“There’s Always a Way” – Grant Morrison Vs. Nihilism, And The Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Magic Love Hose

“If you want to change minds, you have to tell a better story.”Matt Osborne

About a week or so ago, Dylan Ratigan had comic book author Grant Morrison on and conducted an interview with him regarding his new book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. This was the first time I watched the Dylan Ratigan show, because Grant Morrison is my favorite comic book writer.

I just finished the book in question and I am buying what Grant Morrison is selling. Not in the sense that I think ingesting a pillowcase full of magic mushrooms will grant me the ability to cast magic spells – but in the sense that humans think in narratives, and that free speech is important and should be protected precisely because it is so powerful that it can change a mind. I’m struck by his words in the interview about the nihilism of so much of our current narrative, and I think this might be why progressivism is having a hard time getting off the ground nowadays despite the wins we’ve accumulated in the US – because in many ways, the true enemy of progressivism is nihilism. Conservatism helps, to be sure – but nihilism, the distilled power of “why bother,” is like Kryptonite to the notion that we have to change, grow and progress.

In Supergods, nihilism is represented for Grant Morrison by the Bomb – the nuclear end of everything. After the Bomb, nothing would matter – and the Bomb had an inevitability to it. The story being told was that the Bomb would fall. Humanity would suffer a nuclear war, end of sentence. To get through a troubled childhood of boarding schools and parents who left graphic anti-Bomb literature around for a kid to read, Morrison turned to superheroes, where the Bomb was one more problem to be solved.

The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan. The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale. I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages. Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place. My own world felt better already. I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears.

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea.

Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

The Bomb has faded. It’s still there, but fears over mutually assured destruction between the commies and the good ol’ U.S. of A. have lessened. Parts of that story have stuck – look how often the specter of communism is raised – but it’s fading away. (Anyone under the age of 20 will look at you like you grew a nipple on your forehead if you start ranting about the evils of the commies.) And while some people still yearn for a sequel to US vs. USSR: The Movie – or should I say another sequel, since boy, did they make a lot of films like that in the 80′s – nuclear holocaust is not something we worry about nearly as often any more. We beat the Bomb.

Like a comic book, of course, there are always new villains to battle – or the old ones, freshly broken out of jail. As Matt says, the Tea Party is nothing new. Neither is the specter of the Other, determined to bring down what we hold dear. And while we may not fear nuclear destruction by the Bomb as much any more, there are still other ways to die from nuclear energy. Now the big “Jor-El in the rocketship” moment is climate change, which nobody thinks we can overcome.

They may be right. But regardless of whether or not they are right – we cannot tell ourselves that they’re right.

We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.

Traumatized by war footage and disaster clips, spied upon by ubiquitous surveillance cams, threatened by exotic villains who plot from their caverns and subterranean lairs, preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual.

Any superhero is composed of two things: the means to fight injustice, and the motivation to do so. We always have the means – climate change is man-made. Before it was Climate Change, Climate Change was an Idea. We can create a better idea. To do so, we need to believe, with all our hearts, in two things: that the threat is real, and that the threat can be fought.

So I tell everyone I can, about this story.

For the first time, scientists have found convincing evidence that the gargantuan hole carved in the ozone layer by man-made chemicals is steadily shrinking. That mean a policy enacted 22 years ago called the Montreal Protocol is working: The 1989 ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — toxic chemicals used in air conditioners and solvents that eat away at ozone molecules — has helped the Earth to regain some of its lost protective ozone.

The ozone layer is fixing itself. Feels good to say, doesn’t it? I tell everyone I can that the ozone layer hole is shrinking because we need our victories, and we need to call them victories. “We did this once. We can do it again.” Basic words, but true words. It’s a story we need to tell ourselves.

There’s a reason “Yes We Can!” was a slogan worthy of “Avengers Assemble!” It did not inform – slogans don’t do that – but rather, it empowers. It gets you excited. It gets you motivated. It tells you that the threat can be fought, that we can win. There’s a reason armies field morale officers. There’s a reason people get Superman tattoos. Stories give us all Superman’s most important power: they make us care.

… one last synchronicity directed my attention to an article in New Scientist’s February 12, 2011, issue about the work of William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), based in Arlington, Virginia. Casebeer, a neurobiologist, goes so far as to suggest that certain narratives are as addictive as cocaine, commenting on the effects a compelling yarn might have upon the minds of enemy soldiers or suicide bombers. He is convinced that we should be investigating the military potential of stories, by creating “counter-narrative strategies” engineered to undermine or oppose the religious or political storylines that inspire war, oppression, and greed. We may scoff and leave it to military experts to develop a technology whereby a cadet is told a story so convincing he believes he’s superhuman before a battle, but I’d like to think that magic words and spells belong to the rest of us as well.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Grant Morrison changed my life. I don’t have crystal pendants for channeling positive energy, and I don’t think I can beam myself into a fictional reality. What Grant Morrison comics taught me was a better way to look at the world. Like many men in my twenties, I had a snarl and a quote from Fight Club on my lips and a sense of entitlement the side of a small planet, and it got me exactly as far as you’d expect. I was a nerd, but I was one of those nihilistic nerds who’d forgotten what it was like to care.

Then I was introduced to Grant Morrison by way of his seminal stories featuring the Justice League. His JLA run is probably his least “brainy” story – but those stories still hold a place in my heart. The Flash in a superspeed battle where relativistic physics is a weapon. Aquaman manipulating the parts of people’s brains that came from their marine ancestors. Green Lantern holding an exploding sun together with his mind. Batman versus an army of aliens armed with the only thing he needed: foreknowledge. Superman versus Ashmodel – a fallen angel versus a risen mortal.

Grant Morrison’s first lesson for me was that an optimist could be the biggest badass of all. That there was no shame at all in optimism – indeed, in many ways the story of progressive progress is the story of optimism. Why would we do all of this for a brighter tomorrow, if we didn’t believe in it?

This throughline is a major component of Morrison’s work, but “optimists can be badasses” was the gateway drug. It led me to All-Star Superman, which is possibly the greatest Superman story ever told, about Superman getting the super-equivalent of cancer and dealing with it with such dignity and grace it made me ask myself if maybe I was wrong to be so nihilistic. Today, I still can’t fly, and I still can’t lift a car – but today I care more, all because I was told the story of a man who did.

We live in an age of post-scarcity publishing. It has never been easier in human history to find a potential audience of millions at low to no cost. Today, we are all storytellers – but one of the downsides of the Internet is that we don’t often get a clear sense of how our words are taken. Free speech is important precisely because it has the ability to change minds – and ignoring that is a mistake. All of us could do to think a bit more about the stories we tell others. You never know when one of them will change a life.

All quotes without attribution are from Supergods. You can purchase it below.

Magic Love Hose is not a professional politician. You can trust him because of in spite of that. He has a website and a Twitter and is 60% sure how to use them.

About MagicLoveHose

Rocketed as an infant from his doomed planet; currently lives in Canada and wonders when 'rocketed' became a verb. Has a nerd's view of politics and a political view of nerdity. Is proud to be part of #1stAl, the only militia literate enough to use Twitter. (Suck it, Minutemen.)
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