Brave New World writer Grant Morrison recently adapted Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic novel for NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock. This marks a new phase in the legendary comic book scribe’s career, following a streak that hails back to the 1980s Zenith and Animal Man titles. Those works led to him taking over the Doom Patrol comic book series, and although he isn’t involved with that DC Universe/HBO Max TV show, he created two of its most beloved characters — Crazy Jane (with her dozens of personalities) and Danny The Street (literally a living and sentient street that’s both gender non-conforming and superpowered) — within its wild ensemble of weirdos. Morrison has also carved out Batman, Wonder Woman, and Judge Dredd storylines, so let’s just say that adapting a sci-fi book was an unanticipated move but one that worked out splendidly.
We spoke with Morrison about wrapping up the first season of Brave New World, a show that’s dreamy and devilish and delightful, leaning into both pulpiness and eerily antiseptic gloss while reveling in hyperkinetic experimentation. It’s a daring update on what was already considered a prophetic work of literature, and Morrison’s version of the story introduces several new elements, including Indra, the computer connected to everyone’s minds, and the rewriting of the Savage Land as a literal theme park. Morrison was cool enough with also fielding some questions about HBO’s Watchmen and why Doom Patrol‘s Danny The Street can (finally) fully flourish in our current times.
Adaptations of other writers’ babies can be tricky. Does seeing your own work being adapted (with Doom Patrol, and so on) inform your process in adapting another writer’s work?
It’s quite unusual for me, but my process is the same as people who are adapting my work. You’re looking at something and basically trying to translate it from one medium to another, and television has very different demands and different pacing from a comic book, and it really is a translation. This is something that was created decades ago — with Brave New World, almost 100 years ago — and then you turn it into an almost contemporary theme and fit it more squarely in the world we live in now.
Prior to the show’s launch, you told Variety that you were looking to “escape from the comic book fandom that was kind of controlling my life.” Did it work?
[Laughs] It’s not so much “control,” but I’m always aware of my audience, and with the comic books, the audience is always on you and always checking you for little plot details. You’re under a lot of scrutiny, and I don’t mind that, but I’ve got to the point — where the secrecy of it and the sense of scrutiny and the fact that you’ve got monthly issues and have to hit your plot points — where I find it much more stressful. So what I liked about TV was the long process with multiple drafts and working with other people and the collaboration of it. It’s just a different dynamic, which I enjoyed a little bit more than the frantic pace of the monthly comic books.
We need to talk about the show’s disturbing use of contact lenses with, like, a brain probe or something. How did those get added to the story?
The idea was that to avoid the Elon Musk/Stephen Hawking CEO of AI taking over, but you could actually run a computer network on human brains. We’ve got so many neural connections, so all you would need was some kind of radio-telepathic link. There are no servers; it’s a purely distributed network of the minds of everyone, linked up to Indra. We also had to explain why there’s no automation, why everyone worked, and why they get jobs, because in a future society, we imagine automation, so that was the explanation. The computer needs everyone to be healthy and constantly active and engage in all kinds of physical pursuits. Huxley left a lot of stuff very vague, and we spent a lot of time in the writer’s room trying to find rationalizations for all those gaps. And out of that came the idea of how to link up to the computer and the contact lens — it’s quite visceral, and to join the society, you almost have to go through an initiation.
The show also got brutally visceral with the idea that monogamy is the root of most conflict in the world.
[Laughs] Yeah, Huxley also saw it as monogamy leading to the notion of family. And from the point of view of characters in the book, family is the root of all social problems. Whether we agree or not, it’s something to explore.
One big change you made was in retiring Huxley’s Native/Indigenous stereotypes with the Savage Reservation.
I actually lived with the Zuni Pueblo [tribe] in the 1990s, so I’m very familiar with that area and the people, and they’re far from the Savages presented in the book. For me, and aside from trying to get away from that kind of portrayal of Native people, what we were all more interested in was putting America itself in possession of the Savage Land, where the culture of the 20th and 21st century has now become degraded through 300 years where America refused to join the World State.
That’s a haunting reminder right about now.
Everyone else progressed to this “Brave New World,” and America has remained behind, and ultimately, it’s like any culture left behind for 300 years. Suddenly, they start to look weird. We had a lot of ideas that didn’t even make it to the screen, like with inflation suddenly being so bad that it took $3000 to buy a Mars bar. Or the fact that there’s six presidents in the past five months. And the place is kind of a mess because it’s a fallen, broken-down, last-gasp version of 20th century America. That seemed more interesting to put in the possession of the Savage Lands. It just seemed to expand the concept instead of looking down on a specific culture that was kind-of misunderstood and make it about American culture and how they’d respond to this new world.
The switch-up with the Savage Land reminds me of how Damon Lindelof recontextualized Watchmen on HBO. I’m assuming you watched it, especially given your previous commentary and feud with Alan Moore.
Oh yeah, I thought [the show] was fantastic.
There were a few possible Easter eggs (pointing to your comics) in Watchmen, like with the Zenith sign in the Looking Glass origin-story episode.
I think Zenith poster may have been just based on the popular television manufacturer, but I know there was a King Mob reference. In the trophy room, there was a gorilla mask that says “King Mob’s Gorilla Mask” under it. And King Mob was actually a radical group (in the 1960s), which Malcolm McLaren was part of, so I used the same name for my character in The Invisibles.
Speaking of references, with Brave New World, people are drawing comparisons to Black Mirror and Westworld.
Those are post-Brave New World ideas, and Westworld, in fact, is very much influenced by Brave New World, the novel. There are characters called Bernard and Ford, and it uses a lot of the ideas. As you know, people have been copying that book for so long that a lot of things are a little bit like it. But the difference between Brave New World and everything else like it is that this is not Marxist sci-fi about the exploited underclass rising up and seizing the reins of society. Brave New World is actually more chilling than that. No one can rise up because everyone is happy, and there’s no need to rise up, and when they do rise up, society puts them back in their place. So we’re not really doing the story that Westworld and everything else does, where they feel sorry for the downtrodden masses who then rise up. Usually, that ends up with civilization in ruins and nowhere else to go, so we didn’t really want to play those tropes again.
We gotta talk a little Doom Patrol. For Crazy Jane, the show has added a Karen to her gathering of personalities which is a loaded name these days.
It certainly is! And that’s good, it has to keep up with the world we’re living in, and I only named about 30 of those personalities, so there’s plenty of room to make up new ones.
And Danny The Street is also near-and-dear to the hearts of viewers.
I can understand because Danny The Street was always popular. Back in the day when he was created in the late 1980s, we didn’t have terms like “genderqueer” or “non-binary,” they just didn’t exist. There were no names, and I think that it’s really good now that characters like that can show up and be slotted into the world we live in. Suddenly, Danny’s genderqueer, and it makes more sense. It has something to say to the society that we’re living in now — where people in the margins have been able to get into the center of it more. I’m pleased with characters like that, which seemed really bizarre and were, in a lot of ways, seen as unacceptable back in the day, and we couldn’t even describe what we were doing. Those characters have come into a flourishing progression because of that. Danny was named after the famous drag actor, Danny La Rue, and his name (in French) actually translates into Danny The Street.
Doom Patrol was a pioneering comic for the idea of weird/atypical superheroes, who are everywhere now, like with Umbrella Academy and The Boys. Are you watching those shows or anything else in particular lately?
I watched the first season of The Boys, and that was great. The dysfunctional hero thing seems to be pretty popular. Another show that I’ve been watching lately is Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. I watched the whole thing over two days. I was so impressed. It’s just beautiful and perfectly done. The dialogue, and it’s technically astounding and emotionally brilliant, so it’s hard to compare anything else to that.
Now that you’ve wet your feet adapting a classic novel, are there any others you’d like to tackle?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. Maybe another Huxley, since I feel quite bonded to him after all this. Some favorite books of mine, like The House of Leaves or Carter Beats the Devil, are a couple of things that would be fun to do.
You gave John the Savage a different fate than the book. Will we see him again?
All of the seeds are planted there, and we wanted to make sure there was an opening because John learns so much from his contact with this new world, and Lelina learns so much from her contact with the Savage Land. And because these characters are still in play, it seems like there are better ideas to explore when they essentially meet again. What do they represent, what do they stand for, and how do they deal with one another? So, the potential was there.
‘Brave New World’s first season is currently streaming on Peacock.