Part critical history of comics, part memoir of the writing trade, part mashup of fringe science, pop psychology, and this month's secrets-of-marketing-trends business bestseller, this entertaining, inchoate mess of a book purports to be an essay on superheroes and their significance to us. Of course, significance is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to pop culture, and while experience and common sense may tell us that the detective, the spy, the soldier, and the gangster are fictional archetypes with genuinely universal appeal, the superhero remains, like jazz, an American phenomenon that, in other countries, comes across either as an imitation of the American product, or as something based on such specifically regional imaginative archetypes as to fall outside the "superhero" label altogether. (Harry Potter, anyone?)
Why is the superhero an American rather than a global phenomenon? Morrison doesn't really have an answer for that, but the fun of this story -- and any mythology is all about stories that should've happened -- lies in the telling. Morrison sees the cyclical rise and fall of the superhero comic as a recursive process of imaginative evolution, and devises a four-part structure (like FINNEGANS WAKE) to contain and illustrate the theme. "The Golden Age" and "The Silver Age" are funny and critically astute assessments of the subject, although newspaper comic strips and pulp fiction are simply omitted from the discussion, which leaves out the Spirit, the Phantom, Doc Savage, and the Shadow. This may be only because the author didn't grow up with these characters.
What Morrison dubs "The Dark Age" (1970-1995) sees the rise of "realism" in superhero comics, sparked by Vietnam, Watergate, the '70s economic recession, an aging fandom, and the emergence of Morrison's bÍte noire, Alan Moore, whose downbeat, ruthlessly logical (and bestselling) stories of superheroes who CAN'T save the world caused a paradigm shift in comics writing. For Morrison, realism cripples the imagination of superhero comics writers, and he preferred to seek inspiration in "situationism, the occult, travel, and hallucinogens," not to mention hundreds of unfashionably goofy superhero comics from the '50s and '60s. His response to realism at that time was the exploration of ANIMAL MAN's metafictional universe, "more real" than our own, and DOOM PATROL, relaunched as a book about superpowered PWDs (Persons with Disabilities) who fought threats to reason and to consensus reality.
"The Renaissance" is, surprise, dominated by Morrison's discussion of his own work: THE INVISIBLES as public self-therapy, the long-forgotten FLEX MENTALLO as mental housecleaning, JLA and NEW X-MEN as superior hackwork, BATMAN AND ROBIN as Adam West and Burt Ward meet David Lynch, and FINAL CRISIS as a deliberately "rambling, meaningless, and disconnected" retort to the success of IDENTITY CRISIS, WANTED, DARK REIGN, and to comics fandom in general. (Morrison makes an interesting distinction between horrific "fans" and hip, literate "readers.") While he can be devastatingly funny, as when he's describing Jimmy Olsen's 1950s adventures in cross-dressing, or the checkered history of Batman on film, he can also be uncomfortably confessional: I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the author's messy personal life, and I can't shake the impression SUPERGODS leaves of an entertaining magazine article, spun out, at the last minute, to the length of a sloppy and rather embarrassing book. A waste of time? No. Just less than the sum of its occasionally hilarious parts.