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“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”

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!
Dave

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3 comments

  1. Great work! To respond to your first question, I would suggest the main reasons AM doesn’t enjoy the status of Watchmen or DKR are two:

    1. Where those other works were self-contained stories, “graphic novels” in as true a sense as that word really has, AM was a more typical “run” within a series, with all that entails (crossovers interrupting the narrative, references to concurrent events in other series, guest stars lacking characterization, etc.). While it has more narrative cohesion than some other vaunted “runs”, such as Moore’s Swamp Thing and Morrison’s own Doom Patrol, it resembles those works structurally more than it does Watchmen or DKR. As such, it’s much less accessible to consideration as whole than those shorter, self-contained works.

    2. AM is also less self-contained in its dramatic subject matter. A reasonable level of familiarity with comics history in general and DCU history in particular is required for even understanding the basic story (specifically the over-arching plot which is resolved in the last few issues). While this is true to some extent with DKR (which assumes the reader is already somewhat versed in Bat-lore) and Watchmen (with its metacommentary on comics generally), each of these works nevertheless present a straightforward, freestanding narrative that can stand on its own without extensive prior knowledge on the part of the reader. I don’t think this is really the case with AM.

  2. To follow up on the last comment (which I agree with), I think that you have to give Watchmen the nod as stylistically superior (to put a value judgement on it) to Animal Man. Their respective treatments of the superhero aside, Watchmen’s elegant design and dense visual storytelling are more accomplished than Animal Man’s (for the most part) standard layouts. Some people may see that as style and artifice for it’s own sake, but, hey, that’s what often gets the critical acclaim, in all art forms (see Ulysses and Citizen Kane, for example).

    -Matt

  3. Thanks–you both make excellent points, and it seems to me that if I hope to convince people that Animal Man is up to the standard set by DKR and Watchmen I’m going to have to make the case that Morrison’s “rippling narrative field” is at least as well designed as Moore/Gibbons & Miller’s perfect modernist marriages of form and content… I’m gonna try!

    Dave

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