Grant Morrison on Adapting the Mahabharata for Modern Audiences

Posted by on October 4th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

by Nathan Wilson



While Grant (Invisibles, All-Star Superman) Morrison has talked at length about specific individual projects over the years as part of promotional events to launch a new series or title, rarely do audiences ever get to learn about his writing process. I took the opportunity of the publication of 18 Days by Dynamite Entertainment and Liquid Comics to talk to Morrison about how the genesis of an idea develops into an actual script. 18 Days is an “illustrated script book” based on Morrison and artist Mukesh Singh’s work toward an animated adaptation of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.


NATHAN WILSON: Although you have explored mythology and mythological themes in a lot of your work, was your approach to the Mahabharata in 18 Days different because of its nature as a classic text of religious significance for Hinduism?

GRANT MORRISON: Certainly, because it’s still kind of part of a living tradition, I really felt I had to immerse myself quite deeply in the background and to try and understand things like the Bhagavad Gita, you know which took a lot of reading obviously. So yeah, it was important to get it right. But at the same time it was also important to make it universal because the story is universal. The themes are actually not necessarily culturally bound so we wanted to honor the origins of the story, but at the same time create a new version of it that was, as I say, much more universal and global.

WILSON: Did its religious significance affect your decision to establish such an ahistoric origin or timeline for the project?

MORRISON: That was part of it obviously and also there was the fact that the actual text takes place in what reads much more like a mythical world than a historical world, so I was trying to be faithful to the original. It being a religious text, that’s still very much at the heart of it. And the ideas behind the Bhagavad Gita which to me, as I said in the book, that message is not just at the heart of Hinduism, it’s at the heart of all contemplative thought in all of the world’s traditions. It’s universal, so I wanted to make sure that was all there but to do in such a way that maybe it wasn’t couched in such specifically cultural terms. So yeah, there are a lot of reasons for citing a more mythic, or as you say, historical context. And again, part of it was to allow everyone to play their own version of the battle in their heads because the battle itself is also a metaphor for a kind of battle between desire and duty that occurs in every human heart every day of our lives, so we’re all fighting this battle. And as I say, it was important to make sure it had that wide appeal.

WILSON: Was this experience more or less confining for you as a writer as you’re working or playing with characters and incidents within religious, cultural and historical realms as opposed to the largely secular nature of comics?

MORRISON: I suppose to a certain extent it was kind of a dimension up from what I might have to do with, say, Batman, which is to study 70 years worth of texts, so again not to diminish the source of the Mahabharata but for me it’s part of the same process: I just had to do a lot of reading and immerse myself and finally understand the story’s structure; a great moment for me was when I worked my way through it a dozen times and finally got it in my head as a kind of big structure and that was really the breakthrough for me.



WILSON: In approaching the characters of, say, Batman versus Arjuna, did you have to get in a different frame of mind, or could you approach them the same way then because they’re both heroes?

MORRISON: On a surface level, yes, and also because we kind of wanted to take this to a point where you know even kids could watch it as an exciting, fantasy epic as well as a spiritual adventure. So yeah, there was an extent to which I was taking that on the surface level, but then underneath you’re having to understand what Arjuna means and what he represents — and not only in terms of the yogic symbolism or cosmology that lies behind this — also in the human-personality sense. So there were a lot of those extra levels of depth that had to be understood in order to create a living, breathing character that would reflect all of the different interpretations that you’ve had over the centuries.

WILSON: Speaking of depth and having read 18 Days several times through, I am struck by the sheer level of detail in your conceptual notes and script, as well as your process. First, are your script and notes for 18 Days the same process and detail you utilize for all of your works or did this project require a different style?

MORRISON: It’s pretty much the same for everything I write. I generally hand in maybe 50 or 60 pages of notes on a big project. If it was Batman, or Superman, or Tarzan, or anything, I would do that so, no, it wasn’t much different in terms of the actual writing than normal. I would say the reading period was a lot more intense, but the document was pretty much the kind of thing I’d do for everything.

WILSON: By reading, do you mean researching?

MORRISON: Yeah, the research reading was the difficult part of it but the as I say the document is pretty consistent with the sort of thing I usually hand in. For every big run or every big arc, the pitch is on that large scale, but then obviously I wouldn’t be doing that much work for the individual issues.

WILSON: Second, since scripts or concept notes are usually reserved as “special features” in deluxe hardcover or collected editions once single issues have already been consumed and absorbed, are you concerned that audiences can connect with this book having not seen the final product? In other words, while I personally like and respect that you are asking more from readers with this approach, is there so much foundation here for the eventual animated series or film that is yet unseen or experienced that an unintended disconnect may occur between subject and product?

MORRISON: I hadn’t thought of that although I’ve now been asked the same question twice. It hadn’t occurred to me at all, because for me all I had to do was look at Mukesh’s artwork and I thought I would buy this book anyway. [Laughs.] It’s the sort of thing, you know, I used to love those coffee table fantasy art books of the 1970s, the Roger Dean and Patrick Woodroffe books, and those kind of guys, so, for me, it was worth it purely on the visual side. I thought, of course, you would want this, and the idea that this was actually a kind of record of an unfinished, incomplete, or not yet seen project hadn’t occurred to me at all. But now that I think about it, it’s kind of interesting. You know, it’s almost as if we’re speeding up the entire process of the DVD extras and giving you the extras before the DVD comes out [Laughs.]

WILSON: Was it an unintentional way to get readers to engage the text more directly?

MORRISON: I’d have to say that it was unintentional because I didn’t even think along these lines but you know if your response was good [laughs], then I have to hope it will work out for most people who read it. It looks so beautiful, you can almost have that book on your table without any words in it at all, so I hope the words will maybe just illuminate the beauty of the artwork.



WILSON: I can see that definitely. 18 Days, I would contend, is a book of process, specifically the genesis and creation of the idea and its development. I know you have talked about your own experience with the Mahabharata, but I’m curious about how this specific project originated and developed. When you conceived of producing 18 Days, did you originally intend for a mediated version through animation (Web, TV or film) or was this something that you envisioned for print as a series or original graphic novel?

MORRISON: No, the idea was completely to do an animation because I can’t do comic books for anyone other than DC under the terms of my exclusive contract, so this was all about doing very specifically a series of animated episodes, which is why they were constructed in the way that they were and why we decided to approach the narrative in the way that we did. It was always intended to be an animation or a movie of some kind.

WILSON: What are the stages or steps for you as a writer between conceptual notes and story bible creation? Do you find yourself utilizing a “tried and true” process for all your works or did this project require something new?

MORRISON: Only in terms of it being broken down into, I think, 20 episodes, so I had to condense this immense text into something that could work in 20 episodes, which determined the structure of it. I guess that was the next process of breaking it down like that in a structure that would reflect the content and also play into the idea of the shorter animated episodes, because it was hard to do drama in short episodes, particularly if you were showing the spectacle of the war, which was much more interesting, so we developed this kind of modular style of almost plugging in the human stories behind the mythic events in separate episodes so the whole thing would build up as a mosaic, and I describe this as almost three-dimensional as the way I saw it in my head. You see almost a mosaic of building up what seems to be a huge mythic war but then we begin to get close-ups of people’s lives and what brought them to that stage so that, the next time we see them or if we see them in danger or under pressure, we’ll begin to feel it even more, and the idea was to continually ramp up the emotional level of things that would only be accepted on that big mythical level.


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One Response to “Grant Morrison on Adapting the Mahabharata for Modern Audiences”

  1. […] 4, 2010 by bgc2 Here is a link to my interview with Grant Morrison at the Comics Journal about his new book with Dynamite […]