Two techniques that I think are under-appreciated in Grant Morrison’s toolbox, are his checklists and his appropriations. Riot at Xavier’s is a list of beloved and effective tropes and scenes from the best school stories: the school trip, the prize giving, the riot, the the bully, the beloved teacher, the student surpasses the master, the out of touch faculty and the happening but naive classes. Morrison consciously sorted that list out before writing the comic, and it helps keep every page aglow with resonance and relevance. His Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, is a stack of distinct systems, from the architectural plans of the asylum, itself, to the tarot, playing cards, astrology, biology, and the table of contents to a big psychiatry guide.
His appropriations are harder to put your finger on, but might also be harder to defend, depending on how you view intellectual property and authoritative authorship. Let’s not pretend Morrison has not been accused of plagiarism before. Alan Moore has been making the claim alongside Michael Moorcock for decades, and Morrison revived the use of proxy characters in the DC Comics Universe so big he made proxies of everyone’s characters, instead of one famous character here or a team from over there.
And, they are not shoutouts or traditional comics lifts. Lifts involve tracing or copying a scene for its body language or dynamic layout. Shoutouts are lifts that recreate an iconic moment in such a way as to, well, shout it out. “Hey, hey! We’re a scene from a more famous comic! We come to comic around!” Infinite Crisis recreates panels from Alan Moore’s 1980s work to specifically remind us of the earlier stories, with no real narrative or causal reason for the scene to be reworked identically. The Morrison-written Final Crisis takes descriptive elements and a scene progression from one of those Moore comics and applies it to pacing an otherwise distinct story about the same character. During his Action Comics, he ends an issue with a two page re-staging of a scene from an earlier unrelated Moore comic, down to the punchline about everything being killable.
That is plagiarism, right? Take it to court. Collect your bucks.
Or, is it? The scene plays completely natural, not standing out as if scripted by another or designed for another story. The scene, applied, as it is, to a more famous character (in this case, Morrison is swapping out Miracle Man for Superman, arguably the most famous superhero character) and moving forward in its own, distinct fashion, nonparallel to the Moore comic, is arguably a transformative appropriation.
See, also, the mirroring in body language of the Morrison-written Red Hood, Jason Todd, with the original Red Hood, the Joker, in the Moore-written, The Killing Joke, which is a shoutout in retrospect only, as it’s part of c-story in the run highlighting the absence and specter of the Joker.
On the counterbalance, Moore, himself, has said he’d like to see someone who doesn’t hold the rights at all, tackle his Watchmen, since he’s not getting the rights back any time soon. It was only repurposing by the current rights holders that he minds. Like his embrace of the cut and paste Oz parodies that caused a legal scandal, Moore knows the power in appropriation. Large portions of his career have involved borrowed or stolen characters, to very potent ends.
Grant Morrison has appropriated throughout his career, whole pages, whole panels, lines from songs, a cache of styles and techniques applied to one scene or one book. He is, generally, fairly open about it outside of the books, it’s only within the comics that the appropriations are masked. His breakout Doom Patrol run is almost a scrapbook in how it was put together, unified by Richard Case’s pencils and Morrison’s vibrant personal tastes.
But, our purest vision is probably further back in his career, in the early 80s one-pager, How to Become a Werewolf. Comprising panels and text from issues of Journey Into Mystery, Captain Marvel, Amazing Adventures, World of Fear and more, Grant Morrison has cut up actual comics and rearranged select bits to create a new and original story using the published vocabulary of other writers and artists.
While it is a trip, How to Become a Werewolf reads smoothly as its own piece and as a whole story. It has a clear set up, a progression, denouement. The interplay of elements in the panels from different comics come together to form their own meanings and implications. Panels six and seven, with the blackness and “end,” then jazz-hands Electro framed by a pyramid and a massive sun take on significance that is completely different from their role in their comics of origin.
Knowing the origin of an appropriated piece does not, to my reading, make any of the scenes or panels less themselves or less effective. Morrison’s authorial presence is still felt, the scenes are still identifiable as his or his in collaboration. And, by appropriating them into a new context, a new wholly formed experience they act as vocabulary, as notes and melodies scratched, remixed, brought down an octave or up in tempo. How to Become a Werewolf, appropriately, was published in a zine made by Morrison’s band at the time, in collaboration with his bandmates, some of whom have also had great careers in comics.
The Appropriation Artist
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