By Eric Rezsnyak
In his only panel appearance at SDCC 2013, legendary writer Grant Morrison discussed his new video-comic project, "18 Days" Friday afternoon, and gave insight into his creative process, his views on an increasingly connected world, and why super-heroes no longer make sense in a Western civilization arguably in decline.
Morrison has been talking about the "18 Days" project for years, but it will finally emerge as an animated series on YouTube via Graphic India. (A book with behind-the-scenes material chronicling the project is already available on Amazon through Dynamite.) Joining Morrison on the panel were author-moderator Gotham Chopra and Liquid Comics/Graphic India founder and CEO Sharad Devarajan.
The panel opened with a brief clip of the series that was, in a word, trippy. "18 Days" is a reworking of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The story concerns the creation of the universe, warring super gods, the decline and decay of life, and other huge philosophical questions, such as free will vs. predestination. And yet Morrison underscored that while it might be about a massive battle between omnipotent beings and the eventual snuffing out of existence, it also reflects everyday people and the way they live their day-to-day lives.
While Eastern audiences grew up with this tale, for most Westerners it will be an entirely new concept. I had only a passing familiarity with a few of the themes and characters, and found the preview difficult to wrap my head around — and yet instantly compelling. The art reminded me alternately of the work of Becky Cloonan and Michael Avon Oeming. It differed significantly from the astonishingly detailed concept work that was shown later in the panel. I have to note that the overly produced voice-over work actually hindered my understanding of what was going on.
Chopra described the project as "a plunge into the mind of Grant Morrison, which is a total mindfuck." Based on what they showed us, that's an accurate description.
Morrison said that he had been intrigued about doing something with the stories of the Mahabharata, which he had referenced in "The Invisibles" (the themes and characters from Indian mythology pop up fairly frequently in Morrison's work, actually; remember "Vimanarama"?). But when it came to this project with Liquid/Graphic, he had to really study and research the massive, complicated Mahabharata and find a way to take a decidedly Eastern work and identify where familiar archetypes of Western literature could be found in the story. (Morrison stressed that "18 Days" is not meant as a direct, literal translation of the Mahabharata; he wanted to add something new to the concept.)
Everyone on the panel referenced the deliberate blending of Eastern concepts with Western storytelling, which they see as a logical next step for graphic storytelling. Graphic India's Devarajan said that while "the era of the super-hero was allegorical to the nuclear age. Our story is the age of globalization. We're bringing one of the great writers of the West together with one of the great texts of the East. We hope it starts some great discussions."
Some great discussions were taking place before the panel even ended. One attendee asked Morrison how someone who has written for some of the greatest Western myths – Batman, Superman, the X-Men – approached one of the great Eastern myths. Morrison said that it's all about finding the "shape" of the source material. For instance, Superman is a "sun god," and so his "All-Star Superman" was constructed like a solar journey, while his "Batman" mega-arc was defined by clues and puzzles that became "the spine around the story." He sees "18 Days" as a story about cosmic knowledge, and so he crafted the story to spread out like ripples, starting with a cosmic vision, then going to giants battling for the soul of mankind, and then again to what a guy is doing at home with his wife.
Perhaps most interestingly, when asked about his thoughts on modern super-hero comics, Morrison had a long, thoughtful answer. He pointed out that modern super-hero comics – and pop culture in general – are overwhelmingly dark and preoccupied with death and decay. He believes this reflects Westerners' feelings that their countries are falling apart, with enemies they can't deal with, corrupt governments, and bulimic madwomen for stars. (That is almost an exact quote.)
"There's so much hate and meanness, and misunderstandings, and we're already having a bit of a mental breakdown," Morrison said.
But in China and India, he argued, there's a sense of the future, that things are getting better, that people have the opportunity to get richer or smarter. The super hero is much better fit for the East than it is for the West right now, Morrison argued. Emerging cultures in the east are looking for superheroes; those readers can relate to the inherent aspirational qualities of larger-than-life heroes.
The final question of the panel came from a Dubliner who wondered if people from Indian backgrounds might be offended by a white Scottish guy taking a whack at one of their most sacred texts. Devarajan responded that having someone with Morrison's level of creativity allows them to tell those stories in a totally new way. He said that since Morrison is coming to the Mahabharata from outside of it, he brings a totally different perspective.
Chopra said, "We desperately need to shake up the establishment. I'm dead serious. Traditional institutional religion has hijacked the wisdom traditions of the world. Bringing someone with such brilliance as Grant into this endeavor–it's more than just something we're putting on YouTube. We're challenging people to rethink the way we see the world. We have to. The complexion of the world is changing before our very eyes."
For his part, Morrison shrugged off the question and said, "These are human stories. They belong to all of us. They don't belong to any color or country."