Comic book writer Grant Morrison, who splits his time between his native Scotland and Los Angeles, has been writing comics for 30 years. His work includes some of the most influential works in comics history — from "Animal Man" to "All-Star Superman" and beyond. His new project, "The Multiversity," has been in the works for almost a decade and explores big idea metacommentary on the DC Comics universe and our own world.
"I've been working on this thing for eight years, so for me it feels like a child almost. I'm so glad to see it's finally delivered. Basically, we're finally defining the 52 universes of DC's multiverse," Morrison told KPCC.
This labor of love lets Morrison look at alternate versions of the iconic characters fans have known. He said that he would start with a sketchpad and start redefining an existing character for a certain world.
"One of my favorite things is just sitting down and making up worlds, and especially if you're doing things that are basically bouncing off the DC universe, the material's all there," Morrison said. "It's just, what's a Nazi Batman like? And rather than just going for the obvious, you start thinking that through, and what kind of world, and where would he have been brought up, and why would he have certain attitudes."
Morrison's been known throughout his career for pushing the boundaries of comics, often breaking the fourth wall. One of his first iconic stories in "Animal Man" featured a Looney Tunes-inspired moment where the hand of the artist could be seen and the main character had a conversation with Morrison himself. He's continuing that in "Multiversity" with one of the issues looking at Earth-Prime, the DC Comics version of our own real world Earth.
"There are combinations of certain things I've always been doing. One of my great missions is to dissolve the boundary between the reader and the comic, and this I think does it more effectively than anything else. I think in this one, the reader is really on the front line. You do actually have to fight a monster as the reader. It gets quite scary in issue 7."
Still, Morrison doesn't want to let that sort of storytelling be all that defines him.
"There's those meta elements that I'm pretty well known for," Morrison says, but now he wants to reach different audiences with each book. "So rather than, for the people who are sick of Grant Morrison metaphysical metanarrative stories, there's also really just simple, something like Thunderworld, which is an all ages Captain Marvel, Marvel Family story."
One of the other genres Morrison is set to explore in these books is political thriller in "Pax Americana," riffing on "Watchmen" and using similar storytelling techniques as the comic book, but with the characters that originally inspired "Watchmen" before being changed for that series. He's also writing books tackling pulp, celebrity culture, alternate history and other edges of the DC multiverse.
"Even if people don't like what I've been doing all these years, there's six books where there's none of that and there's just stories."
Morrison said that it's important to him that his work has an impact in our world.
"One of my proudest things is that the Superman scene that we did in 'All-Star Superman,' where he saves the young goth kid from suicide, has actually saved real people's lives in the real world. And to me, if I do nothing else in my life, I've saved some kid's life by writing that scene."
Morrison says that shows the power of comic books and of Superman.
"That shows that Superman doesn't have to be real in order to do good things, and that kind of justifies my take on these characters, in that they don't have to be real, but they can still inspire us. They can still represent that part of us that rises above ourselves. And I think that's the value of superhero characters in comics: They can actually help real people get through life."
Morrison said that he's excited about writing different versions of these characters, arguing that you to understand a character like Batman, you have to see him from multiple angles. But he did admit that a different take doesn't always work, noting that his attempt to write an anti-corporate Superman in "Action Comics" didn't have the impact he was looking for.
"Once I tried that, I really began to believe that Superman works best as a purely symbolic figure, and any attempt to actually have him beating up corporate heads and things, it's not really achieving much in the real world," Morrison said. "So for me, the bigger Superman adventures get, the more effective they are. But I think there was a strand in there that was worth pursuing, but someone else should try it — some little Occupy kid should write Superman."
While the angle may be tilted, some elements of the characters can stay the same throughout universes, Morrison says.
"What holds true [for Superman] is indomitable will," Morrison said. "We've got a universe where the Nazis won the war. But rather than make that a simplistic idea, where it's just here's evil Nazi Superman with his red eyes glaring, we though, well OK, they won the war, but 70-odd years have past, and suddenly the world's fine."
Morrison said that, even in that context, Superman will still be Superman.
"Superman knows that it's built on the bones of million, and because Superman's a good man, the guilt starts to destroy him. So we can see a different kind of Superman. He's still the same, powerful man, but once something like that gets under his skin, it can dismantle his entire belief structure. So we wanted to do that one, to take quite a subtle approach to a Nazi Superman."
The Multiversity books came out of taking known characters and putting them into a new context.
"Every one of them was worked out to be a slightly different, here's what would happen if you put Superman in this terrible situation, here's what would happen to Superman who's never been in a terrible situation. You know, here's a guy who's never had to fight in his life. What does he do when trouble comes calling?"
Morrison hopes that these characters could live on past "Multiversity" and continue to inform the stories DC Comics tells. He laid out some of the complexities he's trying to set up in a large map of the DC multiverse (click here to see the full-size version of the Multiversity map) and has spent years thinking through what these worlds are all about.
"I want them all to be characters that they're not just one note, they're not just some dumb thing that comes in for a fight and then dies. I want all of these characters to be able to sustain their own series, and sustain their own books, and sustain their own universes."
While Morrison loves DC Comics, he expressed mixed feelings about the "New 52" reboot, which wiped many of the previous stories DC had published out of continuity.
"For me, it was kind of weird to see a lot of the history disappear, but then it's exciting a new generation of writers coming up and putting their own ideas in and creating a new version of all that."
Morrison grew up with DC Comics, and it's still the universe he has the most affinity for. It's one he plans on sticking with and it's the one that's defined his career — despite doing some work for Marvel, notably on the X-Men.
"I think when you're a kid, if you get into one thing or the other, you're either a Marvel kid or a DC kid, no matter what you think later. So for me it was always DC that pressed the button, and it's why I keep going back there, and I kind of find it endlessly fascinating."
"Multiversity" hits comic book shops this month.
A map of the DC multiverse, designed by Grant Morrison (click here to see a full-size version):