While I was putting together this essay it was sheer coincidence that BoingBoing published an interview with Grant Morrison, “Laughter can banish any and all demons.” It struck me as a playful wink from the principalities that this was as good a time as any to write a piece on Morrison’s gnostic, evolutionary mysticism (also, incidentally, Morrison is currently working on a SyFy T.V. pilot for Happy!). When reality seems to be having a conversation with your inner thoughts—when subjectivity and the “outer” world collapses into an uncanny, singular experience—you know you’re on the right track.
But, as you’ll see, you have to (t)read carefully. Here it goes.
Who is Grant Morrison?
Grant Morrison is a Scottish comic book writer and musician, well known for bestselling comics like All Star Superman, JLA (Justice League of America), Batman and Robin, experimental comics (and, as we’ll see, deeply magical and psychedelic) like The Invisibles, graphic novels like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and the visionary art fueled take on the the myth Mahabharata, 18 Days. He was part of the so-called “British Invasion” of comic book creators, along with Neil Gaiman (Sandman), and Alan Moore (Watchmen) in the late 80s.
Any of the aforementioned comics and graphic novels would be excellent introductions to his style and work. Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods is a well done documentary where Morrison explains his philosophy as a comic creator. “Talking with Gods” is apt. Like a modern-day iconographer (artists, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, who would depict images of Christ and the saints), Morrison takes a position of reverence when working with superheroes, especially Superman (See this short documentary on All Star Superman and try not catch those feels).
This isn’t incidental. As Ben Saunders discusses in Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, the polytheism of Hellenistic antiquity has found a way to sneak back into modern consciousness. Not through religion, but Krypton. Characters like Superman and Batman are only the most obvious of the modern myths. A whole pantheon of caped deities and demigods have leapt from the pages of comic books and onto the big screen. These gods are much like their predecessors, but they also have their own tales to tell.
From Nolan’s Batman, to The Avengers, to Guardians of the Galaxy, comic books and graphic novels have truly arrived as a dominant medium.
But the big question is: why? What is it about comic books, and superheroes, that attracts us so potently? Back to Grant Morrison, superhero iconographer. He has the equally big answer: superheroes are here like never before, not because they are looking back to the age of the gods, but because they are looking forward. Superheroes are a promise from the future.
Morrison understands these caped, superpower wielding weirdoes at the edges of society as daring to imagine the tremendous, transpersonal potentials of the human spirit. The human form, transformed, by mutation or evolutionary jump (take X-Men, for example). Leaping from magic to mysticism, superheroes give us myths about saving the world, traveling through higher dimensions (like Dr. Strange) and saving ourselves from equally tremendous and unimaginable dangers. They are at once deeply humbling and utterly inspiring, calling us to, in a sense, divinize ourselves.
Stephen Greenblatt’s coining phrase, “self-fashioning” was used to describe the rising mercantile class of the Renaissance period, but the idea has since come to represent the spirit of Renaissance idealism, inspired by the Neoplatonism of antiquity, of self-perfection and the humanistic belief in our limitless potential. In Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance, the anthology’s writers compare Morrison to a kind of Renaissance magician. Morrison himself was happy to include this, albeit in a more mystical fashion, through the inclusion of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (a classic Renaissance text) in the pages of All Star Superman:
“[God, speaking to Adam] But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will… We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer.”
Perhaps the central idea in Grant Morrison’s work, if we can say there is one, is the belief that reality is more like language. It can be written, “fashioned” in a magical sense if we have the know-how. Words can bend reality into new designs (as we explored in last week’s article on William S. Burroughs), so we must always be careful what we write.
It goes without saying that Morrison’s comics can get, well, very meta. Decades before that was a thing on the internet. A motif he often explores is the relationship that creators have with their creation, and vice versa. Morrison explores the borders between the real and unreal, fiction and non-fiction—between the story and the storyteller is some stranger, higher reality.
It’s multidimensional, sometimes recursive, and always slipstream.
Writers will often talk about how their stories are feel like they are discovered, like Tolkien does with Middle Earth, or Ursula K. Le Guin with the anthropological flavor of the Hainish Cycle. What if this is somehow true? Can our four dimensional reality reach down into two dimensions? Can they reach back up?
This idea gets moved out of the abstract and into Morrison’s life with the creation of The Invisibles, which he admits is an intentional act of autobiographical, literary magic. But what happens when the story you’re writing becomes the life you’re living?
“The Invisibles was a six-year long sigil in the form of an occult adventure story which consumed and recreated my life during the period of its composition and execution.” — Grant Morrison
The BoingBoing interviewer stated in his introduction that reading The Invisibles, “was a monumental experience contributing to my own seismic breakthroughs about the potential of my consciousness in this vast mysterious universe.” There is something strange about reading it—indeed, there was something strange about writing it.
It all started when Morrison jumped off a bridge. To be clear, he was bungee jumping, and perfectly safe, but he used the occasional to kickoff the writing for The Invisibles. He was performing a magical act. In the spirit of self-fashioning, Morrison promotes a form of “pop magic,” or “chaos magic” through sigil making. Sigils are abstracted “squiggles” that symbolize an intent or desire. In a moment of intense passion, emotion, or some form of intensified experience (this can be anything from ‘magical masturbation’ to riding a roller coaster), the magical practitioner focuses on their sigil to “activate” it. In Morrison’s case, it was bungee jumping. (Here’s a video where he describes how to do it, and he encourages you to go ahead and, well, try it out.)
He was trying to invoke the promise he gave to his readers, that The Invisibles comic would give them “the secret of the universe.”
Boy did he get an answer.
I find I need to write myself into this story a little—because I found that I was already a part of it, somehow, too. I was riding a rough storm, a dark night of sorts, when I picked up The Invisibles for the first time in late 2012/early 2013. I’ll save the sordid details for another essay, but suffice to say I encountered a series of disorienting synchronicities as I read through book, one of which involved a certain line from the Bhagavad Gita getting stuck in my head all day prior to coming home: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” (Spoken by Oppenheimer at the test site of an atomic bomb). That night, I opened the next issue of The Invisibles and there it was: a mushroom cloud. And there was Oppenheimer. “I am become death,” the comic said, “destroyer of worlds.”
I didn’t touch the book for the rest of the night. It was simply too weird. It’s not every day that a book starts talking back to you.
Another, strange “intersection point” as William S. Burroughs would call it, was when I got to the point in there story where the protagonist, King Mob, undergoes torture. He is given a sinister drug, “Key 17”, which forces the victim to experience whatever words they see in front of them as totally real. (Again, the whole language-is-reality idea.) King Mob is given the words “diseased face.” In the mirror his face appears swollen and infected with who-knows-what. While reading The Invisibles around the same time I managed to get my tooth impacted, swelling up the right side of my face and inducing a minor medical emergency.
Suffice to say that The Invisibles was no ordinary comic book read for me, but like Morrison’s bungee jump, I bounced back—hopefully transformed for the better. Read on though, if you dare. It gets weirder.
“Is All Now Love”
First a few words about the actual plot of The Invisibles. It involves a secret society of occult superheroes, the Invisibles, battling powerful dark forces, the Archons of the Outer Church, who want to take over our reality and enslave the human race. There are two universes—Universe A and Universe B—representing the good and the bad. Our universe is a kind of holographic image between the two. (As a minor footnote: Philip K. Dick explores this same idea in VALIS. This may be Morrison’s inspiration.) The main characters are King Mob (team leader), Lord Fanny (a transgender Brazilian shaman), Boy (former NYPD officer), Ragged Robbin (telepath), and Jack Frost (a Liverpool kid who literally might be the next Buddha).
It is, in other words, a deeply gnostic tale in that it hits all the beats: gnostic superheroes in a cosmic battle against the twisted archons.
Morrison tells us that he literally (pun intended) put himself into the comic—King Mob being his superhero equivalent. The comic, itself, he understands to be one big sigil—a “hypersigil”—intended to induce changes and transformations in its readership and the larger culture. It’s a hyper dimensional, initiative, psychedelic, time traveling, gnostic fueled eschatological ride. None of that is hyperbole on my part. Really.
“The world of The Invisibles was our own. I took care to keep it current, with the names of bands and movies and references to events of the day… The voodoo doll universe I was making needed to map our own closely to allow me to slip between them across the permeable page surface.” (Supergods, Morrison 259)
It’s impossible to go on now without explaining the “answer” he received to the “secret of the universe.” It was while traveling in Kathmandu that he had what Jeffrey Kripal describes in Mutants and Mystics as a paranormal encounter. “The novel was consciously designed to conjure and effect” this religious experience, he writes. “Words here are power-substances, literal spellings in their own right.”
So what was The Invisibles conjuring? What was the “secret of the universe” that the book tries to impart to the reader?
It’s best to let Morrison explain the visionary encounter himself. He was just settling in to work on some writing for the The Invisibles and a commissioned article. “Then it all kicked off.” This is from his autobiography, also worth reading, Supergods.
“I looked up from my notebook to see the Shwayambunath temple rearrange itself like a Transformer into some kind of chrome lionlike configuration with exhaust pipes and tubular spirit conduits, seeming to blast its raw holiness into the sky as raging searchlight storms. Overwhelmed, I stumbled back downstairs in the grip of an immense seismic shift in awareness that I could not, hand on heart, attribute to the sole action of the tiny piece of hashish I’d ingested…
I began to lose contact with the physical reality of the room, seeing in its place cranky ancient streets, and leaning ceramic houses haunted by gnomish presences…
…Now there were what I can describe only as “presences” emerging from the walls and furniture. Rippling, dribbling blobs of pure holographic meta-material angels or extraterrestrials. They were made of what might have been mercury or flowing liquid chrome and informed me that I had caused this to happen and now had to deal with the consequences of my actions. Where did I want to go?”
All of this, mind you, went into The Invisibles.
Morrison describes an encounter with sentient “ultraviolet neon tubes” from Alpha Centauri. These went into All Star Superman.
“Okay,” they said. “This is what you wanted. The secret of the universe.”
I was turned around, is the simplest way of thinking about it…
I had fully entered a space that felt both vaulted and enclosed, like an immense cathedral but also infinite in horizon. It was as if infinity and eternity could be contained and bottled inside something much bigger than both. The space was profound azure blue in all directions, laced with bright silver lines and grid traceries that came and went, ghost blueprints zipping up and down an invisible monofilament scaffolding all around me… Stranger yet, my arrival in this plce felt like a homecoming. All the cares and fears of the mortal world were gone, replaced by the hum of immaculate industry, divine creativity.
I was a mercurial hypersprite too and remembered that I always had been… There was time and space, but those were lower dimensions, useful for creating worlds in the same way that comic artists drew living worlds on paper. Here was an unending perfect day of absorbing eternal creation.
The full encounter, heck, the whole book deserves to be read, so pick up a copy and do so. Morrison goes on to describe how this chamber of infinity was, somehow, a higher dimension of reality. One that was (was, is?) beyond time. In fact, the beings in this dimension used our dimension to grow experiences in. “There was time and space, but those were lower dimensions, useful for creating worlds in the same way that comic artists drew living worlds on paper.”
In this higher dimension, time was not linear but happening all at once, “constantly moving through itself.” Time was used to grow things,
“a kind of incubator, and all life on Earth was one thing, a single weird anemone-like mega-Hydra with its single-celled immortal root in the Precambrian tides and its billion of sensory branches, from ferns to people, with every single detail having its own part to play in the life cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super -organism. It was as if I had been shown an infant god, attached to a placental support system called Earth…”
Morrison tells us he was told to take up his duties as a “mid-wife” to this super organism. To ensure it made it through the larval stage.
After this experience, he describes being able to see objects as “time-worms.”
“I could see the shapes of things and of people as the late plain surfaces of far more complex and elaborate processes occurring in a higher dimensional location. Every human life became a trailing extension through time, not just four-limbed and two-eyed but multi-limbed and billion eyed.”
Like a vast, cosmic, Hindu deity, Kripal points out.
So, let’s come back down for a moment. What happens when you channel an experience like this into a piece of art—let alone a comic book, a graphic novel—with the explicit intent to carry some of that cosmic, visionary state into the experience of your readers? Well, you get The Invisibles. A hypersigil for pop culture, seeping into the water supply of the collective unconscious like some noospheric DMT.
Can books become like holy sites, charged with spiritual potency? “The Invisibles is the ritual, is the spell, and the collaboration of the readership in that is important too.” Nearly twenty years on, its readers today are a part of this collective, magical act.
What is the “Super Story?”
Kripal points out that comic book writers and science fiction authors—like Philip K. Dick or Robert Anton Wilson and even William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary, who developed versions of this “cosmic evolutionary larva” concept—are implicating all of us in a new “super story.” A cosmic mythology for a time of tremendous political, spiritual, and psychological upheaval. Cosmic creation and destruction are happening all at once.
Our myths are starting to reflect the kind of cosmic, visionary intensification of consciousness needed to respond to an equally baffling and hyper dimensional crisis.
We need to awaken to the multi-armed, billion-eyed super organism we really are if we want to survive the cascading crisis we face in what scientists now call the Anthropocene.
We need to realize we are magical beings, and that reality is more like the imagination: creative, divine, and something beyond the dualities of “fact” and “fiction,” but something far beyond, and between.
Magic encourages you to take charge of your own life so it confers a sense of agency and self-control that can seem lacking at times like these when sort of epic, elemental forces seem to have us all at their mercy. Given the options, who wouldn’t prefer to be rampaging around in higher planes, interacting with eternal archetypes and pop culture gods? Who wouldn’t want to bring back ideas that could change the world?
In that interview I discovered while writing this article, Morrison comments on the need for thinking magically in an age of Trump and Brexit.
“Things are malleable around the edges right now, which is good news for magicians.” Reality is collapsing. Real and unreal have become porous membranes, constantly turning inside out. (Fake news, anyone?) “We have the rising tide that is VR and AR tech which will shatter the last of the walls.” This, Morrison argues, is the real apocalypse. The end of the “real” world. It’s terrifying, because with the blurring of the “real” and the “fantastical” come the possibilities for both utopias and nightmares, and everything in between.
The larva is starting to wake up.
It just goes to show: reality is on the side of the magician who knows how to properly navigate what William Blake described as the holy imagination.
So how is this planet, in this universe, going to write its story? What do you say?
Grant Morrison, Supergods
Darragh Greene, Kate Roddy, Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance
Jeffrey Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal