If you haven’t heard of Grant Morrison, he’s one of the most acclaimed comic book writers working today, despite the fact that much of his work has been in mainstream, corporate superheroes (Superman, Batman, the X-Men, etc), a field which usually gets one’s work quickly dismissed by the comic book literati, unless you’re deconstructing the genre a la Frank Miller of Alan Moore. Morrison likes to work with big science fiction concepts from comic books of the 1960s and early 70s. He even resurrected an obscure and bizarre interstellar Batman storyline (“the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh”). He’s actually the perfect mainstream “graphic story” writer for the Hugos to examine for that category, but the nominators seem not to read comics as a general practice... Oh well.
This book, his first published prose work, is a history of superhero comics that also becomes a professional biography as Morrison tracks his interest in the genre and his rise within the industry. If this sounds dry or directionless to you…it’s really not. Though there are a few rote chapters that trace the evolution of Batman on film or check off the creations of Stan Lee in the early ‘60s, most of the book presents some rather bold ideas about the concept of the superhero. While I probably disagreed with Morrison’s conclusions more often than not, I always found them fascinating food for thought.
If you’re the sort of hard-headed skeptic who doesn’t even like to hear pseudo-science, quasi-magical cosmological meanderings, you should probably avoid this book like the plague. For the rest of us, Morrison presents the sprawling fictional continuities of DC and Marvel comics as self-aware and self-perpetuating mini-universes, and he sees superheroes as Jungian archetypes of polytheistic deities who rebirthed themselves into human culture. The climax of the story has “five-dimensional beings” revealing the nature of the universe to Grant Morrison while he trips in Kathmandu in the early ‘90s.
This tends toward the risible, and it’s easy to see Morrison as a parody of counter-culture fads. He’s raised as a pacifist by socialist parents, becomes a punk in the ‘80s, then a chaos-magician to hipster stars in the ‘90s, and, of late, he’s become a sort of settled, middle-upper-class yupster who vaguely complains about the state of the world – it’s an alarmingly stereotypical evolution. There’s a fair amount of arrogance involved in the biographical sections as well – I think the fact that he believes to have learned the secret meaning of existence hints at this. His description of his own work is valedictory, even on the (relatively rare) occasions that he could have copped to a misstep (Final Crisis). His friends’ work is groundbreaking; his enemies and competitors, meanwhile, are derivative and misguided. In the final chapters, this eventually devolves into pro-DC partisanship, which is silly and tiresome.
His discussion of trends tends to over-generalize, and it’s easy to come up with counter-examples to every trend he traces. Morrison sees the ‘50s and ‘60s as heavily-influenced by science fiction writings, the ‘70s mirror the auteur movement in cinema, the ‘80s superhero comics follow Star Wars and are more corporate until a “British Invasion” led by Morrison and Alan Moore ignite a “renaissance.” Watchmen ignites a dark turn that takes us into a style-over-substance ‘90s. The ‘00s are haunted by 9/11, but turn more optimistic as Morrison evokes transhumanism and “real superheroes” to wonder if we may become the next “supergods.” Beyond being vast over-simplifications, much of this is a pretty standard narrative; the only big differences are an apparent exaggeration of his own status and influence in the late ‘80s, and the final portions. The comic book analysis can be quite pretentious as well. He calls the use of revolving narrators in Brad Meltzer’s DC-event Identity Crisis “Joycean” – the device is nicely executed in that book, but it’s nothing particularly new, and certainly not “Joycean.” That said, he keeps the narrative brisk and interesting, and he can be quite eloquent about the comics that he loves, especially some of the over-looked material like Killraven, Don MacGregor’s '70s Marvel comics sequel to War of the Worlds, which I have never read but now plan to as soon as possible.
I think your reaction to Supergods will depend entirely on your reaction to Grant Morrison. I think his comics are often brilliant (like his New X-Men or All-Star Superman), but occasional get overwhelmed by Morrison’s voice and skewed perspective, and are also plagued by bouts of pretension. I can say pretty much the same about this book – it’s often fascinating, but Morrison’s pretensions and perspectives can also make it frustrating. It would've been an interesting entry in “related works” though, especially considering the “bastard child” place of superhero comics in science fiction history that I’ve discussed before. I mean, are superheros really that much more juvenile than zombies?