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Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Comic Books

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison’s DC cycle

Morrison has evolved across comics for 30 years, but where is he now?

Time is the school in which we learn, time is the school in which we burn. – Delmore Schwartz

Who are you? Who did you say you were? – Buddy Baker



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It’s 1988. A young Scottish writer from Corkerhill, Glasgow has just begin writing Animal Man for DC Comics. They are 28 years old.

It’s 2020. The young writer is suddenly 60 years old. They now write The Green Lantern for DC Comics.  So much has changed.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Grant Morrison is in a curious place right now, creatively and professionally. This year marks the 32nd year they’ve been in American comics. It’s also the year that marks the conclusion of their final monthly ongoing: The Green Lantern. They have dedicated over 30 years to the icons of superheroic fiction, but to none more so than those of the magisterial DC Multiverse. And it all culminates and concludes in the second and final “season” of The Green Lantern.

But what does that mean, really? What does that entail? And what is it to say goodbye, knowing it is goodbye?

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Animal Man was a 26-issue run, done by an individual in their late 20s.

The Green Lantern is a 28-issue run, done by an individual in their early 60s.

There’s a really fascinating symmetry between the two works. Their parallels and differences tell a story on their own — the ultimate comparison that reveals so much about their singular writer. How has Grant changed? How has Grant not changed? What things were picked up along the way that now standout and offer a striking contrast?

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Animal Man was a number of things, but it was, at heart, Morrison responding to Alan Moore and the Moore-inspired views of the genre in a post-Watchmen landscape. Drawing on Morrison’s influences, much like that of Jorge Luis Borges, Animal Man skewered the problems of said Watchmen influence, all with a hero who Morrison shared a lot in common with. He’s an up-and-comer, and a struggling, working glass guy who’s in the small leagues, but hopes to make it big.

He’s this guy with his whole life spread out before him and he’s slowly finding his path. He’s the man who, as he interacts with Superman, excitedly calls home to his partner to tell her that he just met Superman. He’s the new dude on the block trying to get on that team he wants, score the gigs he’s dreamed of, and rise from a place he knows he’s too big for.

And also, vitally, he’s a guy that starts the book having quit superheroing, only to get back into it, mirroring Morrison’s own personal journey and trajectory, where in he quit superheroes and comics to pursue a musical career (check out his music here and here) but was quickly drawn back into the realm of superheroes. Over the course of the book, Animal Man/Buddy Baker becomes more and more like Morrison, as Morrison uses him as a vehicle to discuss and talk about animal abuse, environmentalism, police brutality, and plenty more social issues Morrison was deeply passionate about.  (Animal Man was a book where a person of color loudly declared, to an ignorant old white dude complaining about “politics” that “Today’s politics are tomorrow’s mythology.”)

Baker was the ultimate hero of nature. He was connected to all of animal life through the “morphogenetic field,” understanding the nature of a great many things. But he was so much more, a bridge between the natural world and humanity. Being a man of instinct and connection, he lived up to his title, but not in some feral way. No, more as a self-aware, smart young man who would be down to go on vision quests to better understand the true nature of things as they are.

Reality and the nature of it are some truly heady concerns, obviously, as they’re ubiquitous Morrison obsessions. And so Morrison’s own desire to understand the nature of things, the nature of reality, are put into and explored through Buddy. But that wasn’t enough, and eventually Buddy actually met his creator. Morrison had entered the DC continuity.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

It was the big finale that had been consistently built toward, Man meeting God, but done with a comic hero and his writer. And it’s one of those beloved, iconic finales, massively influential for what it proved comics could be. But the thing that is striking about it is this: Why did Morrison never again pull this trick? Sure, repetition only dilutes something, and one might not want to repeat things, but why just the one-time use? The answer is simple: It’s flawed.

Consider how it’s only Morrison, but there’s no Chas Troug, his big artistic collaborator, or even John Costanza, his letterer. Or literally anyone else. You cannot just have solely yourself, as The Writer and All-Creator, while not even attempting to bring in your fellow collaborators, who are as much the creator as you are. Obviously, it’s easier and simpler to just have one individual as the creator figure, but given Animal Man’s nature as a text, one so built on the very nature of the comics form, it’s a trick that reveals its flaw the more you think about it. The trick Morrison uses here is a decidedly one born from a prideful youth. It’s a young, cocky artist who wants to to be noticed. Someone who occupies the spotlight and wants to be seen and known, as they make their mark.

But then they never did it again. Even the next closest comparison, The Invisibles, wherein Morrison made a number of “avatars” for themselves, isn’t within the DC Universe and it doesn’t quite work — neither King Mob or Lord Fanny are some divine being with power over the narrative and the nature of story. And so that technique comes and then goes, all because Morrison sees the problem. They realize the fundamental, self-centered and arrogant problem of that very literal, hyper-direct approach.

So where does that ultimately lead? How does Morrison play with their clear fascination with reality and creator figures and how they interact with their fiction?  Critic Emma Houxbois, in her Wonder Woman: Earth One essay (part of Comicosity’s Transmyscira series) discusses this exact point. While I suggest fully reading her work there, here’s a handy excerpt:

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

The idea of Morrison, essentially, going the entire other way, the opposite direction and effectively erasing themselves from the narrative as the culmination of things, is a very curious line of thinking. And certainly, it’s true of 2016, where in Wonder Woman was ostensibly the only remaining DC project Morrison was interested in doing. But that’s since changed.

Before we fully get into The Green Lantern, let’s touch on a potential alternative path then. While Morrison would go onto erase themselves as of 2016, in that time-frame, did they find another solution? Some method to resolve and fix his broken trick? The answer is yes. For the year prior had seen the publication of The Multiversity, which was an epilogue to a lot of their DC work and a sequel to their work in Final Crisis. That book, much like the book it succeeded, starred a certain character in a prominent role: Nix Uotan, Super-Judge.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Nix Uotan was a Monitor of The DC Universe, a race of beings who are, in essence, creators. And Nix Uotan is the ultimate avatar for Morrison’s creative impulses. The Super-Judge is all the aspects of The Creator, rather than serving as a reduced singular component in the way Morrison did. And through Nix, Morrison would find a way to interact with and engage with the superheroes. Nix was the creator as both custodian and helper, not the cold, lecturing-the-reader Morrison. Nix was the idea of the creator. And thus, that problem fixed, Morrison rests Nix at last, the monitor’s finale occurring within Multiversity. Then, just as Houxbois describes above, their Wonder Woman would arrive, showcasing a Morrison erased, seemingly for good.

Until The Green Lantern, that is.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

The technique that Morrison has never employed again, that they had all but sealed away, they release again for the final act of their career in superhero comics. They perform that literal insertion magic once again. Except this time, they do it with a shift. And the contrast of its usage from the first time is deeply telling.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Seated away in a distant corner on the left, not the right, where the reader’s eye is naturally drawn in American comics, is Morrison watching. And this time with their artistic collaborator, Liam Sharp! They’ve fixed their error and put themselves in again, but not to be the center, the spotlight, the writer in the limelight again. That era is done. Rather than reflecting the young, goth-y Morrison with a full head of hair, they’re the modern old guard Morrison with a bald head. It’s the ultimate signifier and sign that things have changed, inevitably, and that if Animal Man was the beginning, this is the end. This is what that marker is for. They will only do this in these two books, but in no other DC texts.

Yet if the technique is the ultimate marker of the end, what can and do The Green Lantern and Hal Jordan tell us about this final act and its culmination of a decades-long career? Certainly, a lot more than you’d reckon. Buddy Baker is the small-time dude in his 20s. Hal Jordan is a big leagues legend getting on in years. He’s the old man who’s been at it for ages. Not everyone likes him, and not everyone will, ever, and that’s fine. He’s no longer the outsider trying to break in, but the mainstream icon whose legend is cemented.

Both Morrison and Hal are 60 (Morrison was born not long after Hal’s debut) and ultimately, they’re individuals with less attachments and thus far greater inner peace. That is to say, if Buddy Baker could not bear the prospect of death, being a young dude with his whole life ahead of him, Hal Jordan lives with the notion that he might die at any day, at any moment even, and that’s quite alright. He’s lived his life. He’s done his duty. He’s won all there is to win, lost all there is to lose, and he sees things from an end-point and not a shimmery beginning.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

But the differences aside, the parallels, the evolution of certain fundamental notions from that first act, prove really intriguing. The Green Lantern, much like Animal Man, is a book really mad about the climate and the harm we’ve done. But if Buddy merely decried things on a smaller scale, Hal decries things on a large universal scale, with deep pain and frustration towards Earth and what it has become. The term “Authoritarian Suicide Sphere” is thrown out to describe a planet determined on killing itself by destroying its climate whilst run by fascists. Sound familiar at all?

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Even beyond that, both Buddy and Hal are people of nature. But if Buddy is merely connected to the animal life of earth, Hal is connected to the vast cosmos at large. Morrison moves Jordan from American Action Man to Space Zen Buddhist, a man aware of his dharma, who acts upon it. He’s the ultimate natural hero, enforcing no “sections” made up by some jerk for his rule-book, nor is he being some asshole who says “Oh but you see, natural selection…” or “In nature, there are predators and there are prey…” to merely support shitty behavior. He defies and breaks all such darker “natural” laws and operates for the liberation of all things, fighting fascism at any and every turn possible.

The Green Lantern is sort of the conceit of Animal Man writ large across the canvas of a cosmos. It’s a figure who is firmly and fundamentally in touch with his nature and the nature of all that exists around them. A being who accepts their nature and deals with it accordingly. Hal understands his role, both for himself and for the cosmos at large, and performs it without hesitation. He understands and sees how everything is connected and takes advantage of that dynamic. And much the way Animal Man was a response, The Green Lantern is Morrison responding to Mark Millar and Millar-inspired views of the genre in a post-Ultimates landscape. It’s them taking the militaristic man and turning him into something else, something stranger and science fiction, making him a being deeply tied to the natural world he cares for resoundingly.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

Obviously, Morrison and Jordan are massively different, as Morrison themselves has said, as Hal is a military man, pretty much the opposite of all that Morrison is or would ever be. Given their upbringing, with socialist and activist parents, who were regularly threatened by military authority, and the terror of the military men from America who occupied their hometown (with an arsenal of nuclear weapons in hand), this makes sense. But what Hal Jordan does become, under Morrison’s hand, is symbolic of where Morrison is now and ultimately who they are at this point in his career. One of the fundamental ideas at the heart of The Green Lantern is the end of the old and the takeover of the new and the desperate need for such shifts. That, and the ultimate threat posed by the delusions of the old guard and how we need to confront that directly. It’s built on the idea that things erode and become monstrous without change and that change is essential, that the future is young.

And so Morrison goes out of DC Comics’ ongoing world much the same way they came in: Not with a bang, but off on the side. Not with a sprawling saga to change the face of DC, but doing their own thing, working on a single character in one book with a clear ending in mind. It’s not the fiery finale of rousing cheers and celebrations many might expect, but it’s a finale far truer to Morrison’s beginnings and journey thus far. Not the bombastic persona, but the more humble individual. No longer part of these cycles, but free, fully and complete, at last. For time is the greatest teacher, and Morrison has, at last, learnt their lessons. Morrison’s light burnt brightly, much like a Lantern, for over 30 years. But it’s time for that light to go out and for other lights to take that place. And you know what? They’d like nothing more.

Alpha and Omega: The beginning and ending of Grant Morrison's DC cycle

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