with regards to him, but it just doesn’t fit. He does grab a bit from post-modernism here and there; change for the sake of change and all that. But he takes it in small doses, and also takes from what post-modernism rejects. It’s more like found art than anything, but what he’s finding and using are the tropes of other -isms, so I can’t pin down a specific -ism for him.

  5. You’ve articulated something I’ve had in mind about Morrison for awhile–what I had to begin to formulate in order to enjoy Sea Guy. I think you’re absolutely right that he’s a traditionalist in the best sense when it comes to superhero comics. However, I wonder about his other work. Invisibles Volume I has some story moves (and whole issues) that are pretty far away from superhero tropes of character, plot, and storytelling. He said as much, at the time, in his letter column, and then later in the post-mortems on why the series had to be broken into multiple volumes.

    He went back to the stripped down, unabashed traditionalism you’re talking about, in Volume 2, and then used the momentum to carry forward across the phantasmagoria of Volume 3. Of course he got sick and met the godhead somewhere in there so that had an effect as well. Anyway.

    Arkham Asylum, and the recent epilogue in Batman, don’t quite fit your model either. But all I’m saying is that I think Morrison’s got some seriously innovative creativity that he just doesn’t happen to use for his superhero books. There’s a parallel for how Warren Ellis writes superheroes, in contrast to Transmetropolitan and his work with Jacen Burrows.

  6. I’ve been telling everyone re: Seven Soldiers that Morrison needs a Roy Thomas to his Stan & Jack et al. But really, I’m wrong, aren’t I? Morrison is the Thomas to the Stan & Jack of Julius Schwartz, Elliot Maggin, etc. Where other writers use revision as a levelling, he uses revision as a continuing… makes retroactive changes so the story can continuity into the future.

    And I thought Seven Soldiers (and Animal Man) were Marvel-ish… but, you’re right again… when I look at the first Doom Patrol Archive, I see Morrison’s DC work is Marvel-ish in a way that’s actually DC-ish.

    I hate the “mad ideas” claim made again and again, as much as I hate the “meta-fiction” claim. Because they are correct claims, but completely miss the point. Fans confuse features with effects. Sure, Morrison uses meta-fiction—but to what ends? Not enough people ask questions like this. And they’re worthwhile, because to read Morrison is to read someone who knows “the superhero itself can riff on a vast number of things, and all while espousing exciting and life-affirming ideals into the bargain”. I think.

  7. Wow, glad I waited to make a longer reply-comment here! On Morrison’s innovation, that Penguin brings up, I was in fact going to drag in a reference to Seaguy, specifically Morrison’s somewhat giddy complaint that there are no mad ideas in Seaguy at all, just a standard sort of dystopian “future” world with some outre elements tacked onto it. So just as David says, the question isn’t what’s there, but what use it’s being put to.

    And I think the same thing applies (more or less) to a lot of what goes on in The Invisibles, too…Itchy, I’m thinking specifically of the moment just before Mr. Six’s sacrifice, where Jack is manoeuvred into becoming One With Everything, but then discards Oneness as “the final illusion” or somesuch…and this is what helped to convince me that the structure of The Invisibles wasn’t itself a trick being played on the hapless reader, that the ominous, looming threat of irony was the real trick, that the trick was the trick, in other words, and so everything not trick was true. Reassuring! But also just a touch counterintuitive, in the post-Watchmen world. Note that if The Invisibles were being written now (by someone other than Grant, obviously), eventually just the, ah, the pressure of implication, of all these fast turnings, would have likely ended in a collapse a thousand times more obscure than anything in the original work — Jack Frost has secretly been the real enemy from the beginning, or something like that, eh? But, it doesn’t happen — which makes things recognizable for us (even if weird) because as I’ve muttered elsewhere the whole business of seriality depends on having an end-point designed into things, and then finding a way to touch it, without meeting it. So seriality depends on termination, but obviously can’t survive termination, so it has to do away with what it depends on…

    Not that I’m saying that particular episode doesn’t have a kind of straight-up Religious Studies 101 interpretation attached to it too, but…well, it’s the same thing, anyway, right? It’s all the same thing, and it’s all right out there in the open. Nobody really lies. me, I do see it as superhero stuff, mostly, just — I think I’ll surprise no one with this — seen from a different angle. Or even, lying at a different angle across the other stuff that’s usually underneath it? Hmm, altogether too cute of me, so I don’t think I’ll say that at all…

    And not having read the latest Batman or more than one issue of Arkham Asylum at any point, I guess that’s all I can say.

    Except! David, yes exactly, he’s the Roy Thomas in this frame, picking up all the discarded pieces of story in the DCU to make an attractive sort of stained-glass window out of them. In fact I’m tempted to rate him a bigger fanboy-wonk than Waid and Busiek put together…

    Gee, kinda fun reading all that! Thankyou, fellows…

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