So why doesn’t Animal Man enjoy the critical prestige that Watchmen and Dark Knight do? Could it be the old “loose baggy monster” syndrome? A perceived weakness in the design? Reviewers praise the metafiction, wondering all the while what the hell it has to do with the animal rights content. Or they decry the narratological bells and whistles as a cop out–evidence of a failure of nerve on Morrison’s part. Nowadays they’re more likely to think–“well, this is a series that broke some ground, once upon a time, but, you know, so what if Buddy knows he’s a character in a comic book? Didn’t John Byrne do the same thing with She-Hulk?” Nuff said!
But Animal Man #1-26 is no schizophrenic experiment–it’s an overgrown weed of a masterpiece; narrative moss coating the bare rock of Emerson’s lament: “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.”
Sure I know Grant Morrison is Mr. Trickster-God/I’m just a shimmering bit of plankton on the ocean of consciousness these days–but back in 1990, I thought he was the greatest moral philosopher on the planet. This is no playful meditation on the creator’s godlike prerogatives vis a vis his/her creations, this is an anguished game of chicken with solipsism. In the fourth issue (which was to be the last of the mini-series, before DC okayed an unlimited run), Ellen rushes home from the woods with a blanketful of kittens, after enduring a horrific near-rape. In shock, she asks her neighbor, Mrs. Weidemeir, for help with the starving animals. The older woman takes one look and pronounces them D.O.A. Tears stream down Ellen’s cheek as she whispers “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” (anyone remember ASM #121?) Meanwhile, the B’Wana Beast moans: “Paradise… we were given paradise…and we turned it into an abattoir…”
That’s what the series is about. It’s a prolonged (not “profound”–there’s no such thing, as far as Morrison is concerned) skate upon iced tears. The mind screams out for security blank-myths–evidence that “evil comes out of good”, that “death is the final enemy”, that there is value in suffering… That’s where stories come from. “God takes special care of little animals honey. And remember, their mother’s up there waiting for them,” Mrs. Weidemeir explains. “In cat heaven?” Maxine asks. “That’s right. In cat heaven.” Meanwhile, Ellen Baker quietly breaks down. The artwork in this sequence is extraordinarily powerful, I think… Truog does human expressions so well, and without that the series wouldn’t be worth anything! Here, as in almost every issue, Morrison goes for maximum emotion (and I’m not talking Claremont’s Crocodile-angst here, I’m talking about people coming face to face with the unspeakable suffering in the world, “alienation” isn’t the disease in Animal Man, it’s the cure!) and Truog’s characters live in their eyes, which are Manga-sized without the robotic manga-pupils. At every step of the way, those eyes speak eloquently against the monist philosophy that Morrison foists upon us. The effect is breathtaking–it’s a dramatization of the human tendency to trace “arcs” around abysses; and yet, in this series, those circles don’t “contain” the threat of meaninglessness–they highlight it!
In the final confrontation, Morrison tells Buddy: “Of course I know [how you feel about the death of your wife and kids]. I wrote your grief and your rage and your acceptance.” He also explains that he killed them in the first place in order to “add drama”. Buddy says: “That’s not fair.” And then Morrison gives him the real explanation for the grim turn in the series–“No. It’s not. One of my cats died last year. Something, maybe a bone, punctured her lung. Pus built up in her lungs so that she couldn’t breathe. She suffered for four weeks and then died at the vets, a couple of weeks after her third birthday. Her name was Jarmara. That wasn’t fair either but who do I complain to?”
The truth is that there is no “compensation” for the wrongs that befall us in real life. So artists close the loop in their work. Sometimes they even make preemptive strikes upon their fears, as Morrison implies when he says: “I told you about my cat Jarmara. I took her to the vet every tuesday and thursday. I liquidized her food and fed her with a dropper. I prayed for her to get better… I’d have done anything to save her really. And yet there was a part of me–the part that observes and writes–rubbing its’ hands and saying, ‘well, at least if she dies, I’ll be able to use it in Animal Man’…” As Rorschach would say–“one more body in the foundation.” But where Moore argues that political orders are built upon the suffering of the expendable, Morrison offers a far more radical formulation–our lives are built up at the expense of those who mean the most to us…
Death is not the final enemy in Animal Man–the rationalization of death is. Morrison tells Buddy that he couldn’t possibly bring Ellen and the kids back, because “that wouldn’t be realistic”. But then he changes his mind. Why? Isn’t it because he recognizes that the “integrity” of Buddy’s march toward acceptance–his “developmental arc”–doesn’t make real suffering any easier to endure? Ultimately, Buddy’s desire to see his family again is the only “real” thing about him. And we owe it to ourselves to be kind to others, if it is in our power to help them… Who knows? They may turn out to be real. (just like Foxy…)
Good night friends!