Sunday, December 28, 2008

Crucifixion in the work of Grant Morrison

Grant Morrison is a masterful storyteller. One of his signature techniques is the use of evocative religious symbols to lend his tales more power and gravitas. Given its centrality in Western art and culture it's no surprise that The Crucifixion is a motif he's employed. But it is striking how frequently he returns to it. Here's a quick tour through his body of work, beginning in 1989:

This is the cover of Animal Man number 5, from January 1989. The issue is entitled Coyote Gospel, and it remains one of Morrison's better-known stories. Animal Man himself is not crucified in this story; that fate symbolically befalls a thinly disguised Wile E. Coyote:

The coyote gave himself up to suffer at the hands of his cruel creator in exchange for the safety for his cartoon animal brethren. We eventually find out that this situation somewhat resembles Animal Man's own in relation to his creator, Grant Morrison. It's all very self-referential, but well worth reading.

Next comes the popular Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, also from 1989:

Batman spears the villain Killer Croc and is speared in return. "What wounds are these? I am Attis on the pine. Christ on the cedar. Odin on the world-ash." On the next page Killer Croc jumps out of a window, the spear still in his side:

Morrison's original storyboard notes: "Croc is framed in the shattering window as it explodes beneath his weight. His arms are thrown wide, in an attitude of crucifixion. The broken spear juts from his side and the shattering glass creates a jagged halo around his vast, deformed head. He becomes the image of the Serpent/Christ (and also evokes Moby Dick, with the harpoon in his side) a medieval allegory which Jung interpreted as being symbolic of "an overcoming of the unconscious and, at the same time, of the attitude of the son who unconsciously hangs on his mother.""

He added this commentary for the 15th anniversary edition: "In Qabalistic numerology, Christ = Satan = Messiah, which is why Croc appears here in crucifixion pose, taking the place of Christ on this blasphemous cross. In this scene, Batman reunites Christ and Serpent, then confronts and overcomes his own attachment to his Mother in a perverse nightmare of lizards, lace and bridal embroidery. Much of this subtextual material was lost on the casual reader but that didn't seem to stop us from shifting mega-amounts of copies. I do believe that people respond emotionally to deep mythical patterns whether or not they actually recognise or "understand" them as such, but the fact that our book launched at the time of the outrageously successful Batman film by Tim Burton probably helped more than anything else."

I tend to think Arkham Asylum lays on the pop psychology a bit too thick, but Morrison's use of "deep mythical patterns" continues throughout his career. Here's 1990's Doom Patrol:

(Doom Patrol no. 30, March 1990.) Cliff the robot-man takes a journey through his friend Jane's subconscious. Crazy Jane, aka Kay Challis, was sexually abused by her father, but managed to function by creating an alternate personality named Miranda and surpressing Kay's memories. After being raped and killing her attacker (in a church on Easter Sunday), Miranda was destroyed and 64 alternate personalities took her place, Jane being one of the most prominent. As the panel above explains, personalities like Stigmata exist to bear and absorb Kay/Jane's suffering. Cliff manages to help her somewhat, and later in the series, Jane seeks to heal and reunite her shattered psyche:

(From Doom Patrol no. 55 May 92.) The crucifix symbolizes both the rape which sparked the fragmentation, as well as the immense pain which a reunited Jane would have to take back from personalities like Stigmata.

Next up we have a series created from scratch by Morrison himself, The Invisibles (language warning for these next two):

This is The Invisibles, vol. 1, no. 21, from 1996. Young Dane encounters Barbelith, which is... complicated. Basically, Barbelith is trying to help humanity liberate itself from the crushing burden of suffering and evil it is trapped under. (Personally I find this page to be a stunning and unforgettable existential statement about what Terry Eagleton calls the "recalcitrance" of the human condition. As Eagleton writes: "The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal.") Later in the same issue Dane experiences the pain of humanity himself:
Barbelith tells Dane that he must transform himself and the rest will follow - as above, so below. And, in fact, Dane will go on to be the saviour of humanity and the new Buddha. Morrison here mixes Christian, Gnostic, and Buddhist imagery (as he will later with Mister Miracle - see below.)

I don't have the image for it, but another crucifixion appears later on in The Invisibles (vol. 2, no. 20). A bug-eyed alien is nailed to a wall by the bad guys and forced to witness depravity, pain and death. The comic makes it clear that Morrison is expressing a Gnostic myth about the divine being trapped in its own creation. This is a major theme of The Invisibles.

Heady stuff! Back in the regular DC superhero universe...

Superman is crucified by Darkseid! From JLA Presents: Aztek, The Ultimate Man no. 10, May 1997, co-written with Mark Millar. Fortunately, this was just a simulation, meant to test Aztek's superhero skills and fitness for membership in the Justice League of America.

All of the above comics were for DC, but Morrison also wrote Marvel's flagship comic, The X-Men. Here the symbolism is a little more oblique, but have a look at these two images:

(From New X-Men no. 121, February 2002.) In a mostly-silent issue, Jean Grey enters Charles Xavier's psyche. Morrison's storyboard notes: "The second tier is filled with Xavier faces, screaming, laughing, howling, crying guardians - extreme emotional defence systems to ward off telepathic invaders. Pointing, accusing, hiding their eyes, pontificating. A smaller figure of Jean spins away from us, down into the center. Splashing into the one face which is calm, Christ-like in its quiet suffering expression." Further in, Jean sees this:

Morrison wrote: "Charles Xavier in grotesque pose, holding his vast swollen dripping brain, like an Atlas. Xavier struggling with the gross weight of his own imprisoned thoughts, sunk to the thighs in bubbling slime and tar like some monstrous Blakean figure. As a nod to Dali, there's an exploded wheelchair hovering in bits around Xavier. The components hang in strange splendor - Xavier's own version of the hypercubist cross." So, a bit more abstract, but not entirely unrelated.

Back in the DC Universe, a few years later, we're back to basics:

This is from the cover of Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle no. 1, 2005. Miracle is originally one of the New Gods from Jack Kirby's Fourth World pantheon. In Morrison's introduction to volume one of the Fourth World Omnibus, he refers to the original Mister Miracle comic as "the New Testament strand" of Kirby's mythology. Here Miracle is the evocatively named Shilo Norman, who descends into a black hole attached to the cross-shaped restraint pictured above. (In the original image the cross is upside down.) He eventually escapes but not before finding his way out of Darkseid's false reality of degradation and suffering, a storyline which incorporates Christian, Gnostic, Buddhist and Norse elements. Part of it involves being betrayed by everyone, beaten, burnt, castrated, and left humiliated, hopeless and crippled. (See also the Suffering Servant, etc.) Note the crucifix pose from this scene in a later issue:(Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle no. 3, 2006.) After escaping Darkseid's hell, Mr. Miracle returns to reality and, like Christ giving himself up in ransom for Adam, exchanges himself for Darkseid's prisoner Aurakles, the first super-hero. Darkseid tells him his victory was meaningless, takes him into a basement and shoots him in the head. The very last page of the entire Seven Soldiers of Victory series, however, shows a deified Miracle reaching out of the ground. In Morrison's Final Crisis, Miracle will go on to tell a friend: "Then three days later, I crawled out of my own grave. The whole world thought it was Mister Miracle's biggest ever stunt. But it was real. What I did was impossible."

Speaking of Final Crisis, Morrison's ongoing DC project:

This is from the cover of Final Crisis no. 2, August 2008. Ian described it to me as "Batman crucified on a piece of New Gods Kirbytech" and that's pretty much what it is. Early on in the heavily theological series Batman is captured by the evil minions of Darkseid. This page provides more details:

Is that syringe-studded helmet standing in for a crown of thorns? Anyways, Batman is not the only one to be crucified in that issue. Green Lantern John Stewart is nailed to a wooden crate by a mysterious assailant:

In Final Crisis the Justice League is faced with the doom foreshadowed in Aztek: defeat and torment at the hands of Darkseid. I'd heartily recommend following it, though it might be a bit confusing if you don't know the DC universe.

Whew. I'm sure there some examples I've missed, so this tour may not be exhaustive, but it has been kind of exhausting! Anyways, hopefully this helps shed some light on the recurring themes, and brain, of Grant Morrison.

[PS: for an image from 2000's Marvel Boy, which I discovered a few months after completing this post, click here.]


Eve said...

On the one hand: faboo!!! I'm so glad you pulled all this together in one post, and I know it must have taken a while.

On the other paw: Any thoughts on what these images are DOING for Morrison? For what it's worth, I did NOT get the same emotional impression from the NXM Xavier panels that I got from (the amazing) "Coyote Gospel." I think you're absolutely on to something in identifying the Xavier panels as part of Morrison's crucifixion fixation; there's clearly some kind of responsibility-(is-superiority-)is-suffering thing there.

But I'd be interested in people's assessments of WHY these themes recur in GM's work and how/whether his use of crucifixion themes changes....

Elliot said...

I think he uses them in a few different ways. Crucifixion can signal the presence of absolute evil and the crushing imposition of its will, as when Darkseid uses it on Superman or Batman. It reveals the weakness of the superheroes. It can also be a psychological motif, as with Doom Patrol or Arkham Asylum. There's also the Gnostic-flavoured crucifixion, like in Animal Man or the Invisibles... but then again, those two have very different emphases. Mr. Miracle combines all of the above.

Eve said...

Have you thought of sending this to Dirk Deppey at Journalista? Not sure if it's his sort of thing, but might be fruitful.

Viagra said...

I always thought that the use of crucifixion images in comics had a more dramatic use rather than a whole religious meaning.