Morrison: Then and Now, Vol. 24,872: This Site's Obsession Continues!

Kid Eternity #1-3 (of 3)


Despite its deluxe Prestige Format presentation, its premium price ($4.95 per issue in 1991 comics dollars), and the general air of import hovering about the piece, this series has panned out to be one of writer Grant Morrison’s most under-examined books, often pushed aside in the rush to evaluate longer works like “Doom Patrol” or “The Invisibles”, or more popular works like “JLA” or “New X-Men”. “Kid Eternity” handily slips between the cracks in every situation: it was popular (or at least valued by those in charge) enough to spawn a 16-issue ongoing series written by Ann Nocenti in 1993 under the then-nascent Vertigo banner, but not nearly remembered on the level of such pre-Vertigo works as, say, “Animal Man”. It has no trade collection in print, making it nearly impossible to impulse buy like you could with a different three-issue series like “Sebastian O” , but it’s not unavailable enough to inspire a “Flex Mentallo”-level legend; I got my copies online for well under their original cover prices. It’s not creator-owned material, but it doesn’t benefit from the presence of any DCU heavy-hitters, like Batman, star of Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum”, the obvious inspiration behind this series. Too bad; “Kid Eternity” is a good deal better than “Arkham Asylum”. That might sound like faint praise coming from someone who’s dubbed that earlier book ‘a veritable catalog of Morrison’s worst storytelling instincts’, but don’t misunderstand; the Kid’s got more value than such backhanded compliments would suggest. It also sees its writer torn between the gritty superhero past and the shining superhero future, at least as far as revamping goes.

Flipping through “Kid Eternity”, I think it’s impossible to not see it as some sort of descendant of “Arkham Asylum”; the painted art is by Duncan Fegredo, whom I know mostly as a supple superhero stylist, able to jump merrily between heavy action and a thin line reminiscent of Guy Davis, as he demonstrated in his recent “Tom Strong” arc with Ed Brubaker. Here, he offers up a brand of sketchy, shadowed characters, colors alternately smeary and luminous, panels sharp and jagged, sometimes overlaid atop larger splashes, all of it remarkably reminiscent of Dave McKean’s work on “Arkham Asylum”, albeit without the occasional touch of mixed-media collage or quite the same verve in lettering (interesting, as both works share the same letterer, Gaspar Saladino). It’s ironic; Morrison, if I recall my comics history, had originally wanted a far more traditional artist to work on “Arkham Asylum” but McKean was essentially assigned the book as a means of hyping him up for US audiences in anticipation of his “Black Orchid” miniseries with Neil Gaiman. The resultant pairing pleased neither man entirely, though the final work proved to be the most financially successful piece in either’s comics career. Indeed, I believe “Arkham Asylum” remains the biggest-selling original graphic novel in all of DC’s history; doubtlessly, the mix of visual ambition and narrative pomposity appealed to a public and fandom stoked over the blockbuster success of Tim Burton’s midnight-bleary theatrical vision of the Dark Knight, also released in 1989. It was likely a confluence of independent factors that led to the book’s great success, but why not try something a little similar to see if gold can be struck twice?

Thus, I suspect, “Kid Eternity”. The book is divided into six chapters, two to a book (I wonder if there were production changes late in the game?), and the first chapter seems to be working overtime to spin the reader’s head. We’re introduced to a slew of characters, only a few of which will become important later in the story. Events jump forward and backward through time, snippets of scenes provided, then later repeated at greater length, though the reader obviously can’t tell until it’s all over. Eventually, a concordance of events throughout time lead to the word “Eternity” being spoken over and over, bringing the title character into our world. It’s not an easy start to the book, though Morrison then spends much of the next chapter (the latter half of Book 1) explaining what’s going on; the cynical reader might surmise that Morrison is indulging in a bit of planned obfuscation as a means of padding the story’s length and providing it with a veneer of narrative sophistication, all before getting to around to simply having characters explain things through dialogue. By the end of the first book, the set-up is easy to grasp: Kid Eternity, superhero of long ago, was trapped in Hell by awful forces, but managed to escape. Pursued by the forces of darkness, he must now team up with dodgy stand-up comic Jerry Sullivan and storm damnation to rescue his mentor Mr. Keeper and reassemble the engines of Paradise, the Chaospheres, before some calamity occurs. Oh, Jerry is also being stalked by a deranged preacher. And there’s a woman, Val Hoffman, but her only purpose in this story is to run away from things and eventually give birth to the next evolution of humanity, so we’ll mostly ignore her.

Kid and Jerry go to Hell, but instead of mere eternal suffering, they encounter something far more sinister: the Secret Conspiracy Retcon. Yes, straight out of the “Marvelman” tradition, we’re treated to a delicious cut of vintage ‘serious’ superhero goodness: the plot twist by which we discover that Our Hero’s childish background was in fact artificially engineered by powerful forces, but now the truth can be revealed! It brushes away the sillier bits of continuity (man, you’d swear these characters were designed for children or something!). It feeds into an atmosphere of paranoia. It makes the reader feel more mature, now that the hero is more ‘mature’ through their naiveté being ripped away. And certainly Kid Eternity may have needed maturity to survive in the then-contemporary superhero climate: his origin involves an innocent boy, living on a ship with his non-familial sailor gran’pa, being killed in a U-Boat attack in WWII, but unlike every other child inadvertently or intentionally killed in all of the history of human warfare, it turns out that Heaven’s bureaucracy made a mistake with the poor lad! In reparation, he’s given the magic ability to summon any person who ever lived to help in out in times of trouble, all by saying the word “Eternity”. The vainglorious clerk who fucked up, the aforementioned Mr. Keeper, has to chaperone Kid around, and they become superheroes or something, until being imprisoned in Hell (presumably after the end of Kid‘s original series, not counting his later pre-Crisis revamp, which I think is ignored here). Early in the book, Morrison retells this origin story, Fegredo’s art gently underscoring the absurdity of the whole affair. But yipes! It seems that Kid never went to Heaven after all! He’s just a pawn being used by the Lords of Chaos in their war with the Lords of Order, all of these concepts having been fished out of the Dr. Fate continuity! Heaven was really Hell the whole time! Also, Kid was molested by his gran’pa! Isn’t that mature? Isn’t it?! Suggested for Mature Readers, right on the cover! We’re reading big kid comics now!!!

Ah, but unlike some other gritty superhero revamps of the time, amounting to only a measurable increase in scowling and a few extra drops of blood issuing from the dastards verily socked, Morrison is genuinely concerned with exploring challenging notions: his sympathy for the devil. Morrison, chaos magician, is quite unequivocally on the side of the much-maligned Lords of Chaos. According to the Chaos cabal, all was once whole and pure, but then certain parties fell toward the state of Matter, and Duality was achieved. Chaos and Order. Chaos stands for change, restlessness, creativity. Based out of Hell (“which is also Heaven, depending on your perspective!” notes a Lord) and forced to deal with humans, they desire humanity to achieve a state of Earthly grace, in hopes that when everyone is transfigured, everyone can return to the primal state of purity; to speed up this process, they recruited Kid into setting the Chaospheres, the engines of Grace. But they are opposed by Order, which by definition suggests a certain hierarchy, and the Lords of Order are determined to remain on top. They have deluded themselves into believing that they (and only they) serve the will of God, the Pure (who conveniently never speaks for Himself, only ‘through’ a batch of self-appointed leaders), and that all must follow their words. Humankind achieving grace for themselves will ruin their power, and upset the corrupt Order; they are arrogant and elitist, and unashamed to court the lowest common denominator (mercenary demons) to achieve their ends. They are the ones who trapped Kid and Mr. Keeper (also a demon, by the way) in Hell. They are the ones who loosed demons to chase them. They are the ones who must be stopped.

All very Chaotic, yes. But Morrison doesn’t slow down with that; he’s not merely interested in providing a Satanic Bible for superhero action. That's fortunate, since all of these similar revelations in comics of the time tend to run into one another. How exactly does all of this spiritual warfare reconcile with, say, Gaiman’s “The Sandman” (I suspect the subsequent ongoing series maybe holds some answers to that)? Both are set in the DCU; Morrison even suggests that the erection of the Chaospheres is what has led to all of the superhumans running around the place - they are harbingers of the next evolution. But once you’ve read several series set in the same universe, all dealing with different forces in control of said universe, how do you not get hopelessly confused? Well, for starters, you can just ignore continuity. Works ok for me much of the time.

But Morrison sees these problems; that’s why “Kid Eternity” is about storytelling more than anything else. Over and over, Morrison tells us of a grand cosmic scheme in place (“Where did free will run off to during all this?” demands Kid at one point. “There’s no bloody free will and no predestination either, you daft bastard!” shouts a Lord of Chaos. “These are human conceits,” adds another, gingerly sidestepping the provision of any explanation to the book‘s human readership). Sometimes, Morrison uses the presence of such a scheme to justify some pretty iffy storytelling choices (I couldn’t tell you how one character gains the ability to hop from body to body late in the game, other than because It’s In the Cosmic Script). But everyone interprets the scheme in a different way. Jerry, it’ll come as little surprise to reveal, is poised to become the next evolution in man, or at least the next evolution’s father. Before entering Hell with Kid, he has a vision of a cosmic tribunal, who remind him that he’s spent the entirety of earthly existence purifying his soul by killing himself over and over before a Shadowspirit can claim him, building up the karmic power necessary to become Better. The Shadowspirit is now in the form of that awful preacher I mentioned earlier. Upon escaping the vision, Kid tells Jerry that it was all in his head. But it’s also Jerry’s way of understanding his place in this grand scheme, a means of interpretation. The Lords of Chaos have their own way. Poor underused Val Hoffman understands everything in the context of the urban legends she’s been researching for her book. Another way of deriving meaning. I’m sure the Lords of Order see their story as being the only correct one. But as much as Morrison falls on the side of Chaos, he isn’t guaranteeing that their vision is totally accurate; he’s presenting a multitude of understandings, a variety of ways from a variety of people to make sense of an unfathomable scheme. Religions and legends (and comics, duh) are ways of getting closer to the truth.

Don’t let this fool you into thinking the series feels like a lecture (which “Arkham Asylum” certainly did); Kid is straight out of the witty youth school of Morrison characterization, ready with a few decent cracks at any time. There’s a nice moment where he invokes his power to fight off a monstrous demon; unfortunately, he summons Walt Whitman. While well-spoken, Mr. Whitman isn’t of much use in combat, and is thusly smooshed. There’s car crashes and monsters (one of whom looks a bit too much like an Alien out of HR Giger - strangely, the same issue sprung up in Paul Johnson’s painted art for Vertigo’s later “Mercy”) and a serial killer whose secrets might seem a bit contrived once revealed, but ultimately fit into the self-storytelling motif of the work. Even that tumultuous opening chapter can be read as a view of multiple stories, multiple beings working through the timeless cosmic plan at different points. Intentional or a small miracle of ass-covering, it’s thought-provoking none the less. I wish I had a bit more to say about Fegredo’s artwork; I fear I’m not doing him justice by comparing him to McKean so much. It’s attractive work, the storytelling is as clear as the script wants it to be, and the environment designs are especially dreamy and vivid, with great attention paid to size. It’s very nice, but undoubtedly reminiscent of that much successful work for two years prior. I don’t know if the work can totally escape that.

Morrison mentions in his annotations to the 15th anniversary hardcover edition of “Arkham Asylum” that much of the brooding darkness surrounding the Dark Knight throughout his story is meant in satire, a commentary on the current status of the character. Morrison has Batman purify himself; thus, “Arkham Asylum” acts as something of an origin story for Morrison’s collected, driven sci-fi Batman of “JLA”. But I don’t think Batman can stand up the rigorous multi-mythical interpretation as presented in the book without crossing the line of unintentional comedy; I also don’t think Morrison’s storytelling executed itself very smoothly, given such an intent - there’s so much standing around and villains posing and posturing and talking at the reader. One becomes disinterested in the muckery of it all, that it seems like nothing is truly accomplished but Batman beating the baddies again; it seems like much ado about nothing. In “Kid Eternity”, that similar-looking piece, Morrison stretches his focus to all of us, not just a well-worn corporate icon. He does this by examining a lesser-known character, which more can be done with. In this way, we anticipate future work on projects like “Seven Soldiers”, the C-list rising. Kid might be stuck in an earlier age of superhero revamp, a ‘dark’ age, but you can sense Morrison’s future in him. Here’s hoping that “Seven Soldiers” will have something interesting to say about us too, in due time.

Seven Soldiers - Zatanna #2 (of 4)

Approximately ¼ through the “Seven Soldiers” project, things are looking a little better. Mercifully avoiding visual comparison to certain other comics, this issue sees Morrison turning the focus to pure Pop Magic, if you will. Zatanna and her young sidekick Misty (amusingly, Misty has run away from her parents to join the superheroes, just as the character she’s apparently based on has different corporate parents, IPC Magazines and Fleetway) meet up with obscure magical figure Cassandra Craft, and try to stave off the assault of Zatanna’s evil shape-shifting paramour Gwydion. Penciller Ryan Sook and inker Mick Gray have a lot of fun this issue, hiding Gwydion’s visage in nearly every panel for the first few pages, as he pursues Our Heroines. That sense of play extends to the dialogue, which is far jokier than usual. At times, it feels like Morrison is trying too hard again to be funny (as he did in the first issue of “Vimanarama”), but by the time the fighting starts he’s hit his stride, the title character spitting out stylized showbiz battle cries. “Out. Both of you. The room is now my gladiatorial arena.”

It’s a big improvement from before, and a lot better than expected. I’ve noticed that two out of three of these miniseries seem to be bringing a plot to a near-conclusion at the halfway mark (“Guardian” being the other). You can see ties to other books as well, provided that you’re more immediately perceptive than me. I didn’t notice the presence of a magical die, much like the one in issue #2 of “Guardian”, until it was pointed out for me. But upon examination, it appears to be a different one, as it has roman numerals on the side, rather than dots. And hey! Maybe that wasn’t one of the Seven Old Men in “Shining Knight”, but Mr. Ali-Ka-Zoom. Unless he’s one of the old men anyway. I don’t know. I’ll have to keep waiting.

And what the hell? They got rid of the ongoing checklist page to plop out some corporate pep talk editorial?! Weak…