Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Here’s the first DC work of a Mr. Grant Morrison, who showed that he was a force to be reckoned with, plus the follow-up by Peter Milligan, which is just a bit odd, in case you didn’t expect that. If you want to see the images more closely, you can click on them to embiggen them! This was first published on 3 March 2005. Enjoy!
Animal Man by Grant “I can see you!” Morrison (writer, issues #1-26), Peter Milligan (writer, issues #27-32), Chas Truog (penciler, issues #1-8, 10-21, 23-28, 30-32; inker, issue #32), Tom Grummett (penciler, issues #9, 14), Paris Cullins (penciler, issue #22), Steve Dillon (artist, issue #29), Doug Hazlewood (inker, issues #1-9, 11-21, 23-24), Mark McKenna (inker, issue #10), Steve Montano (inker, issues #14, 22), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #25-28, 30-31), Tatjana Wood (colorist), and John Costanza (letterer).
Published by DC, 32 issues (#1-32, cover dated September 1988 – February 1991).
In looking around for information on the principals involved in the creation of this mind-bending comic book, I came across this excellent critique of Morrison’s run on Animal Man by that crazy nut, Dave Fiore, who offers insights I don’t even want to touch. Damn you, Fiore! I’m going to try to put Dave’s criticism out of my mind, because I don’t want this to become an affirmation/refutation of his, but it’s excellent – read it and this back-to-back! [I left this in, but I’m sad to say that the link no longer works. The site is still there, but the particular essay got purged at some point. I just left it in there because Fiore is a super-smart dude and I don’t know if he writes much any more. I’m friends with him on Facebook, but he doesn’t post too often, so I’m not sure what he’s up to. He was one of the cool lights of the Golden Age of Comic Book Blogging, and I left this paragraph in for nostalgia’s sake, I guess.]
I suppose I should they that there are SPOILERS AHEAD. Go read the books if you want to be surprised, although, if you’re a comic fan, you’ve already read them. Seriously: they came out fifteen years ago, people! [More like thirty by now, so the SPOILERS warning might be even more superfluous. Still, you’ve been warned!]
Animal Man is the subject of a great deal of scrutiny in the comic book world, simply because 1) Grant Morrison wrote it, and it’s his first American comics work; and 2) it’s freakin’ brilliant. It also uses the “character-meets-creator” trick to good effect, something that has been done in comics before (Bat-Mite in the 1970s, and I was reading that Ambush Bug did – I may be remembering wrong, so don’t sue me!) and since (Automatic Kafka is the most recent example, I believe). In fact, this is probably the first true postmodern comic book.
I’m reading two works of literature right now that qualify as postmodern (the other is Shame, by Salman Rushdie). For me, “postmodern” is less of a catch-all phrase that many use and more of a narrowly defined segment of literature – fiction that is aware of itself as fiction. Morrison makes his characters aware that they are fictional (Buddy Baker is the most important, obviously, but others are aware as well) and inserts himself into the story. Rushdie does the same thing, in a different way (I’ll get to him in another post). Whenever the author starts inserting his metatextual thoughts into a work of literature, the obvious question for the reader is: Why the bleepin’ bleep is he bleepin’ doing this? Let’s take a look.
At its most convenient, Animal Man is a story about a superhero with animal powers who one day decides that he needs to fight more for animal rights. The only reason he does this is because Morrison himself is an animal rights activist (as Morrison himself tells Buddy, in issue #26, page 13). Morrison quit the book, he said, because he was becoming “too preachy,” a sentiment many in the letters column disagreed with, but something I can see in the book. Morrison puts himself into the comic on one level to let us know that these are the feelings of a real person and that much of what he wrote is based in reality. Of course, readers are always aware that the fictional characters take on the traits of the author, but Morrison felt the issue with which he was dealing was too important to be left in the realm of the fictional. He needed to step into the pages to clarify his thinking and explain what regular people could do about it. Ironically, issue #26 may have been Morrison’s most “preachy” of the series, as he stops telling stories and tells us all what he thinks. It’s not a bad way to do it, but it does take the willingness of the readers to read – and we do, because we have grown to trust Morrison’s vision.
The other reason Morrison inserts himself into the book (issue #26 is not the first time he does it, for the uninitiated) is because of ultimately what the book is about. No, it’s not about animal rights. It’s not even about Morrison’s avowed love for discarded characters and his prodding at the monstrous Crisis on Infinite Earths which changed the DC Universe forever only a few years before he wrote the series. While the animal rights issues are very powerful (the denouement to the first 4-issue storyline is chilling, ironic, and fitting; issue #15, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” with Dane Dorrance, Dolphin and the dolphins is heart-rending and ultimately majestic; issue #17, “Consequences,” is complex and the turning-point of the series in many ways) they are just a way for Morrison to deal with his true theme. While the “Second Crisis” is a bit of a red herring, even though it does allow Buddy to go into limbo and meet his (current) maker, it’s still just secondary to Morrison’s continual theme.
So what, you say, is the book about? Well, it’s not terribly revolutionary, but what Morrison does in Animal Man is look at loss, and faith, and loss of faith. This is a truly spiritual comic book (more so than almost – almost, mind you – any other mainstream book). Every major character experiences some sort of loss, including Morrison. What Morrison does is show us exactly how each of the characters deal with their loss and how this reveals what kind of person they are. This is, I would argue, one of the most depressing comic books ever written, despite the deus ex machina ending (which is brilliant, by the way) and the (dare I say it?) childlike art (I do not like the art – it’s one of the book’s weaknesses, I would say – disagree with me as you will!), which foreshadows none of the book’s downers. I’m serious – this is a tragedy masked as a comic book with a happy ending tacked on. Shakespeare would be horrified. It’s a testament to Morrison’s ability as a writer that we feel for each loss and also that we do not feel cheated when he brings Buddy’s family back to life with a wave of his pen. We also must learn to deal with loss throughout the book, and we do – we rage and we deny and we accept, just like Buddy does (as Morrison points out in issue #26, page 7). The point is, we take the journey with Buddy, and Morrison puts himself into the book at the end to show that our suffering is, well, genuine but also silly – as the tale of his dead cat illuminates. Jarmara (Morrison’s cat) suffered and died, and her suffering was real, as opposed to Buddy’s (and our) “fake” suffering. Writers know exactly what Morrison is talking about when he says that at least he could use Jarmara’s suffering in his comic book – writers are inveterate liars and quite evil, after all. But here’s what no one has ever pointed out – what if Jarmara herself is a creation of Morrison’s mind? Why on earth couldn’t she be? If Morrison himself is a character in the book, couldn’t his cat be non-existent too? We accept that Jarmara actually existed, but not Buddy’s family? Why? Because Morrison tells us it’s true, and we feel his suffering and loss perhaps more keenly than we felt Buddy’s.
The minor characters lose important things in their lives as well. B’wana Beast loses Djuba, the ape. His response is rage and a rejection (even more than before) of humanity. When we next see him, Mike Maxwell is ready to pass on the Beast’s torch and do … something (Morrison never tells us what). Carrie (the hitchhiker in issue #5, “The Coyote Gospel”) loses her innocence and her life. Crafty the Coyote loses his life and his chance at redeeming the World Below (the Creator said “while you live and bear the suffering of the world, I will make peace among the beasts”). The art martyr Rokara Soh dies, and his masterpiece is aborted when Hawkman turns his bomb off (how does Hawkman get the funniest line in the entire run?). The Red Mask kills himself. The Mirror Master loses his job, but strangely enough (or not, since Morrison is Scottish) he comes out of the whole run looking pretty good, since he retains his self-respect and leads Buddy to the shadowy government body behind the murder of Ellen, Cliff, and Maxine (I don’t like the shadowy government body, since it’s too clichéd, and I’m glad Morrison didn’t dwell on them too much – they’re a MacGuffin). James Highwater, one of the truly excellent supporting characters ever created, loses his sanity but gains a purpose in the purposeless comic-book universe. The Time Commander loses his ability to dream of new frontiers of reality. Metamorpho loses, perhaps, the respect of Buddy, Ralph Dibny, and Dmitri when he punches the Time Commander and destroys the entente Buddy had going with him. Roger Hayden, the Psycho-Pirate, loses his mask and his knowledge of the wondrous worlds that existed prior to the Crisis.
This is a long litany of loss, but what keeps the series from gloom is that Morrison is also looking at faith and whether or not it can redeem us. Yes, the book is about the loss of faith (Buddy, Highwater, Morrison himself) but it’s also about searching for faith and how this helps us move on and create the world anew. Crafty has faith, and he is able to convince the Creator to redeem the world, and even though it comes at a price, Crafty never hesitates. Even Crafty’s killer, misguided as he is, believes that he is doing what he can to redeem the world. The layers of the book are wondrous – there’s Crafty’s world, which in Buddy’s world are the two-dimensional worlds of cartoons; there’s the world of the Creator, which is separate from Buddy’s world but not quite part of Crafty’s; there’s Buddy’s world, the world we see as two-dimensional comic books; there’s limbo, where comic book character go to hang out until they are used again; there’s the world where Grant Morrison becomes two-dimensional to meet his star; and there’s our world, which Buddy sees in the most chilling panel probably in comic book history in issue #19, but which the Psycho-Pirate also sees quite often, and which the Mad Hatter has some knowledge of. All of these worlds are tied together, and Morrison asks where God is in all this, and who exactly is God? Morrison puts himself in the “God” role throughout the series, but when he meets Buddy, he admits that he is a rather impotent deity. We the readers are cast as “God,” for our purchasing power keeps books going and keeps characters out of limbo. Buddy plays God when he drops Ongur Nielsen in the ocean and kills the men who killed his family and even when he goes back in time to change their deaths, but he is an even worse god than Morrison is. Morrison is also implicating all of us when he says that the only reason we abuse animals is because we can. Is faith a good thing, he asks, when faith leads to tragedy and despair and abuse of power? What should we have faith in? The answer seems to be ourselves, as Highwater deftly illustrates when he takes on the role of the Psycho-Pirate and holds back the flood of “erased” characters. But Buddy has faith in himself, and that doesn’t bring his family back. His “God,” Grant Morrison, does that, as a final miracle before he abdicates the throne.
The greatness of Morrison’s Animal Man is in its ambiguity and its deliberate challenge to the status quo. As with all but one of Morrison’s mainstream comics work, the status quo is not really torn down, but at least he challenges it (the one that is different: Doom Patrol, which is why it’s his best work). The re-establishment of the status quo, however, allowed new writer Peter Milligan to come on board in issue #27 and fuck with everyone’s head again. Milligan was on the book for only six issues (he had other commitments), but his run is as different from Morrison’s as night from day, and that’s fine. Milligan’s run is actually weirder than Morrison’s, which is saying something. Milligan really ignores Buddy’s animal powers for the most part (he uses them, but they’re not the focus) in order to tell a mind-bending story about the fundamental nature of reality. Yes, Morrison toyed with this idea, but Milligan takes it even further into quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s Cat territory. Weird stuff.
The story is pretty simple: Buddy wakes up from a coma to find that the world has changed in a fundamental way. Ellen is a bitch who’s cheating on him, Marvin Gaye is still alive, there’s a jungle in his bathroom – the usual stuff. He is conscripted to protect the president against a trio of superpowered kids known as the Angel Mob. He is helped in this endeavor by Nowhere Man, a very bizarre hero. Other heroes in this world include The Front Page and The Notional Man (both of whom go bad and try to kill Buddy), as well as Envelope Girl, who Milligan later used in Enigma. It’s all very weird, but the Milligan is making a serious point: how do we determine what is real and what is not? In his own way, he is also taking a look at DC’s “multiple earths” policy that they killed when they went ahead with the Crisis. Interestingly enough, physicists are dealing with “parallel universes” these days, something comic book writers have done for years, and Milligan takes it to its macrocosmic conclusion by splitting off separate universes for Buddy to inhabit. We are confronted with the fact that each time we make a decision, a new universe is created (movies have done this too, but apparently, we need to forget this one as soon as possible). Buddy is aware of these things because of time travelers from the future, who trapped a far distant ancestor of his (far distant as in, he’s still pretty much an ape) in a time doorway and screwed up his family tree. This gives Buddy the opportunity to explore these alternate universes and understand why they occur. Who is the “real” Buddy? None of them are. They are all Buddy, just Buddys that made different decisions at some point in their lives. Milligan challenges us with the notion that there are different versions of us living just a slight change in frequency away from “our world,” and if you think about it, it’s kind of disturbing (that’s why I don’t). In the end, everything works out, but we’re left wondering how the other Maxine and Cliff will deal with the loss of their father (the Buddy of that world dies) and what happened to Ellen that turned her so hard inside, and whether Buddy’s death will change her. It’s not quite as thought-provoking as Morrison’s epic, but it’s close. Milligan is actually aided by Truog instead of held back by him (as I feel Morrison was) because Truog is inked in these issues by Mark Farmer, one of the best in the business, who gives his lines a little more weight and less cartoony aspects, and in the final issue, Truog inks himself, which is very nice, with much heavier lines and a rougher feel to it all. I’m not an art critic, so that’s all I’ll say about that (some would say I’m not a literary critic either, but you’ll have to deal with it).
The letters in Animal Man are fabulous, too. I did a quick search for Malcolm Bourne, Charles J. Sperling, and Mark Lucas (“Mahalo”) before I wrote this, because those three guys would be perfect bloggers. Bourne is writing stuff, so you can find him, but I don’t know what happened to the other two. They were always fun to read. Another reason why letter columns need to return (and are, in Marvel books, but not, sadly, in DC books). Morrison’s run is available in three trade paperbacks, so if you’re interested, buy them – you won’t be disappointed. Milligan’s run has not been collected (DC has an awful policy of collecting even current stuff in trades), but the individual issues aren’t that dear, and you get the letter columns with them. I have not read Tom Veitch’s take on the character, but Delano’s stuff was okay, but trying too hard to be “Vertigo.” Animal Man is now back, maybe, where he belongs – in comic book limbo, with Merryman and the Inferior Five.
[DC has recently re-solicited the first part of Morrison’s run on Animal Man, but I included the old link below in case you want to get it, or you can find some other things to buy, and we get a little bit of it if you use that link. Milligan’s run has been collected, in a trade with the early Veitch issues, but it appears that’s out of print, although you can find it used for pretty cheap. And of course, Buddy came out of limbo once again between when I wrote this and today, because you can’t keep a good character down!
Once again, I apologize for the roughness of this post. I still don’t love Truog’s art, but I have gained a good measure of appreciation for it over the years, and I would discuss it more if I started this from scratch. I have no idea why I didn’t write about Milligan’s run separately – it’s short, sure, but I don’t think I give it the justice it deserves. Even back in 2005, I didn’t really do runs by two different writers in one post, so I don’t know why this was the exception (there’s one exception that I can think of in my posts, but there’s a reason for it). So I hope you enjoy this, and if you haven’t read this Animal Man, dang, it’s really freakin’ good.]