With Grant Morrison’s mind-blowingly epic seven year run on Batman recently coming to a close, I thought now may be a good time to talk about a few of his… other works – those that are even freakier, more surrealistic and more fetishistic than his regular mainstream superhero output.
Everyone is familiar with his run on JLA, or All-Star Superman, sure… but let’s focus on the Grant Morrison who is unfettered from the chains of rigorous continuity and pre-established, corporate-owned characters with very particular parameters that you have to stay within, one way or another, while writing them.
Let’s go all out and take a trip into Morrison’s dark and fantastic mind as we look at the top ten Grant Morrison works which don’t involve mainstream superheroes:
NOTE: (This list is not a ranking; it is simply presented in alphabetical order)
Bible John – A Forensic Meditation
This is an odd one. Not really a proper comic story like the rest of the works on this list, Bible John – A Forensic Meditation is more a… well, a meditation on the real-world facts and situations surrounding the killings perpetrated by the serial killer known as Bible John, while simultaneously offering a few abstract ruminations about the possible motives and mindset of said killer.
There is no plot to speak of, yet the work as a whole (it was published in small parts in Crisis, a 2000 A.D. magazine in the early 90’s) is surprisingly engaging. The way Morrison slowly and poetically arranges the bits of information concerning the real case with his own commentary is intriguing and, honestly, pretty damned creepy. Of course a hell of a lot of that ‘creep’ comes from the art which consists of exceedingly schizophrenic paintings, drawing, collages and photographs by Daniel Vallely. Think Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, as interpreted by a serial killer and you’re close to Bible John’s aesthetic.
The work has a certain notoriety attached to it as well – it has never been reprinted outside of the original issues of Crisis and the Artist, Daniel Vallely ‘abandoned’ comics and burned most of his work – yet his Bible John pages supposedly still exist somewhere, on a “remote Scottish island”.
is Bible John available in print? NO
So you like the overreaching conceptual ideas contained within The Invisibles, but you don’t want to spend months reading a single story? Well then, The Filth is what you’re looking for. The Filth is a spiritual successor to The Invisibles in many ways – we’re working within the same basic framework and yet everything is presented in a much more succinct and straight forward manner – if that is possible in a work such as this – I mean for goodness sakes, talk about breaking the fourth wall: we have characters whose powers relate to how they interact with the comic book they’re inside of; they can literally jump into the gutters to escape threat.
Almost every single page in The Filth contains either something extremely sexually depraved, mind-fuckingly meta, disgustingly violent or so Surreal that you’ll probably stare at the image for a few minutes before your brain is able to comprehend what you’re looking at. Wrap this all up in Morrison’s conspicuously disarming and direct prose and you’ve landed on one of my favorite Morrison works. It takes the amazing high-concept plotting and the guttural, reactionary sex and violence bits from all his best work and puts them into a tersely told and beautifully drawn story.
I promise you, you’ll see and read some of the most fucked up things you will ever bear witness to in this medium as you wade through The Filth – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy every goddamned panel of it.
Is The Filth available in print? YES, Amazon has copies available.
Ahhhh, The Man of Muscle Mystery. This is as close to heroes in capes as we’ll get on this list – but since Flex himself doesn’t wear a cape (disregard that image above, I swear that’s his coat)– and I fucking love this book to death – I’m going to allow it on this list.
Flex Mentallo is, at heart, a parody of the old Charles Atlas advertisements; Are you a skinny kid who gets sand kicked in his face by the big bad bully? Well send away for this exciting book that will unleash the hero inside of you, it will build your muscles up and you’ll be a beefcake—that sort of thing. However the simple basis provides a much more complex and unique stage for Morrison to ply his meta-conceptual magic narrative in actual application.
Originally published in four separate volumes, each issue was representative of the various eras of comic book publishing; the golden age, silver age, bronze age and ‘modern’. Each issue very subtly (and not so subtly) plays with the conventions and tropes of these various ages in very smart and funny ways – Morrisons plays with the concept of in-congruent continuity which is always inherent in these super characters that span decades of different eras, writers, publishers, etc. Mentallo questions his own memory of his ridiculously campy and naive exploits of the past as he moves towards the more “gritty” modern world of seriousness and adult sexuality/violence. etc..
Of course al this commentary and ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ trickery would be an empty vessel indeed if not for, once again, Morrison’s ability to present to us complex underlying themes, while still delivering on a rock-solid above the ground plot to move everything along at a beautiful pace and remain immensely readable throughout.
We also get Frank Quitely on pencils here and he is always a joy to experience, he is so clever with his layouts and puts so much texture into things that it visually excites in equal measure to the literary heights the prose rises to.
Definitely an A+++ book and one of the best things Morrison has ever created.
Is Flex Mentallo available in Print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
The most recent entry on this list and Morrison’s first solo work for Image comics, Happy is a really great entry for people new to Morrison; it comes off as a bit Ennis or Millar-esque, but with the Surrealistic elements and Morrison’s rather unique talent to continuously create some truly terrifying and depraved scenarios and characters, it manages to transcend Ennis’ style of hard-bitten mob-violence cum action scenarios and stand as a tonally distinct beast of its own design while still being mostly rooted in said genre tropes.
Even thought Happy! is about a tiny, magical, flying blue horse (that looks like something out of a Disney cartoon) leading a hit-man on a heavy ‘R’ rated journey to find a pedophilic mass murderer who dresses like Santa and makes online snuff films, it’s still the most ‘realistic’ story out of this bunch other than Bible John.
Happy, is the titular flying mini-horse-unicorn-thing that only our protagonist, Nicki Sax: a burn-out ex-cop turned alcoholic hit-man, can see (for the most part). Happy is a ridiculously fun character to see juxtaposed with Morrison’s vulgar and violent world of drugs, sex and murder. Like the best of Morrison’s work Happy!, at heart, is about the power of imagination and creative ability to surmount the soul-crushing sordidness of the world around us, in this case Happy is actually a child’s imaginary friend, who has, against all reason, made contact in the corporeal world with the protagonist of the story. How this fact ties into the story is a clever last-issue twist that brings a larger, satisfying turn in tow with it.
Believe it or not, through all of the violence and morbidity, in the end, Happy! really, genuinely touched me with its emotional last issue.
Is Happy! available in print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
Talk about epics… almost as long (time-wise) as his Batman run, The Invisibles started in 1994 and ended in 2000 and, well… just shit… Holy. Shit.
There is no earthly way to adequately explain the Invisibles without sitting down to compose a dedicated dissertation. It is a monumentally dense work filled with so many references inside and outside of history, literature, music, film and the entire history of art and societal politics that it is a work I can return to, re-read and every single time discover new content within it.
To briefly summarize this work is to do it a great disservice, but in the spirit of the Invisibles I will gleefully indulge in that disservice right here and now:
The Invisibles are a group of revolutionaries, both in body, mind spirit and action. Part Surrealists, part anarchists, part shaman, part time-traveling human gods. They exist to free the human spirit from the demeaning bonds forced upon it by society, religion, standardized education, governments and, ironically, ourselves.
The Invisibles have a counterpart group of equally innovative sadists who exist purely to destroy, wreak havoc and enslave the human spirit.
The invisibles, as a story, is about the struggle between these two groups and the world(s) which act as their mutual foils and battlegrounds.
Extreme violence, love, humor, horror, mind-blowing science fiction and often, honest to goodness profundity is interspersed throughout the massive three volume work.
This is something you have to really devote some time to reading, and even more to unraveling, but in the end I 100% believe it is worth it and stands as a giant work in Morrison’s already sizable and impressive canon. Some of the most grotesque and beautiful stuff in the medium can be found within The Invisibles, sometimes in the same panel. That’s impressive indeed.
Is The Invisibles available in print? Holy hell yes, Amazon has copies of the ginormous omnibus in stock.
Joe the Barbarian
Joe the Barbarian is the story of, Joe – a young boy with diabetes who is going into hypoglycemic insulin shock. As he suffers through his attack he hallucinates himself as part of a super-hero fantasy world.
It sounds simple and could easily devolve into a turgid and sappy little trifle of a story in any lesser writer’s hands. Yet Morrison manages, yet again, to take a deceptively simple concept and set it inside an air-tight plot that shines with endless imaginative flourishes at all turns. The world feels alive and childlike, yet sophisticated all at once, Morrison manages to capture an intelligent and creative young mind in all its elasticity and boundless energy.
It’s fun and poignant in equal measure and always an absolute joy to read. Sean Murphy’s art is brutally sharp and expertly defined, crisp and weighty – it doesn’t falter once. Highly recommended.
Is Joe the Barbarian available in print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
The Mystery Play
“God’s dead” – Therein begins the mystery of the play; an actor, portraying God, is killed mid-performance and a detective tries to unravel the case. Yet again… simple story, but brilliant execution. This is a slow burn, a psychological thriller/mystery as religious allegory. Man’s search for positive meaning in a bleak existence filled with evil. This is a story about the literal search for God, about the death of God and about man coming to terms with the fact that there is no God watching over us, no great plan, no redemption, no justice and no great reward for doing the “right” thing. All is just in the infinite indifference of the universe. Much like Dostoyevsky, Morrison’s characters discover that, in the absence of a god, man will continually attempt to take on that role themselves and try to lead the human spirit towards good acts, while also punishing those which are wicked in a just and reasoned manner – yet, tragically, man will also always ultimately fail in this role. The nature of the human condition is inherently flawed and thus, the ability to play a just, infallible being will always end in abject failure and ambiguity. There is no black and white, there is no ultimate order ordaining the fall of every sparrow.
The Mystery Play works as a murder mystery, it works as literary fiction AND it works as a horror show thriller. It begs to be made into a film and I find it odd that no one has adapted this forgotten gem as of yet.
Is The Mystery Play available in print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
The New Adventures of Hitler
Perhaps the most obscure entry on this list, yet the most controversial, The New Adventures of Hitler has never had a collected TPB reprint done. It caused a huge row with Morrison and his original publishers which became ugly, and public, very quickly. Eventually the fine folks behind 2000AD stepped in to publish it in a serialized fashion via their Crisis magazine.
It is an alternate, bizarre historical report about a young Adolph Hitler trying to find his meaning and purpose in life. Moving around and having ‘adventures’ of varying lunacy while he searches for the Holy Grail. Morrison’s Hitler is clearly insane and his mind fragments more and more as out story plows onward until we are left with him heading towards Germany to become ‘famous’.
This is a very strange book; part social commentary and part psychological study of a diseased mind – it almost comes off as humorous in parts, but more so I think it is an absurdist take on insanity that perfectly captures the machinations of a severely broken mind. The New Adventures of Hitler strikes an incongruous tone, which makes it difficult to pin down exactly what it is – but in the end, above all, it is a fascinating slice of fiction with a grim and unshakable, horrific spectre hanging over all.
Is The New Adventures of Hitler in print? No.
Sebastian O is a story of the titular character as he seeks revenge on those who had him imprisoned for creating subversive literature in Victorian England. A literary revenge fiction, beneath the air of refinement brought on by the dress and locations, we still find Morrison’s usual cavalcade of degenerates in full bloom here – pedophiles, sadistic murderers, etc.
Published in three issues Sebastian O is a quick read and moves along at a very brisk pace, never being dull and always remaining engaging as we follow Sebastian through his plan of revenge on those who wronged him. Oscar Wilde meets the Marquis de Sade by way of Grant Morrison – what more could you want?
Is Sebastian O available in print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
Here is a story almost all our readers will be familiar with. Certainly, WE3 is the most popular entry on this list – and for good reason as it is an absolutely beautiful little story. With such minimal dialog, Morrison is able to tell one of the most touching and effective morality tales of his career, finally realizing the perfect way to espouse some of his personal ideology concerning animal rights.
To say too much would be to ruin this tight little slice of fiction for those who have note yet experienced it – but in general terms, We3 is the story of three animals, a dog, a cat, and a rabbit, who are the most deadly military weapons one can imagine. It sounds ridiculous, sure, but when Morrison tells you – you’ll believe it. It’s all sold beautifully and is related in such a perfect rhythm that you’ll be blown away by how emotional it ends up being for you as a reader.
Frank Quitely is once again teamed with Morrison on this book and holy shit – I swear this is some of his best work. Some of the panels in this story are just so beyond what anyone else is doing with the medium that it still manages to impress and astound even after reading the story multiple times – seeing these images over and over does not dilute their power in the slightest, it only enriches their power through revealing new bits and hidden textures. Quitely’s work is truly remarkable by any standards.
Is We3 available in print? Yes, Amazon has copies available.
Matches, I have a suggestion for your next two articles:
1. One comprehensive look at Morrison’s work taking into account all of his flaws and strengths. As objective and wide-encompassing as possible. I think you know what I mean. If anyone can pull it off, it’s you.
2. Now the one I’m suggesting is similar to the first one only it’s about Snyder. Objective, wide-
encompassing, etc. One look at all of his works and offering a step by step analysis then concluding if he’s a good writer or not.
I think these would make very interesting articles.
While I thank you for the vote of confidence in my writing abilities I don’t think those articles will ever happen.
1. I’d love to do an article like this, but I have less and less time to devote to this site these days so I’m trying to make articles less complicated to write! But I love the idea, so who knows… maybe one day…
No, seriously, I have no desire to write about Snyder anymore, just like I have no desire to write about 10,000 other mediocre comic writers out there. The really annoying thing about Snyder is that I know he can write some good stuff – I think his collection of short stories is pretty darned good, for example – he just can’t write a goddamned comic book to save his life.
If Snyder would simply stick to literary prose and get out of comics I think he’d have a much better chance at winning me over as an author. You can tell he doesn’t really ‘get’ comics and all he has tried to do is shoehorn his literary style into a medium that requires a totally different ‘language’ and execution. I can’t blame him though, Batman is an easy (and good) paycheck, although (as a writer myself) it is depressing to think he has settled and is letting his talent flounder just to make an easy buck.
Thanks for reading!
A question about Flex: I know that the colouring for the TBP is shite , so is it worth me (never read Flex ) tracking down the original issues for their own technicolor splendour ?
The colors in the TPB are different, without a doubt. The original colorist says he doesn’t approve, so I’m inclined to go with the artist’s wishes. However – ease of readability makes it something worthwhile. I own the original floppies but I bought the TPB also, just so I could pull it out at anytime and read it all in one go without having to worry about the frailty of the separate issues. I am a big proponent of tracking down single issues of any series just for collector’s sake – but to read them and get a lot of use out of them the TPBs are more than fine.
I haven’t read any of the comics on the list though I’ve read All-Star Superman, Batman, New X-men, and Action Comics. I plan to read WE3 and Seaguy soon. What do you think is his best comic ever? Is it All-Star Superman?
Well – obviously I’m a big fan of his Batman opus, but I think some of his JLA, Doom Patrol and his Animal Man run are tied for absolute best mainstream superhero yarns.
All-Star Supes is damn good too, sure, but I still think his Batman work far exceeds it.
Out of the works included on this list, for pure readability and fun (while still being crazy deep and brilliant), I’d have to go with Flex Mentallo, I can go back and re-read those forever and always have a jolly time.
I forgot to mention I read JLA #1-9. It’s good but very overrated. His Batman run was hampered by inconsistent art. I felt that the artists weren’t allowed to truly let loose. That’s the problem with Morrison. He doesn’t write for the artist, unlike Alan Moore and Stan Lee. Look at Alan Moore’s comics, for example. It’s always the artist’s best work. It’s not a coincidence. It’s the opposite with Morrison. Also, are you a fan of Superman, by any chance?
P.S. I apologize for any poor grammar. English is my second language.
Well those are interesting opinions…
I am a fan of Superman, very much so.
No worries about the grammar, I can understand everything just fine.
I’d argue the “Morrison doesn’t write for artists” point big time. I’d point to his Seven Soldiers work with JH Williams III and Frazier Irving (and 5 others!), anything he’s ever done with Frank Quitely, Arkham Asylum with Dave McKean, the multiple artists (and timeframes) of The Return of Bruce Wayne, and the way Invisibles had a different artist for almost every story arc.
I’m not saying you’re wrong by any means, I’d just suggest that you take a different look at some of his works.
Also, I think that some of his Batman, JLA and Final Crisis stuff was plagued by deadlines which didn’t allow for continuity in the art. Obviously Final Crisis would have been greater with just JG Jones on all 7 issues of the main story (or Doug Mahnke, either way) but several factors prevented that (JG Jones got sick while working on the series, deadlines, etc.)
Oh, cripes! I forgot all about 7 Soldiers, that definitely stands as one of his best ‘mainstream’ superhero works as well… brilliant stuff in that series.