Friday, June 6, 2008

Animal Man

Animal Man 1-26

by Grant Morrison (writer), Chas Troug & Doug Hazlewood (artists) & others

collected in "Animal Man," "Origin of the Species" & "Deus Ex Machina"

In the penultimate issue of Grant Morrison's run on DC's "Animal Man," Merryman, a forgotten superhero vaguely reminiscent of Woody Allen, welcomes Buddy Baker, the title's eponymous hero, to limbo. Comic book limbo, "…where all the old characters end up. The ones nobody cares about anyone." Limbo, as Buddy enters it, is a cemetery. The stone memorials that are visible aren't for shelved superheroes though, they're for extinct species, ones that have no hope of a revamp– from dinosaurs down to the great auk and the dodo; a fresh grave has even been dug for the endangered tiger. This liminal space that is to serve as a purgatory for the fictional also contains the sepulchers of very real, very dead animal species. What we classify as fictional and what we deem real is, if not simply the same, mutable and ambiguous. This unifying concept connects the otherwise divergent thematic poles of the entire series -animal rights and metatextuality.

Dan Fiore, on his blog,, makes a good case explaining Morrison's run while utilizing Emerson's concentric circles. An Emersonian connectivity does run through "Animal Man," and despite his postmodernism and esotericism, Morrison is also a very deliberate and architectural writer who frequently writes towards a grander sense of unity than fragmentation. Morrison just doesn't have enough of the Protestant in him for me to fully connect his work to Emerson. It's more likely he arrives at such unity through other avenues, such as David Bohm, String Theory and recent debate regarding Quantum Physics. Still, during the final issue's confrontation between Buddy and "Grant Morrison," we are given a wonderfully Emersonian image as Morrison throws a pebble into a pond to indicate its ripples. It's just that "Circles" doesn't have a gang of superheroes burst out of the ripples.

If "Animal Man" ends with Buddy Baker confronting Morrison, or at least the writer's avatar, then how does it get there, and how did it all begin anyway? The entire Morrison-penned run is currently collected in three trade paperbacks from DC, under the Vertigo Imprint, even through the series predates DC's "adult" line and in fact helped establish its template. The first trade, simply called "Animal Man," was put out in 1991, while the remaining two, "Origin of the Species" and "Deus Ex Machina" were collected in 2002 and 2003 respectively. While DC has in many ways gotten its act together in terms of collecting various series into trade in the decade between the release of the first and second collection, the company also changed the method in which they put out trades, in many ways no longer giving as much individual attention to each book.

The first collection, which contains the first nine issues, includes an introduction, as did most "prestige" trades DC put out at the time. The latter collections, as with most contemporary trades, just contain the issues themselves. I personally miss these introductions, they show a belief that these are "important comics," whatever that means. On the other hand, I can see how these introductions also indicated DC's hesitancy regarding the trade market, as if they had to convince the buying public that these are graphic novels – "See? Trades have introductions, just like books! Just like classic books!" Check out the two (two!) introductions to the first trade of Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" run, one written by horror novelist (a really good one actually) Ramsey Campbell, as well as by fellow comic writer Neil Gaiman. The various trades of Gaiman's own series, "Sandman," contains over its ten volumes introductions by individuals such as Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe, and even Tori Amos. While I like these introductions, I can't deny that they strike me as a little heavy-handed.

One of the pleasures of "Animal Man" is its self-reflexivity, towards both itself and the comic industry. Even in the introduction, which Morrison himself writes, he takes the opportunity to poke fun at the conventions of the medium. He chides "not for me the dubious pleasure of an endorsement from Stephen King or Clive Barker." He even foregrounds not just the historical context, but also many of the themes of the series. Morrison explains how "Animal Man" follows in the wake of Alan Moore's stateside success both re-vamping "Swamp-Thing" and with his own "Watchmen." DC then looked to the United Kingdom "…to turn up the stones and see if there weren't any more cranky Brit authors…" In addition to Morrison himself, other "recruits" were the above-mentioned Gaiman, as well as Peter Milligan and Jamie Delano, the latter two being writers who I think have been unfairly marginalized nowadays. The introduction ends with a particularly Emersonian sentiment, as Morrison invites the reader to "…read on and judge for yourself…" whether or not they'll like the book.

"Animal Man," from the early vantage point of '88, is Morrison's commentary on the then-new trend in mainstream comics towards both ret-cons, the precedent established a scant few years prior in DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and towards ham-fisted "grim-n-gritty" make-overs of franchises considered by corporate to be creatively bankrupt. Seeing as "Animal Man"s observations astute though they may be, are referent to the late-eighties mainstream, could the series possibly hold any relevance today? Why, yes, it does. Simply look at Marvel's recent attempt to contemporize Steve Dikto's irreverent Speedball by transforming him into the self-flagellating and dour Penance. Look at the cavalcade of DC "big-events" that attempt to ret-con "Crisis on Infinite Earths" using that series' own methods against it through "Infinite Crisis" and the upcoming "Final Crisis." Ironically, Morrison himself is a part of the group think-tank masterminding the latter event.

Even disregarding the obvious meta-textuality running on the surface of the comic, like Buddy looking directly at the reader and shouting "I can see you!" or Overman literally smashing the fourth wall, the comic is a comment on itself and the industry as such. The creative artist appears again and again as an agent of seemingly pointless and unexplained violence. The god of Crafty's cartoon universe in issue five wields a bloody brush, ala Chuck Jones in the Looney Tunes episode "Chuck Amuck," and orchestrates world-wide acts of violence for no apparent reason. Rokara Soh, the Thanagarian Art Martyr of issue six, creates a bomb to devastate most of the West Coast in the performance of a catastrophic "seismic poem." Issue 25 opens with a simian writing out the final verses of "The Tempest," and who Merryman tells Buddy "there's a kind of legend that says one day the monkey will write us all out of limbo."

These characters are avatars not just for some archetypical artist, but for Morrison himself. This is a practice continued by Morrison throughout his career. The purest instance may be in his creator-owned "The Invisibles," where he attempts a more explicit marriage of art and life, all aided by another Morrison avatar, King Mob.

The Glasgowian Mirror Master is an important Morrison avatar in "Animal Man," but one who is not so obvious as one. Perhaps this is because he doesn't assume a creative role like the above-mentioned avatars. He first appears in issue eight, hired by a shadowy high council to scare Buddy into resuming the "status quo" and halt with his animal activism. He returns in issue 21 to help Buddy enact revenge on the same shadow organization, which has since murdered his wife and two children. A Brit hired by an American corporation to do their dirty work, the Mirror Master is a charming, roughshod analogy to Morrison himself. At one point, the Mirror Master transforms Buddy into a human mirror, reflecting who ever looks at him. That is what a successful character should do in any work of fiction, right? In some way reflect the readers themselves? In the same sense, the "shadowy triumvirate" is analogous to the editors who are the real power behind the DC universe. They decide that Buddy's family will be slain to provide a small, illusionary "shake-up" by making Buddy more gritty while maintaining the larger "status quo," that of continued animal exploitation. They even create Animal Man's newest foe, the idiotic "Bugman," whom they've also named.

Need further evidence of this analogy? Check out this conversation between the Mirror Master and his "replacement" in the Buddy Baker case, Lennox. Remember that they're talking about killing Animal Man, not writing his comic. Right?

Some excerpts:

MIRROR MASTER: So what's the story about you taking over the Animal Man job? I'm bombed out, am I?

LENNOX: Your services are no longer required, if that's what you're trying to say…this is a job for a professional not for some small-time thug from the asshole of the world…you know what I want. The layout, McCulloch. The layout of Animal Man's house.

McCullough, the Mirror Master, is also the superhuman that accompanies Buddy on his bloodthirsty campaign of vengeance against the conspiracy that killed his family. McCullough, one of the series' many Morrison-avatars, helps as Buddy viciously kills his tormentors, a "grim-n-gritty" direction for Animal Man that fits into the revisionist template of the day.

This behavior is out of character for Buddy, though one can viably make the case that the murder of his family could realistically have pushed him to those extremes, and have done so within the rules and boundaries established by the series, without any metatextual intervention. Morrison makes clear his personal opinions regarding the American mainstream's misreading of British revisionism into the more crass commercialism and sheer bone-headedness of the "grim-n-gritty" era. Morrison here uses the character of Overman. Though the reader is shown a scenario involving Overman, I can't believe he's not really talking about Alan Moore's "Miracleman," arguably the first and inarguably one of the most influential series in terms of comic revisionism. Here is how Morrison describes Overman, as a super being from

"…a world where all the superheroes are part of a government
experiment…But Overman goes mad…Something affects his
brain. A virus. A sex virus…He kills (everyone). It's horrible.
Our Superman would never do what this man does. Burning
children. Eating…oh no…He kills everything. Smoldering
cities. Human fat burning and turning the sky black."

Hmm, pretty much sounds like Moore's "Mircleman," doesn't it?

As Morrison's first stateside work, and also one within the DC Universe proper, where a great amount of his future projects would take place, the complete run on "Animal Man" provides an excellent early microcosm of Morrison's work. Whether Morrison is a fan of Emerson or not, there are definite circles within circles apparent in most if not all of the work he has done since. It is important to note that Thangarian Art Martyr and Morrison avatar Rokara Soh works primarily in fractal art, fractals offering further detail the closer one inspects them.

I've been a fan of Morrison for many years now, but I've never been as ardent as a good deal of other people are concerning him. He doesn't possess the linguistic nimbleness of Moore, and while he can write good characterization, it is often not as important to him as plot and subtext. Perhaps my dissatisfaction was founding in Morrison's tendency to build tension through plot and then provide the pay-off not within the narrative itself, but in the subtext. He candidly refers to it himself in the final issue as "…the trouble with my stories –they always seem to build up to something that never actually happens." But as he also states, "that's the trouble with my life, too." Last Monday was the first time I sat down and read the run in its entirety, and I came out of the experience with far greater respect for him than I did previously. Has Morrison subsumed himself a bit too much to status as member of the mainstream DC think-tank? Perhaps, but even then he retains his wit and intelligence. Does he occasionally fall into self-parody? Yes, but never to the degree of someone like Frank Miller. Grant Morrison, hype or no hype, is one of the great talents in the field.

I haven't discussed the series' theme of animal rights and how it relates to the creative process' dependence on suffering, but go ahead and pick up the trades. It has its gaffs and its fair share of rough spots, but taken as a whole it exemplifies the potential of comic books operating on the outskirts of the mainstream. The series offers more mileage to a reader who possesses a working knowledge of the medium, but to a reader willing to accept its context and run with it, "Animal Man" offers many distinct pleasures.

No comments: