By Sean Dillon
If there’s one thing that defines the work of Grant Morrison, it’s self-doubt. This might be surprising considering their persona as a Rock Star Magician, but throughout their bibliography, Morrison is frequently questioning their own value. This is something that has been seen throughout their bibliography as of late, from them explicitly stating that Nameless is about “urging girls to rise up, slaughter the rock star superhero warrior archetype and save the world” to the implicit thematic interests of Klaus to The Invisibles admitting that its very existence is just another cog in the capitalist machine. Hell, Animal Man, their first big break in American comics, ends on them arguing that they were being a bit preachy.
But of all their work, it is perhaps Culture Shock that took me as a sign that Morrison has a knack for self-critique. An early – and if we’re being honest minor – work by the Scottish scribe, Culture Shock is an eight page story from Doctor Who Magazine #139. It is the first and only occasion Grant Morrison and Bryan Hitch have ever worked together on a full comic (bar that issue of The Ultimates Grant might have ghostwritten – though Supergods is a bit vague on whether it was an issue of The Ultimates or The Authority). It is the third and final story Morrison wrote for Doctor Who (though they did pitch a three Doctors story where the Seventh Doctor was one of the past Doctors and one of the future Doctors was a woman).
Culture Shock tells of a civilization of sentient cells known as The Culture piloting a small dinosaur to the ocean so they can ascend to a higher level of existence. You know, in case you forgot that this was a Grant Morrison comic.
But the key of the story is The Doctor. In this story, they are in their seventh incarnation. The Seventh Doctor has a reputation of being a master manipulator, concocting schemes and ploys with the fabric of time and space to defeat eldritch abominations while doing horrible things to his companions. And yet, here The Doctor is in a bit of a funk. Lost, adrift from his own understanding, wondering if it was all worth it. If he shouldn’t just pack up his bags and go back home.
It could be argued that Grant was working from an incomplete version of the Seventh Doctor. This strip did predate ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, the story many point to as the defining Seventh Doctor tale, by three months. However, that would mean acting as if The previous four stories didn’t count. And only boring people discount “High-Rise, but as children’s panto.” And within those four stories (and, indeed, McCoy’s performance afterwards), there’s an air of melancholy to the Seventh Doctor. A profound sadness that grounds him from the worst instincts of the manipulative chess master archetype. (If you want to see this in action, read Blood Heat and No Future back to back, and tell me which is the more pleasant reading experience.)
Grant Morrison naturally grasps onto this aspect of the Seventh Doctor. While only eight pages long, The Seventh Doctor bursts with the melancholy McCoy imbues. Note, for example, the way Hitch draws The Doctor. In his first scene, The Doctor is presented with a depressed disposition. Not that of someone who has lost it all, who can’t stop crying no matter how hard he tries. But that of someone who lives with depression their whole life and must do the little work. The hunched over shoulders, the small frown. The downward curve of the eyes.
Is this reading a bit too much into an extremely early work by one of comics greatest artists? Perhaps. But it was certainly enough for me to notice something: I’ve seen this before, haven’t I? As I mentioned, Morrison’s work is full of self-critique and self-doubt. While it never seeps into the writing style (more about self-doubt than with it), it does point to something that I’ve come to notice is within every major work by Grant Morrison (OK, it was actually rereading this and A Glass of Water that did it, but still).
In much the same way that Alan Moore frequently expresses his disgust and horror at rape every opportunity he gets, Grant Morrison is interested in suicide. Practically every major work of his features characters desiring, attempting, or committing suicide. Animal Man’s third act features the titular hero contemplating swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills out of grief. JLA has Superman kill himself in the dark future after killing his wife. Flex Mentallo literally has Morrison’s self-insert, Wally Sage, dying of an intentional drug overdose. Even modern works like All Star Superman, Seven Soldiers, and the recently concluded Brave New World feature characters doing suicidal acts.
While it would be a stretch to say that Culture Shock is also about suicide (in much the same way claiming Moore only writes stories with rape in them), the air of depression within Morrison’s work seeps in. I will admit that I have had periods where I have wanted to give up, to give in to the desire to end it all. To finish the story once and for all. That I’m a pointless nothing that adds little to the world and things would be better off without me. Why do I keep going on and on. In many regards, going to Gallifrey is a death sentence to The Doctor.
As with Doctor Who, my answer is quite simple: because there’s something to do. The Doctor is pulled out of his funk by the Culture’s cry for help. Because of course The Doctor would answer the cry. They’re hurting. A cell culture dying of a virus. But more than that, the desire to help is what keeps The Doctor going. Not merely plotting and scheming to manipulate the universe in his favor. Instead, The Doctor simply gives them a shot of Maxenshudicea. The Doctor is capable of multitudes – with the sole aim to make things better. It’s a small thing, all things considered. But more often than not, it’s those tiny things that keep us from the edge.
For Grant Morrison, it is perhaps fitting that, in their late stage, they are drawn once again towards Doctor Who. In her thirteenth incarnation, The Doctor has changed from the melancholic manipulator, to a more repressed individual. Someone who is unwilling to show her true self to the world. Oftentimes, this repression has been criticized as an unfocused character who will viciously look a future racist in the face while taking joy in his suffering one minute and bend the knee at Space Amazon as they do all the things you’d expect Amazon to do, but in space, the next. And while this is valid, it mistakes being unfocused for being uncertain. There’s no certainty to what The Doctor is like in her thirteenth incarnation. Is she hiding her fangs from those she loves? Is she a reactionary figure who will sentence The Master to being taken to a Concentration camp by the Nazis over the color of his skin? Or is she something more.
Morrison, for their part, spent many years cutting to the core of characters that have a degree of uncertainty. Be it Animal Man’s tensions between animal rights and metafiction, Spawn’s war with the military industrial complex, or Batman’s humanity in the face of absurdity, Morrison is able to make even the messiest of characters work. And we can see that even here. While that first season of the Seventh Doctor isn’t one to be ignored, it was very messy. Very much a first draft than anything else. Any other writer would have written a generic version of Doctor Who or focused on his more comedic traits.
But Grant chose the melancholy glimpsed only briefly in the first story of the season. While travelling with a villain pretending to be his companion, The Doctor remarks about the out of character coldness the villain is having about the dead body they had just seen. The way McCoy says the words “that sad skeleton” carries a depth of sadness that speaks volumes of his character. In Culture Shock, Morrison picked up on that aspect, and in turn found Doctor Who. No one noticed, as is fitting for Grant, but they did it nonetheless.
It would be foolish to argue that Culture Shock is a hidden masterpiece of Grant Morrison’s bibliography (that would be A Glass of Water or The Mystery Play). It’s an eight page tie-in to a television show. But there’s something there worth looking at. If nothing else, it’s always interesting to see the ideas that have always been there, but are only now being noticed. Cultures of cells, depression, ascension, the failure of language, the desire to help as a defining core of existence. It’s all there and then some.
But one should not look at it as a Rosetta Stone that solves Grant Morrison. That’s a rather rotten way to treat people. But from this, we can see the starts of a career that would take Grant through many paths, from Glasgow to Kathmandu; from corporate stooge to wounded anarchist; the story of Grant Morrison is one of many twists and turns whose ending has still yet to come. What makes it exciting is to see where it will all go next. Looking back helps provide, if not a roadmap, then a new understanding of what has come before. What is retained. And what is regenerated away.
Doctor Who Magazine #139: “Culture Shock”!
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Bryan Hitch
Sean Dillon has written for publications including PanelXPanel, and is prolific on his Patreon page, which you can find here. You can also follow Sean on Twitter here!
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!