Wednesday, January 23, 2013
You Were Expecting Someone Else 17 (Grant Morrison's Doctor Who Comics)
It’s not that Grant Morrison isn’t an influence on Doctor Who. But he wasn’t at the time these comics came out, and he wasn’t going to be for a good long while. More to the point, he was nowhere near the approach anyone else was using for Doctor Who around this time. He didn’t really start making a splash on his own terms until the tail end of the Cartmel era, and the fact of the matter is that it was Alan Moore and then Neil Gaiman who was serving as the major influence for writers in the late 80s/early 90s. The first time you can really point at something and say “that’s Grant Morrison’s influence on Doctor Who” is Daniel O’Mahoney’s The Man in the Velvet Mask, which is blatantly taken from the second storyline of The Invisibles. So I held this back until now.
First, then, an overview on Grant Morrison. He’s one of the bigger names of the British Invasion of comics, and one of the first to make the jump to the US (his debut on Animal Man came in 1988, although he had some text pieces in 1986, which was the beginning of his mainstream career). He’s also a prominent magician/occultist, favoring the style of magic generally described as Chaos Magic, which first popped up in the late 1970s, and which we’ll talk about in more detail on Friday. He’s still quite active in comics, currently writing both a Batman and Superman title for DC, as well as having some creator-owned projects in the pipeline. And he’s endlessly linked to some big Hollywood deal or another, none of which ever seem to materialize.
Yes, if you think this all begs for a comparison to Alan Moore, you’re not wrong. Of course two prominent practicing magicians/British comics writers who emerged at around the same time get compared to each other. And more to the point, they don’t get on at all. Cards on the table: since the Moore/Morrison rivalry forms the spine of what will be my next sprawlingly over-large project after I finish TARDIS Eruditorum (still over a year away, so fear not), I can’t exactly leave it be. To be fair, calling this a rivalry is a bit misleading simply because it’s almost entirely one-sided. Grant Morrison slams Alan Moore about once a year. Alan Moore remains almost entirely silent on Grant Morrison, however. I am only aware of two public statements Moore has made about Morrison - the first is a veiled slam in his essay “Fossil Angels” (Moore writes, “If that still sounds too difficult and time-consuming, you could always make the acquisition of profound artistic talent and success your heart’s desire and simply spadge over a sigil. Never fails, apparently.” This is almost certainly a swipe at Grant Morrison’s essay “Pop Magic!,” where he explains his version of sigil magic, including the use of masturbation to “launch” the sigil, and further comments that “I’ve been using them for 20 years and they ALWAYS work.”) The second is a lengthier statement, made during a webchat about a year ago, in response to a question from some obvious troll who asked Moore to talk about Grant Morrison. And by obvious troll I mean me. Oops.
Obviously, given that I’m planning on spending a million words or so on the topic someday, the full scope of this is miles beyond what this post can possibly sustain. But let’s make some initial notes. The one-sided nature of the rivalry is telling: it consists almost entirely of a less-acclaimed, younger talent shouting at a more acclaimed and respected one and getting ignored. This requires some explication of its own - Morrison, in response to Moore’s webchat comments, makes much of the fact that his comics career started earlier than Moore’s, but this is misleading. Morrison spent years in the Edinburgh comics scene, it’s true. It’s also true, as Morrison says, that Bryan Talbot was a part of that scene and made the jump to the mainstream. But it’s also true that Moore made the jump to the national comics scene in 1980, six years before Morrison did, and the jump to America five years earlier. He is, in any practical sense, the senior of the two writers, and the more acclaimed of them. There is also a strong philosophical difference between them, although since we’re doing The Invisibles on Friday and, you know, a million words on this topic starting sometime in 2014, we can mostly table that. But equally, there’s just no way not to compare Morrison’s three bits of Doctor Who comics with Alan Moore’s, and I’m not going to try to hold back from that.
But for the most part, we’re here for Doctor Who. Morrison wrote three Doctor Who stories, which we won’t quite deal with in order. The first two, “Changes” and “The World Shapers” (from 1986 and 87 respectively) feature the Sixth Doctor and are drawn by John Ridgway, while the third, “Culture Shock,” features the Seventh and is drawn by Bryan Hitch. There is little to recommend “Changes” as a story - it’s a bog standard bit of “an alien invades the TARDIS” that is interesting only in that it has slightly more of a sense of awe and wonder about the TARDIS and its size than a lot of stories, but when we remember that these were going out in the same era (and with the same artist) as “Voyager” nothing about how “Changes” depicts the TARDIS feels too radical. The idea of there being vast landscapes within the TARDIS idea is, I think, new to this comic (though I could be very wrong on that), but it’s still just a high-budget version of The Invasion of Time. More troubling, Morrison blows the structure of the piece horribly. It’s a flaccidly plotted bit of filler with no structure to speak of that fills its pages with little regard to pace. This is no worse than what Parkhouse did with his demented dreamscapes, but Parkhouse isn’t hailed as one of the most brilliant comics writers ever. Morrison is.
This is, in other words, one of the places where the utterly stark difference between Moore and Morrison becomes clear. Morrison was writing filler Doctor Who Magazine comics at the same time that Watchmen was coming out. Watchmen is admittedly one of my least favorite Moore works, but its sense of structure is startlingly immaculate, so much so that the only comparison that feels like it can be made between it and “Changes” is a bemused laughter at the question. But even if we want to be fairer and compare “Changes” to Alan Moore’s Doctor Who work it’s difficult to make Morrison come off the stronger. Much as I criticized the pacing and structure of Moore’s work in places, even his weakest piece, “Business as Usual,” is leagues ahead of this. There you could see the things Moore would become good at eventually. “Changes” feels like it could have been written by anyone.
The third Grant Morrison comic, 1988’s “Culture Shock,” is mostly sounder - it has a basic understanding of how long it is, and uses a relatively elegant parallel structure as it jumps between the cellular world that the Doctor intervenes in and the Doctor. There’s also a coherent idea to it, finding a scale at which the Doctor can properly be viewed as a religious, transcendent figure, and thus getting to that point years before the New Adventures starting playing with it. The idea of looking at the Doctor from the perspective of psychic cells being attacked by a virus who are subsequently saved by his intervention is a very cool perspective. The art, by the these days quite acclaimed Bryan Hitch, is mediocre at best, but for the most part this holds up as an interesting story. Indeed, Morrison has something of a good case in being aggrieved here: this is every bit as fundamental as Alan Moore’s Time War stuff, but nobody ever borrows his concepts, probably because he doesn’t come up with awesome-sounding epic names for them like “The Deathsmiths of Goth” or “Order of the Black Sun,” both of which sound like really crap metal bands and so are far more appealing to wanky fans.
All of which said, there are problems here, and ones that exacerbate the sense of Morrison being unable to muster the skill to get out from under Moore’s shadow. The biggest is that the culture’s narration is both utter dreck. “We do not know how the invaders penetrated the homebody. We know only that they are among us. Mindlessly, they pump DNA into our cytoplasm, making of our bodies terrible nurseries for the nurture and release of their armies. The luminous architecture of their protein shells glitters with a fathomless lust.” Oh dear. It’s not merely the lack of quality that hurts here, but rather the fact that Morrison is trying to do an imitation of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and mostly ends up showing how much better Alan Moore is at this sort of thing. This isn’t a chronic problem that spans his entire career or anything, but equally, in 1988 at least, he was doing crap Alan Moore imitations, and it’s not exactly a surprise that people went for the real thing, even if a few years later other writers independently came to the same idea he did. Simply put, Morrison may have come to the “Doctor as a god to the little people” idea before the Virgin writers did, but they clearly didn’t get it from him.
In between “Changes” and “Culture Shock,” however, came “The World-Shapers,” a three-part Colin Baker story that is by any standard the most interesting one here. Because if we want to ask the question of why even in 2005 Russell T Davies was slipping references to Alan Moore’s work while nobody ever makes anything of Grant Morrison’s Doctor Who work, this is the one we have to look at. There is, after all, surely no doubt that had Alan Moore written an origin story for the Cybermen that established the far future of the Cybermen as well it would be taken seriously. And yet save for a hazy reference in the comic “Planet of the Dead” a year later, nothing about this comic was ever spoken of again.
Of course, to be fair, had Alan Moore tried to sell us on an origin of the Cybermen whereby they turn out to secretly be the Voord, with Mondas originally being Marinus, it’s entirely probable nobody would have listened to that either. Which is to say that this is an exceedingly strange story. It’s by far the most continuity-heavy thing to be published in Doctor Who Magazine as of its publication date, containing as it does references to The Keys of Marinus, The Tenth Planet, The Invasion, The War Games, and “The Fishmen of Kandalinga.”
No, it’s not just you. That last one is a bit odd. “The Fishmen of Kandalinga” is a short story from the 1966 Doctor Who Annual. Given that Morrison was four when The Keys of Marinus aired, and that “The Fishmen of Kandalinga” reused the Voord, it’s almost certain that this was where he got all of it, which also helps explain how he ended up thinking Marinus was a water world: he’s obviously working off of his memory of the short story and a brief summary of The Keys of Marinus. And from this he stitches together a truly bizarre bit of Doctor Who continuity, explaining the “Planet 14” reference in The Invasion, providing the aforementioned new origin of the Cybermen (which suggests pretty strongly that he hadn’t, strictly speaking, seen The Tenth Planet either), bringing back and then killing Jamie McCrimmon, and then dropping the Time Lords in to clean it all up.
Actually, just about the only stories Morrison gets at all right are The Invasion and The War Games, which gives a pretty good idea of when he was actually watching Doctor Who: around his ninth birthday, in late 1968/early 1969. So, yes, that all fits, then - right down to why he would be particular attached to the Doctor’s lone Scottish companion. Indeed, one gets the feeling that his goal here is to give Jamie the proper sendoff Morrison thought he deserved when he was nine, including a total handwave of an undoing of the memory wipe.
So what Morrison is doing here is a riff on the Doctor Who of his childhood. Except it’s a totally idiosyncratic riff, or, perhaps more accurately, a totally idiosyncratic Doctor Who that consists of about 3/4 of a season and a World Distributors annual. To anybody whose sense of Doctor Who extends beyond Season Six, which is to say, essentially anybody reading Doctor Who Magazine, this is as unlike Doctor Who as the comics got - a Doctor Who that thinks somehow that tying the Cybermen to an almost completely forgotten (and generic) 60s villain is interesting in any way, shape, or form. The result is a comic that is full of good ideas, but that somehow fails to quite be about anything. This is no more a Cybermen comic than “The Best of Both Worlds” is a Cybermen episode. And while Morrison is onto something interesting when he raises the question at the end of whether the posthumanist ideas behind the Cybermen are actually as awful as the series defaults to assuming, this is dumped at the end without serious consideration. This isn’t indefensible - realistically Doctor Who is never going to give up one of its best monsters in order to reconsider posthumanist ideas, and dumping that at the end of a story is probably the safest call. But it’s telling that the entirety of that quite interesting idea gets lost in the mire of a story that makes a spectacular hash of being Doctor Who.
This is not something that indicts all of Morrison’s career, but it’s still a significant problem, and a criticism that has broader implications. But those are mostly better saved for Friday and, more broadly, for a million forthcoming words. For now, let’s leave the focus firmly on Doctor Who.
If Alan Moore’s Doctor Who comics were mediocre, they at least pointed to future genius on Moore’s part. Morrison’s comics, on the other hand, feel like a much more wasted opportunity. It’s not that Morrison isn’t a great comics writer - I won’t lie and say I prefer him to Moore, but he’s solid, and when he’s on his game he’s downright spectacular. No, what’s bothersome here is that this is such a good comic and yet such a failure. Morrison does have skill, especially with “The World-Shapers,” which is quite well-plotted and structured. This is clearly a passion project for him - however idiosyncratic his knowledge of Doctor Who is, nobody references “The Fishmen of Kandalinga” without caring about the series in the first place. And yet despite all of that there’s just nothing here that adds anything of weight to Doctor Who beyond the trivia that Grant Morrison wrote some comics for it.