Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
In order to break up the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk, I’m doing some flashbacks! This time around – something I wrote about four years ago. Holy crap, I’ve been doing this for a while!
Animal Man by Grant “Did I just blow your mind?” Morrison (writer), Chas Truog (penciller, issues #1-8, 10-13, 15-21, 23-26), Tom Grummett (penciller, issues #9, 14), Paris Cullins (penciller, issue #22), Doug Hazlewood (inker, issues #1-9, 11-13, 15-21, 22-24), Mark McKenna (inker, issue #10), Steve Montano (inker, issues #14, 22), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #25-26), John Constanza (letterer), and Tatjana Wood (colorist), with covers by Brian Bolland.
DC, 26 issues (#1-26, cover dated September 1988-August 1990).
BONUS! Animal Man by Peter Milligan (writer), Chas Truog (penciller, issues #27-28, 30-32; inker, issue #32), Steve Dillon (artist, issue #29), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #27-28, 30-31), John Constanza (letterer), and Tatjana Wood (colorist), with covers by Brian Bolland.
DC, 6 issues (#27-32, cover dated September 1990-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. 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 suppose I should point out that there are SPOILERS ahead. Go read the books if you want to be surprised, although, if you’re a comic fan, you’ve probably already been spoiled. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t mean this isn’t a great run, though – that’s why they’re great comics!
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 a good recent example, I believe). In fact, this is probably the first true postmodern comic book. [Boy, that’s a sweeping statement, isn’t it? I don’t believe it anymore, but back in 2005 I was a bit dumber than I am today. Forgive me for my ignorance!]
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. 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 is probably 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. 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, because 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, 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 it too much, as it’s 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 détente 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 complete 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 is the two-dimensional world 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 probably the most chilling panel in comic book history in issue #19, but which the Psycho-Pirate also sees quite often, and of which the Mad Hatter has some knowledge. 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 exception is Doom Patrol, which is one reason 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 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 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 was killed when the editors 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. 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 actually wrote at least one comic (with a young Mike Allred on art), but I don’t know what happened to the other two. They were always fun to read – just another reason why letter columns need to return (and are, sporadically, 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 continues their awful policy of not collecting good comics), 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 Jamie Delano’s stuff was okay, if trying too hard to be “Vertigo.” No one has really done a good job with Buddy Baker since the series ended, although he is back in the “real” DCU these days. There’s a new mini-series coming out soon – I probably won’t get it, but it might be a renaissance for Animal Man.
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