3 years, 9 months ago
“To leap from one universe to another, unafraid! That’s sorcerer’s work!” - Grant Morrison, Zatanna #1, 2005
|Figure 5: A particular story from the slush pile, from|
Watchmen #12, 1987
The remaining nature of the war will be revealed in the telling. All that remains is the task of selecting a beginning point and commencing the narrative proper. By virtue of one of the major figures being extremely invested in it, that beginning point will be the publication of Grant Morrison’s first paid comics work, a five-page story entitled “Time is a Four Letter Word.” This is a decision with consequences. The nature of the war, as previously stated, is that its effects span much of history. “Time is a Four Letter Word” is akin to an outcrop of rock. In truth it stands upon tens of miles of buried rock - a geologic strata spanning in every direction. The visible layer is a mere fraction of the whole, apparent only due to chance events: the scouring of a glacier, the cleaving of a river valley, the picking of a particular story from the slush pile. These fleeting circumstances determine how the underlying tectonics of history and ideology are transmuted into surface terrain and material culture, defining the very world itself.
This is not the beginning so much as the first visible stone. Still, there is a level of arbitrariness to it. Both Morrison and Moore had previous publications that were not paid jobs. Either could go first. However, starting with Morrison has two advantages. First, it is something Morrison is passionate about. In his extended commentary on Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s “Alan Moore and Superfolks Part 3: The Strange Case of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore,” Grant Morrison insists, “In October 1978, Alan Moore had sold one illustration – a drawing of Elvis Costello to NME – and had not yet achieved any recognition in the comics business. In 1979, he was doing unpaid humour cartoons for the underground paper The Back Street Bugle. I didn’t read his name in a byline until 1982, by which time I’d been a professional writer for almost five years. Using the miracle of computer technology, you can verify any of these dates right now, if you choose to.” This all being true, it would be unduly partisan to start the story anywhere else.
Second, however, any alternate ordering would remove Grant Morrison from the story for too long. While Morrison is correct to note that his first professional comic sale predated Moore’s, the truth is that Morrison’s early comics work consists of four short stories in an Edinburgh-based anthology that only lasted five issues before folding, a four year run of a newspaper strip in local Scottish papers, and five issues in DC Thomson’s Starblazer. Other than that, Morrison has no professional comics credits prior to 1985, and it's not until 1986 that he began producing comics work at anything resembling a high volume, by which time Moore was writing Watchmen. Morrison, in essence, spent the time from 1979 to 1986 treating comics as an occasional payday as he tried unsuccessfully to make it as a musician.
Indeed, Morrison’s own vehement objections to Alan Moore describing him as an “aspiring writer” in 1983 is inadvertently revealing, as Morrison claims to have not “read his name in a byline until 1982,” by which time Moore had contributed to Doctor Who Magazine, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Monthly, and 2000 AD, and had been living exclusively on his writing income for four years. Morrison, given that date, likely first encountered him in Quality Communications’ Warrior, where he, starting in 1982, wrote a revival of the 1950s/60s British superhero Marvelman. Certainly Moore was not yet a major figure in comics as of 1982, but to have not seen his byline anywhere indicates a surprisingly casual level of comics readership on Grant Morrison’s part.
In other words, while Morrison’s first professional publication predates Moore’s by a few months, the establishment of their careers as significant figures in British comics goes in the opposite order. But to use 1985 as the point to begin looking at Morrison’s work would be both unfair to him and cause him to be omitted from the narrative for too long.
|Figure 6: Near Myths #2, 1979|
Accordingly, Grant Morrison’s first paid work appeared in Galaxy Media’s Near Myths #2. Edited by Rob King, Near Myths described itself as “a Science Fiction and Fantasy comic primarily for Adults, although it is suitable for older children.” Morrison was seventeen, and presumably aware of the comic because it was a published out of Edinburgh, and thus part of his local Scottish comics scene.
“Time is a Four Letter Word” is more interesting conceptually than in practice. Beginning with a Celtic barbarian figure confronting a naked priestess at Stonehenge, it transitions from this sword and sorcery hero declaring gravely, “I have come from Cerne Abbas and Ynis Wytrin, from Abiri and the Green Plains. I have seen the power change on the old tracks, seen the…” as his dialogue bubble extends off the panel, eaten by the panel below it, the words fading away. In the next panel, meanwhile, a scantily clad woman reclining in a futuristic-mod office, listening to her grinning manager, who has his dialogue bubble begin off panel. It fades in with a half-readable line - “Seen the trouble we had at Greenwich. There’s new Trixies opening up already. Christ, we’ve lost Oxford completely. The chronal overspill swamped a six mile radius.”
|Figure 7: Speech bubbles bleeding between characters and|
panels in "Time is a Four Letter Word," Near Myths #2, 1979
The problem, it appears, is that time is collapsing such that old things are bleeding into the present and overlapping. And so the confrontation between scantily-clad post-mod heroine and her boss Quentin at Stonehenge parallels with the Celtic warrior at the start of the story and a more ambiguously timeframed protagonist who attempts to rape a corn maiden bathing in a lake. The plots blur together and switch interchangeably as Quentin and Dana arrive at stonehenge, triggering the collapse of time. “The accumulated time store of Stonehenge breaks loose. The rush of energy spans the world, triggering the final chain reaction,” as the world explodes into singularity.
It is, as mentioned, conceptually neat, but ultimately it is also hamstrung by its structure. Morrison’s formal experimentalism is impressive, and his grasp of page layout sophisticated, but he’s substantially weaker on the mechanics of storytelling. The introduction of the corn maiden rape plot is ultimately confusing, coming well past the halfway mark of the comic and not seeming to add any new ideas. Morrison hasn’t learned to make his three settings visually distinctive, and the transitions are thus muddy and unclear. Morrison has an impressive set of techniques and a good idea, but has not yet learned how to wed them to each other.
Nevertheless, it is an impressive debut for a seventeen-year-old writer-artist, and its publication was no fluke. Morrison’s talent is obvious but raw. A similar sense pervades his next story, spread out over Near Myths #3 and #4, featuring “Gideon Stargrave, last of the mods” in a series of excitable psychedelic action scenes entitled “The Vatican Conspiracy.”
|Figure 8: Dominatrix nun from "The Vatican Conspiracy," Near Myths|
Gideon Stargrave is a dandy action hero investigating, in a shock twist of titling, a conspiracy at the Vatican that he’s drawn into when the mysterious Jan Dark comes to him to ask for his help, followed shortly thereafter by a priest who breaks down Stargrave’s door, accuse him of being a heretic, and promptly opens fire. This sets off a chain of action set pieces including Stargrave being killed by a talking duck police officer, a helicopter chase, a snowmobile-set shootout down a mountain, Stargrave’s death and resurrection, a gunfight with a dominatrix nun, the ritual sacrifice of Joan of Arc (the secret identity of Jan Dark), the loosing of Fenriswulf, son of Loki, and the election of a new pope. While this certainly makes for a lot of event, especially for a mere twenty-one pages, the actual plot as such is relatively thin.
|Figure 9: Jan Dark prior to being rescued by Gideon|
Stargrave, Near Myths #4, 1979
There is a case to be made that a dandy action hero gunning down a dominatrix nun is something that does not require any additional justification. Certainly Morrison’s later career will more than once make a functional story out of nothing but a set of slick images. He is, after all, a creator who has proclaimed that “I find my depth, paradoxically, in the surface of things.” The difference is that in those future instances he’ll be helped by clearer visual storytelling. More than once in “The Vatican Conspiracy” the scene transitions abruptly and across both space and time, but no clear narrative marker exists to guide this transition. Morrison’s art, while retaining the stylistic innovations of “Time is a Four Letter Word,” is not up to the task of clearly delineating a scene change (a trick that, to be fair, would be done more through coloring than linework these days anyway), and Morrison declines to add caption boxes establishing a jump in time, such that the comic goes casually from Stargrave killing a hooded executioner and rescuing Jan Dark to him walking into a room decorated with a Che Guevara poster and proclaiming “it’s my sister Genevive’s flat” while a dark-haired woman (Jan Dark, as it turns out, though her hair and clothing is completely different from a page ago) lies in the bed without so much as a “a few hours later.”
|Figure 10: Jan Dark one page later, after rescue and an|
initially unexplained jump in time and space, Near Myths
This is, admittedly, a deliberate choice. In fact, Morrison uses caption boxes elsewhere, and uses them well, describing how in the streets of time-collapsed London “the sirens still sound. Far off, explosions of glass and the rattle of machine gunfire move echoes in the streets. And even the slow fall of rain cannot extinguish the napalm fires or wash away the blood in the choked gutters” before sardonically adding, “it’s no joke,” the first indication that it might have been. (Arguably this passage parodies Alan Moore’s at times overwrought style in Swamp Thing
some five years before that comic debuted.) Given this, it seems as though the rapid shifts of scene are in some ways the point - that there's a deliberate experimentalism here. But the resulting lack of clarity is difficult to praise.
Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the importance of the Gideon Stargrave strips. Morrison gave the character a return engagement in the first volume of The Invisibles, making Stargrave a fictional character created King Mob in a three issue arc. But even before this Morrison clearly saw them as the most important aspect of his Near Myths work, using them metonymously to talk about that work in both 1988 and 1989 interviews, years before The Invisibles. And it’s clear that Stargrave was, in Morrison’s mind, his “primary” creation, as the end of “The Vatican Conspiracy” teases his intended appearance in Near Myths #5, “The Entropy Concerto.” This, however, was not to be - save for an appearance in a two-page strip in a 1985 benefit comic for the Ethiopian famine Stargrave did not appear again until The Invisibles.
|Figure 11: Gideon Stargrave resembling mid-80s Grant Morrison in|
"Famine," Food for Thought, 1985
The 1985 two-pager is compelling, creating an unnerving juxtaposition between fashion photography’s obsession with thinness and real famine that hinges on moments of sublime perversity like the image of a model who “got the chance to actually fly out to Ethiopia for a photo session with some dying children,” a session at which she got some “great ideas for makeup.” But more interesting than the content is the shift in Stargrave as a character - here he’s a photographer fairly obviously visually referenced on Grant Morrison himself, and starkly different from his appearance in Near Myths - indeed, without the caption identifying the story as a Stargrave story it would be impossible to recognize it as such. This gets at why the character has such apparent significance to Morrison: he’s an authorial stand-in. In the letter column to The Invisibles #22 Mark Millar referred to him as “Grant Morrison with a girlfriend, cool clothes and no stammer,” although perhaps the more pertinent evidence is the very fact that he’s an alter ego of King Mob, himself a conscious authorial stand-in.
Regardless of Stargrave’s later successes, however, “The Vatican Conspiracy” marks the end of his involvement in the war for now. Instead of “The Entropy Concerto” Near Myths #5, hastily edited by Bryan Talbot instead of Rob King, editor of the first four, ran a story by Morrison entitled “The Checkmate Man.” “The Checkmate Man” depicts a “temporal assassin” - a cyborg constructed by the CIA - who goes back in time and murders historical figures, reshaping the present world.
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It is in some ways very much like the Gideon Stargrave stories and “Time is a Four Letter Word” - full of jumps across time and space and an ever-shifting universe. But where those stories focus on the action, “The Checkmate Man” takes an entirely different approach. The only part of it that could be described as an action scene takes place on the first page, and the remaining nine pages consist of Conrad, the eponymous assassin, reflecting on the stress and horror of his job. It’s a surprisingly intimate character piece, miles from Morrison’s other Near Myths