Monday, 17 September 2012

Grant Morrison Under the Microscope (Dublin Conference Report)

Despite sequential art having been around for over a 100 years it’s only in the last 5-6 years that universities and academics in the UK have really been taking comics studies seriously and more and more scholarly events—like the one I just attended—have been happening. Last weekend I was in Dublin attending the Grant Morrison and The Superhero Renaissance conference. Suitably sounding like a Prince concert, the event was held in the very modern (and Swedish sauna feeling—lots of bare wood) Long Room Hub of Trinity College.

As Chris Murray from Dundee University (the only university in the UK currently with a Comics Studies post-grad course) pointed out—with a quote from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994)—we are now exactly at the point in history that cultural elitist Bloom feared, “What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed ‘Cultural Studies’ where Batman comics… will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton [and] Wordsworth…” For me, this is no bad thing!

There were at least 25 academics at the conference, who had travelled from Europe, USA and Australia to present their papers. Organised by Kate Roddy and Darragh Greene of Trinity College, it was more fun than sitting in a room full of lecturers trying to decipher the coded texts of a softly spoken Scot should have a right to be.

Unfortunately, I was late, so missed the first three papers (which was very annoying) but just some of the many talks that leapt out for me were:

The incredibly fast speaking Keith Scott (from De Montfort University) whose Let me Slip into Someone more Comfortable: Fiction Suits, Semantic Shamanism and Meta-linguistic Magic made some excellent comparisons between Morrison, Philip K. Dick and Ken Campbell— specifically the latter’s quote, “I’m not mad, I’ve just read different books.” Scott is very obviously a huge Invisibles fan and his knowledge was as extensive as it was enthusiastic.

Kate Roddy’s Screw Symbolism Let’s go Home: Morrison and Bathos opened up Alexander Pope’s concept of Bathos to me, and cleverly applied it to Morrison’s work.

Chris Murray gave the keynote speech, I Made the World to End: The Immersive/Recursive Worlds of Grant Morrison, which, again, was an insightful overview of the writer’s oeuvre.

David Coughlan’s intriguing examination of The Filth in From Shame to Glory made me want to reread the series in a new light, while Roy Cook’s look at the writer and The Writer: The Death of The Author in Suicide Squad #58 was a fun dissection of the metaphysical murder of Grant by John Ostrander.

There was an attempt to hook up live with Schedel Luitjen in Texas, which sadly feel victim to tech problems, but his Final Crisis, The Return of Bruce Wayne and Neoplatonic Demonology was eventually read out by Darragh, and Schedel managed to answer questions by instant messager.

I also really enjoyed Will Brooker's The Return of the Represssed: Grant Morrison's Batman RIP where he talked about Morrison's revival of the old multiple versions of Batmen from the 1950s. Will knows a thing or two about The World's Greatest Detective, as he did his PhD on Batman and has just written Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman.

My own talk (Transvestism, Transgenderism and Transformative Personalities in the Life and Work of Grant Morrison) seemed to go down well.

I haven’t gone too deeply into the specifics of each paper here as there’s the possibility that some of them maybe gathered for publication in the future. There were so many others, and you can read the abstracts here.

Given the narrow scope of study (Grant Morrison renaissance superhero comics) there was considerable overlap in the papers with favoured texts including All Star Superman, Batman RIP, Zenith and Final Crisis, yet no one discussed the New X-Men.

Also, as the majority of the speakers came from English or Philosophy departments, no one discussed the artwork. After all, as I pointed out, comics are generally a collaborative effort and the bulk of Grant’s visions and stories are told through the filter of an artist’s hand. How that artist interprets Morrison’s work invariably effects the final message of the comic strip. A case in point I made regarding the transvestite, Lord Fanny, from The Invisibles, who can look anything from a gorgeous woman to a slightly ropey bloke in a dress, depending on the artist drawing her. I suggested that any future conferences on comics MUST include examinations of art in relation to the text as they are indivisible when in comes to comics. Indeed, the blending of text and visuals is one of comics’ USPs.

Chris summed up the conference “Perhaps we haven’t gotten much closer to discovering who he [Morrison] is, but hopefully we have got a bit closer to exploring his techniques and his work… And maybe we’ve got a little closer to explaining why he’s such an ongoing fascinating figure.” When the group was asked what has been Morrison’s contribution to modern day superhero comics, it was generally agreed that he brought hope, fun and positivity to what was once a dour, bleak and grim genre wallowing in post-Eighties nihilism. Further, that he has brought external influences, texts and knowledge to comics—an industry that is notorious for self-referentialism and navel-gazing. Although he does that as well!

Ironically, just as the conference started, Grant announced in an interview for the Spectator that he’s moving away from superheroes after his forthcoming Wonder Woman graphic novel and a few other projects. As he says, “Yeah, it just felt like I’d said a lot, you know.”

If there were any criticisms laid at Morrison’s door, it was that perhaps he was too much of a dilettante who never went into his subjects with enough academic rigour. Others defended this saying that perhaps we need more multi-disciplinarians and I pointed out that if he spent that much time studying, say linguistics, then surely he’d just be a linguist, and not a writer. Writers have to be, by their very nature, dilettantes. When those of us that have met him asked what we thought he would’ve made of the event, I replied, “Appalled, bemused, flattered and amused. All at the same time.” Ultimately all agreed he was, suitably, a renaissance man!

Personally, I can’t think of many comic book writers (apart from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) who could elicit this much attention and analysis from academics, and that alone speaks volumes.

And if you can't get enough Grant Morrison (and let's face it, who can?) he'll be at his own Morrisoncon in Las Vegas in 10 days time; then on 11-14 October he'll be appearing at the New York Comic Con; and finally, on 28 October, there's the Dundee Comics Day dedicated to Grant (organised by Chris Murray and the Dundee Uni crowd). Phew! He's like a media shark—he never stops moving forward!


Pádraig Ó Méalóid said...

I'm so sorry I didn't get to see you while you were over. I'm laid up, post-op, and couldn't have got out of the house anyway. None the less, our paths shall cross again!

TimTrue said...

No worries! Didn't get to se much of Dublin anyway! Two restaurants, a pub and the conference centre! I hope you are on a speedy recovery. We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when... ;-)