Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The original Superman was a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism
If the dystopian nightmare visions of the age foresaw a dehumanized, mechanized world, Superman offered another possibility: an image of a fiercely human tomorrow that delivered the spectacle of triumphant individualism exercising its sovereignty over the implacable forces of industrial repression."
Few writers have given more thought to the nature of narrative and history of the superhero than Grant Morrison. It informs so much of his own work wherein he attempts to capture the zeitgeist, constantly reappraising his novel approaches in accordance with the spirit of any particular time. Here Morrison takes you through the ages, eloquently contextualising the titles which each era or movement spawned, and in so doing provides unparalleled insight into his unique takes on individual characters and the medium itself.
Indeed one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is its autobiographical content. I don't mean the revelation that Grant hadn't even kissed a girl until he was eighteen - though that's funny - or the extraordinary notion of Morrison ever being Straight Edge given the copious quantities of psychedelics he has since hungrily or, he might claim, dutifully consumed. There is, by the way, plenty of that from his days in a punk band to the ceremonial shaving of the head, but I mean more specifically where the man meets the medium and the genres: his early approach to superheroes as published in a Glaswegian newspaper, his formative years amongst fellow fantasy writers, the stories behind the publication of books like ARKHAM ASYLUM and in particular how Morrison approached each project like ZENITH (currently in legal limbo), DOOM PATROL and ANIMAL MAN.
"There were real superheroes, of course. They did exist. They lived in paper universes, suspended in a pulp continuum where they never aged or died unless it was to be reborn, better than ever, with a new costume. Real superheroes lived on the surface of the second dimension. The real lives of real superheroes could be contained in two hands."
And manipulated by them on a typewriter.
Morrison is also an artist, so when he brings his eye to bear on the covers to ACTION COMICS #1, DETECTIVE COMICS #27, FANTASTIC FOUR #1 and NEW GODS #1, all reproduced here in black and white, it's quite the revelation. He's absolutely right about ACTION COMICS #1: it's deeply ambiguous as to whether the rampaging protagonist - sending a civilian screaming in Munch-like "existential terror" - is friend or foe.
Similarly from that era I learned that Namor is 'Roman' spelled backwards; Wonder Woman was created by the same man who invented the polygraph lie-detector test (hence the magic lasso of truth); and there really are an awful lot of chemicals and psychiatric disorders in BATMAN. Two-Face = schizophrenia; Catwoman = kleptomania; The Scarecrow = the motherload!
Grant's particularly fascinating on the early saga of DC's infinite earths, and the publisher's crazy phase of Jimmy Olsen dressing up in drag, wholesale transmogrifications and Superman as a victim of Lois Lane's sexual sadism. A lot of really weird shit started happening post-Frederick Wertham: everything he complained about which was never there suddenly manifested itself! Also, having read Morrison's appraisal of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's early FANTASTIC FOUR, FANTASTIC FOUR 1234 makes even more sense; likewise his approach to FINAL CRISIS after his critical examination of Jack Kirby's NEW GODS. He also dissects Frank Miller's BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS to perfection and examines WATCHMEN in critical depth (again he is visually astute, revealing far more about the covers than I wager you're aware of already) and with a certain degree of awe before remembering that he made his early reputation by dissing Alan Moore and does so again, finding fault in one of its chief strengths: the complexity of its structure.
I don't buy that: it's just too personal. On the whole, however, Morrison is far from self-indulgent, and far more candid about his own occasional self-doubts than you'd expect. Instead he truly bears down upon his subject, a genre he refuses to apologise for or be embarrassed about and quite right too. As one of Page 45's opening t-shirts proclaimed alongside its homage to Whistler's Mother dressed as a nun reading comics, "Wear Your Habit With Pride".
Whatever your views on Grant's own creative output which I find both dazzling and, on occasions, daunting, no one can deny the man's blistering intelligence and throughout his career he has never ceased from innovation. Each new project makes readers sit up and think and I imagine many of his peers have felt the same way. Similarly this 400-page history of and tribute to this medium's meta-humans will give you much to ponder, and I don't think any true fan of the genre, as I have been since five, can afford to be without its illuminating torch.