Dr. Strange

When this column debuted at the beginning of 2000, readers and editors scoffed at its occasional subject matter, the comic book. Kids' stuff, they growled, junk food for adults who still live in their parents' basements. And maybe they were right back then. The industry was dying; the art form was moribund. Sales were dwindling to an all-time low, comic shops were shuttering faster than ever before and publishers were desperately scrambling to attract new readers without alienating the few remaining faithful. A marginalized industry teetered on the brink of extinction, and even its best and best-known practitioners welcomed its demise, if only so they could begin again without decades' worth of garbage dragging them further into a dank basement filled with worthless back issues and tattered spandex gods.

How long ago yesterday was. Today, you can't turn around without a teen-age wallcrawler peering over your shoulder and lifting your wallet. The "worthless" have become instantly priceless: Spider-Man scampers further and further up the charts, breaking box-office records on its way to becoming one of Hollywood's all-time moneymakers. Children too young to even read comics now know at least one spandex hero, and every few weeks comes news of another actor signing on to don the formfitting togs of a crime-fighter endowed with some power, be it radiation-induced strength (the Incredible Hulk) or senses heightened by blindness (Daredevil). Comic stores' racks, once filled with moldy and mindless product, are now rich veins tapped again and again by studios developing the Next Hot Project.

At long last, technology has caught up with the imaginations of men (and, sadly, few women) who've made immortals soar through space and time for decades. The once impossible has become the inevitable, and the cash-poor have grown wealthy. As a result, the writers of comic books are slowly emerging from the long shadows of the underground. With pale faces and shaved heads and dark specs (most, anyway), they appear on talk shows, in glossy magazines and in the business pages and lifestyle sections of family newspapers. They're no longer anonymous scribblers of dork literature but revered visionaries masterminding profitable product.

"And I am happy to be interviewed, and I think it is cool that we're finally getting on TV shows and people are talking about what we are doing," says one such writer, Grant Morrison, who pens the industry's best-selling monthly title, Marvel Comics' New X-Men. "It does affect the entire culture, because of the movies and because CGI special effects are allowing movies to be more like comic books. You are seeing the images of the comics everywhere. You are walking down the street, and you see Spider-Man suddenly everywhere you look. It's Buffy, it's The Matrix. Kids are watching the movies; they're playing the games. It doesn't matter whether they read the comic books or not, really. I think what comics should do is maybe try to position themselves as basically this fountain of popular culture, the source or spring of popular culture. If you want to see what you guys will be watching five years down the line in movies, come here and read our stuff."

In the current comic-book star system--where titles sell because of who writes them, not who appears in them--Morrison shines brighter than almost anyone. Of the veterans, he's as revered as Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), as beloved as Neil Gaiman (Sandman), as feared as Alan Moore (Watchmen, Tom Strong). And though there are writers receiving substantial ink in and outside the comics press--among them such authors as Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Azzarello, even filmmaker Kevin Smith--none has had the impact of Morrison.

Morrison, a Glasgow native and resident whose Scottish brogue makes his words sound as though they're being spoken underwater, has been writing comic books for more than 15 years, during which time he's been a fan favorite whose esoteric writings have filled such titles as Animal Man (about a hero who would do well to double as PETA spokesman), The Invisibles and Kid Eternity. One of his earliest titles--Arkham Asylum, a rich and hellish Alice in Wonderland tale in which Batman descends into the loony bin to battle the Joker and nearly loses his mind--remains among his best-known and best-sold, no doubt because it was published just as Michael Keaton donned cape and cowl.

His stories, all variations on a theme that questions such things as identity and free will and celebrity, have inspired not only other comic-book authors but filmmakers and video-game creators. The Matrix so echoed his work in The Invisibles--about a troublemaking kid recruited against his will to join a band of freedom fighters, who believe him a god--he contemplated a lawsuit.

"Grant is one of the most fertile minds right now on planet Earth," says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor in chief. "As evidence to this, I'm hard-pressed to think of any creator that is so sought after in all entertainment media. From movies to comics to video games, Grant is a force unto himself."