If this book had committed fully to the over-the-top science fiction saga, Diabolik by way of Alien, I might have been able to get into it. That plot isn’t especially original, but its mining of pop-cultural archetypes is bombastic enough that we understand originality isn’t the point. (I especially like the religious fundamentalist superhero/villain whose henchmen appear to be graphic representations of the four fundamental forces of the universe.) Unfortunately that stuff only leaks in around the margins, more narrated than told, as it’s placed in the service of a shopworn plot about creativity and writer’s block. In a fitting example of the problem, Annihilator doesn’t have much to say about either one.
It’s got art and colors by Frazer Irving so of course it looks beautiful—but even there, the space plot gives him a lot more to work with than the screenwriter one. Both settings are equally sparse, but only one of them has reason to be, and while Irving fills the space station with loops and sworls of teeming chaos or ecstatic creation, his Hollywood seems mostly to be a series of time-saving blank backgrounds. The characterization is equally barren, with clichés that are pardonable among the sci-fi archetypes but far less so in their nominal creators. Why do Morrison’s fantasy worlds always feel so much more real than his realistic ones?
There’s another problem. I loved Morrison’s comic about the lifelike android who is cursed with a soul as part of a competition between two manipulative male creator figures. And the one with the miniature universe contained in a cube. And the one where the world exists as a prison to trap an enemy in a gnostic hell. And of course the one where the fictional character meets his author – well, the first pass at that one, anyway. Morrison’s played all these riffs before, and Annihilator isn’t adding anything new.
I’m afraid this is why I can’t quite sign on to proclamations of a Morrison renaissance. Yes, when he did his best work in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s he was usually feeding off the interplay between his mainstream superhero comics and his more alternative work. I don’t think he’s getting that benefit now because this isn’t really much of an alternative. It’s the same old gestures in a very pretty new package.
Remember, Morrison’s indie work gave us The Filth and The New Adventures of Hitler, but it also gave us The Mystery Play.
Now this is more like it. I had some reservations despite the strong first issue—because Morrison’s also done the comic about the eccentric industrialist who holes up on the moon and marshals his considerable resources to save the human race—but with the second issue that element and the series as a whole have moved in an altogether darker direction, one that’s not quite as trusting in the beneficence of our captains of industry.
The main character is stamped neatly from the Constantine mold, but he’s got an engaging voice and he feels like a good engine for the type of story Morrison wants to tell. I do wish he had a few more characters to bounce off against; it’s hard to care about the slaughter of the astronauts and ground crew when most of them don’t even have names. And the exploration of Xibalba feels a little too heavily indebted to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, at least before the story shifts and switches focus to all the other things it’s indebted to.
The real strength of the book is its creepy, unsettling mood. Much like his work in Ultra Comics, Morrison throws us off balance by denying us a stable narrative frame from which to read the book. In this task he’s aided by Nathan Fairbairn’s lurid colors, which render dreams all but indistinguishable from reality, and Chris Burnham’s masterful page layouts. Perspectives are constantly shifting, while panels turn into pictures and pictures into panels. Best of all, these games with the surface of the page have no apparent purpose other than to unsettle, no commentary whatsoever.
Nameless and Annihilator and their predecessor, the generally miserable Happy, mark Morrison’s belated realization that the rewards of comics scripting have shifted back to creator-owned work published through smaller publishers with generous terms like Image. His first couple of efforts read like they were written solely to seize the opportunities afforded by this new territory, or perhaps to stake a claim to a little piece of it while there was still a piece left to be claimed. Certainly they were not written for any driving creative purpose, which would explain their exhausted imagery and subject matter. Nameless is a cut above them, not necessarily any more novel or meaningful, but executed with confidence and care.
So far it’s just a well-made sci-fi horror comic. But sometimes that “just” makes the difference between an ambitious failure (or a less than ambitious failure) and a runaway success…
My recent foray into nineties comics (courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service) got me hooked. Desperate for more stories of Steel and Kyle Rayner and Connor Hawke and all those other sadly temporary replacement heroes, I went back and reread Morrison's JLA.
If you invested enough of yourself in these things at the time they become charged with memory; your longboxes turn into calendars that take you back through jobs and apartments and relationships and old friends. I discovered quite late in this reread that a copy of one of Morrison’s JLA scripts, courtesy of one of those old friends, had been sitting in my house for about the last fifteen years. Technically it’s lived here longer than I have. I’d completely forgotten this when I wrote the Morrison book.
I’ve always thought fondly of these comics. When it’s at its best (I would say from the “Flash Fact” in issue three through the end of “Rock of Ages,” with a real shot in the arm when DC One Million comes around) Morrison seems to be simultaneously resurrecting and reinventing classic Silver and Bronze Age superhero storytelling. He balances nostalgia with a more jaundiced take on the genre that I found both massively entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful.
Unfortunately, the best scripts are saddled with some of the weakest art. Howard Porter's work is awfully rough at the start of the series, almost illegible at times, as he tries to accommodate Morrison’s overstuffed scripts with stiff figures and cluttered, perpetually busy layouts. His pages open up considerably as the series progresses, and his figures improve a lot—he’s one of the only artists to make Kyle Rayner’s costume and ridiculous crab-face mask work—but they’re never so improved that he can’t toss out the occasional howler of a panel, like one hilariously ill-considered scene where Bruce Wayne is walking up to Oracle’s apartment, which sits at the top of a flight of stairs.
But even their shortcomings are more amusing than infuriating, and what these comics lack in polish they more than make up for in raw energy and enthusiasm. They exploit the possibilities of the superhero genre more than they explore them, and they do not strive for any but the most gentle and fleeting of metacommentaries. They do not try to “offer up the ultimate statement on what the DC multiverse is.” They do not try to grant the DC multiverse sentience, as if that were both possible and a good idea. (If the New 52 were sentient, would you really want to be alone in a room with it?) They do not try to convince you that superheroes are quasi-divine mythological beings or ethical role models, although they do have characters who do ethical and quasi-divine things, a rather more efficient means of making the point which Morrison’s recent work has sometimes forgotten. They are, in short, just trying to be good superhero comics. Maybe even great superhero comics.
And that’s enough.