Timothy Callahan on Morrison, Legion

Timothy Callahan was just one of the many folks I met at Baltimore Comic-Con back in September. Coming out of that meeting we decided to do an email interview regarding his two books and criticism in general. Callahan is a savvy critic who clearly knows pop culture and the comic book genre better than many (as shown frequently at his blog, GeniusboyFiremelon) and is firm in his convictions. Before launching into the interview, here’s the core info on the man himself: “Callahan is an educator, husband, father of two, writer of Grant Morrison: The Early Years, and editor of the recently-released Teenagers from the Future. He writes for Back Issue magazine and Comic Book Resources, and he’s much busier than he used to be.”

Tim O’Shea: Zack Smith recently did a series of interviews with Morrison in which he thanked you for your help. How did you assist him?

Timothy Callahan: Zack had e-mailed me over the summer about the “Superman 2000” pitch that I’d blogged about — the one where Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer proposed to revamp the Superman franchise for the new millennium — and he actually did an interview with me for Newsarama shortly after that. So we’d been in contact, and when he was sending his big ‘ole batch of questions to Morrison for the All-Star interview, he asked me to take a look at his proposed questions and to add a few of my own, which I did. I would say I added about three questions total, but Zack was probably influenced by a lot of the stuff I’d been writing about on my blog over the past year, so he very courteously thanked me in each of the installments that ended up running. Zack’s interview is shockingly comprehensive, and I’m glad to have been even a tiny part of it.

O’Shea: It seems at times one must be in an altered state themselves to grasp Morrison’s early writing. What aspect of your 2007 examination of Morrison was the most challenging and/or time consuming to execute?

Callahan: Whoo-boy, I really hate that assumption, and it’s one I hear again and again from people online. First of all, it’s ridiculous. How does being in an altered state ever help anyone grasp anything more clearly? I don’t understand that notion. And second, Morrison was straightedge throughout his young adult life. He didn’t even start doing any drugs until partway through his work on “Doom Patrol,” so the bulk of his early work — at least the stuff I examine in “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” which runs from “Zenith,” through his first couple of Batman things, “Animal Man,” and “Doom Patrol,” has a definite anti-drug undertone. Sure, “Doom Patrol” gets wonky after a few arcs, around the time of the Insect Mesh storyline, but the majority of the work I analyze in the book isn’t drug-induced or anything like that. I think people assume it must have been “Morrison on drugs” because his influences were not the standard pulp, Stan Lee, Star Trek or Star Wars influences like most of the other guys writing comics in the 1980s. Morrison certainly wasn’t afraid to structure works in slightly challenging ways or to create metaphorical situations instead of literal ones, but the whole drug thing is just a silly, dismissive accusation.

The hardest thing wasn’t understanding Morrison’s work, since, as I point out in the book, he tends to write characters who explain the themes directly to the reader anyway. The hardest thing was tracking down those damn “Zenith” stories! I had to do some fancy ebay maneuvers to get all the “2000 AD” progs I needed for that portion of the book. I hadn’t read more than a sampling of the “Zenith” stories before I started writing those chapters, and I found “Zenith” to be the ultimate Morrison work. It was like a distillation of all of his later ideas — realized mostly in American comics — in a fresh, raw form. I think “Zenith” is brilliant, and even though it was a bitch to track down over here, I’m glad I decided not to take the easy way out and start with “Animal Man.”

O’Shea: I think you may have focused on my altered state question more literally than intended as I was careful to say, it “seems at times”. This question was not meant to imply you (or anyone) had to be on drugs to get Morrison. First off, my apologies for making it seem that way. In fact, and this can easily be lost in a poorly structured email question (where tone and inflection is impossible), I meant to be a tad whimsical with the altered state aspect, while also meaning to imply the complexity of his work. Also, the “at times” meant to imply only elements of his early career. Morrison would not be the first writer to be influenced by drugs in his writing. Hell, back when I was getting my English degree in the late 1980s, my favorite class was an examination of writers and alcoholism. That being said, given how you felt the need to clarify the limited degree of drug use (again this is not [nor has it been] a judgment statement on my part) do you think his highly respected reputation and body of work is compromised by assumptions by some (myself included, clearly) regarding his use of drugs?

Callahan: Oh, don’t worry, I completely understood that you were asking about a kind of response to Morrison’s writing, and I didn’t sense that you were dismissing Morrison’s writing because of it.

And, no, I don’t think it ultimately matters whether or not a writer was “on drugs” when creating a story or a work of art. I think it provides a bit of context, perhaps, but the work needs to stand or fall on its own. Does “The Invisibles” fail as a coherent work because Morrison’s drug use caused him to write in a more fragmented style? Perhaps, but it doesn’t really matter what caused him to write “The Invisibles” the way he did — all that really matters, in the end, is that “The Invisibles” exists, and it’s up to us to interpret it. I think there’s some strange prejudice that if a writer wrote something while in an altered state, that it’s somehow cheating — like an athlete taking steroids or something. That’s not how creativity works, though. Drugs use is not some magical way to make you a better writer.

So I can’t imagine that Morrison’s body of work, in the long term, would be affected one bit by any perceived (or real) drug use on his part. It’s only a criticism used by people who are unwilling or unable to confront the work as it appears on the page. Think of it this way, if we found out that Shakespeare was an opium fiend during the writing of “Hamlet,” would that change “Hamlet” itself? The drug use question just seems like a dead end. It can’t help to illuminate the meaning of the work in any useful way.

O’Shea: Given the complexities of Morrison’s storytelling (and mindset), could you see yourself revising the book a few years down the road (given how it seems Morrison’s current work is an effort to follow-up on themes and elements he addressed in his earlier work) or reworking as part of a larger examination of his career?

Callahan: Oh yeah, absolutely. I always intended the book to be part of a larger study of his oeuvre, and I can imagine going back years from now and putting everything into a larger context. In theory. In reality, I’m not sure that I want to devote that much more time to the same stuff I’ve already written a book about. The thing about the themes and motifs Morrison uses is that they are recursive by nature, and so further exploration of his later works tends to result in more discussion of the same topics. At least, that’s the trap I find myself falling into. I enjoy his recent stuff tremendously, and I see how it fits into a larger narrative structure he’s created, but I don’t have any interest in going through “All-Star Superman” issue by issue and analyzing his use of the theme of transcendence or the mind/body motif. I feel like I’ve already said what I have to say about those Morrisonian themes and structures. Now when I write about Morrison, as I do occasionally for CBR or on my blog, I’m more interested in providing an aesthetic appreciation than a scholarly analysis of the mode I used in the book.

But I may rethink that approach and find a new way to write about his later work in the coming years. I’m still not sick of Morrison, I don’t know about you.

O’Shea: In some circles, folks have already written off Final Crisis as a convoluted mess where Morrison may have overextended himself and/or his concepts. Admittedly people are jumping the gun before the work is even finished–but I’m curious are you more pleased or more disappointed by what you’ve read to date–or are you waiting until the end for any major analysis?

Callahan: I think it blows “Secret Invasion” out of the water, and as both series progress, that becomes more and more apparent. But the shipping delays and the strange sort of out-of-continuity (or future continuity) approach DC has taken with “Final Crisis” has marginalized it. I don’t know what’s so convoluted about it. It’s a pretty straightforward story. I think people look for some kind of mad symbolic meaning behind every panel and when they can’t find one, they think they’re missing something. And then they blame Morrison. Or they say all the fans are on drugs.

Maybe what’s baffling people is that Morrison doesn’t feel the need to explain all the in-between stuff. He’s just jumping from big moment to big moment, and readers want to know, for example, how Darkseid got inside Turpin’s body and how that felt for Turpin. I don’t know what they want. But, for me, I get that Darkseid is inside Turpin, and Turpin is stoically fighting to resist. Then I move on. I don’t dwell on what writers leave out. I don’t judge narrative based on what should have been included. I evaluate what’s there on the page, and I don’t find anything substantial missing from “Final Crisis.”

Might it end up being a complete disaster, especially with the derailed art team? Sure. But, so far, so good. It’s certainly a hell of a lot better than “DC One Million,” which I just reread this summer. Now that was a convoluted mess. Or, if not convoluted, then inelegant.

O’Shea: Morrison is a writer that makes readers work to get ever last drop out of the story. Do you ever think a creator (not necessarily Morrison, per se) places a burden on a reader and asks them to work too much to be entertained–to expect too much from one’s audience (and their patience/loyalty)?

Callahan: I think most creators, and not just in comic books, ask way too little of the audience. When a show like “The Wire,” which is brilliant, is seen as challenging just because it doesn’t constantly flash back to remind you of what happened in previous episodes, then our bar is set way, way too low. Or people who watch a movie like “Syriana” and can’t keep the multiple narratives straight, and then complain about how confusing the film is. I think they need to pay attention to what they’re watching. It’s not like any of these completely mainstream works of fiction are all that complex. They aren’t John Barth novels or something.

So I certainly don’t think Morrison or any of his comic book writing peers ask too much of the audience. Morrison doesn’t ask all that much at all, other than that you read the words and look at the pictures and try to figure out what they mean. Every act of comic book reading is an act of interpretation, and I don’t see Morrison’s work being much more dense than the norm. What separates his comics from others is his willingness to use allusion in a slightly different way. Instead of alluding to specific plot points from other comics from decades ago (aka “continuity”), he’ll allude to the iconography. In his current Batman run, it doesn’t matter if you know anything about the details of weird sci-fi stories from the Batman comics of the 1950s — all that matters is that you know that Batman once went through that phase. If readers want to delve more deeply into that stuff, they can, and it might enrich their experience the way that learning about ancient arms and armor might enrich a reading of “The Iliad,” but it isn’t necessary. And it’s not like it’s hard to find information these days. We do have the internet, and that thing’s pretty damn useful.

Last summer I got caught in an online flare-up when I referred to some people as “bad readers.” That was a stupid term for me to use, but I still have little patience for readers who give up when something isn’t completely obvious at first glance. I wonder how those kinds of people ever learned how to read in the first place. Surely they found some words, phrases, and concepts challenging as younger readers, and if they gave up back then, how would they be able to understand anything past the elementary school level? I don’t think it’s such a bad thing when people are challenged by a work of fiction, and if they find Morrison’s work challenging, I say, “don’t give up! Try to figure it out — it’s probably there on the page if you look at everything. And, if it’s really not, try google. And if you don’t feel like doing that much research, then don’t worry about it. It’s fine. Relax.”

O’Shea: As hard as the Morrison book must have been to write–I imagine it must have been a challenge to edit (not a shot at your writing, but rather the subject matter) How much revision and heavy lifting occurred through Michael Phillips editing it. Can you delve into the revision process a bit and think of one or two spots where your essays were substantially revised (for the better, of course)?

Callahan: Ah, Mike Phillips. What can I say about his editing style, other than: he’s a man of many choices. He’ll send back a chapter with a hundred comments, all of which say something like, “what if you changed this word to this? Or maybe this other thing? I don’t know, does it sound better if you do this third thing?” He left a lot of the changes up to me, but what he did was point out places when I wasn’t very clear. Mike was familiar with the Morrison comics, but he was no expert, so if he didn’t understand the way I explained something, then it was my job to explain it better in the revisions. He certainly wasn’t afraid to tell me what didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

He also was absolutely responsible for making the book happen. He pushed me to add the “Arkham Asylum” and “Gothic” chapters, and I think those are probably the strongest chapters in the book.

Mike’s also a compulsive nit-picker, and if any typos remain in any of the published Sequart books, it will cause him sleepless nights. But even after we’ve revised them and proofread them again and again, sometimes typos sneak through, and I know it breaks his heart.

Julian Darius, the Sequart publisher, was also a great editorial guide, and he called me on any lazy sentences or tenuous assertions. Both Mike and Julian have been incredibly vocal cheerleaders of my work.

O’Shea: How much fun was it to do the recent compare contrast of two bald men (Bendis and Morrison) over at Splash Page? Did you get a lot of response out of it (given the loyal fan base both writers have)?

Callahan: Because Sequart.org no longer allows comments (and I don’t really know why), I have gotten zero response to that Splash Page discussion. I think Chad Nevett and I do a fair job defining the differences between Bendis and Morrison (and, correspondingly, Marvel and DC), but from what I gather, nobody seems to care. I haven’t received any e-mails about it at all, and I’ve seen no online response.

Maybe you can rectify that, Tim. Spread the word: Callahan thinks Morrison beats Bendis in the battle of the 2008 events! Like it would shock anyone that I could argue such a thing. (Although, I actually end up defending Bendis quite a bit in the discussion, if you recall.)

O’Shea: And one last Morrison question, given your knowledge/appreciation of Morrison, are you frustrated or bemused when you read others folks analysis of Morrison’s writing that you find completely miss the point–or read symbolism into a scene that is just not there?

Callahan: Thom Young is the only critic I’ve read who seems to find meaning in Morrison’s work that isn’t really there, but I’ve talked (and debated) with Thom and he can make some pretty convincing arguments, even when I think he’s completely wrong. But he’s certainly entitled to his interpretation, and varied interpretations are part of the fun. I don’t want everyone to interpret literature exactly the same way I do — that would render interpretation kind of pointless, I think.

I always wind up baffled when people don’t “get” some of Morrison’s work, of course, as I’ve already spoken about. I wonder what it is they don’t understand, and usually they don’t explain what parts they’re confused about. They just say, “it makes no sense.” So I’m baffled by that response.

Give it an interpretation, I say. Try one on for size, even if it’s one I don’t happen to agree with. Especially then, because that would give us something to debate.

O’Shea: You serve as editor on Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes–how did the project come about? The book offers essays by fans and scholars, how hard is it to establish a tone for the book overall that conveys an even balance and that is not too scholarly or too fannish?

Callahan: “Teenagers from the Future” is my baby. I conceived of it, pitched it to Sequart, called on contributors, put everything together, and then sent a first draft to Mike and Julian. I wanted it to come out in time for the Legion’s 50th anniversary, and it did. I suspected DC might have something planned for this year, but “Legion of ThreeWorlds” is the greatest tie-in for the book ever! What could be better than a comic showing the team up of all three iterations of the team, just as “Teenagers from the Future” analyzes the differences between the three teams? Perfect timing!

I worked with several of the writers to make their essays more analytical and less “fannish,” for sure, but most of the submissions I received were just what I was looking for. A few submissions didn’t make the cut, even after multiple revisions, but I mostly knew what I’d be getting based on the people who had agreed to submit, and although not everyone came through with an essay by deadline time, I was able to get all of the bases covered: each Legion was addressed, various stylistic approaches were discussed, and we ended up with a book that covers the history of the Legion in small, discrete doses, each looking at the comic from a slightly different perspective.

There’s certainly nothing in the book that I think is purely fannish gushing — nothing that spends 3,000 words talking about how awesome Matter-Eater Lad is, or something like that, but there’s also nothing that’s like a dull, dry term paper either — no 3,000 word essays on the intellectual history of the post-agrarian state of the 30th century.

I’m happy with the balance we achieved in the finished book. Plus, the fact that I managed to get Matt Fraction to write about the Legion, well, that always puts a smile on my face.

O’Shea: One of the essays in the book is by you on “Thomas, Altman, Levitz, and the 30th Century.” What works of Robert Altman come up in the essay–and on a larger scale, what is your favorite Altman film?

Callahan: Right–my chapter looks at how Paul Levitz was inspired by the twin towers of Robert Altman and Roy Thomas, and his Legion work is a melding of the two narrative approaches. “M*A*S*H” is Levitz’s favorite film, and he actually “reverse-engineered” Roy Thomas’s “Avengers” stories to learn how to write comics, and I explore those influences on three of Levitz’s most important Legion stories. It’s good stuff. You should read it!

Oh, and as for my favorite Altman film, I’m going to cheat and pick two, because they are so completely different: “Nashville” and “Secret Honor.” “Nashville” is Altman at his most “Altmanesque,” but “Secret Honor” is such a stripped-down an powerful film that I can’t leave it unmentioned. I think “M*A*S*H” is one of his weaker films, by the way. Then again, I wasn’t of draft age when it debuted like Levitz was.

O’Shea: Were you limited for space on the Legion essays or were you able to include all the essays you wanted?

Callahan: When the proposals for the chapters finished pouring in, I was pretty excited because it looked like we’d have a massive tome of Legion essays, maybe even enough for two books. But when reality set it, and some contributors bowed out, others failed to bring their essays up to the kind of quality we needed, and others just didn’t fit due to redundancy, we found that we had a thick, 344-page book by the end of the process. Not quite the tome I had originally imagined, but a really impressively hefty volume by any standard.

O’Shea: What else is on the creative horizon for you?

Callahan: I have my weekly “When Words Collide” column along with my regular comic book reviews at CBR, and I’m in talks to do another book for Sequart, but I’m not sure whether I’ll end up doing the whole thing myself or not. One thing “Teenagers from the Future” taught me was that I much prefer to be an author than an editor, but I like working with other writers — I just don’t like the actual, laborious process of editing — so I don’t know what form my next book will take.

I’m also writing four different comic book series (plus a story for a Monkey-themed anthology) that are in various stages of production. I’m working with four different very talented artists on those projects, and one of the sample packages is being lettered by Dean Trippe as we speak, so if you’re a publisher: keep your eyes peeled for some slick-looking Callahan-written submissions coming your way. Or, you could, you know, just e-mail me and offer me a writing gig. Or both.

O’Shea: In terms of your own comics writing, do you care to spill details on any of the series–or you want to keep them under wraps until they land at a publisher?

Callahan: All four series are very different — one is a post-Authority superhero tale, another is a 19th century literary horror comic, one is a dysfunctional space opera, and the final one is an adventure tale for all ages.

The 19th century horror comic is the that I’m working on this week, pulling together the final proposal to accompany the 10 pages of art done by the brilliant Italian artist Simone Guglielmini. Publishers should be on the lookout for that one soon.

3 thoughts on “Timothy Callahan on Morrison, Legion

  1. What a gerat interview, and one that I think is insightful about Morrison’s career as well as the Legion book. It was a joy to read.

    For the record, the comments are disabled on our website because the server has so often been overloaded. It’s been a recurring problem, and one we’ll iron out eventually… but Mike and I are knee deep in book stuff right now, and I’m the only programmer / web guy of the bunch.

    Again, a great interview… and knowing Mike Phillips, Tim’s description of his almost physical agony over typos is completely accurate. We absolutely love Tim’s work and can’t wait for his next book!

    Thanks for the interview!

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