Grant Morrison has always done the unexpected. From inserting themself into their own groundbreaking run on DC Comics’ Animal Man to making Scott and Emma the X-Men’s hottest couple. So when they joined the online newsletter service Substack along with a number of other comic creators, it made sense. Stepping into a new way of delivering their work goes along with everything we know about Morrison. But what they’ve begun to build on their newsletter Xanaduum is once again entirely unexpected. The so-called “living archive” is an expansive personal project recontextualizing moments, fragments, and experiences from Morrison’s life as a sci-fi story. It’s one of the most ambitious and exciting we’ve read in a while.
We chatted with Morrison about the project over Zoom. They also shared an incredible never before published excerpt from their famed 2011 book Supergods, which you can read below our interview.
Nerdist: Xanaduum is a really intriguing project. Could you tell me about how the idea of a living archive of all these moments from your life came about?
Grant Morrison: I guess the idea was there was this immense pile of what seemed like debris and detritus. I’m terrible, I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body and I tend to find the past really embarrassing. There was a lot of stuff there and it played on my mind. And I think that the older you get, you want to start organizing things. I always wanted to have a reason to put this stuff together. Then the Substack offer came along and suddenly there was the potential to actually do it like a job and get money to do something I’m kind of too lazy to do.
I’d kind of reached the end of doing the superhero stuff. And I just got into this whole idea of could I possibly make all that dead skin into something alive? Frankenstein it. Could I put it all together in a new way that kind of made that useful again and brought it back to life? So I came up with this story which is being told through the collage stuff which I’m doing myself. Going back to my roots was another big part of it. Going back to when I used to do punk fanzines and all that indie stuff. So that became the notion. Can I tell this big sci-fi story, a kind of Kubrick-y kind of thing in 24 pages of collage? But with all this other stuff attached too, so that you begin to realize what you’re looking at as the story begins to evolve.
So I got very excited about it as the next stage of what I was doing! Well, here’s an interesting thing and you’re doing this work as collage and fragments. Making a linear narrative of life to create this cloud, these fragments, this explosive version of our life, and allow people to draw their own conclusions and make their own patterns and see their own constellations in those fragments. That was it, and once I got that idea and got the bit between my teeth then it just became all consuming. It did bring the archive material back to life. Suddenly I’ve got reasons to cut pictures of my mum and dad and me in my pram! It’s been fun and it’s honestly super absorbing. I forgot that art was like that, when you’re just so into it. It’s really quite therapeutic.
How does it feel to be making art that’s so tangible and physical, but then sharing it on the internet in a way that makes it become ethereal and intangible? Does that play into the larger story you’re telling?
You’re onto something there because a lot of what I’m thinking about now is about simulation and how we present ourselves through sequences of masks and personalities and how much of what we do is performance. So the idea that it becomes mediated through the screen is really just part of the process. And what I’ve tried to do is make it really obviously physical, thumb prints, torn pieces of paper by mistake. So allowing a lot of that noise into it and allowing for that distance because I want it to feel a bit like you’re prying into a diary or something. You’re looking at someone’s interior world, and it’s quite bizarre and baroque and demands a lot of bizarre connections from you. So I’m hoping that it almost transcends the screen.
Obviously this is coming, like you said, from a punk space, a fanzine space. But I also couldn’t help but think of Jack Kirby’s collages that he used to make for Fantastic Four…
That was one of the big, big inspirations to what it was, ‘cos it’s still to me a comic. In the end it’s very much a 24-page science fiction comic book that Kirby would do. Those Kirby collages were really in my mind a lot because I thought that avenue really hadn’t been pursued a lot. It’s a completely valid way to tell comic book stories, but only Kirby really seemed to develop that. A few people who have done things that are in that collage world like Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz have done different things with the idea of collage, but for me it was specifically those Kirby ones. It really was just him cutting things out of magazines, that’s what I love.
Could you tell me a little about the excerpt that you’re sharing with us from Supergods?
Well, here’s the thing about Supergods—it was double the length originally. The book is 100,000 words but I ended up writing 200,000 words.
Have you ever thought about publishing a companion or a second edition?
Well, no, not so much because it covers the same history, unfortunately. An individual chapter might have been double the length and had more stuff about Captain America in the 1940s. It was more like that, so it would be hard to seperate it out. So this is just extracting stuff that I thought was kind of interesting. Bits that haven’t been seen. There’s lots of stuff about the Silver Age or cosmic comics and specific things that I particularly love that were much more expanded. The first excerpt is from very early on in the book.
Originally I had a more obvious kabalistic structure. It was all about the material world at the bottom and it worked its way up through this symbolic ladder of ideas until we got to the end with a non-dual God consciousness at the top where I’m trying to predict where the future might go. This comes from that, and it’s about the material world of comics. It kind of compares the comic making process to how the universe was created. So instead of the four elements it’s the four colors. It talks you through this metaphor of the universe being created as a comic book is being created and how the four elements combined to create this entire environment and time and space. So it’s a fun introduction to how comics are made, just pulling it from a slightly different perspective and giving it this weird cosmic dimension.
So I’m starting with that and then can probably work my way historically through stuff. There’s a lot of interesting Captain America and Wonder Woman stuff that didn’t make the book. So more of that, and every couple of weeks we’ll have a new chapter, a different piece of information, a different way of looking at things. I think what’s interesting is that people will get more of a sense of what the original structure of the book was, when it was a wee bit more magical or waving its freak flag a bit more.
You can read the excerpt below, and subscribe to Xanaduum here for more comics magic.
My history of superhero stories Supergods was published in 2011 but the original manuscript was double the requested length. Stringent cuts were requested by my editor and made for final publication.
As a result, there are entire chapters and sections of the book that have never been seen.
Here, from the original draft when the ‘Tree of Life’ structure of Supergods was more in evidence, we plant our feet in the physical sphere of Malkuth and dig into the nuts and bolts of constructing a superhero universe.
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
Superhero stories are no longer confined to comic books, but comic books provided fertile soil in which the concept could take root and flourish in a thousand different directions. When the new and improved strain of superheroes appeared, they spread like kudzu choking out all other genres. Comic books since 1938 have tested the superhero idea to destruction and back through reconstruction to a triumphant renaissance of popularity in the early 21st century when superheroes began to migrate en masse from their pages to the new mass media environments like cinema and computer gaming. With respect to the best of the superhero movies, comic books are still where to go if you’re looking for challenging and sophisticated superhero stories, that still come out on a regular basis. Comic books are where I’ve always had the most fun and freedom as a writer, so it seems only fair to give something back. Let’s take a closer look at the strange environment that nurtured the superhero to maturity.
Before we look at the universe of the comic book superhero, let’s step up a scale from the page to the physical universe where we live and remind ourselves how it got its start.
Like the first touch of pencil point to blank page, our own universe popped into being out of nowhere and no-when some 13.7 billion years ago, according to current scientific consensus based on our most reliable data. It began when a random quantum fluctuation into an unknowable prior ‘emptiness’ – or, as it may turn out, a hyper-dimensional fluid medium – resulted in the rapid expansion of a superdense, superhot pinprick of absolute energy. Everything that ever was and still is was packed into a barely existing point, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
A hundred billionth of a yoctosecond after the initial Fiat Lux! of being from nothingness, our super dense, superhot white bubble of universe, our only home, started to expand and continues to expand to this day, creating as it does so the space and time it’s expanding into.
Judging by the red shift of stars and galaxies away from one another in all directions, like dots on a balloon that’s an inflating balloon, the Big Bang is far from over. We are all of us riding the shrapnel of a primordial elementary explosion, somehow clinging, breeding and killing one another on a speck of grit, an agglomeration of condensed minerals, liquids, gases, that’s spinning out towards a self-created infinite blast horizon from the heart of a pressurised hyper-detonation. It’s as if art and religion and morality had somehow come into being on a piece of spinning shrapnel. All our hopes, our history, our individual precious lives and loves have all taken place in a brief, immense instant, on a cooling grain of hurtling debris, on the edge of an aboriginal detonation whose echoes still recur. We have built our cathedrals, our politics, our relationships and fought our futile wars on a wet glob of debris hurtling on a cosmic bow wave towards some unknowable terminus. Think about that next time your life seems boring.
As expansion continued, the four fundamental forces of the universe separated out of a primal singularity in which matter and energy were completely unified. Think of four tributaries branching from the same source. At 10-43 after the so-called Big Bang or ‘Creation’, gravity split from the Grand Unified Field, followed at 10-36 by the branching of the Unified Field into the Strong Nuclear Force and the combined electroweak force which finally split itself into the Weak Nuclear and Electromagnetic Forces. These four great archangels of physics hold the universe in their hands. Their vast, secret transactions and interactions at the most fundamental levels of existence allow us to live and love, watch telly and read books like this one.
These four forces appear again and again throughout the human story as I‘m sure you may have noticed. The Greeks saw a universe made of Earth, Air, Fire and Water in various measures. The cardinals were sometimes represented as a Bull, a Lion, an Eagle and a Man. They haunt the four quadrants of transactional theory, the points of the compass, the career of the Beatles, and the story of the Four Musketeers. The Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are representatives of the same energetic patterns, as are the fluid Mr. Fantastic, the airy Invisible Girl, the fiery Human Torch and the rock-like Thing, otherwise known as the Fantastic Four.
The missing fifth force, or Fifth Element is of course, the elusive quality we sometimes call ‘spirit’, which seems to me another word for reflective awareness. The universe of aimless energy transactions comes to life and is given structure and meaning when it interacts with consciousness. Spirit sees spirit everywhere. Cosmologists in search of a Unified Field Theory can start inside their own heads, where the Forces are demonstrably bound together in hierarchies, diagrams and lattices of theory. In consciousness, the Forces meet and are given meaning.
The comic book Universes of Marvel and DC began not with a Big Bang but at the moment when a thought condensed down into a single, almost silent, scratch of pencil point on white paper or struck a typewriter key. The first comic book universes grew by a process of accumulating stories, time, and meaningful connections between characters but like our own universe they too relied for their very existence on four fundamental forces, in this case four colours.
The comics page is equivalent to the vacuum, the pregnant void, the unimaginably vast or empty prime medium into which our universe is said to have begun its inflation. In order to summon a world onto the flat white screen of the empty page, we must turn to the four cardinal forces of paper time, paper space, paper life. You may know them better as Black, Red, Yellow and Blue.
These four colours combined to render characters in complex simulated environments. Time in a comic book universe is formed by the interaction of the static pictures with the dynamic empty gutter space between them – the gutter as mentioned before is where all the implied movement in a comic is stored – the gutter is the frame line of a movie reel – the gap between visual intervals. Unlike a movie where the gap between still pictures is 24 frames per second – the gap between one picture in a sequential comic may contain years, miles, parsecs of distance or aeons of time. The blank gutter is where much of the real magic lies. The gutter is where the reader’s consciousness plays a game with emptiness and fills in all the meaning, distance and passage of time that isn‘t shown in the pictures.
The page then becomes something remarkable; a screen onto which inner worlds can be projected down the lighting rod of a carbon graphite pencil point.
Featured Image: Grant Morrison