Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: "Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods"

The opening frames of Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, the new documentary by director Patrick Meaney at Respect Films, show the film's subject in the calm before the storm. Swathed in the shadows of a backstage area at the San Diego ComicCon, Morrison is listening to a speaker's introduction, waiting for his name to be called, smirking a little, it seems, at the speaker's description of him as a "rockstar of comics." When the microphone booms out "GRANT MORRISON," he strides confidently to the stage, grinning as a roomful of hundreds of dedicated fanboys (and girls) erupts at the sight of him. It's the perfect setup for what it is to be an enlightening journey through the life and work of one of the most acclaimed, debated and enigmatic writers in comics (perhaps in all of fiction).

If Alan Moore is the great bearded wizard of the comic book world, Morrison is its smiling, freewheeling shaman. He's known almost as much for his history with mind-altering substances and adventures with chaos magic and alien abduction as he is for his award-winning and bestselling work in comics, which includes runs on JLA, New X-Men and Animal Man and ambitious creations like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Final Crisis and his mindbending series The Invisibles.

Talking with Gods, filmed at ComicCon 2009 and at Morrison's homes in Los Angeles and Scotland, follows Morrison's story through his childhood in Glasgow, his days as a burgeoning young musician, his debut in comics in the UK, his American breakthrough, his commercial success, the beginnings and development of his experimentation with magic and drugs, his groundbreaking work on The Invisibles, his return to superhero books, his marriage, and how he lives and works now.

This chronology is intertwined with interviews, as Morrison's friends, collaborators and critics - among them Disinformation's Richard Metzger, Geoff Johns and Karen Berger of DC Comics, artists Phil Jimenez, Jill Thompson and Frank Quitely and fellow writers Mark Waid and Warren Ellis - give their personal perspective on his development as a writer, magician and personality. Meaney also prominently features Morrison's work, placing Morrison the man and Morrison the writer side by side, showing that for Grant Morrison, writing and magic are often the same thing.

The film succeeds on the most basic level by providing a cohesive, matter-of-fact portrait of a man who, for many comics fans, has never been cohesive or matter-of-fact. Anyone who's followed the life and work of Morrison knows that this is, in itself, quite an achievement. But Meaney and company dig deeper, seeking not only to put Morrison's world into perspective, but to see beyond the public persona Morrison has crafted. Morrison himself is candid about this; in many ways the persona was crafted not by him, but by people wishing to believe he was something even stranger than he is. The end result of this exploration of the "real" Grant Morrison is something uncertain, but Morrison is candid about that too. "I'd rather ultimately just say that all I've got to offer is that I'm a witness to the events of my life," he says. "All I've got is the truth in this world."

Meaney crafts the film much like a Morrison comic, drifting in and out of chronological time, switching perspectives, swirling across comic book landscapes and archival photos. The true geeks (like me) will find fascinating things here, like samples of Morrison's earlier work, photos of his rock 'n' roll days, legendary tales of what he was like on drugs, a Jill Thompson testimony that his magic really works, a peek inside his notebooks and a tour of his home in Scotland, including the room where he writes.

Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods doesn't try to offer answers, or solutions, or explanations for its subject. Instead, Meaney just focuses, letting Morrison, and his work, do the talking. The result is a portrait of a man, an artist, who isn't trying to be bizarre or shocking or incomprehensible, but is instead clawing for understanding in a mysterious world, peeling back the dimensions of his own existence in search of something more. Even if we can't understand the process, we can appreciate the ambition.

 If you weren't interested in Morrison's work before, this documentary will get you excited about it. If you were already a reader, this documentary will make you hungry for more. If you thought you were an expert, this documentary will likely teach you a thing or two. It's a remarkable, far-seeing look at one of the most talked-about popular writers of our time, and it's fascinating from beginning to end.

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