Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surrealist and situationist superheroes

Superhero groups are rather similar to surrealist groups. Both are egregoric-dynamic collectivities that embody something completely different than the sum of the individuals, both live in worlds where everything is possible and personal problems are intertwined with matters of life and death and the future of the universe, both are organised based on the unusual powers of individuals. I have once written a comprehensive essay comparing surrealist groups and Marvel superhero groups, and will not go further into it here. But I recently had reason to ponder upon the work in this area by Grant Morrison, who famously designed both a surrealist superhero group and a situationist superhero group within the confines of ordinary commercial superhero comics.

Grant Morrison is a typical comicbook writer of the type that became popular in the late 80s and early 90s; an academic bum with a fetishist thing for popular culture, thus preferring to scatter the fruits of his reading as if it was his own ideas in new commercial forums before writing essays and theses. That part of the comic-reading audience that is made up of similar intellectual bums will be enthusiastic about catching all the allusions and references, that part which is uneducated teenagers will think its unitelligable but very original and perhaps great. Morrison is skilled and knows how to develop a captivating storyline.

Grant Morrison wrote DC's Doom Patrol 1989-92. This group is already of the arguably more surrealist variety of weird super hero groups (consisting of monsters, madmen, robots, mythological beings, animals etc; held together by ad-hoc forces while their asociality, depressivity, misanthropy or unruliness makes the centrifugal forces far overtrump the centripetal forces; not consciously striving to save the world but ending up by chance fighting with an extremely weird rogue gallery - just like Marvels 70s Defenders, and, to be sure, the original Doom Patrol which started already 1963). But then Morrison adds to his already blazing ambition to be as weird as possible his whole baggage of 20th century art history, popular occultism and conspiracy theory, Illuminati, jungian psychology, postsituationist psychogeography, etc etc. A wealth of references to the more well-known aspects of surrealist art and poetry, to dreams and automatism, to alchemy and hidden traditions, etc. And strangely enough, it works. It works by creating an interesting dynamic with a life of its own between the weird characters, and between them and the weird plots they make up och end up within; just like superhero comics do when they work; experimental mythology. The rather shallow play with general textuality, psychopathology, fiction structure, metadiscourse, deleuzian machines, hidden truths and altered states, are put to work in a nice way in the confrontations between these pathetic cosmic schemes and the weird normality. Even the laborously construed simulations of surrealism, in automatic speech and dalinian landscapes, are actually quite effective.

Somewhat later, he drew more heavily on the conspiracy themes and created a postsituationist superhero team put into a pandemonium of references, with DC/Vertigo's Invisibles 1994-2000. Here the dynamics of the story were more hampered by the wealth of references, and it turned out largely uninteresting except as a symptom and possible test case of the situationist notions of recuperation; when a major company were willing to sell a new title mainly on its hyperradical image, this was obviously a negation of these very ideas, but perhaps they could also turn the boards again with providing a platform for genuinely radical misunderstandings of these radical signs turned commercial signs? I can't say if The Invisibles ever worked that way, and I find it in general disappointing, and of course it turned out that the systematic oppression that this insurrectional group was fighting was a machination of an extremely powerful evil conspiracy and not the product of a certain economic system called capitalism...

Doom Patrol works better since even simulated surrealism sometimes has a tendency to orchestrate surrealist mechanisms. Parodies of surrealism are sometimes excellent surrealism. For many, if intending to produce a line of supposedly automatic writing, it might be easier to just write something quickly and in the absence of rational control and aesthetic and moral concerns than to elaborately make something up... And even in the latter case, as methods employing overdetermination show, images resulting from the most elaborate systems of disorientation and self-challenge have a tendency to end up similar to products of the automatic overdetermination of dreaming and poetic creation...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your insightful and funny comments on Grant Morrison, Doom Patrol and Invisibles. I've read all of those and concur with some of what you say. The Invisibles is fun, has a lot of potential, but then winds up in a way recuperated and trendy in its conclusion...Cheers, Shibek