What if Grant Morrison hosted a comic book convention and it changed the world?
That’s exactly what happened nearly two weeks ago at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, although you probably haven’t noticed any difference yet.
But if Grant Morrison is right, you will.
The brainchild of James Sime, Kirsten Baldock and Ron Richards, and curated by Grant (with his wife Kristan), MorrisonCon was designed to tear down traditional comic book conventions (in both senses of the word) and rebuild them from the ground up into an intimate salon experience promoting an exchange of ideas and creative visions about the comics art form. More than 400 people made the pilgrimage to the Nevada desert to attend panels and participate in activities developed by Grant and featuring his nine hand-picked collaborators and co-conspirators: Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Thief of Thieves), Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, Happy!), Jason Aaron (Scalped, Avengers vs. X-Men), Jim Lee (X-Men, WildC.A.T.s, Justice League), Gerard Way (The Umbrella Academy), Jonathan Hickman (S.H.I.E.L.D., The Manhattan Projects), Frank Quitely (The Authority, WE3, All-Star Superman), J.H. Williams III (Promethea, Wild Girl, Batwoman) and Chris Burnham (Officer Downe, Batman Inc. ).
The diverse panel discussions addressed comics-related topics such as writing and drawing; connections to music and movies; the worlds of science, metaphysics, magic and myth; Jungian archetypal imagery; and the hastening evolution of human consciousness and technology as we approach the predicted Mayan apocalypse on December 21, 2012.
As fascinating and exhilarating as I found all these discussions, they’re not the sort of subjects I usually address on this blog. But even though it wasn’t the topic of a panel, one of my favorite qualities of Grant Morrison’s work is that it has often pushed the boundaries of society’s accepted notions of justice.
I first got hooked on Morrison reading Animal Man, which, besides being an amazingly well-crafted work of metafiction, sought to expose one of the most pervasive and least acknowledged abuses of power in the modern world (as it was in the ancient one): the human exploitation, enslavement, torture and mass killing of the other animals with whom our species shares the planet. The Invisibles was a metaphorical representation of the eternal struggle for individual freedom, self-expression and self-identity against the authoritarian demands for conformity enforced by governments, corporations and religious institutions.
But when Grant left Animal Man in issue 26, donning his first fiction suit to enter the comic book reality he’d created and confront its title character, he explained that his decision was based in part on a feeling that his animal rights story lines had become too “preachy.” By the time Grant’s epic The Invisibles reached its conclusion, the messianic Jack Frost had realized that the battle between freedom and control was a false dichotomy. At MorrisonCon, Grant explained it in Buddhist terms—that we are all as one, both oppressor and victim, villain and hero.
Grant’s decades of work in comics led him to conclude that superheroes are not well-suited for resolving the infinite crises that plague the real world. In his book, Supergods, Grant wrote that “The presumption that superheroes could literally show us how to end hunger or poverty seemed as naive as a belief in fairies.”
I asked Grant during a Q&A session at MorrisonCon if he still felt this way. He replied that he didn’t like to be dogmatic and encouraged creators to express their passion for social causes through their comics. His personal feeling is that pointing fingers at people is one of the surest ways to turn off readers and is never a very effective way of inspiring change. I conceded that his powerful and emotionally riveting WE3 did a much better job than Animal Man of arguing the cause of justice for all beings (in equal part due to the beautiful art of Frank Quitely), even though no one in the story ever mentions the subject of animal rights. (On a related note, I was happy to hear Grant say that he still cares about animal issues and supports animal charities.)
Grant also shared, repeatedly during the weekend, his belief that it is not any one person’s responsibility to save the world. His advice was to just be the best you can be, at whatever path you are called to pursue. Be kind. Be a good friend and neighbor. Be a positive influence on others. Of course, it follows that, if everyone takes this advice, the world will no longer be in need of saving.
That, to me, was the most important and profound message to come out of MorrisonCon. And the most revolutionary.
Justice in our society (and in our comics) has always been retroactive. Someone commits a wrong against someone else, and police and the courts (or superheroes) step in to right it. Unfortunately, that’s inherently impossible. Once the scales are upset, they can never be fully balanced again. Even if the perpetrators of injustice are apprehended and sent to prison, and losses or damages are compensated for, nothing can undo the harm that was done to the victims (unless they can find the inner strength to forgive and move past it on their own).
The only real justice is preemptive. Living a life of tolerance and compassion so that the scales are never unbalanced in the first place.
And that was the true miracle of MorrisonCon. It turned Las Vegas into the testing ground for a meta bomb (-physical and -fictional) with the potential to send out shock waves that could change the consciousness and conscience of society. The event was a neon hand grenade primed to remake the world in the image of anyone willing to pull the pin—like one of Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects opening a portal to J.H. Williams III’s Immateria. Based on most of the comments my fellow attendees have been tweeting since then, the explosion of creativity, good will and camaraderie generated that weekend has already changed the worlds of the 400-plus people who were caught in the blast.
And now we have scattered from the Nevada desert to the far reaches of the globe, rippling outward in a chain reaction that will continue touching other lives—through art, personal relationships and activism—triggering more explosions until a critical mass is reached that can rewrite the story of our collective future.
And eventually the whole world will be changed, the only way it ever has been—one heart and mind at a time.
My road to MorrisonCon
1990: Working as a correspondent at PETA when Grant finishes his run on Animal Man, I write and send him (via DC Comics) a letter from the organization officially commending his animal advocacy (and exceptional storytelling). I don’t know if it was ever forwarded to him.
1996: After reading Flex Mentallo, I write my second letter to Grant (via Vertigo Comics), this time thanking him for rewriting a happy ending to a personal tragedy in my life. Again, I don’t know if he ever received the letter.
1999: Working with DC Comics as the Director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program, I try unsuccessfully to get Grant, who is writing JLA at the time, to write our educational comic book, Superman for the Animals. (The assignment is instead given to Mark Millar.)
2002: Consulting with Marvel Comics on my second Comics for Compassion project, I make another unsuccessful attempt to get Grant, who at this point is working on New X-Men, to write the story that will eventually be published in X-Men Unlimited #44. (In the end, the Genesis Award-winning story, ”Can They Suffer?”, is written by Chuck Austen.)
2005: In April I give a PowerPoint presentation, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons, and Graphics,” which focuses heavily on Animal Man and WE3, at the Grassroots Animal Rights Conference in New York City. An excerpt from that presentation is the basis for my article published the following month in Satya magazine, “United Animal Kingdom: Grant Morrison’s All-Species Comics.”
2007: I meet Grant for the first time in NYC after he appears on a panel discussing superheroes as part of that year’s New Yorker Festival. He signs my first issues of Animal Man, The Invisibles and WE3 and I give him a printed copy of my 2005 PowerPoint presentation (and, I think, a copy of the letter I sent him while working for PETA).
2010: Our house is broken into and, along with more traditionally stolen items, the thief takes several of my Grant Morrison comics, including the three Grant signed for me. (Several months earlier, almost my entire run of The Invisibles—excluding issue #1—was destroyed in a basement flood that claimed hundreds of my comic books.)
2012: Trying to find a way to replace my Grant-signed comics, my wife Vicki stumbles on MorrisonCon, which I somehow have not heard of, and buys me a ticket as a 50th birthday present. During my encounters with Grant at MorrisonCon, I get several items signed, have my picture taken with him, and finally get to thank him in person (as well as Frank Quitely) for Flex Mentallo.