In the introduction to their 2011 memoir Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, Grant Morrison noted that “Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.” Out of all the things Grant Morrison has written, it is perhaps this quote that has routinely gone the most misunderstood.
At best, people have read it as being written with the naiveté of someone yearning for the Silver Age of comics of their childhood (despite Morrison explicitly stating they only read the Silver Age material as an adult). At worst, it’s been used as fodder for the long line of critiques of Morrison as a corporate stooge who sees IP as more important than anything else. Equally, there’s a temptation to take the sentiment literally and reply, “Of course superheroes can defeat the Bomb, in Animal Man #6, Hawkman was able to defeat the Bomb.”
And yet, things become increasingly more complex when one takes a closer look at the quote. The most obvious place to start with is the notion of what the Bomb was prior to being a Bomb: an Idea. Not merely an idea, but an idea. Something with weight and implications that can change the world. As many comics fans are aware, Morrison’s work frequently deals in the nature and implications of Ideas. However, where many a comics fan writes this approach off as being another in a long line of navel gazing at comics about comics, Morrison’s exploration is much deeper than that.
For example, one of the core Ideas explored in their conspiratorial magnum opus The Invisibles is the corruption of language. Frequently, the language of the comic is infected and corrupted by outside forces. Be it the severed head of John the Baptist speaking in tongues, the Key 23 drug that turns words into images, or Grant Morrison’s somewhat transphobic misunderstanding of non-cis gender identities. All of these aspects lead towards the same common theme: a restricted language will allow toxic ideas to percolate.
As they noted last October, “If you restrict the language, if you make it impossible to express abstract ideas, then you put boundaries on people’s ability to think creatively or communicate certain concepts.” That isn’t to say they’re averse to the change of language. As they note in the same interview, “Terms like ‘genderqueer’ and ‘non-binary’ only came into vogue in the mid-90s. So kids like me had very limited ways of describing our attraction to drag and sexual ambiguity. Nowadays there’s this whole new vocabulary, allowing kids to figure out exactly where they sit on the ‘color wheel’ of gender and sexuality, so I think it’s OK to lose a few contentious words when you are creating new ones that offer a more finely-grained approach to experience.”
It’s not that the removal of language, the corruption and change of it, is inherently a problem. Rather, if language is to change, then it has to do so in a way that expresses new Ideas and new implications. As with most mystical things, the intent of the thing is key.
The symbol with meaning and intent that shapes the world is an older Idea that has shaped the world in ways we have yet to grapple with. Perhaps the most famous sigil in the model world is the swastika -- once a symbol for good luck, Buddha’s footprints, and various thunder gods including Thor. In Germany, prior to its infamy, it represented life and the German people. The sigil, in turn, was co-opted by the fascist occult organization known in the English speaking world as the Nazis. They took the nationalistic implications of the Germanic symbol and tilted it into a full blown symbol of fascist thought.
In response the allies (with the aid of Aleister Crowley) created their own sigil: the letter “V.” V for Victory, as was a common headline on many a British newspaper. Winston Churchill lifting two fingers helped solidify the sigil into the consciousness of the people. And, in turn, the symbol won out against the Nazi swastika. By its simplicity and memeability, the V sigil spread like wildfire and captivated the people and, with their concentration and intent (as well as a draft that press-ganged several men into serving for queen and country. In truth, most men didn’t volunteer to fight the Nazis), won the war. Yet the battle of symbolism still rages onwards. The “V” shifted into a symbol for peace and free love while the swastika calcified into further fascist thought. They are still duking it out in the wild, ever shifting, ever solidifying. Be it the protesters fighting against an unjust, cruel, and vicious war or the fascists marching down the streets of Charlottesville, VA proclaiming their superiority.
In many regards, this is a model for what Morrison is presenting in their claim about Superman and the Bomb. It is not merely that Superman can physically oppose the Bomb as he would a speeding bullet, a locomotive, or a tall building. That he can is not the point. Rather, it’s what these two things represent within the larger framework of Morrison’s design that is key to understanding the nature of the ideas being explored.
There are many rabbit holes we need to dive into in order to fully appreciate the implications of what is being said, but chief among them is the fact that the Bomb (and Superman, for that matter) are much larger than a set of shapes hammered together. As such, we must consider one of Morrison’s mystical concepts: the hyper-sigil. The hyper-sigil is a kind of Idea that is expressed through the lens of narrative. It can be a book, a poem, or a song.
But the Bomb too is a hyper-sigil. It is, after all, a thing that was created (and by occult figures such as Jack Parsons to boot). Its impact upon the world warps beyond mere temporality and towards something more. It is the culmination of an Idea that had been emanating in the American subconscious for decades, if not centuries. It appears in many stories, be it the apocalyptic Fallout, the satirical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb, or the grim Grave of the Fireflies. The Idea of the Bomb is an Idea that Morrison was forced to deal with the implications of from as young as seven. As such, we should give this Idea the deep dive it deserves.
I PITY THE COUNTRY
There are many arguments for a genesis point for the Idea of the Bomb be it the actual development of the Bomb, the beginning of World War II, or any of the numerous wars America took part in to highlight its dominance on the world stage — one could sensibly argue that the Idea of the Bomb is the Idea America was built upon; The Bomb, after all, is an American Idea through and through — but I would posit that December 8, 1829 was when the Idea of the Bomb truly cemented itself into the psyche of the American consciousness. On this day, the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, delivered his State of the Union. In this State of the Union, Jackson announced plans for what would become the first Indian Removal Act. In Jackson’s words:
“The condition and ulterior destiny of the Indian tribes within the limits of some of our states have become objects of much interest and importance. It has long been the policy of the government to introduce among them the arts of civilization, in the hope of gradually reclaiming them from a wandering life. This policy has, however, been coupled with another wholly incompatible with its success. Professing a desire to civilize and settle them, we have at the same time lost no opportunity to purchase their lands and thrust them farther into the wilderness. By this means they have not only been kept in a wandering state, but been led to look upon us as unjust and indifferent to their fate.”
As the name suggests, the act would forcibly remove the native population from their land and force them to be moved west of the Mississippi. The act was signed into law on May 28, 1830. As was to be expected, there was pushback from the various tribes whose civilization predates America by centuries, if not millennia. Among many actions, the Cherokee tribe attempted to sue the state of Georgia over their rights as a sovereign nation. One such case (Worcester v. Georgia) argued that, by imposing state laws onto the Cherokee nation, the state of Georgia was disregarding the treaties the US made with the Cherokee. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Worcester and, subsequently, the sovereign nature of the Cherokee.
Jackson promptly ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Other tribes, such as the Seminole, resisted more forcefully, leading into close to a decade of war. While the US would ultimately lose the Second Seminole War in 1842, it would win the third, forcing all but around 500 Seminole off their territory. (The remaining 500 or so would move into the swamp land the Americans didn’t want.)
From this, the US would conduct what would become known as the Trail of Tears, a twenty year long genocide wherein the various native tribes were forced to walk away from their homes and into designated “Indian Territory” that would be taken from them again and again once it became advantageous for Americans to have that land. Native populations were forced into internment camps before being moved in large quantities to their new land. They were bombarded with disease, lack of quality supplies, and extortion. They marched on the hottest and coldest days of the year, killing thousands of people.
In the wake of these dreadful events, the Sioux created the Ghost Dance, a spiritual blend of their cultural mysticism as well as Christianity. A ritual that would see the White Man destroyed, the slain natives and buffalo brought back to life, and the Earth reborn anew. The US Government, naturally, banned this dance. Not because they understood the mystical implications of the magic behind this act, but because they didn’t. The spectacle of non-white people celebrating in the face of decades of cruelty simply frightened those who witnessed it. And, as many white people are wont to do when frightened, they called the law on the Sioux. Not wanting to have to deal with all the horrors that created the Ghost Dance in the first place, a group of 350 Oglala Sioux trekked 150 miles to Wounded Knee Creek.
Roughly 500 heavily armed American troops followed them.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee began with the American troops surrounding the natives and forcing them to relinquish their arms. Yellow Bird, who had not, shot an officer. In retaliation, the troops opened fire on everyone. The old, the young, the sick, the healthy, the Miniconjou, the Hunkpapa, the unarmed. Everyone was a target. Over the course of less than an hour, 290 natives were murdered. Of the troops, only 31. Most from their own crossfire.
The shape of the Idea of the Bomb is no doubt taking form in your mind. But there is one more thing we must discuss before I say its name. A tangent, but an important one nevertheless. There are a number of Ideas created by America beyond the Superhero and the Bomb: the Western, the Noir, and the Gangster.
But crucially, with regards to the American Ideas at play, is the fact that they are often revitalized by non-Americans, revealing different shapes and newer possibilities. Ones that are typically better than their initial American counterparts. Be they the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergios Leone and Corbucci; Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, and the rest of the French New Wave recreating the Noir and Gangster films; or the one/two punch of the British Invasion and the rise of the Tokusatsu form revitalizing the Superhero into something more. Americans will respond with their own takes on the revitalization, pushing things into new directions.
I bring this up because like these stories, these genres full of Ideas, the Idea of the Bomb was likewise redone by another nation. Though, in this case, it was not done by the French or the Italian, but by the German. In the development of the concentration camps, the Nazi party looked at the works of Jackson for inspiration. A lot of their treatment of the Jewish population was heavily inspired by the treatment the US gave towards their slaves as well as the native population. Where the US was able to murder roughly 3,000 Natives, the Nazis killed 11 million Jews. In terms of the aspirations of the Idea of the Bomb, the Germans did a much better job.
And, when confronted with another nation taking its Ideas and running wild, America just had to make a response.
Never mind that the target was Japan, a nation who had earned the ire of America after they attacked a military base on American soil. The point of the usage of the Bomb was a show of power. America had spent years working on the Bomb, years developing it, honing it, that they just had to use it. It would’ve been a waste of money if they didn’t show off.
The Idea of the Bomb is the Idea of Imperialism. The Idea that man has a duty to overtake and consume that which he sees. That it is better to destroy something than not to have it. Better to exterminate all the brutes than to actually acknowledge that they are people, not things, not a mindless horde out to steal everything we earned. All the while never mentioning the methods by which we earned it, who we murdered, who we slaughtered. The Bomb speaks louder than words. It is a ghost, haunting our history, our story. We can never escape it. We are free to do as thou wilt. So long as we’re in charge, of course.
God help us if someone other than an American drops the Bomb. They might do a much better job with it.
THESE ARE (NOT) PEACEFUL TIMES
Sadly, the alternatives presented against the Bomb have been, at best, lackluster. The most famous example was perhaps that of the political world that had birthed the Bomb in the first place. In the wake of the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, various countries did not like the idea of the United States having access to the Bomb. Attempts were made to create their own Bombs until, on November 22, 1955, the Soviet Union developed their first Bomb.
As a result, there was fear in the US that the Soviets were obviously planning to nuke America. They released PSAs, documentaries, spread fear about the Soviet menace. They executed the innocent, put men on trial for thinking the wrong thoughts, and cracked down upon any potential critique of America. Because thinking an imperialistic force out to conquer the world is a bad thing is just un-American, don’t you know?
And, of course, the US built more bombs.
They even called the logic behind it Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD. As if being in on the joke of thinking that the only thing that could stop a bad guy with a Bomb was a good guy with a Bomb makes it ok. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t tried. It’s perhaps best to start looking at Japan for alternatives that aren’t just more of the same. After all, they were the only “civilized” nation to have a nuclear bomb dropped on them. Just so long as you ignore Bikini Atoll. But doing so forces one to ignore another interaction between American Bombs and Japan. One important to the most famous response to the Bomb Japan has offered.
The Daigo Fukuryū Maru was a fishing boat that specialized in tuna. For the crew of 23 men, March 1, 1954 was just another day on the job. At the same time, the US decided it would be a good idea to test one of their Bombs on the formerly inhabited island of Bikini Atoll, which put the Daigo Fukuryū Maru within blast range. Not close enough to kill immediately, but there was a massive controversy involving radioactive fish and the survivors receiving massive burns. At least one of them died shortly after the bombing of Bikini Atoll.
In the wake of this, director Ishirō Honda made a movie that opens with a Bomb being dropped nearby a fishing boat. The movie was called Gojira. Gojira was a metaphorical text about the direct impact of the Bomb on Japanese society. Unlike a lot of later Godzilla films (to their detriment), Gojira focuses on the human players within this strange and horrifying time where giant fire breathing lizards attack their home. The film ends on a bittersweet pessimism, wherein the only thing that can defeat Gojira is something that is far worse than the lizard. Japan, after all, has its own history with embracing the Idea of the Bomb. The rest of the characters ponder if more Gojiras will come if Bomb testing continues.
This bleak outlook would define the Japanese relationship with the Bomb. Indeed, one could argue quite persuasively that the Bomb is the defining artifact of 20th century Japan. The thing that forever changed society. Look at what is considered by many to be the most influential texts of Japanese comics: Akira. It too opens with a Bomb dropping on a metropolitan area of Japan. As the atomic bomb acted as a climactic moment of the second world war, this Bomb worked to begin the third. Where the sigil of the Bomb of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that of the mushroom, this Bomb is a black ball, pitch like a black hole. Nothing within survives. Even 38 years later, the damage can still be seen.
Akira shows a society on the verge of collapse, a ruin built on ruins stalked by ruins. It’s a story about the changeover from one kind of living to another. The development of a post-Bomb world. And yet, even in the post-Bomb world, we still cling to the Bomb. The first attempt to defeat Akira in *Akira is a space laser that devastates everything it touches. The only thing that can stop the collapsing Tetsuo is Akira. The threat of Akira (be he alive or dead at the end) is the only thing that keeps the Great Tokyo Empire sovereign.
Morrison’s actual engagement with the Idea of the Bomb began in earnest when they were a kid. As I’ll go in more depth later, Morrison’s childhood was bombarded with fear of the Bomb. In response, Morrison did what any sensible child would do: they embraced fantasies. As Morrison notes in Supergods, their initial solution to the Bomb was the Utopian dream of Space Utopianism. In many regards, their conception of Superman is based, in part, on the utopian dream of space.
Which, given the legacy of Space Utopianism, has some implications. Frequently, Space Utopianism is framed as another brand of the Idea of the Bomb. An outgrowth of the imperialistic drive that led us to conquer Darkest Africa. After all, what do we call the land we take from the Dark Side of the Moon if not Colonies? Are there not entire species of bugs out to conquer and destroy our freedom? And do we not fetishize alien women with metal bikinis and exotic dresses?
This would, mostly implicitly, infect the character of Superman. After all, he is a character who stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. He is a force who has frequently been framed as being at least nominally aligned with American interests. Or, at the very least, aligned with keeping American systems intact.
In many ways, this take on Superman, more than any other, is the one that most people think of when they consider Superman. An agent of the status quo. Who will fight for the world as it is, regardless if the threat against it is fascists out to exterminate the “lesser races” or anti-fascists protesting the cruel world they find themselves trapped within. They’re both equally dangerous. Best to stick to the middle ground.
In other words, Superman is not a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea than the Bomb. For all his power, all his strength, Superman remains a protective fantasy. One who will defend us against the threats of destruction and cruelty, but also one who will work his darndest to keep the world the same.
Such is the nature of Superman: never allowed to change the world. Never allowed to be faster, stronger, or better than the Bomb.
after the glandolinian war
The thing is… Grant Morrison is aware of this. This is quite apparent in their recent mini-series, The Green Lantern: Blackstars. In the press leading up to the series, Morrison noted that said comic contains “my cruelest portrayal of Superman that I've ever done, that makes him out to be the worst he can possibly be.” In recent comics, writing Superman as a cruel, vindictive bastard is practically commonplace. Be it the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, Zack Snyder’s plans for a Justice League franchise, or the Justice League episode, “A Better World.”
However, the approach Morrison took with Superman was less the vile dictator out to kill Batman and the rest of the rebel superheroes and more akin to how most writers approach Superman. The Superman of Blackstars is a pathetic little man who bemoans the state of the world, yet refuses to allow things to change. “This is how it is,” Superman says. “Every day something awful happens--someone dies, or gets resurrected, or goes mad and betrays everyone. You think I don’t get why my son would want to escape all this…? Do you understand why I can’t let that happen?” While the Blackstars themselves are not without fault, the fact that Superman is whining about the state of the world rather than doing something, anything to make it better speaks to the degree to which he’s failed.
But the truly telling sign of Morrison’s awareness of the failures of Superman as an idea come in the form of their event comic The Multiversity. Written at around the same time they wrote “Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea,” The Multiversity may be Grant’s final word on the superhero as an idea. More specifically, it’s about the limitations of the genre. Be it a tendency for nostalgia pieces to allow reactionary ideas in or the inherent failure state brought about by making Superheroes into soldiers. A loving Dear John letter.
But the fullest extent of The Multiversity (within the context of this article) comes in the Mastermen one shot. Set on a parallel Earth where the Nazis got access to Superman, thus winning the War and bringing about a fascist utopia, this Superman (named Overman, calling back to one of Morrison’s earliest interactions with the Superman in Animal Man) is wracked with guilt over everything the Nazis did. That he, as an agent of a rotten status quo, was complicit in.
In many regards, Overman acts as the ultimate failure of the idea delivered with crushingly bitter bluntness. Overman, when faced with a bomb, fails to stop it. Oh sure, physically, he survives it. But he can’t defeat it. He can’t prevent the Bomb from destroying Metropolis. For a Superman who is an agent of the Status Quo, who works to keep things the way they are regardless of how evil, how cruel, how monstrous it might be, can never be a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.
So then, what does Morrison’s Superman look like? What does a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea look like? The obvious place to start is with their seminal classic, All Star Superman. For many critics of the work of Grant Morrison, All Star Superman is another in a long line of texts bemoaning the loss of the Silver Age of comics. How much more fun those works were than their modern counterparts. A homage to those comics from a more innocent time. However, Morrison’s appreciation for the Silver Age is not in its innocence, but in its deviance. As they put it in Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, “It was like the hard body began to turn soft, the masculine heroes becoming fluid and feminine, always changing shape.”
Furthermore, All Star Superman is not, in fact, a love letter to the Silver Age. Rather, All Star Superman is more akin to a wake. It’s the story of a man who has learned that he’s dying of cancer and has just one year left to live. All the regrets they have, all the things they’re proud of. The people they’ve known and those they will meet. What does one do when they know their time is up? For Superman, he helps make the world as much of a better place as he can.
This is perhaps best solidified in the most beloved chapter of the book, “Neverending.” Here, we are presented with just one of the many final days of Superman’s life. He laments the lack of time to do everything, to help everyone. But he still tries to make things better. Be it on the large scale such as creating a formula to give people superpowers or working to cure all of Earth’s diseases with super science to the smaller scaled stuff like stopping giant robots or talking a kid out of committing suicide. All these things are equally important to Morrison’s Superman.
Around the same time they wrote All Star Superman, Grant Morrison’s father, Walter, was dying of cancer. Quote Morrison in Supergods, “When my dad died the following year, he gave part of his spirit to the book.” Walter Morrison is, in many regards, the most important figure to look at when trying to understand Morrison’s Superman. A working class Scot who, upon seeing the Nazis ravage Europe, decided to lie about his age just so he could volunteer for the Army. However, upon joining, he was quick to discover, “that everything I had been taught about the baddie, the Nazi and the fascists was plonk there in front of me, in this crowd of people who were supposed to be enlightened, informed and geared up to fight it.”
Shortly after training, Walter was sent not to fight the Nazis in Germany, but the Indians in India. It seems that India needed to be taught the value of English civility, so the British did what the British always did: slaughter the native population until they gave in. Walter, being a man of principals, did not take kindly to the idea of treating people, in the words of his commanding officer, “in the same way as the regulars have been treating then for hundreds of years.” That is to say, there was a lot of rape and torture committed by the British Army in India. One notable instance involved stealing a man’s cows then stripping him naked and beating him when he tried to get them back.
Walter was having none of this. At every opportunity, Walter would fight with both the top brass and his fellow soldiers (whom, he would later note in Peter Grafton’s You, You and You: The People Out of Step with World War II, “would have been just as comfortable sitting in a Nazi or SS uniform”). In turn, he would be given shit duties and locked up for his various transgressions. One such period of being locked up pushed Walter to the point of murdering the next man who entered his cell, a moment which would lead him to a life of non-violence.
When Walter returned home from his time fighting the Second World War in India, he would become a socialist anti-war protestor. Chief among his concerns was an American army base that held atomic weapons. He, along with Grant, would sneak into the base via pretending to have lost footballs. He would then take photographs of what he saw down there. He had a fear of the Bomb that he would instill into his child. A fear that would only subside when Grant came to discover superheroes.
But still, the influence of their father would linger within their understanding of the Idea of Superman. This can be best seen in their Action Comics run. In the wake of the New 52, Grant Morrison (alongside artist Rags Morales) was given the opportunity to create a new origin for the Champion of the Oppressed. So, much like their father, Morrison made Superman a socialist (or, at least as much as one as DC would allow). They had Superman face off against billionaires who hurt people in the name of greed, demonic corporate IP that seek to destroy the competition, and literal, actual Nazis (albeit off page).
In contrast to their contemporaries, Grant Morrison’s Superman is a figure of action, not reaction. Someone who wants to change the world for the better. In a scene with the Justice League, Morrison’s Superman advocates for changing the world for the better. Batman rejects the desire on the grounds that he doesn’t “want to be part of a gang of authoritarian living weapons from America. I won’t march into countries uninvited to “fix” problems we barely understand.” But Superman retorts that doesn’t mean they should do nothing. Those problems don’t go away just because you don’t want to deal with them.
There’s a temptation to view this take on Superman as an opiate for the masses. A vessel for empty spectacle that replaces true, revolutionary change. Or, as Morrison put it in The Invisibles, “The most pernicious image of all is the anarchist-hero figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis. The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product to be consumed.”
Morrison, understanding all this, writes around it in a way that is so blisteringly obvious one wonders why it hasn’t been done before: Morrison’s Superman invites us to act. Morrison’s metafictional aspirations are often talked about. They have characters break the fourth wall, use their comics to comment upon other comics, and even appear in a fiction suit within their own works. But, with regards to Action Comics, this is not simply metafiction. It ends as a metafictional fourth wall breaking, but the nature of it begins as something small and simple: ordinary people defend Superman from the government who are out to kill the champion of the oppressed.
Even as the world’s ending and everyone’s dying, normal ordinary people without superpowers, amazing skills, or even weird clothes work to save him from the trap his nemesis (a fifth dimensional being who is meant to represent corporate greed, fascism, and Mark Millar) has caught him in. And, of course, Superman turns to us, the readers, and asks us to do the impossible.
Yes, the nature of the impossible is purely comic book nonsense. But the fact remains that Morrison’s Superman asks us to not be passive in our reading of his story. And therein lies the fundamental nature of the Idea Morrison’s Superman represents; the Faster, Stronger, Better Idea than the Bomb. Any old hero can rebel. There are centuries of stories where hero(es) fight off evil empires. But they are rarely, if ever, normal people. They’re the princess, the hero with a thousand faces, the special. At Morrison’s core, Superman has a bunch of powers, sure, but he’s not special. Anyone can rebel.
The Idea of the Bomb is, at its heart, an individualistic one. One built on Great Men having control over the History of the world. It sees other people as nothing more than meat to be put into the grinder, be it as soldiers fighting forever wars, casualties caught in the crosshairs, or Others who are demonized in the name of those forever wars.
The Idea of Morrison’s Superman is a collectivist one. One where anyone can be better. As Morrison puts it at the end of Supergods, “We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in–and we made Superman after all.”
(With thanks to Ritesh Babu and David Mann)