Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Animal Man: 3 volumes by Grant Morrison, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazlewood

The idea has gone from unknown to exciting to cliche and then all the way to passe, but there was an era where "choose a minor superhero-universe character and get a British writer to take him seriously" was brilliant and new. Frankly, it was the source of a lot of the best mainstream comics for close to a decade. Alan Moore on Swamp Thing led the pack, of course, but Peter Milligan did it to Shade the Changing Man and Neil Gaiman did it to Sandman and Grant Morrison did it to Doom Patrol.

And, at about the same time, to Animal Man.

Morrison's Animal Man, though, was a lot shorter than those other examples -- twenty-six issues, barely two years. And it arguably went a lot farther a lot faster than those others, gleefully deconstructing itself and the entire concept of corporate superhero comics at high speed before Morrison lept off, specifically stating as Grant Morrison in his last issue of the comic that someone else would be coming along:
They might play it safe and write you as a straight action superhero who fights animal-inspired villains every issue. They might do the obvious and go for shock by turning you into a meat-eater. I don't know.
It's not hyperbole to say that Animal Man -- along with Doom Patrol, which was less blatantly metafictional and closer to the path he'd continue to follow -- showed us exactly what Grant Morrison would be writing about for the next quarter-century, and the kinds of fictional toys he would return to again and again during that time.

Morrison's relaunch of Animal Man -- drawn by Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood for almost the entire run -- started out as something more conventional, with an '80s gritty Buddy Baker meeting superhero-style with the even more obscure (and rightfully so) B'wana Beast and giving the comeuppance to the usual comics-style evil scientists, who do nasty experiments just because they're evil and cruel. It looked like that would be the pattern of the comic: Buddy fights evil scientists, keeps learning more about their creepy pointless animal-torture, gets more radical, turns vegan, and maybe eventually joins Earth First! and does something even Morrison thinks is morally wrong in pursuit of his cause.

But that was sidelined almost immediately with the fifth issue of the series, which stands with Alan Moore's Swamp Thing #27 as one of the strongest and most radical changes of tone and substance for a corporate comics series. "The Coyote Gospel" wasn't about Animal Man at all, really -- it was about Crafty, a Wile E. Coyote figure from a "lower reality" who was moved into Animal Man's world by "God," to suffer and be maimed and heal, over and over again. It was both a wonderfully blasphemous take on the Christ narrative and a sign that just telling this story was already starting to bore Morrison: he didn't want to tell a story, he wanted to write about story, as centrally and purely as he could.

So he did, more and more over those next twenty issues, reveling in obscure comics continuity through the lens of the Psycho Pirate, a very minor character who was the only one to officially remember the DC Universe before the still-recent Crisis (back when that was the first and only universe restructuring; not even fans can remember them all, these days). And edging closer and closer to making himself a character in the story, which he finally did in that last issue. Buddy Baker didn't meet his maker, exactly, but he did get to meet the comics avatar of the writer who was currently making him jump through hoops. It was as weird and exhilarating as it sounds, and if it made it difficult for anyone to follow, well, that's the problem with metafiction. It's difficult to step back down to plain old fiction afterward.

And it's a good thing the metafiction got so strong so quickly, because the animal-rights stuff was expressed in a frankly silly and childish way -- the Grant Morrison character blatantly states that the life of a human child can't possibly be considered of more value than that of a lab rat, because human beings have caused environmental damage. (There are similar sentiments, on about that level of plausibility, throughout Morrison's run -- but he was smart enough not to dwell on them, however much he believed them.) That is a stupid argument in several ways, not least that animals will cause environmental damage as well, destroying entire habitats by overpopulation before dying out. It's agitprop for the point of agitprop, and I hope Morrison never meant it literally.

But, even more crucially, there's a serious issue with being a vegetarian in the DC Universe, where intelligent plants are not uncommon. Morrison's trying to draw a real-world bright line in a very unreal world with lines that run in very different directions. I hope any morality of food in the DC Universe would start with "don't eat anything that can talk," and presumably get more sophisticated from there. Focusing on the kingdom an entity came from is not the way to go.

But corporate comics are always messy -- there's always some stupid crossover that messes up the pace of the story, costumes that change for no reason, and secondary characters who either changed from the script to the final page due to Recent Shocking Development or are shoehorned in just to keep their trademarks alive. Animal Man dealt with that stuff better than most, but they're inevitable speed bumps for what could otherwise be a smooth ride. If some of the messiness of Animal Man came out of Morrison and his own passions instead of the usual DC continuity bullshit, that's at least a better quality of messiness to deal with.

The Morrison run was collected, finally, a decade later -- the first volume came out at the time, but nothing else -- as something like a trilogy. The first book is just Animal Man, the second is Origin of the Species, and the third is Deus Ex Machina. The work of the folks who followed Morrison is also being collected, I see: I didn't read those at the time, and don't really plan to do so now. (But you can if you want.)

A mic drop is something to be respected.

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