Grant Morrison's big talk: Getting deep with the writer of Annihilator, Multiversity

Grant Morrison is not a sound-bite machine. The writer has firmly cemented his legacy in comic-book history as one of the greats, and this is largely due to a storytelling instinct that makes him want to screw with characters and the audience. He toys with what we readers find familiar, comfortable even, and may even redefine the rules of the universe he’s playing in.

But when it comes to short sound bites, he’s not so great. And what a friggin’ relief. As a journalist, I typically get a few minutes or just a couple questions with an interview subject. In a short amount of time, it becomes my job to glean something catchy but fresh, and basically attempt to avoid reprinting the same response every other outlet might publish. Yet when someone is the focus of a dozen or more interviews, the responses start to become rote. The anecdotes are retread and the quotes feel canned, prepared. 

Not so much with Morrison, who has a lot to talk about with his new Legendary book Annihilator and DC Comics’ long-awaited The MultiversityIn Annihilator, a six-issue series with art by Frazer Irving, Morrison uses a Los Angeles haunted house and haunted house in space as the setting for a modern Faustian tale. The character of Hollywood writer Ray Spass (pronounced Space) strives to maintain relevance with his new screenplay while also facing mortality in the form of an inoperable brain tumor. Meanwhile, Spass’ science fiction “creation” Max Nomax literally takes on a life of his own and arrives to offer some assistance. And in the pages of The Multiversity, universes are collapsing and colliding as some of the lesser-known and more bizarre DC Comics heroes seek to preserve the fabric of existence.

With these big projects running concurrently, I asked Morrison a handful of questions about demons, darkness, nihilism and the creepiness of Los Angeles. What I received was about 3,000 words' worth of a reply. And it is all entirely worth reading -- even if it is a beast to edit. 

So pour yourself a drink, settle in and read up. Instead of sound bites, you’re about to enjoy some big talk from Grant Morrison.

Los Angeles is the setting for Annihilator, and the city itself has this seedy, almost malevolent energy creeping below the glitz. Would you agree, and what is your "favorite" creepy place/story in L.A.?

As you say, Los Angeles has a rich seam of filthy, diabolic darkness running just under the surface; think of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan; Jack Parsons and that whole heavy Crowley Thelemite influence; Aldous Huxley dying on LSD; Charles Manson, Sharon Tate. Think of the persistent occult rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding Disney or Scientology. Think of the hyper-wealthy, intoxicated aristocracy of producers, directors and actors who hide behind PR screens while behaving in private like decadent Roman Emperors. I think the creepiness is a natural result of giving very rich and often unscrupulous people almost total control over the lives of the young, pretty and hopeful. Having said that, local Native American legends speak of ancient energies, the Hole, the Snake, the “ancient lake” of the Doors, so maybe the dark seam runs much deeper.

My favourite Los Angeles black spot has to be the corner at the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died in 1993. As a modern Romantic “doomed youth” monument to fallen boyhood it’s hard to surpass this cryptic locale. It’s even more morbid than the bay of Lerici where Shelley died and it carries the same floppy-haired bishonen, sexy dead boy negative energy -- but with a rock ‘n’ roll charge.

You can stand there and feast on the vampiric neon residuals of River’s death, where Sunset meets Larrabee. The steaming, nutritious afterglow is still strong enough to sustain generations of psychic vampires! 

Annihilator strikes me as existing at a narrative nexus with The Shining and Event Horizon. Is that a fair parallel to draw, and are there other stories out there that you'd like it to share a bookshelf with?

In issue #3 of Annihilator Ray Spass pitches the movie he’s working on as “The Shining meets Alien” and in that same issue there’s a sequence that deliberately calls to mind Event Horizon, so yeah. There are hints of Vincent Price’s Doctor Phibes and The Phantom of the Opera. There’s a bit of Dracula. I’ve tried to make Nomax reminiscent of all these figures to suggest that he’s the original template for all of them.

My intent was to create a character which appears to be the original of the outsider, rebel art criminal archetype -- so there are echoes of Milton’s Satan, Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, Lord Byron, Baudelaire, Poe, Ben Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare, Fantomas, Diabolik and many other similar outlaw bad-boy figures. These touchstones alone do not explain Nomax, however, and I hope the book is far more than just an aggregation of influences and annotations.

You’ll just have to read to find out if it is!

In the first issue, you write of darkness and nihilism. Is this a philosophy you see reflected in current culture/popular culture, and if so, why? What is the appeal of playing with this concept?

Philosophical nihilism -- or pessimism, or speculative realism -- has very definitely entered the zeitgeist, and it’s reached as far as pop culture in the form of True Detective, in which Matthew McConaughey’s scene-stealing character Rust Cohle was in part a mouthpiece for the anti-natalist philosophy of Thomas Ligotti, the horror writer, whose nonfiction treatise The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is the go-to source for anyone fool enough to immerse themselves in “The Nightmare of Being.

When I decided to write about black holes of all kinds in Annihilator, I also wanted to include philosophical black holes. I began to think about the way everything we do is ultimately an attempt to describe a turbulent frontier at the edge of an abyss -- not only in the actual center of our galaxy where the Great Annihilator lurks but in the corners of our minds in that 4 a.m. spiraling, impossible vortex that is the contemplation of our own death and our inevitable personal extinction. My magical experience in the Qabalistic “Abyss” of Daath in the early 2000s provided the fuel for most of my work during this last decade. The Abyss encounter is to my work in the 21st century what my Kathmandu “alien abduction” experience was to the work in the '90s. You can see this same obsession with holes and pits and graves in the Batman work that Annihilator grew out of. 

Most human lives are forgotten after four generations. We build our splendid houses on the edge of the abyss then distract and dazzle ourselves with entertainers and sex while we slowly at first, then more rapidly, spin around the ever-thirsty plughole in the middle. My treasured possessions -- all the silly little mementoes and toys and special books I’ve carried with me for decades -- will wind up on flea market tables or rot on garbage heaps. Someone else will inhabit the rooms that were mine. Everything that was important to me will mean nothing to the countless generations that follow our own. In the grand sprawl of it all, I have no significance at all. 

I don’t believe a giant gaseous pensioner will reward or censure me when my body stops working and I don’t believe individual consciousness survives for long after brain death so I lack the consolations of religion. I wanted Annihilator to peek into that implacable moment where everything we are comes to an end so I had to follow the Black Brick Road all the way down and seriously consider the abject pointlessness of all human endeavours. 

I found these contemplations thrilling and I was drawn to research pure nihilism, which led me to Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound and back to Ligotti. I have a fundamentally optimistic and positive view of human existence and the future and I think it’s important to face intelligent, well-argued challenges to that view on a regular basis.

While I agree with Ligotti that the universe is, on the face of it, a blind emergent process, driven by chance over billions of years of trial and error to ultimately produce creatures capable of little more than flamboyant expressions of the agonizing awareness of their own imminent deaths, I don’t share his slightly huffy disappointment at this state of affairs. 

If the universe is intrinsically meaningless, if the mindless re-arrangement of atomic debris into temporarily arising then dissipating forms has no point, I can only ask, why do I see meaning everywhere, why can I find a point in everything? Why do other human beings like me seem to see meaning in everything too? If the sun is only an apocalyptic series of hydrogen fusion reactions, why does it look like an angel and inspire poetry? Why does the flesh and fur-covered bone and jelly of my cat’s face melt my heart? Is all that surging, roaring incandescent meaning inside me, or is it out there? 

“Meaning” to me is equivalent to “Magic.” The more significance we bring to things, even to the smallest and least important things, the more special, the more “magical” they seem to become. For all that materialistic science and existential philosophy tells us we live in a chaotic, meaningless universe, the evidence of my senses and the accounts of other human beings seem to indicate that, in fact, the whole universe and everything in it explodes second-to-second with beauty, horror, grandeur and significance when and wherever it comes into contact with consciousness. Therefore, it’s completely down to us to revel in our ability to make meaning, or not.

Ligotti, like many extreme Buddhist philosophers, starts from the position that life is an agonizing, heartbreaking grave-bound veil of tears. This seems to be a somewhat hyperbolic view of human life; as far as I can see most of us round here muddle through ignoring death until it comes in close and life’s mostly all right with just enough significant episodes of sheer joy and connection and just enough sh-tty episodes of pain or fear. The notion that the whole span of our lives is no more than some dreadful rehearsal for hell may resonate with the deeply sensitive among us but by and large life is pretty okay generally for most of us. And for some, especially in the developed countries, “okay” equals luxurious.

To focus on the moments of pain and fear we all experience and then to pretend they represent the totality of our conscious experience seems to me a little effete and indulgent. 

Most people don’t get to be born at all, ever. To see in that radiant impossibility only pointlessness, to see our experience as malignantly useless, as Ligotti does, seems to me a bit camp.

Long answer, sorry -- but I’ve been thinking a lot about this a lot recently.

As I was reading the first issue, I didn't know if the visions of demons, ghosts and Nomax himself is a product of Spass' tumor or if they're actually there. Do you think we create our own (figurative) demons, or that they literally exist and we just have to be in the right mindset to summon and/or recognize them?

It’s a bit of both. Demons very definitely exist, if you consider demons as I do to be personifications of negative feelings and states that are familiar to all of us. Fear is a demon. Hate is a demon. Addiction is a demon, as is self-loathing or guilt or hopelessness. Everyone’s felt the fangs of these beasts in one form or another. Basically, a demon is a human-hating, self-destructive state of mind, given form or voice. 

Medieval grimoires portrayed these disordered, diseased or chaotic states of mind as a jumble of cladogrammatic chaos; flies with crowns, angel-winged toads and wolf-headed eagles with swords. 

These demons have been with us since humankind became self-aware, which is what gives them their “supernatural,” i.e. “eternal,” quality. Hate has been around forever. As individual human beings we can all become possessed by Hate. Someone, somewhere, right now, hates someone or something. Therefore Hate never dies. Hate exercises an undying Power over human affairs. Therefore Hate is a God, as Love is a Goddess. 

When the individual hate you briefly feel connects with the Hate that never dies, you are in touch with bleak divinity. A magical ritual designed to summon Hate into your heart would align your personal transient experience of hate with undying Cosmic Hate until nothing remained in your heart and soul but Hate. That’s what it means to summon a demon. 

I hope this makes sense. It’s not about the supernatural in any way. 

I’ve done a few stories like Happy! or Joe the Barbarian where it’s not clear if the protagonist is hallucinating either an imaginary companion or a fantasy world. In the case of Annihilator, it’s a bit different; Nomax is real, perhaps more real than Ray and everyone else, as you’ll see. This is quite simply a story about the Devil and all his works.

Comic readers are so used to big story arcs that are eventually reset or don't have much long-term impact. So when approaching something on a scale of Multiversity, how do you set out to make them give a damn?

I try to write about things which have a more universal appeal than mere DC Comics continuity. But having said that, if I can rope DC’s rich history into my grand scheme then so much the better! If a story only exists to reset DC continuity and jazz up the currency of a bunch of 1940s franchise characters, it usually suffers the curse of all fashionable must-haves and dates fairly rapidly, with, at best, an inevitable reappraisal many years later. The great superhero stories address universal human concerns but cloak them in fantastic, dreamlike and archetypal imagery. I’m fascinated by the very real and undeniably curious relationship human beings have with our long-running fictional creations -- whose lives outlast our own and who so often inspire us to our best -- so the chance to work inside an established alternate history like those of DC and Marvel comics is immensely appealing. Writing Superman stories was for me, like dancing with Sherlock Holmes. As a f---ed-up ordinary person, I felt enlightened by having to think like Superman, at least for a while. 

What is your note-taking process and how do you keep it all straight, regarding criss-crossing story arcs? I'm imagining a homicide detective's chalkboard with strings of yarn connecting all these leads.

I wouldn’t have a big enough wall! I rely on epic landslides of spiral bound notebooks -- I get through about six a year -- filled with drawings and maps and page layouts -- those are my guides and gurus.

Is it refreshing to take on the DC Comics universe without having to be tied to the familiar characters of Earths 1 and 2, and do you have a leniency to screw with these other Earth characters more? 

Definitely. In fact, no more need be said. 

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