As I mentioned at the LJ, this paper leaves out about 90% of what I would have liked to (and probably still WILL, someday, perhaps in a book-length project on Morrison) say about Animal Man, but I did the best I could! And please bear in mind that this paper is addressed, primarily, to people that have no familiarity with the book or the genre in question.
But enough excuses! Please, just read it, and tell me what you think!!!
Councils of Perfection: Genre and Generosity in Animal Man
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
–Shakespeare, The Tempest
All I can do is join protest groups and write this comic.
–Grant Morrison, Animal Man #26
Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (1988-1990) articulates a theory of agency which vaporizes the generic categories of author, autobiographical subject, protagonist, and audience into a fog of aestheticizing and intersubjectivizing energies. The series derives much of its ethical thrust from genre/narrative tendencies unleashed by the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, and depends, to an even greater extent, upon the editorial turmoil into which the “DC Universe” had been plunged during the mid-to-late 1980s. From the start, Morrison signalled (through a variety of textual and para-textual devices) his intention to take full advantage of his emergence at a crucial moment in the history of the genre by broadening the scope of the superhero story—not merely, as others had already begun doing, by forcing the protagonist into a new relationship with his/her/our world, but by developing a significant critique of the moral subject itself. The resultant storyline moves, through a series of epistemological leaps, toward the delineation of a kind of narratological Great Chain of Being. Under this new dispensation, every position in the sequence is defined by its occupant’s responsibility to loosen the grip of history/plausibility/coherence upon the lives of those under her/his diegetic care.
Animal Man is deeply rooted in the history (and prehistory) of the superhero genre, and would not have been possible without the specific fan culture that emerged in the Marvel Comics letter-to-the-editor columns (“lettercols”) of the 1960s. The sine qua non of this subculture is a sense of “fan entitlement” (which brings the sensibility of the coterie into the realm of the mass-produced) that has no real precedent in the annals of popular entertainment. The Marvel lettercol represented a logical development of the fan forum, pioneered by science fiction “pulps” of the 1920s/30s and the sci-fi/horror comics produced by EC in the 1950s. These earlier pages were themselves significant departures from the “feedback”-oriented pages that were (and continue to be) a staple of periodical literature.
The one person most responsible for this shift in policy was Hugo Gernsback, the publisher of Amazing Stories, a magazine which anthologized public-domain classics from the 19th-century alongside the contributions of genre-enthusiasts of its day. The lynchpin of this low-overhead (and, by all accounts, low-yield, at least by aesthetic criteria) marketing strategy was the “Discussions” column, which debuted in the June, 1926 issue. Gernsback printed the correspondents’ full addresses, thereby generating the connective tissue between hobbyists who shared the publisher’s belief that every reader of these stories was a potential scientist, and a potential “scientifiction” writer (Tymn, 14-49). To be a fan was to contribute to a group hypothesis concerning the destiny of the human race, purely for the pleasure (or, in some cases, the displeasure) of the thing. Conscientious participation in the dialectic entailed a duty, on the part of each fan, regardless of his or her status within the community, to scrutinize and pronounce upon the plausibility of the narratives that emerged from the process. Consequently, the lettercol, as the institutionalization of this imperative, retained its importance within fandom long after its catalyzing role had been played out.
Writers and editors who grew up in this subculture generally adhered to its ethos when they moved into positions of influence at the comic book companies that had almost completely supplanted the pulp magazines by the mid-1950s. The careers of Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger at DC, William Gaines at EC, and Stan Lee at Timely (later Atlas, later Marvel) each followed this trajectory. At DC (home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.), the full implementation of Gernsbackian policies was initially hampered by the editors’ paternalistic assumptions concerning the age- and literary competence-levels of their readers, but EC (publisher of titles like Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science, Shock SuspenStories, Psychoanalysis, etc.) continued the practice with ironic gusto, in the guise of the “E.C. Fan-Addict Club” (Pustz, 26-43).
Timely/Atlas/Marvel was, in fact, one of the last comic book publishers to fall back upon this tried and true method of stimulating/taking advantage of fan-involvement. However, once Stan Lee was given free rein over the new line of superhero titles the company proposed to develop, in the wake of DC’s revitalization of the genre in the mid-to-late 1950s (at the dawn of what fans call the “Silver Age” of superhero comics—the “Golden Age” having concluded with the Second World War), he turned the lettercol into a textual interface which became absolutely integral to the reader’s experience of the Marvel narrative. The process was not instantaneous. It began with a promise to tell stories more intimately linked to the “everyday” concerns of its audience (romantic difficulties, making rent, paying for—and succeeding at—college, feelings of alienation and a deep distrust of the cant of patriotism and “civic virtue”), drew momentum from the jocular overtures to speculation extended to the letter-writing public by Lee himself (in his capacity as editor), and eventuated in a de facto creative pact between the nominal producers and consumers of these texts which guaranteed the continued vitality (or, at least, viability) of the line’s superhero characters (i.e. Spider-Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, etc.) from month to month (Pustz, 43-65).
The Marvel Universe functioned, as a grand narrative, in a manner similar to the Wikipedia site (although it was, of course, constrained, in many ways, by the far more primitive technological conditions under which its creation was transacted). It existed, at all times, in singular form—but was always under pressure from the margins (in the lettercols—where readers made a practice of accounting for inconsistencies in the published narratives with explanations that became canonical).
The DC Universe, on the other hand, was very much a multiverse. It featured extremely clear lines of demarcation between the core and the periphery “worlds”—each of which, however, became increasingly riven by internal contradictions in the 1970s and 1980s. DC’s superhero line was 20+ years older than Marvel’s (Superman—its flagship character—was created in 1938; Fantastic Four—the first Marvel Universe title—debuted in 1961); and, until the publisher’s supremacy in the field was threatened by its younger competitor in the early-to-mid-1960s, its editors had never deemed it necessary to adopt any sort of a policy concerning the narrative coherence of its venerable slate of titles. Under pressure from Marvel—which had proven that most superhero readers were sophisticated enough to appreciate the tight “continuity” that unified the Marvel titles, and also that many fans were actually old enough to have been reading the adventures of the perennially-thirty Superman for 25 years (although very few of them were sophisticated enough to appreciate the existential absurdities of this last)—DC took steps to rationalize its output.
The story in Flash #123 (September, 1961), entitled “Flash of Two Worlds”, laid the groundwork for the multiverse concept. This tale, by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, explains that the Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen) had adopted his costumed identity as an homage to the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick), a comic book character whose adventures Barry had enjoyed as a child. Things become more complicated when the current Flash bursts through a dimensional barrier and finds himself in the world that those old comics had chronicled. Naturally, he meets his counterpart, whose world would become known as Earth-2, and their growing friendship would facilitate a host of similar meetings between the heroes of the two different worlds (even between those—like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—whose identities are exactly the same on both planes). Gradually, the multiverse principle expanded to include all manner of peripheral worlds, including Earth-X (home of the “Freedom Fighters”—who struggle endlessly on against a German Reich which triumphed in World War 2), Earth-S (home of Captain Marvel—a popular hero/Superman “clone” of the 1940s absorbed by DC through a spectacular lawsuit against his original publisher), Earth-3 (a world ruled by the “Crime Syndicate of America”—villainous counterparts of DC’s Justice League of America), Earth-Prime (our world), etc.1
Many writers and fans grew attached to the multiverse, which underwrote the existence of numerous characters (i.e. the Legion of Super-Pets) and story elements (e.g. alternate histories, as represented by the Nazi-scenario; or a world ruled by superheroes; not to mention the entire sub-industry of books, some of them ongoing monthly titles, devoted to chronicling the further adventures of the “Golden Age” generation—and their children—on Earth-2) that would never have fit within the confines of the more streamlined narrative published by Marvel, the undisputed industry leader by 1980. However, an equal or greater number of participants in the subculture objected to this nebulous structure for the very same reasons. Moreover, the multiverse had proven to be less and less effective, even on its own terms, as a shield against the inevitable incoherencies of an increasingly sprawling corpus (e.g. when, exactly, did the stories in Batman begin to be about the Earth-1 Bruce Wayne instead of his other-dimensional predecessor? On which Earth(s) did Superman begin his career as Superboy?)
Matters came to a head when, in the mid-1980s, DC’s editorial staff conceded the necessity to gird its superhero line for renewed conflict with its younger, wirier opponent. The result: a twelve-month long “maxi-series” (which would have an impact upon every single title published under the DC banner) entitled Crisis On Infinite Earths (1985-86). The eponymous event was a massive conflagration that melted all of the myriad worlds into one brand-new diamond-hard Earth, the exact characteristics of which would be unveiled in comics published by the company after the final issue of the Crisis. In a symbolic move, many prominent titles—notably Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman—were cancelled and re-started (or “re-booted”) at #1. Naturally, as a corollary of this, many characters and, theoretically, all of the events of the preceding 50 years were purged from the continuity, leaving DC’s writers and artists in the ideal position to speak directly to the superhero fan of 1987.
The company also initiated a fairly extensive search for new and interesting talent to throw into the narratological breach. A pet axiom of the time held that non-American writers (presumably less immersed in the superhero subculture) would be less “conflicted” by the changes that had been wrought upon the DC Universe, and would therefore be more adept at furthering the revolution. Proponents of this theory generally relied upon the evidence of English curmudgeon Alan Moore’s critically (and, to a limited extent, commercially) successful re-invention of Swamp Thing in 1983, long before the Crisis had been implemented. Grant Morrison, a Scottish punk and Sci-Fi writer, would become one of the key figures in this comic book restaging of the “British Invasion”.
In his autobiographical preface to Animal Man (printed, no doubt, for reasons of expediency, in issue #2), Morrison gives the following account of his engagement to write the series (after describing his youthful fascination with the character—whom he had first discovered as a “back-up reprint feature” in early 1970s issues of Supergirl):
I’d finally managed to get myself off Social Security and was working full-time as a comics writer—doing “Dr. Who” and “Zoids” for Marvel’s UK operation and the “Zenith” series for 2000 A.D.—when Karen Berger [a DC editor] phoned me up and asked me if I’d like to meet her, Jeanette Kahn [the President and Publisher of the company] and Dick Giordano [Vice-President and Executive Editor] in London, with a view to doing some work for DC (This was DC’s third major talent search in the UK, the first two having yielded people like Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, and Alan Moore.) Needless to say, I was on the first train to London, the very next morning. While the train idled at Crewe, I thought of Animal Man and saw this as the ideal opportunity to give my childhood fave his big chance. Revivals of old characters were very much in vogue at the time and I didn’t have very much trouble selling the concept (Animal Man #2, 25).
In this passage, the author walks a characteristic tightrope between enthusiasm and glib detachment—presenting the episode as a once-in-lifetime opportunity for his protagonist, rather than for himself.
This oddly compartmentalized fervour carries over into the remainder of the text piece, in which Morrison describes his creative process and declares his ambition for the series. It is worth quoting at length:
I wanted first of all to do something a little different from the “gritty realism” that was so much in evidence at the time [the Reagan era witnessed a pronounced devolution in superhero comics, particularly at Marvel, into Dirty Harry-style exercises in vigilante aggression—exemplified by the antics of new fan-favourite characters of the period like Wolverine and The Punisher], something more aligned to the bizarre traditions of the 1960s Flash or even those few, early Animal Man adventures [also from the 1960s]. I also decided to remotivate the Animal Man character by making him a zealous animal rights activist. This allowed me not only to deal with some of the animal abuses that I find personally disturbing and indefensible but also to question the morality of more extreme activists, some of whom are talking about killing scientists and poisoning foodstuffs.
With this in mind, I submitted a proposal for a 4-issue mini-series that would chronicle the radicalization of Buddy Baker [Animal Man’s real name]. The proposal was not only approved but I was then asked to continue Animal Man’s new exploits into a regular monthly title. From #5 onward, I hope can try some more interesting and experimental stuff, all of which is going to lead to a major reworking of Animal Man’s origin and an assault on the fundamental reality of the DC Universe (AM #2, 25-26).
Omitted from this statement of purpose is any discussion of the link between the author’s political and formal concerns.
Morrison’s readers, already two months deep into the series, would certainly have recognized the “radicalization” storyline as the one in progress before their eyes. Issues #1-4 dramatize Buddy’s half-hearted attempts to curb the rage of the B’Wana Beast—a relic of the “Silver Age”, like Animal Man, who derives his powers from African mythology—in the face of the injustice done to his friend Djuba, an intelligent ape who had been kidnapped by poachers, then experimented upon (and ultimately murdered) by scientists testing a new strain of Anthrax to be used for military purposes. However, while the preface seems to indicate that the series would then “progress” from overt activism toward lighter, more experimental literary play, it in fact does something like the reverse.
Animal Man #5 (“The Coyote Gospel”) opens with a short vignette: a sympathetic, gay, Christian big rig truck driver and a young hitchhiker named Carrie discuss the perks and perils of relocating to the big city in search of a better, or a more exciting, life:
Carrie: You just think I’m a loser, like everyone else. Well you don’t need good grades in Hollywood and I’m going to be somebody. I had my tarot cards read.
Trucker: Hff! I spent three years in LA, man, and we’re talking Dante’s goddamn Inferno here, okay? I’d probably still be hooked on smack or dying in an aids ward if it wasn’t for my friend Billy there [points to a picture of himself and his friend, dangling from the sunshield of the cab]. He gave me this cross see? Solid silver. I’ve never taken it off since. Billy and the Good Lord saved my life, man. (AM #5, 1)
A few minutes later—after a pleasant interlude in which the pair perform a duet in sync with Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner” on the radio—a strangely anthropomorphized coyote flashes before the windshield and is quickly obliterated by the truck (2). The trucker tells his guest not to look back—but the panels of the comic book don’t give us any choice. The reader is forced to contemplate the mutilated corpse—and to watch its subsequent (painful) regeneration into a whole, eventually upright (in a full-page illustration, see fig. 1), coyote. A caption declares: “That was a year ago” (3-5).
On page 6, Morrison returns to the bosom of Buddy Baker’s sitcom-style, lower-middle-class suburban San Diegoan family, which had played a prominent role in the opening storyline, and would continue to do so throughout the series. Buddy is frenziedly throwing out every vestige of animal matter that he can find in his refrigerator, and tells his son Cliff (9 years old) that they will all just have to learn to eat things like “tofu or something”. Clearly, these events are meant to be read as the immediate aftermath of the adventure with B’wana Beast. Soon, Buddy’s wife (Ellen—a graphic designer) arrives home from work. She takes him to task for throwing out a week’s worth of groceries—and for failing, in general, to reconcile his noble urges with “reality” (specifically economic reality). An out-of-work stuntman nearing thirty, Buddy’s only career plan is to continue to develop his power to absorb the special abilities of any animal (from elephants to earthworms), in the hopes of “doing good”—and possibly earning his way onto the Justice League International, which would bring in a decent stipend. Ellen and Buddy had engaged in similar conversations throughout the previous issues, but the motif’s recurrence here—now yoked to the moral decision to stop eating meat—is decisive for the future direction of the series.
Buddy storms out to clear his head in the desert, where he will eventually meet up with the unnamed truck driver from the opening vignette. From a series of captions, we learn that Billy, the man’s friend and probable lover, died in a freak accident two weeks after the coyote incident. Later on, the man glimpses a depressing headline (“Prostitute Slain in Drug Raid”) over a photograph of Carrie on the cover of his newspaper. He concludes that, somehow, the Coyote (he calls him “the devil”) is responsible for these terrible events, and resolves to kill him again. (Leaving the reader to assume that he must have “looked back”, against his own advice. How else could he have known about the animal’s resurrection?) He returns to the primal scene, armed to the teeth. When he finds the Coyote, sitting meditatively on the ledge of a canyon, he opens fire upon him with a rifle. The creature is smashed to bits by the fall. Narrative captions dwell upon every detail of the damage done to his body. However, he quickly rises once again, only to be targeted and blown up by more of the truck driver’s machinations (the last of which, a bomb, catches its architect in the same trap).
Meanwhile, Animal Man drops in on the scene and introduces himself to the now-completely healed Coyote, who hands the hero a scroll which contains the “Gospel According to Crafty” (17). This strange tale, illustrated in the far more “childish” style familiar to viewers of Saturday morning programs, recounts how Crafty, originally no different fromn the rest of his fellow cartoon-denizens of a world plunged into “endless violence and cruelty”, came to doubt the justice of his plight, said “no more”, and rose up “into the presence of God” (19). God, depicted as a faceless man armed with paint brushes, asserts that Crafty will have to punished for his rebellion, and the accused declares his willingness to “bear any punishment that will bring peace to the world” (20). God grants Crafty’s wish—declaring a moratorium on violence in the cartoon world and banishing the sacrificial victim into the “dark hell of the second reality” (Animal Man’s Earth-DC), wherein he is given “new flesh and new blood…and taught new pain” (20-21). Several panels, including one that clearly references the Prometheus myth (see panel 2, figure 2), depict his suffering, and his determination to persevere, in the hope that he might someday “overthrow the tyrant God… and build a better world”. Animal Man looks up from the scroll and whispers, regretfully, that he cannot read it (21).
At this point, the truck driver, felled by his own bomb, recovers just enough of his strength to load a “magic silver bullet” (melted down from the cross given to him by Billy) into his rifle and shoot the Coyote through the heart with it. As the “devil” falls, the man mutters to himself: “Oh Billy, I did it. I saved the world.” Then he dies (23). The final page (see figure 3) consists of five panels, the first of which shows Buddy leaning dejectedly over the dying creature, followed by a series of “shots” which gradually pull back from the scene to reveal the Coyote lying in the iconic position of the crucified Christ, on a symbolically-cropped intersection in the desert, while the artist-God’s brush drips red paint (24).
This final tableau becomes infinitely more interesting when it is read in conjunction with issue #5’s cover image (see fig. 4), which depicts Animal Man in roughly the same position as the Coyote. However, whereas the “God-hand” in the diegetic image is only shown in a destructive relationship to his creation (dripping the Coyote’s blood), the hand on the cover is actively engaged in the delineation (the subjectification?) of the series’ protagonist. Crafty’s God is merely a cruel tyrant, who could conceivably be overthrown. The creative force depicted on the cover is a more complex thing—certainly no less cruel than the monstrous deity who torments the Coyote, but perhaps a great deal more essential to the being of its victim. Is Morrison saying that life itself is nothing more than a drawn-out process of being drawn in to a trap? Perhaps it is more likely that he is drawing our attention to the ways in which genres (whether they be superhero stories or systems of belief) interpolate their participants (be they authors, readers, or protagonists)—painting them into a corner with a very limited palette of life-choices and possible attitudes toward events.
Raised in a martyr-culture, Buddy (along with most of his readers and creators) inevitably discerns a kind of beauty/glory in the Coyote’s terrible death which he (and probably we, as well) cannot help envying (i.e. “All good comes out of suffering”). Thus, the Coyote Gospel is transformed into the Gospel of Animal Man, and, by extension, the Gospel of every single person who looks at the text but, like Buddy, fails to understand it. The remainder of the series will probe this scenario with relentless rigour, exposing, at every turn, the vanity of its protagonist’s (and of the Western Moral Subject’s) desire to “make sense” of suffering.
The response to “The Coyote Gospel” was, by all accounts, overwhelming. In issue #8’s lettercol (the series generally ran comments on three-month delay), Art Young, the assistant editor in charge of fan mail, elected to run short excerpts from letters on the story, in the hopes of squeezing in as many comments as possible. Discussion of the literary/cultural allusions within (and the formal properties of) the work tended to crowd out the political discourse that had been the column’s (entitled “Animal Writes”) stock-in-trade:
Poets know that the best metaphors are unexpected… I don’t find theology out of place in superhero comics, it’s the mythological potential of the genre that got me hooked on them years ago (Debbie Bird, AM #8, 25)
I am astounded at the variety of sources you have managed to incorporate into a mere 24 pages. Warner Brothers cartoon mesh seamlessly with the archetypal Prometheus myth. Add to that some metaphysical speculation about destiny and the workings of an omnipotent deity, and you have a truly remarkable achievement (Peter Knapman, AM #8, 26)
Of the page’s “stock company”—a small group of fans who, even at this early stage of the series, had established themselves as monthly participants in the dialogue—only Mark Lucas’ letter saw publication in issue #8:
[...]We see the monster in us all for not perceiving the Coyote as a friend, as a child would, but as a demon, when we ourselves are the demons watching the world from this view[point]… (AM #8, 26)
The interpretation of the story as a blanket condemnation of fallen/misguided humanity is common in fan-appreciation of Animal Man—and it can certainly be supported by reference to the text. However, when read within the larger context of the series as a whole, “The Coyote Gospel” can be construed to have a very different meaning (which we will return to later). Generally, readers praised the book for its inventive technique, along the lines of reception set down by Morrison in his “preface” (which was warmly embraced and much commented upon by the fans), and its author quickly acquired a reputation as the latest in a long line of comic book creators who were going to make “art” out of a trash medium.
The “text proper” of Animal Man #8 also brought Grant Morrison, as an autobiographical persona, back into the forefront of the story (although this was not to become evident until several months had passed). Page one of the story—entitled “Mirror Moves”—features a series of shots of a computer monitor, upon which the words “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos. – Albert Einstein” gradually appear. The remainder of the issue is given over to domestic scenes (between Buddy and Ellen), and a domestic invasion perpetrated by the Mirror Master, a Glaswegian ruffian hired by a shadowy para-governmental organization to convince the young superhero, through intimidation, to abandon his political activism and return to the business-as-usual of battling “super-villains” and aliens. The confrontation is largely played for comedy, and affords Ellen another opportunity to show herself to be the head of the household, when she kicks the invader down the staircase. However, the story’s epilogue (in which the Mirror Master reports to his employers) also sounds the warning note that Buddy’s activities are under surveillance by powers beyond his ken. This is echoed twice over by two further epilogues. The first of which (“Epilogue II”) introduces a Native American Physicist named James Highwater, standing on a mesa in the middle of desert, wondering:
Why am I suddenly here? I don’t remember driving or walking to this place. Is it only some existential terror that makes me feel as though I have been newly brought into the world with a full set of memories and a purpose already prepared for me? Or could it be true, after all… That Einstein was wrong? (AM #8, 23)
“Epilogue III” returns to the computer monitor from page one, as a cursor drags the reply “He doesn’t. I do.” across the screen, beneath the quotation from Einstein (24).
Most readers interpreted the computer’s owner as a megalomaniacal master-planner in the grand tradition of the genre. Others noted the possibility that this figure could be another guise of the omnipotent artist from issue #5. However, this kind of speculation was quickly overwhelmed by the advent of the protagonist’s long-promised (and much-anticipated) multi-part “origin story” in Animal Man #10-12 (which even reeled madly outside the confines of the series into issue #39 of, appropriately enough, at least on the surface of things, Secret Origins). One of the most cherished conventions of the genre, “origin stories” are always closely scrutinized (even memorized) by fans—and Morrison’s “The Myth of the Creation” interfaced with the tradition in ways that made even some of his most vocal champions uncomfortable:
“Be strong. Be careful. Beware” [an allusion to the final words spoken by the demiurgic yellow aliens—more on them presently—who put Buddy through his paces during this part of the storyline] Are you telling your readers to “be confused”? I don’t mean that nastily. In a year, we’ve seen a dozen fine stories; next month B’Wana Beast returns, and if the subject is Apartheid, I anticipate something that Joseph Lelyveld could have put into Move Your Shadow (see how highly I esteem Grant Morrison’s work?). But an origin is supposed to explain everything and allow us to move on to the next stage of the hero’s development. This didn’t do that, although it did make me knit my brow a lot (Charles Sperling, AM #16, 26).
In Secret Origins #39, Morrison (abetted by artists Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood) re-presents a version of Animal Man’s “original origin”, from Strange Adventures #180 (1965). It is a typical DC Silver Age origin: a guy with not too much going on in his life receives a wake up call from space and an immediate opportunity to thrash some beasts; goes home feeling powerful, blurts out a marriage proposal to his breathlessly waiting sweetheart and faints. That’s Buddy the first (pre-Crisis).
On page one of Animal Man #10 (see figure 5), we find a kind of epilogue to the origin story that recreates the beginning of Buddy’s second Silver Age adventure (an encounter with completely generic yellow space aliens), again in the style of a 1960s comic. This page is the first item in a triptych that is at the heart of Morrison’s prophesied “assault upon the fundamental reality of the DC Universe”. The second item (AM #11, 2–see figure 6) is virtually a copy of the first, with a few alterations in the visuals (Buddy’s punk hairstyle, the wrecked spaceship) and with the words in the dialogue balloons completely scrambled. Clearly, there is some problem here—although it is supposedly resolved the following month, when those same yellow aliens prompt the post-Crisis Buddy to give his own account of the day in question. The key scenes recur a third time (AM #12 22—see figure 7), with the original syntax restored, and the dialogue, costumes and hair redone for the late seventies.
The bookend “myths of the creation” (which bring to mind the two versions of the beginning of the world in Genesis) completely undermine each other, leaving the middle one–the meaningless one–to stand as the “true” secret origin of Animal Man. It is so secret, in fact, that it’s absolutely opaque! These are not “creation myths”, this is creation as myth! And without a stable origin, Buddy Baker has no real identity–he will always be other than himself…In issue #12, the reborn character discovers an ability to multiply himself, by absorbing the powers of self-replicating bacteria… In more ways than one then–Buddy II becomes Animal Men…
A powerful anti-ontological argument runs through Animal Man. The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that consciousness springs out of the void. The standard antidote to this supposition is to posit a God or an Ideal which is the one and only something, and which we are all a part of (solipsism/pantheism). At certain points in the book, Morrison suggests that most people would actually rather embrace nihilism than entertain the notion that whatever meaning there is in the world is founded upon radical absence.
The author comes out into the open, as a dramatized character, in issue #14. He wanders along a canal near his home, pondering the writings of David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order), contemplating the next act of his drama (which he fears is in danger of becoming pretentious), thinking to himself: “Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?” (6-7). This interlude ends when Morrison stumbles across the sleeping form of James Highwater (one of the many figures this narrative encourages the reader to juxtapose with its nominal protagonist, in an endless concatenation of actors whose agency is infinitely deferred… Highwater himself had previously borne witness to a similar deconstruction of the willing subject, in AM #10, during an interview, in an insane asylum, with the Psycho-Pirate—a character who claims that every word he says has been scripted and lives in fear of being “removed from the continuity”—which ran parallel to Buddy’s “origin story”), and gently nudges the man’s shoulder.
The physicist awakens in bed in an unfamiliar hotel, knowing only that he has been charged with the duty to contact Animal Man. However, this meeting is postponed by a series of adventures in AM #15-17 which hearken back to the “political”/”realist” mode of the first four issues. Buddy helps to curtail a Dolphin slaughter in the Faroe islands (#15); celebrates the publication of Ellen’s illustrated book by inviting her to take a quick trip to Paris (a few months earlier, Buddy had been inducted into the Justice League, thereby gaining access to a sophisticated teleportation system), during which, of course, he is forced to deal with a kind of “super-villain” (#16); and participates in an illegal raid on a medical research facility, in which “sight-deprivation” experiments are being performed upon monkeys, whose eyes have been sewn shut (#17). Buddy violates the “superhero code” by dropping one particularly bloodthirsty Faroese (who characterizes his enthusiasm for the traditional dolphin slaughter as a form of anti-Americanism/post-colonial empowerment) into the middle of the ocean; and, in #17, his rage against the speciesist paradigm reaches a fever pitch (an emotion eloquently captured by the issue’s austere cover illustration by Brian Bolland—see figure 8). The presence of these story elements, in the midst of the supposedly “literary” and “experimental” leg of the series, speaks in favour of a more holistic reading of Animal Man than anyone, including Morrison (who voiced the concern that the more “propagandistic” aspects of the book tended to undermine its integrity as a “work of art”), advanced at the time of its publication.
The key to this interpretation lies in issue #16 (“The Clockwork Crimes of the Time Commander”)—the story set in Paris. The eponymous “villain” is a kind of metaphysical anarchist who achieves—temporarily—the ability to obliterate the distance between the present and the past. Buddy and Ellen first become aware of this man’s machinations when they encounter a Tyrannosaurus Rex on a cobblestone street. Soon, Animal Man’s Justice League comrades inform him: “Time’s gone crazy! We’ve just seen German tanks and cavemen chasing Jean Paul Sartre! The French Revolution is happening right around the corner” (AM #16, 14). However, when the team of heroes locates the Time Commander, he is standing in a graveyard, exulting in the various reunions (an old woman and her long-dead husband, a young woman and her cat) that his actions have made possible, crying: “love denies entropy! Through love, we abolish death” (17). Of course, the superheroes, whose default mission is always the preservation of the status quo, undertake to stop him, and all of them (except for Animal Man) engage in the mission without any sense of inner conflict. Ultimately, even Buddy concludes that the Time Commander’s threat to the clockwork mechanism of the political/natural cosmology of the West (which interpolates each of us as, before anything, beings-in-time) must be suppressed. The remainder of the series (#17-26) can be construed as an argument against that decision.
Highwater finally reaches Buddy’s house on the final page of AM #17, then collapses into an unfinished sketch of himself. Issue #18 opens with a voice saying “…Buddy?…” in the dark, and a surreal vision of neighbors Tricia and Roger bearing down upon the unseen protagonist with tearful concern and a glass of water. In caption-boxes someone thinks “there’s something important I mustn’t forget… is that a door in the darkness?” Then we loop back into kitchen-brightness: Ellen pouring a glass of water for the flustered physicist (whose limbs have been disappearing for short periods lately), Maxine and Cliff (the Baker children) chattering in the background.
Buddy and James set out upon their authorially-mandated adventure into monism, dreaming bridges across abysses under the influence of peyote, and the tutelage of an intelligent fox-spirit called “Foxy”. (Earlier in the series, Highwater had found a page of a comic book on the floor of the Psycho-Pirate’s cell which contained the autobiographical account of a child’s—subsequently revealed as Morrison–friendship with an imaginary fox, also called Foxy). Many Castenada-style revelations occur to the two men (including one in which, for a moment, the protagonist is able to “see” the reader’s face, looming over the page), but none of them count for anything against Buddy’s return to consciousnes in #20, on the floor of his kitchen, where he’d been since Roger offered him the first glass of water. It is revealed that during that whole burst of a-mesa-ing grace, Ellen and the kids were already dead (victims of a second “government” plot to stifle Animal Man’s activism).
Morrison beautifully dramatizes a mind attempting to cope with the unthinkable–not its own anihilation, but the loss of what it loves. The cure is far worse than the disease. By plugging into “unity”/pantheism, he loses the capacity to relate, and the text maintains that relation is the only fount of meaning in this world. The mystic’s vision of union with the divine is depicted as a self-defense mechanism, a sop to the apocalypse, which humans generally gain access to by poisoning themselves with intoxicants, starvation, or sleep-deprivation. Far from being “at one with the universe”, Buddy isn’t even at one with himself. He has no identity–or, at any rate, he is not identical to himself.
In issue #22 (illustrated by Paris Cullins & Steve Montano, not by Truog, or even by Tom Grummett, who had filled in before), Buddy wanders (thanks to a staple of the genre—the time machine), alienated, through his past, thinking: “sometimes I watch them but they don’t seem real. They’re his family, not mine. My family is dead. It’s driving me mad. It’s driving me mad” (14). In direct contradistinction to the Psycho-Pirate’s fears, Buddy is never in continuity. His reality is fluid–he’s treading “elseworlds”.
The subsequent issues detail Buddy’s desperate attempts to find his way back into a life with his family that he increasingly comes to understand as nothing more than a “story” (with no diminution in his desire for it). Issue #25 follows the protagonist through Limbo—a repository for all of the characters removed from the continuity during the Crisis. The cover of this issue depicts a monkey at a typewriter. On the surface, this figure seems like just another avatar of the artist-God—and indeed, the monkey is scripting the first page of the story contained within the book. However, it is significant that this scripter-God turns out to be a denizen of Limbo, and thus shares a plane of existence with the alienated dregs of the DC universe. The monkey enjoys none of the aestheticizing detachment that the series’ preceding Gods and authors did. The God of the Coyote Gospel proves to be unassailable. The Art Martyr (from issue #6) almost blows up the planet with his ultimate creation—and dies without knowing (or, indeed, caring) whether or not his apocalyptic set-piece has achieved its final aim. The monkey, on the other hand, merely types out a passage from The Tempest, smiles, and keels over–becoming a dead-weight in Buddy’s arms as the latter wanders purposefully nowhere through the meaningless tundra. Is this scene a depiction of the creator as a burden upon the created?
Certainly. However, the monkey’s saga also contains this plea against a well-made plot, direct from Shakespeare
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free. (The Tempest)
Prospero, in his last extremity, asks the audience to abrogate the dire chain of cause-and-effect at work in the narrative—and this is exactly what Morrison (under the influence of innumerable pleading letters from his readers) eventually does. The author saves the characters he (and they) has/have grown to love by splicing his/their hopes to the Shakespearian comedy, which brings something out of nothing by calling for a sympathetic response.
The figure of the monkey serves as a stand-in for Morrison’s dying cat, Jarmara, whom he had carried back and forth on endless trips to the vet that ultimately proved to be of no help at all (an account of which is given to Buddy, by the author himself, in issue #26). Jarmara’s death is the preeminent symbol of limitation in this book. Literally anything else can be changed, on a whim–but not this. As Morrison tells Buddy, her death was “not fair. But who do I complain to?” (AM #26, 18)
Thankfully, this is not the case with Buddy’s family. They are inhabitants of a “world created by committee”, and this committee is quite as capable of conspiring to bring dead characters back to life–no matter (as letter-writer George Gustiness puts it in #23) “what sleazy stunt [they] have to pull”–as it is of visiting horrific persecution upon its charges. It becomes a question of which convention the audience will embrace: comedy or (1980s-supehero-style) “grim n’ gritty” tragedy (a mode which, paradoxically, has always been far more satisfying to the tortured human psyche.)
In issue #25, the mysterious typing figure, which later proves to be Morrison, thinks (in response to limbo-bound Merryman’s question: “Let’s face it, who cares about the space canine patrol agents in this day and age?”):
I care. It’s stupid, I know, but I care. All the things that meant so much when we were young. Under the blankets late at night, listening to long-distance radio. All those things: lost now or broken. Can you remember? Can you remember that feeling? (12)
The author is quite right to invoke the names of specific letter-writers (AM #26, 17)—most of whom do remember the things (and the characters) that he is talking about with affection–when the time comes for him to make a decision in Buddy’s case. Ultimately, it is they, as a community of wellwishers, who agree, for old time’s sake, to waive their right to a sacrificial lamb, thereby empowering Morrison to restore Ellen, Maxine, and Cliff to Buddy’s world. “Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind” [in lieu of striving for “realism”] (AM #26, 19), Morrison explains. (Echoing Emerson, in “Experience”: “Let us treat the men and women well. Treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are”). It is a triumph of generosity over genre. Or, rather, it is a flying leap, out of tragedy, into another genre entirely: Old Comedy (which is driven by the need to recognize the Other, and the limits of the imperial self).
In the book’s final moments, after Buddy has been reunited with his family, Morrison completely abandons the pose of the self-begetting (and aesticizing) creator. He stands on the edge of the canal, shining a light across the water, in search of the face of the Other (whom he calls “Foxy”). In this posture, he is the embodiment of Judith Butler’s “subject who can never fully give an account of himself [and who] may well be a result of being related at non-narratable levels of existence to others in ways that have a supervenient ethical significance” (Giving an Account of Onself, 135). Ultimately, it is the example of this unexpected humility which constitutes Morrison’s most effective argument against the human tendency to seek order, coherence, plausibility, “realism” at the expense of the living beings whose life stories we (either as individuals, or “by committee”) can easily rewrite.
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