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A Lifetime of Superhero Comics — 1988 — Animal Man 1
In which I discuss characters who know they're in comic books, coyote-peyote revelations and the challenges of gimmick-based writing.
Written by Grant Morrison
Pencils by Chas Truog
Cover date: September 1988
Warning: spoilers for the issue follow
One of the most common superhero premises is that of a character with the abilities or traits of a specific animal.
Black Panther. Doctor Octopus. Catwoman. Ant-Man. Penguin. The Vulture. Cheetah. The Falcon. Killer Croc. Squirrel Girl.
You get the idea.
There is a superpowered counterpart for pretty much every member of the animal kingdom.
So you would think that a hero that embodied all animal powers — the let’s-not-muck-about-too-much-with-brainstorming-the-name Animal Man, for example — would be a cornerstone of the DC Universe.
Having the abilities of every animal seems to me a fundamental superpower premise. It’s the kind of idea a four-year-old might come up with if challenged to invent a superhero. “When I’m in a fight, I’ll get the strength of an elephant! And when I need to run fast, I’ll have the speed of a cheetah! And when everything goes to heck, I’ll retract myself into the protective shell of a turtle and wait for things to die down. For I am… Animal Man!!”
Animal powers is surely as basic a superpower concept as, say, the ability to run very, very fast.
And yet, The Flash is foundational to the DC Universe in a way that Animal Man simply is not. There was a reason for this. Namely, that the Flash was a fun character with an endless parade of colourful rogues committing crimes that could be dismantled at thrilling superspeed, whereas the character of Animal Man was, to be blunt, as dull as biological taxonomy. (One of the many Murray comics I’d accumulated in my misbegotten youth had contained reprints of early stories of Animal Man, including his origin, so I knew this harsh truth for a childhood fact.)
The inherent dullness of Animal Man was one reason I didn’t even bother thinking about picking up the reboot of Animal Man when it debuted in 1988, my final year of high school. This was despite the enticing Brian Bolland cover art that featured Animal Man running towards the reader, leading a gorgeous herd/pride/flock/nest/tower/crash/strike of assorted animals.
My decision not to pick up the book was a mistake. One I didn’t rectify for several years. That’s when on one of my regularly scheduled income-disposing trips to King’s Comics, my local comic book store in Sydney, I spotted a bagged collection of Animal Man comics issues 1–26 for sale, in one combined package. This was slightly unusual. Usually, back issues were sold individually and if you wanted a collected story, you picked up the trade paperback collected edition.
But, heck, I had income to dispose of. And the cover art still looked amazing, lo this handful of years later. The 26-issue package was specifically bundled together because it was the complete run of the first writer on this rebooted version of the character. A writer by the name of Grant Morrison. At the time, the name meant nothing to me. That would swiftly change.
Because Grant Morrison was not just the writer of this particular run of Animal Man. They (pronouns!) were also, it turned out, the chief antagonist. And I’m not just talking metaphorically. I’m talking literally — Grant Morrison, the writer of the Animal Man comic, was the big bad that Animal Man confronted at the end of Grant Morrison’s run on the Animal Man comic.
This, as you might imagine, blew my mind.
But well before we got to that mind-blowing conclusion, Morrison had won me over. As early as the second issue of the series, they had given us the cliffhanger of Animal Man’s arm being torn from his shoulder, leaving our hero bleeding out in an alley. This was, to put it mildly, not something you saw in most comics of the era. (The Flash, to return to our previous point of comparison, had not once been placed in such a predicament in his many decades of superheroics.)
Fortunately, Animal Man got better, borrowing the regenerative properties of nearby worms to regrow his arm. Which was exactly the kind of imaginative use of the character’s powers that had been utterly absent in the earlier Animal Man stories that had bored me so as a child.
I was not alone in enjoying this new version of Animal Man. Sales on the book were so good that its initial status as a four-issue limited mini-series was upgraded to ‘ongoing series’.
Morrison wasted no time in exploiting their expanded order for the book. The fifth issue — The Coyote Gospel — moved us into the meta territory that the rest of the book would explore.
This change in direction was signalled right on the cover. Another exquisite piece of Brian Bolland art captured Bolland himself drawing the art for the issue. That art? Animal Man in a crucifix pose, half-fully rendered, half-pencilled.
The story inside was just as confronting, telling the tale of a real world version of Wile E. Coyote (renamed ‘Crafty’). Crafty, much like his Looney Tunes counterpart, recovers from brutal injuries (in the opening few pages, for example, a truck driver runs him over before he is later crushed by boulders, thrown off cliffs, blown up by grenades, and so forth. The standard Road Runner cartoon fare). But in the ‘real world’ of Animal Man, the coyote still suffers the agonising pain of those injuries. And, as we eventually learn, his suffering results from a deal he made with an omnipotent brush-wielding god-artist, in exchange for peace in the cartoon kingdom he forsook.
The final panel of the issue is of the coyote, finally killed thanks to a magical silver bullet, arms outstretched in an unsubtle crucifix pose, as the omnipotent artist uses their brush to dab a few spots of blood red on the final art.
So, y’know, fair warning. This was clearly going to be a different kind of superhero comic book.
It wasn’t, however, the only comic book that played with the idea of characters being aware of their roles as characters in comic books.
From as far back as my beloved Captain Carrot comics there would be the occasional winks from the characters to comic book tropes. Other comics I was discovering around this time also played with the meta-awareness of characters, using them in joking fashion. Over at Marvel, John Byrne was writing and drawing She-Hulk, a character who also knew she was in a comic book. As I was a young single man in my early twenties, it was incredibly easy for Byrne to trick me into picking up that book by cunningly putting a gorgeous statuesque woman on the cover.
But Byrne further tricked me into then buying the book by having She-Hulk make jokes about her comic book status, even occasionally chastising Byrne himself for having too many drawings of her in bikinis and other scantily clad poses. (A cunning way, in retrospect, for Byrne to indulge in fanboy-attracting pictures of a beautiful (green) woman while providing plausible deniability that was what he was doing. He could have his (cheese)cake and eat it too.)
She-Hulk was silly comic book superhero adventure that played with breaking the fourth wall. (And heck, if anyone’s going to break a wall, a Hulk is the perfect character to do so.)
Ambush Bug took the self-referential comedy to another level. The various Ambush Bug stories were written by Keith Giffen, who also wrote two of my favourite ongoing series — the BWA-HA-HA era of the Justice League (so called because it reimagined DC’s premier superhero team as the comic book version of a sitcom) and the deadly serious, BWA-HA-HA-less Legion of Super-Heroes.
To have the range to write both the Legion and the Justice League was impressive. To also write Ambush Bug proved Giffen was a virtuoso of comic book storytelling. Because Ambush Bug was absolutely bouncing off the walls bonkers. It was sketch comedy in comic book form — a comic book character who knew he was a comic book character flipping through plots and ideas and parodies, throwing away random gags and references at breakneck pace. It was bizarre — almost too bizarre for me to fully appreciate.
But even when Ambush Bug teleported into underappreciated comedic areas, I clung to it with all I had. This kind of meta stuff was rare, and it was becoming my favourite kind of comedy. So I would not give up on any of it easily.
(It wasn’t just comic books either. I loved any media that used these kinds of tricks to mine comedy. While in university, I had discovered It’s Garry Shandling’s Show late on television one night, and been enamoured from the opening credits (‘this is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song’). Later, Community would similarly win my heart with its precision tightrope walking along the border of homage and plausible real world actions.)
It’s easy to see why this kind of winking meta-approach can be used so effectively for laughs. It’s pointing out tropes of the medium and undercutting them. There’s a sense of play in that. It feels natural for this kind of meta storytelling to deliver comedy.
But with Animal Man, Morrison deployed the meta tactics for something else entirely.
The rest of Morrison’s run on Animal Man had the lead character slowly but steadily discovering he was a character in a comic book and facing the ramifications of that understanding. In one full-page panel in issue 19, after Animal Man (who most often went by his non-superhero-sobriquet of Buddy) had got high on peyote, he turned his head to look out of the panel in which he was placed, staring straight out at the reader, saying ‘I can see you!’
None of this was played for laughs. (I guess to get a funny Animal Man, you need to transport the character over to Captain Carrot’s funny animal universe of Earth-C, where the absorption of their powers would have no choice but to render Buddy amusing.) Just to make the seriousness of the book very, very clear, by the end of the trippin’ ‘I can see you!’ issue, Buddy returns home to find his wife and children had been murdered.
This was Morrison’s great balancing trick. Alongside the slow-burn coyote-to-peyote exploration of Buddy’s identity as a comic book character, Morrison was also telling tales full of more standard superhero comic book fare.
Yes, Buddy was literally stumbling over the edges of the comic book panels in which he was placed. But he was also exploring the animal theme by becoming a vegetarian and fighting for animal rights. And, of course, he was still in a superhero comic, so he dabbled in crossover events, alien interactions and time travel.
And it all seamlessly came together when, ultimately, in the 26th issue, Animal Man met his maker, in the form of special guest star Grant Morrison.
That confrontation was a predictable mismatch. Animal Man turned out to be powerless against the writer Grant Morrison and their superhuman ability to make literally anything happen at any point in the story. But Morrison proved to also have the power to undo all the damage they’d inflicted on the character. On an apparent whim, Morrison gives Buddy a happy ending, restoring his family to life and leaving him in good condition for the next writer to continue the series.
The climactic confrontation with the character’s writer was a twist I hadn’t seen taken seriously in comics previously. And it made some kind of artistic statement — after all, all heroes in a story are ultimately antagonised by their writers. Animal Man was just the first one I’d seen get past the in-world villains to the true power behind those villains. (Although of course he didn’t really, right? The ‘Grant Morrison’ in the comic book wasn’t the real Grant Morrison the writer. It was yet another villain sent down to confront our hero, albeit one that shared a name with his true foe. (If there was any doubt about this, the fact that the ‘Grant Morrison’ character from Animal Man 26 was killed off in an issue of Suicide Squad not long afterwards, while the real-world Grant Morrison continues to write on to this day, should clarify matters.))
Over the years, Morrison would delve further into these ideas, exploring the relationship between a comic book universe and our so-called ‘real universe’. I would follow them along on these journeys — sometimes buying their arguments, sometimes not, and sometimes utterly baffled by them. But it was a thrill ride every time, and we’ll come back to more of Morrison’s comics later.
For now, however, I need to wrap up this piece. Obviously, when I first started planning out what I was going to say here in my discussion of Animal Man I realised it would be most satisfying to finish it with some kind of meta angle.
Much as how Morrison did with Animal Man, I could write myself into the story of how I grew to love Animal Man and Grant Morrison’s writing. But, of course, this series has always been a very personal history of superhero comic books, and, as such, I’ve been involved in it as a character from the very beginning.
Which meant there would be nothing special about this piece compared to the earlier pieces.
As a writer, this was a problem. I felt strongly that this piece should be in a meta-style. But just including myself in the story didn’t cut it. So would I have to go even further meta? How would I even do that?
At what point does meta-writing disappear up its own butt? Surely writing about writing in a meta style would become obnoxious very quickly. Right?
(I mean, right?)
These are the problems inherent in coming up with a gimmick for a piece and then not being able to make the gimmick work. What I ultimately decided to do was write about the challenges in writing about that meta-gimmick at the end of the piece and call it quits there.
Except, of course, in doing so, wasn’t I writing about ‘writing about writing in a meta style’? Where did it end? Was it turtles all the way down?
If so, thank goodness we have Animal Man to steal the turtles’ powers and wrap me in a protective shell where I can wait until next time for things to die down.
Next: All is for Giffen