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July 16, 2011

Comic-Con: Grant Morrison’s guest essay on strange San Diego nights

Posted in: Comic-Con,Comics

The costumed superhero (like jazz and baseball) is often described as a uniquely American creation, but the most intriguing creative force in comics these days is Grant Morrison, the Scottish writer who this September will take the most storied franchise, Superman’s “Action Comics,” back to issue No. 1 for the first time since 1938. The 51-year-old has brought a surrealist style to comics and his new nonfiction book, “Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human,” which will be released this week by Spiegel & Grau. In this guest essay, he offers thoughts on Comic-Con International, the pop culture expo expected to bring 120,000 heroic souls to San Diego.

(DC Comics)

Comic-Con International in San Diego is a place where the boundary between fantasy and reality happily surrenders to the carnival spirit and anything can happen, as I discovered in 1999.

It was 1 a.m., in an airless hotel room, overlooking the naval yards of San Diego Harbor. I found myself chewing over the interesting problem of re-creating Superman for the 21st century, with my editor Dan Raspler. To clear our heads, we went downstairs and crossed the street to a Dr. Seuss-ish park between the rail tracks and the city. We were deep in discussion, debating earnestly the merits and demerits of a married Superman, when we spotted a couple of men crossing the tracks into town.

One was an ordinary-looking bearded dude, at first sight like any of a hundred thousand comics fans. But the other was Superman. He was dressed in a perfectly tailored red, blue and yellow costume; his hair was slicked back with a kiss curl; and unlike the often weedy or paunchy Supermen who paraded through the convention halls, he was the most convincing Superman I’ve ever seen, looking like a cross between Christopher Reeve and the actor Billy Zane. I knew a visitation when I saw one.

Racing to intercept the pair, Dan and I explained who we were, what we were doing and asked “Superman” if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. He didn’t, and sat on a concrete bollard with one knee to his chest shield, completely relaxed. It occurred to me that this was exactly how Superman would sit. A man who was invulnerable to all harm would be always relaxed and at ease. He’d have no need for the kind of physically aggressive postures superheroes specialized in. I began to understand Superman in a new way.

(DC Entertainment)

We asked questions, “How do you feel about Lois?,” “What about Batman?,” and received answers in the voice and persona of Superman — “I don’t think Lois will ever really understand me or why I do what I do …” or “Batman sees only the darkness in people’s hearts. I wish he could see the best …” — that seemed utterly convincing.

The whole encounter lasted an hour and a half, then he left, graciously, and on foot, I’m sad to say. Dan and I stared at one another in the fuzzy sodium glare of the street lamps, then quietly returned to our rooms. Inflamed, I stayed awake the whole night, writing about Superman until the fuming August sun rose above the warships, the hangars and the Pacific. The end result was my 12-part “All-Star Superman” series with artist Frank Quitely, and the same meeting also inspired elements of the forthcoming relaunch of “Action Comics” with Rags Morales, so it was definitely worth it.

Bumping into someone dressed as Superman in San Diego may sound about as wondrous and unlikely as meeting an alcoholic at an AA meeting, of course, but it rarely happens at night, and of the dozens of Men of Steel I’ve witnessed marching up and down the aisles at Comic-Con, or posing with tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard, not one was ever as convincing or as personally significant as the Superman who appeared at the precise moment I needed him most.

(DC Comics)

There is, you’ll be heartened to discover, a cruel, ironic counter to the tale of glory and grace above. San Diego, 2002, and artist Chris Weston was in full enthusiastic flow, telling me just how much he wanted to draw a story featuring Bizarro, Superman’s deranged “imperfect duplicate.” At that very moment, as they say, a convention-goer, dressed as the deformed, backward-talking Bizarro, appeared in the street ahead of us. Chris, sensing an opportunity for a totemic spirit encounter of his own, dragged the green-painted stranger along to a party.

Unlike the courteous Superman of 1999, Bizarro refused to leave Chris’ side, becoming ever more belligerent, raucous and true to character. We’d all been buying him drinks, and the drunker he became, the more authentically possessed by the Dionysian spirit of Bizarro he became as well. Clearly distressed, Chris wailed, “I can’t get rid of him! What am I going to do?”

In the end, much as Superman often did, we had to trick Bizarro into going home by using his own code of “uz do opposite” against him. On the topsy-turvy Bizarro world, we explained, a party was when you were alone, not with other people. Other people, in fact, ruined a party. He was forced to admit this made perfect Bizarro sense and marched backward up the stairs, blind drunk, while we all waved and yelled, “Hello, Bizarro!”

– Grant Morrison

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