Butterfly Affect

(Soundtrack: Starlings–Too Many Dogs.)

So. Is God a decadent aesthete with no neck who subsists upon the immoral syllabub of our pain? That’s what “Red Jack” is selling in Doom Patrol #23-24. There’s a long-standing tradition in superhero comics of introducing “omnipotent” figures and then demolishing their divine pretensions with Quaker theological jujitsu–no person or entity can truthfully claim to be God, because “God is love” (John 4:8), and love doesn’t make any claims. “The House that Jack Built” is the Galactus story all over again, only better, because it is stripped of the misplaced awe that mars Jack Kirby’s vision of the planet-eating solipsist. If God actually existed as an individuated personality, he/she/it would be indistinguishable from Marilyn Manson. There’s nothing noble about the “egotistical sublime”. Interesting? Sure. But worthy of our respect? No way man. That’s what I take away from this story–and that’s why, contra Jess Nevins from yesterday’s comments, I’m going to stick with my characterization of Morrison as one of our greatest moralists (Animal Man as a mere provocation? I just don’t see it that way!)

Red Jack is certainly not your garden variety solipsist. He’s got a big house that spans the dimensions, and he does have some pretty amazing powers. For one thing, he can keep you alive forever, provided that you replenish his own fountain of youth with your tears. Oh yeah, and that “lifeline” he offers is a sharp pin through your midsection, so don’t worry about the cying part, that’ll come naturally. This is Christian prostration as method acting.

Crazy Jane’s decision to release the butterflies from their ritualized torment signifies the end of Red Jack’s “Godhood”. Implicit in all of this is that we need “God” to give meaning to our suffering. If you just face the fact that suffering has no meaning, then you don’t need “God” anymore. Nor do you need anything like the Buddhist concept of the “wheel of life”. “God is love”–that is all you need to know. The superheroic bar brawl between Robotman, Rebis, and Red Jack is pure maya. There’s nothing going on there–it’s mere posturing, on both sides. But we’re a long way from nihilism here, nor is Morrison advocating “blessed extinguishedness”. The locus of meaning is offstage, that’s all–it’s the fact that Crazy Jane cares about the butterflies.

“No…no…don’t leave me…you’ll die…” Red Jack pleads, “with me…you live forever…this isn’t happening…it can’t. No pain…no pain anywhere…light fails…music falters… I need pain…oh the dark comes on in waves…I thought I was part of the grand story…the story that would at last give meaning to this senseless trajectory…the loop and spin of being…instead I have learned a horrible truth of existence…some stories have/no/meaning…oh bugger…”

This is not meant to be some kind of epiphany. Red Jack dies as he had lived. To the last, he confuses “stories” with “power relationships”. It’s not that there isn’t any more pain in the room with him (remember, he’s in the company of a brain encased in a metal tomb, a woman whose multiple personality disorder was triggered by horrific abuse, and a mummified trinity), it’s just that he’s no longer attuned to it, because he didn’t cause it. Red Jack would rather die than admit that he isn’t in charge. The butterflies have not been released from the wheel of life, they’ve been set free from an S&M binary, that’s all.

“You d-d-don’t really think he was…God?” Cliff asks.

Rebis utters the perfect epitaph in reply: “Couldn’t care less.”

Next time, I want to talk about Richard Case’s deceptively brilliant artwork.

Good Day friends!



  1. Yeah I started the run with the last issue in this arc. This was a great purchase. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about the next arc.

  2. Posted For: Jess Nevins

    (I’m out of practice with this sort of criticism, so I’m
    rambling and scattershot, for which I apologize. And I’ve been
    reading MG Lewis’ The Monk and wrangling with a summary of the
    motifs of the Gothic, which is enough to scramble most people’s
    brains, certainly mine).

    While not in disagreement with you about Animal Man, I think you
    are perhaps not giving enough weight to the animal rights theme
    of the comic. (That theme is, for my money, one of the reasons
    why people are quick to discount the series or forget about it:
    they are uncomfortable with an avowedly pro-animal rights comic
    book. Comic book fans, in my experience [cue bitter and cynical
    alienated fan music], are unhappy with comics which grapple with
    real issues in a serious manner. I’m not talking about the
    faux-“relevance” of something like The Authority, the sort of
    shallow, empty treatment which has earned the phrase “comic
    book,” but rather issues that actually matter in the real world
    and in our daily lives, things like, gun control, abortion, the
    horrible treatment of women in many countries–“hot button”
    topics. A comic book which examines real problems in a facile
    manner and recommends a facile solution will always be popular.
    (“Oh, let’s just descend on Tibet in our huge spaceship. That
    will make the Chinese leave and we’ll get a Happy Ending”). A
    comic book which addresses real problems in a serious manner and
    takes a serious position on it will be unpopular. Which is why
    [cue personal grievance music] I will always think of Mark
    Gruenwald as a lesser comic book writer. He was in earnest,
    certainly, but he didn’t do what Morrison did. Gruenwald could
    have dealt, in a serious way, with the matter of Captain America
    as killer. Cap was a soldier in WW2. Cap *volunteered* to fight
    the Axis. There is *no way* Cap made it through WW2 without
    killing the enemy. Nor would Cap have wanted to not kill the
    enemy. Had Gruenwald been a serious writer, when the issue of
    Cap-as-killer arose in Captain America, Gruenwald could have
    talked about the moral imperatives of soldiers at war versus the
    moral imperatives of superheroes in a time of peace, why it was
    okay for him to kill then but not now, why he hated killing but
    would do it if he had to. Gruenwald didn’t do that, though.
    Instead he wrote an abysmally shallow and ill-thought-out

    I’m getting far afield here. Sorry.

    Animal Man. Main themes are the combination of metafiction and
    horror (Morrison was one of the first writers in any field to
    have his characters threaten the reader; writers of metahorror
    tended, when Animal Man was written, to have their characters
    threaten their writers, not the readers. I think there was one
    author in the Metahorror anthology who had his characters
    threaten the reader, but otherwise Morrison was the first,
    believe it or not) and the animal rights message of mercy to all
    beings, from the smallest rodent to the largest food animal to,
    yes, the fictional beings in our control. Hell, yes, Morrison is
    a moralizer, and when he wrote Animal Man he was preaching his
    ethos of mercy. Just because Morrison is now moralizing in favor
    of normality doesn’t mean he’s not a moralizer, simply that his
    version of morality has altered.

    And I think the Doom Patrol story in question is also about this
    theme of mercy to the beings in your control. Red Jack, by my
    way of thinking, isn’t God. He’s the typical, ordinary comic
    book writer, who subsists on the pain of his characters, who
    manipulates them with no concern for their emotional pain, which
    is fictional but within the diegesis is real enough. “Peter
    Parker loves Gwen Stacy? Ah, let’s kill her–we can get years of
    Parker Pain ™ out of that!” “We’ve got teenagers with
    superpowers? I know–let’s pretend that the whole world hates
    them! I smell years of marketable X-Angst (a registered
    trademark of Chris “Make It Purple” Claremont)!” I think the
    ending is, in its own way, an epiphany…or, if not an epiphany,
    than the first of the rebellion of Morrison’s characters against
    their bastard god. Here it’s Red Jack. Later it would be
    Morrison himself.

    Or so sez I. I might change my mind tomorrow. I am vast, I
    contain a lot of things.

    Jess Nevins

  3. Jess,

    I see now that our interpretations of Animal Man are quite similar. When you called the work “provocative”, I was taking it in the Shaviro sense of, you know, “epater les bourgeois”/hedonism… However, on the Animal Rights issue, don’t you think the book was more about Morrison’s difficulties with that commitment than about the issue itself–that’s certainly how I took it–the Animal Rights content spoke to me then and it speaks to me now because I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12 (man, that’s 18 years!), it’s an “insider’s” look at the issue, as far as I’m concerned… But the metafiction can, theoretically, speak to everyone, and, as you point out, it’s basically concerned with the same thing–mercy, although I think I would just call it “kindness” (just wait ’till I start comparing the Doom Patrol/Brotherhood of Dada handholding session in #29 to the Care Bears!)

    On Gruenwald: I certainly agree with you that he’s inferior to Morrison, but so is everyone else! I have to disagree on the Cap & killing issue–the kind of story you seem to have wanted could be done with just about any character, while the story Gruenwald actually chose to tell could ONLY work with Captain America… I know that’s not much of a response, but I’m going to get really in depth with the Caps over the summer, so I hope that you’ll be there to keep me honest!


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