Review: Comics icon Grant Morrison’s debut novel is a marvel of Oedipal camp
On the Shelf
By Grant Morrison
Del Rey: 448 pages, $28
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“Luda,” the debut novel of world-famous comics writer Grant Morrison, is a sprawling camp postmodern novel in which patriarchy is defined as a kind of magical Oedipal drag. Like Morrison’s work on everything from Batman to the X-Men, except even more so, the book is wildly and sometimes tediously self-indulgent. Also like the comics, it is in parts wildly, and weirdly, brilliant.
The main character is a sort of sideways Morrison stand-in, Graeme Mott, a.k.a. Luci LaBang. Morrison’s pronouns are they/them; Luci’s fluctuate throughout the novel, as befits one known for “declaring war on fixed gender identity in French Vogue.”
An aging rock star/comedian/artist/wizard/drag queen, Luci spent a decade in decline before reapplying the glitter lip gloss and towering wig to play a sex bomb/termagant/laundress in a drag mashup of “Aladdin” and “The Phantom of the Opera” called “Phantom of the Pantomime.” The production is a play within a play, in which Luci is both Aladdin’s mother, the Widow Twankey, and — in the framing story — a mysterious masked villain killing off the other actors for obscure reasons. Inevitably, actors in the “real” production start having terrible accidents too, as life puts on the gaudy face paint of art.
The drama is, inevitably, a big booty-shake distraction from the drama. Specifically: the turbulent relationship between Luci LaBang and Luda, the younger drag queen who sashays into the role of Aladdin and into Luci’s life, heart and loins.
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Luda wants to learn the Glamour, the art of being someone — or everyone — else, and especially the art of being Luci. Luci envies and loves the “luscious doppelgänger” and pulls Luda under a perfumed wing — though as the line between Luci and Luda blurs, it starts to become unclear who’s pulling which witch where, and where all the feathers are coming from.
Their relationship is classically and plainly Oedipal. Luda is replacing the father and sleeping with the mother, though in this case the father and mother are the same person in slightly different heels.
The Oedipus myth is not just about parents; it’s about patriarchy. The novel’s protagonists are gender renegades, but masculinity stalks them like a hungry phantom. Morrison’s backstory for Luda is a gothic kaleidoscope of the horrors that can afflict a child who doesn’t fit parental preconceptions: neglect, physical and sexual abuse, conversion therapy, genocidal hatred.
Luda, we learn, was originally a homeless youth, picked up by a bereaved couple who wanted to replace the child they’d lost. In doing so they erased the boy Luda had been, both metaphorically and literally, and then blamed the child for the erasure. “If I were to tell you the Antichrist had come among us, in the form of a soulless child ...,” Luda’s former caregiver tells Luci with lip-licking sadism.
Morrison makes repeated, explicit allusions to “The Omen,” a film about a nightmare child determined to replace his powerful father. In doing so, the author deliberately invokes the history of invidious trans predator stereotypes, from Norman Bates in “Psycho” to Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Gender-nonconforming people are often presented on film and in popular discourse as distorted hypermasculine predators. We’re supposed to believe Oedipus is even more destructive if he wears his mother’s dresses. Patriarchy builds its heir in its own murderous image, then insists that image isn’t patriarchal enough.
That’s the hateful story, which Morrison follows but also parodies. If the Glamour is the power to make yourself into a story, it’s also the power to treat the story as a tease — something you put on so you can slip out of it later.
Imogen Binnie’s ‘Nevada,’ first published in 2013, follows two people at different points of a transgender journey, each trying to live in the present.
“I’ve always known I lack the commitment to be any one thing or the other,” Luci LaBang humble-brags. And the novel is really as much a humble brag as it is a narrative, with Morrison (as Mott, as Luci) letting loose a torrent of gossip, shade, in-jokes and burlesque slapstick in lieu of the expected denouement, tragic or otherwise.
Some longtime comics fans probably will see in the generational dynamics a wink at Morrison’s longtime rivalry with Alan Moore, the older British author of such comics as “Watchmen,” “Swamp Thing” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Moore also is obsessed with the magical power of art, and he and Morrison have a long-running quasi-Oedipal love-hate feud.
It’s unclear how seriously Morrison takes the rivalry — or, in fact, the father-son obsession of the novel. It often feels like a hip grind to throw off pursuit. If Luda is a devil who wants to be LeBang, and LeBang wants to be devilish Luda, that’s only because they’re the same devil wearing the same mask. Morrison’s Glamour is also Morrison’s gift of gab, into which, at the conclusion of the “story,” Luda and Luci disappear like drag artists into a mirror.
Oepidus kills his father to take his place. But drag artists dress up as someone else to be themselves. “Luda” is about that tension between how stories shape you and how you can make yourself with a story. For Morrison, moving from comics to literary fiction is also a kind of self-remaking, and on the surface a common one — toward seriousness, credibility. In its excesses and its feral fabulousness, though, the novel doesn’t feel like a well-worn path. Instead, “Luda” feels like the Morrison that Morrison was always meant to be.
Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Morrison will be in conversation with Amy Nicholson for Live Talks LA, both virtually and at the Glorya Kaufman Performing Arts Center, on Sept. 12 at 6 p.m.
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