Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the International Comics and Graphic Novel and International Bande Dessinée Society Joint Conference on “Scotland and the Birth of Comics,” held at the University of Glasgow. The university's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery is preparing to mount an exhibition on the Glasgow Looking Glass and the history of Scottish comics, but I was drawn to the conference for different reasons: not only had I wanted to visit Glasgow ever since I wrote the Grant Morrison book, but Morrison himself delivered the opening keynote lecture.
Morrison spoke in the university’s Humanities Lecture Theatre, where the Gothic Revival architecture and the chapel-like atmosphere moved him to observe that he felt like he ought to be teaching the audience how to use a magic wand.
His talk, though titled “Scottish Comics,” was less about the history of comics in Scotland—that fell to other lecturers and panelists—and more about the elements of Scottish culture that he felt contributed to the creation of comics. “In Scotland, we’re pretty weird,” he said, arguing that Scotland has a long but generally overlooked tradition of fantastic literature including “Tam O’Shanter,” Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg, Irvine Welsh, and Iain Banks.
Morrison also noted the close ties between Glasgow and America that helped Scottish comics creators reach American audiences. He called Glasgow “a lost state of America” and described its city center as “New York on a tiny scale.” (Later in the week, other conference attendees would mention the many films in which Glasgow doubles for America, including World War Z.) In Morrison’s telling, many Glaswegians want on some level to be American; he said that as a child, he thought he could grow up to be a cowboy without leaving his neighborhood of Govan.
He also outlined Glasgow's strong ties to America, first through the tobacco and slave trades that built the city’s fortunes and later through the US nuclear submarine bases at nearby Faslane and Holy Loch. (His father, Walter Morrison, protested these bases as part of his anti-nuclear activism.) The US Navy brought American popular culture into Scotland; Morrison suggested the Yankee Book Store in Paisley might have been the first shop in the UK to sell American comics. Echoing a point he made in Supergods, Morrison said the submarine bases brought a nuclear target with them, but also Superman, who could survive the atomic bomb.
Morrison also delivered some pointed comments on contemporary American culture when he said “the American empire in its crumbling state has begun to feel a lot like here,” meaning that a British sensibility honed by a century of post-imperial adjustments speaks to the more recent American sense of decline. He cited American culture’s current focus on zombies and the apocalypse, arguing that the British empire also imagined its own decay at the end of the Victorian era. (This recalled a point he made in The Invisibles back in 1998.) He suggested the British view of American icons is actually less cynical than current American one, with specific reference to Man of Steel and its Superman who is powerless to save Metropolis. He wished for the return of the more confident, optimistic Superman who can overcome any obstacles.
While Morrison didn't focus specifically on his own career, he touched at various points on his work in Scottish comics publishing, including his stint writing science fiction stories for DC Thomson. (All of his scripts for Starblazer came back with the note, “More space combat.”) He published his earliest work in Near Myths, the Edinburgh-based “ground level” comic that also serialized the first installments of Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, a comic that Morrison credited as “one of the primary sources of what comics became in the 1980s.”
After the talk I had the distinct honor of serving as the respondent, which in practice amounted to starting the question and answer session with a query about Scotland and Scottish identity, two subjects that rarely appear in undisguised form in Morrison’s own work. Morrison noted that, in addition to the countertradition of fantasy he delineated, Scotland also has a much more widely recognized tradition of social realism, pragmatism, hard work, and Scottish Protestantism—but it discourages creativity, art, escape, all the things Morrison values and pursues in his work.
I also tried to tease out his thoughts on the ownership and adaptation of his work for the large comics corporations, particularly DC Comics. Although Man of Steel briefly quotes his work in All Star Superman, Morrison disclaimed any expectation of payment for his small contribution to the film. He also mentioned that following Paul Levitz’s retirement as president and publisher, such royalties had become much more scarce.
Later, in response to another question, Morrison argued that shared-universe, corporate-owned superhero stories ought to be generational, circular, and repetitive—since they cannot be brought to an end, writers might as well play up the mythic angle and retell stories for each new generation of readers.
One young guest wanted to know what Morrison's favorite comics from his own catalogue were. (His answers: The Filth, Doom Patrol, and Superman Beyond 3D.)
After the talk was over, Morrison graciously lingered outside the lecture hall and showed audience members binders full of unlettered pages from his forthcoming Wonder Woman graphic novel with Yanick Paquette, as well as two of his “Multiversity” projects, “Pax Americana” with Frank Quitely (all but nine pages done, reportedly) and a complete set of “Thunderworld” pages by Cameron Stewart. I'm happy to report that Quitely's work was up to his usual jaw-dropping standard, but Stewart's sprightly pages might be even more stunning. I think it's safe to say that when these books finally come out, Morrison's most recent phase will be a thing of the past.