Comic-Con 2014: Grant Morrison Takes On Hollywood in ‘Annihilator’
Say what you will about Grant Morrison, but he’s never short of ideas. The one he’s concocted for Legendary Comics might just be… well, legendary in its madness. The book is called Annihilator, and when I caught up with him at San Diego Comic-Con, his explained that underneath all the crazy world-bending involved, it’s also a very meta expression of his frustration with the process of trying to break into screenwriting. In that spirit, he also shared with us the dumbest notes he ever got from studios on his screenplays, and he also explains his objections to Zack Snyder’s version of Superman in Man of Steel. Seeing as how he’s written one of the most beloved Superman stories of all time, his opinion holds some weight.
The first order of business in our conversation, however, was some unfinished business in our last conversation – namely, a little more talk about the innovations he has planned for DC’s The Multiversity. To get you up to speed, here’s the initial breakdown of Multiversity, and here’s what we talked about earlier in the convention.
There’s one thing I neglected to ask you yesterday about Multiversity. In our first conversation, you’d mentioned there was an issue set in our real world and that you’d developed some brand new technological way to do comics that no one had ever done before. Can you elaborate on that at all?
Grant Morrison: What’s happened is that issue #7 of Multiversity which is called Ultra Comics, and it’s the one which is set on Earth Prime, which is our world. So it’s my view of how you would make a real superhero in this world, and I don’t mean like a Kick-Ass type, but an actual super human being, and we kinda figured a way to make that in the comic. We’ve done it. The readers will become an actual real life genuine being with super powers. It’s so simple and so obvious once you see how it’s done.
Can you describe at all what the technology is, or is it still proprietary?
No, I don’t want to, because someone else will get it. It’s the seventh issue and I don’t want to explain it all now and someone goes and does a shoddy version of it. I’d rather people waited for it. But honestly, it’s super simple. It’s just something that’s no one’s ever seen in comics. Why has no one ever done ‘this’ with ‘this?’
So we’re left imagining just what in the world it could be.
I did explain a little bit of this the other day. I was reading the early Spider-Man stuff when I was researching my book, and remember how Stan Lee used to talk the readers? He would say ‘you may hate long-underwear characters, but our Spidey’s a little bit different.’ [Note: Morrison did an amusing Stan Lee impression, although it sounded a little more like Groucho Marx… which isn’t too far off, come to think of it.] The comic was actually having a conversation, and I thought ‘what if he used hypnotic induction?’
Oh, wow. I’ll leave it at that. That’s a good tease. Can you give our readers a quick summation of the madness of Annihilator?
It’s a story about a screenwriter named Ray Spass [pronounced ‘space’] who’s had some success a few years ago and written a couple of big movies with Tom Cruise and all kinds of stuff, but in the interim, he’s spent all his money on drink and drugs and women, so he’s at kind of a last chance now. He’s been thrown out of his house, and he buys a new house in the Hills which was once owned by a notorious Satanist, and it has a gigantic sinkhole in the garden and that’s why it’s cheap. He’s been given the opportunity to write this tentpole film for a stuido titled Annihilator, a Legendary type movie. Almost immediately, he discovers he’s got a malignant brain tumor and he’s going to die. He’s just written the first couple of scenes. He’s about to commit suicide when the door knocks and basically, his lead character Max Nomax, the ultimate rebel, the ultimate escape artist, the god of bad men is at the door and says ‘you want help? Here’s how I’m going to help you.’ Max explains ‘it’s not what you think. The brain tumor is actually a package of information. It’s my biography and I had to fire it into your head from another universe. I can’t remember who I am now but you must explain it to me, because if you don’t, the universe is doomed in seven days.”
Wow. That’s nuts.
So it’s kind of literalizing the concept of ‘deadline.’ So the two of them go on the run, pursued by not only the cops and forces from our world, but also forces from the higher world, the alternate universe where Nomax comes from, and it starts to get really crazy. The story he’s writing, ‘Annihilator,’ is based on Max Nomax, and he’s been exiled to prison orbiting a black hole in the center of our galaxy. Now black hole in the center of our galaxy actually exists and it’s called The Great Annihilator by astronomers. You can see how it starts to work together. The whole story is about what crime Nomax committed that landed him in prison. Somehow, he’s the ultimate crime, but he doesn’t know what it is yet and he has to learn who he is as Ray writes the story to shrink the tumor in his head.
That’s really crazy. How much of your reality as a writer is channeled into this madness?
Well, it’s all of that. It’s me fictionalizing the truth, which is what I’ve always loved about comics. You can take things from your real life. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if my father dies, I can express those emotions with Superman dealing with his own father’s death. I find that comics are really great for turning into symbolic form all the events of a life. We got a house in Los Angeles five years ago, so we traveled between Scotland and LA, and as I got more immersed in that culture, I really wanted to write something about Los Angeles – not only the surface of Los Angeles, which is kind of sexy and glittery and seductive, but that dark river that runs underneath everything. Anton Levay, the Church of Satan, Jim Morrison, the Mansons. It’s a very occult, witchy, diabolical city, I think, so we really wanted to do something to express that. When you see Frasier Irving’s drawings of LA. He’s never actually been, but he captures the quality of light. It’s the most amazing orange glow that’s over everything in Los Angeles.
The smog haze.
Yeah, the thing, that bitter chemical glow. It’s about that experience and about dealing with movie studios. I’ve written a few screenplays, none of which have been produced. So I’ve been through the whole ‘notes’ thing and everything, so it was like me getting my own little bit of revenge on all that by writing about Hollywood.
How do you react to notes like that? You hear stories about studio notes being the stupidest notes possible that completely miss the point. Do you try to adjust to those just to play the game?
Honestly, the thing about comics is that when I’m writing in comics, no one changes a word because everything I do goes in it. It’s all my fault. But coming to movies, there’s so much money involved. It’s one thing to create a 23-page comic, or a 32-page comic in the case of Annihilator, but to create a $200 million movie means that there’s a lot more at stake, so they handle it all with kid gloves. I’ve definitely had notes that are stupid. You know those Hollywood books you read and it’s always “Chapter 3: This Is How Dumb It Gets,” right? You think ‘no, it can’t be this dumb,’ but honestly, it can be that dumb.
What’s the dumbest note you can remember?
I had trouble once, I was working on a story, and my character was pretty well established as an ex-soldier, and every week, they’d phone up and say like ‘Transformers has just come out, Shia LaBeouf is really cool, can our guy be 21 years old?’ And I’d say ‘no, he’s actually 32 years old and he’s an ex-Ranger.’ But then you’ll try and think what it would be like if he was a younger man, and then next week, ‘Iron Man had just come out, Robert Downey Jr.’s really cool, can we make him more like Downey Jr.?’ This went on for a month! Every new movie that come out that was successful, they’d call me ‘can he look more like Bruce Willis?’ I’m going ‘he’s gone from Shia LaBeouf to Bruce Willis in three weeks?! And next week he could be Meryl Streep for all I know?’ So that was an example of that, but at the same time, I’ve written a lot of drafts, and I was working with Barry Sonnenfeld – again, on a thing that’s never been produced yet – but that was a great learning experience, and even though I went through so many drafts, I was working with a master cinema storyteller and I learned so much. For me, it was like boot camp. It’s good to learn other ways of telling stories, so I just rolled with the blows on it. But Annihilator is me saying ‘okay, you guys, here’s how I feel about this!’
Would the ultimate meta thing be if Annihilator became the first movie you got produced?
Yeah, that would be so funny, and so ridiculous and great.
Frazer Irving artwork from Annihilator
You mentioned Superman earlier, and I just wanted to thank you for that one beat in All-Star Superman where he stops on the building and just hugs a girl who’s about to kill herself. That’s one of the best and most powerful Superman moments I’ve ever seen, and, holy jeez, I’m tearing up right now just thinking about it.
I did as well! What I love most about that is that it’s actually real kids’ lives! You can look this up online. Kids writing in saying ‘I was about to commit suicide and I read that scene and I didn’t,’ and then other people said ‘that happened to me as well.’ For me, that’s Superman! That was how Superman works. He’s not real, he can never be real, he’s never going to break anyone’s neck, but he just saved a kid’s life. A creature of paper saved a kid’s life, and to me, that’s what’s great about comics and about superheroes. They don’t have to be real to be functional.
Speaking of Superman breaking necks, what did you think about Man of Steel?
I try to just take things on their own level. I enjoyed a lot of the film. It’s not my Superman in any way, but I enjoyed a lot of the work. But I just couldn’t buy into snapping Zod’s neck. Superman would have got Zod and flew him to the moon and punched the shit out of him on the moon. Superman thinks ‘Zod’s getting his powers from the sun, but he’s only been here for a few weeks, he won’t be that powerful. So it’s basically my power against his.’ That’s what happens in my scene. Then he hits him to Mars. Then he hits him to Pluto. The two of them punching it out on the barren, black landscape of Pluto.
Yeah, I’d rather have seen that!
Then Zod’s losing his powers, and Superman’s maybe losing his a little bit, so who goes first? That would be my version. To me, Superman’s the one character who solves problems by NOT killing people. Honestly, I think that should be a rule, because there’s no others. It makes you think differently if you’re doing it. You can’t just solve this problem Elliott Ness would solve it or the way Arnold Schwarzenegger would solve it. You should solve it like Superman would solve it.
I don’t know if Arnold Schwarzenegger solves any problems.
(laughs) He causes more problems than he’s ever solved. But just for your imagination, just to allow you to play with that as a concept. But filmmakers have got their own ways of looking at things, and there’s this idea of trying to make everything grounded and real, and so obviously they believe that it’s real that most of us would snap the necks of our enemies, given the chance.
Which is why Superman not killing people is so goddamned important! Because too many of us would. So back to Annihilator – how many issues can we expect?
It’s six issues, a complete story. It’s kinda like ‘well, here’s what the movie would be.’ So it’s six issues and 32 pages, and Fraser is just killing it. It’s so beautiful. It’s due out in early September.
What else do you have in the hopper, beyond Multiversity and Wonder Woman: Earth One?
I’m just doing a bunch of new creator stuff. This is the first one that’s rolling out. I’m also doing Nameless, a horror comic at Image with Chris Burnham, my Batman partner. So that’s a good one, it’s going to be a super dark horror story that we’re doing. I’ve never done a horror comic and I wanted to do a really fucked up horror comic. Beyond that, there’s a whole bunch of things. Since I finished Batman Incorporated, I’ve had a whole year of not being published, which is the first year of my career where I haven’t been published. So there’s a lot of new stuff coming out over the next year, a lot of creator-owned stuff from different companies, and the idea is to tie in all this work to the company, which is why Legendary’s got the movie one and Image has got the horror one.
But nothing else you can talk about yet?
Not yet, no.