The Animal Man Omnibus

What exactly is Grant Morrison?

He’s more than a comic book writer, more than a simple storyteller.  He somehow manages to take a mass-market comic book and craft an existential crisis that feels believable and utterly unique.  He’s managed to find a medium that has mass appeal through which he can voice his opinions while simultaneously entertaining multitudes of people.  In this way, he is nothing short of genius.

Having already ready the first handful of trades in this collection in the separately published Animal Man: Volume One, I was able to jump ahead in this collection.  While small hints and clues are peppered throughout all of Morrison’s issues, it isn’t clear exactly where the story is headed at first.  We are met with unnamed characters providing brief page-long narratives that seem unrelated to the immediate story.  At other times, we see asides from the Psycho Pirate, the only person who remembers the pre-Crisis continuity and has seemingly been driven mad by that fact.  There are numerous hints that Buddy’s world is not as it seems, and just as he begins to question everything aroud him, the story truly gains momentum.  More specifically, this occurs when Buddy Baker returns home to find that his wife and two children have been murdered in cold blood.

This event leaves Buddy understandably distraught.  He wanders aimlessly searching for answers, only to find himself at Arkham Asylum, where the innumerable dead characters from the pre-Crisis continuity are springing forth, bringing chaos into the world.

Psycho Pirate explains to all of the heroes that they are merely characters from comic books and that they no longer exist in this world.  Here is where the story truly begins to take on deeper meaning, with Morrison using Psycho Pirate as a means of expressing his own sentimental feelings:

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Surprisingly, this line didn’t feel cheesy or melodramatic in the slightest when I read it.  Instead, I found myself pausing and contemplating the line, feeling happy that the characters couldn’t truly die if their stories were still read.

THIS. THIS IS THE BRILLIANCE OF GRANT MORRISON.

He managed to write a story in such a way that I actually pitied these self-aware fictional characters, not wanting them to face the loneliness and obscurity that awaited them when they left these pages.  Even now, having regained my composure, I still feel sorry for all of those characters, lost over time.

From here Morrison’s story takes an entirely metaphysical turn, with Buddy journeying through Limbo, the place forgotten characters go, ever hoping that they will one day be given new stories.  The story culminates with Buddy meeting Morrison himself in the final issue of the trade.

Here was an entirely unique and interesting take on the “grand finale” to a comic (or at least, the finale to a writer’s run on a comic).  Buddy, angry at Morrison for having put him through so much pain, demands answers, all the while Morrison is acknowledging that he is making Buddy ask these questions, making him feel this pain.

Their conversation is somehow profoundly deep despite the fact that Morrison is simply explaining what comics are.  Still, to have a comic book character be self-aware of what he is and how his every thought and word is controlled is an entirely new concept, and one that Morrison pulls off flawlessly.

At one point, Buddy asks the end-all be-all of existential questions:

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This exchange very much reminded me of a similar one in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (page 723), in which Harry Potter and Dumbledore have the following conversation:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry.  “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” *

This connection alone would have made me love this comic, especially considering this is not Morrison paying homage to J.K. Rowling, since this comic was published years prior.  (Maybe Rowling was paying homage to Morrison. You never know.)  I have a feeling I will remember this connection for a long time, as it only makes me love these Animal Man stories even more.

Buddy’s final scene with Morrison feels bittersweet, yet also seems like the only logical ending to the story.  Having faced so much heartache, it’s only fair that this poor character be allowed to face his creator and question all the pain he suffered in his life (there’s a religious allusion there as well, obviously).  Buddy asks for all the things anyone in his position would ask for.  Answers, and some sort of retribution.  In this case, Buddy asks that his family be brought back from the dead, even suggesting their deaths be written off as a dream.  Morrison refuses, saying that the “dream” thing has been done to death, and that bringing his family back wouldn’t be logical.  He argues that readers want comics that are more “real”, noting that he worries about the world if “real” means nothing but pain and loss.  As he fades away, Buddy begs him to stay, to answer questions and provide some sort of satisfactory ending.

At this point I figured the comic was over.  I figured Buddy would be forced to return to the world and live his life, suffering alone as he deals with this knowledge.  To a certain extent, that’s exactly what he does.  We cut to him sitting on his living room couch, deciding to begin moving on.  That is, until we’re given one final parting gift:  Buddy’s entire family walking through the door, alive and well, with Buddy exclaiming that he just had a terrible dream.

Grant Morrison, you old softie.

This happy ending doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the collection, and is certainly what many would call the “easy out”, the contrite happy ending, the ever-present homeostasis of comics in which very little ever changes.

And you know what? I don’t care.  It’s brilliant because it’s exactly what any other comic would have done, yet the exact opposite of what any reader would have expected from Animal Man.  Buddy suffered long enough, and Morrison admits in the comic that he made him suffer for our own entertainment.  It’s only fair, only just, that Buddy be given his own little happy ending.  His happiness, after all, quite literally laid in Morrison’s hands.  Morrison didn’t do the edgy or trendy thing; he didn’t let Buddy suffer indefinitely (and likely forever, because how would a new writer come in and bring his family back?) but instead granted him the happy ending that we all felt he deserved.

This collection made me feel more for a comic book character than I think I ever have before (Swamp Thing perhaps being the closest competition.)  Somehow, Morrison plucked a character from obscurity and managed to transform him into one of the most compelling and sympathetic characters I’ve ever read.  I’m sorry to reach the end of Grant Morrison’s run on this comic, but having read this story only makes me want to read more of his work.

Kudos to him for writing what is quite possibly one of the best stories I’ve read on “the shelf”.  I salute you, sir.

-Jess

*Yes, I pulled my copy of Deathly Hallows off of its place on the highly-revered top shelf of my bookcase and flipped to this exact page to make sure I got the quote right.  I am a Harry Potter nerd through and through.  It’s only a matter of time before I read all of those books again and start blogging about them.  You’ve been warned.

 

 

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Animal Man: Volume 1

After reading a rash of comics filled with familiar characters, it was exciting to pick up a trade about a character I knew absolutely nothing about.  That’s not an exaggeration, either.  Before I began reading “the shelf”, I didn’t even know there was a superhero called Animal Man.

What can I say? I was a noob.

I went into the story with few expectations, and as such was extremely impressed with what I read.

It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.  After all, this collection, the first nine issues of the rebooted Animal Man, were written by Grant Morrison, a writer I was already familiar with (see Batman: Gothic).  His stories tend to follow their own path, rather than the typical linear, single-perspective stories of so many other comics.  He also has a certain way with words, filling his comics with so much more meaning and subtext than most.

I was surprised to see just how allegorical his stories could be, though, specifically when reading issue #5, “The Coyote Gospel”.  “Gospel” focuses on a coyote named Crafty (a play on Warner Bros. Wile E. Coyote.  I know, right?) who has been damned by God to live on Earth, incapable of dying, to ensure that the animal world will live in harmony.  At one point, the comic diverts to a single panel, portraying a buzzard pecking at Crafty’s exposed entrails:

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This image is a direct reference to the Greek myth of Prometheus who, after angering Zeus, was tied to a mountain and had his liver devoured by an eagle every day, only to have it grow back each night.  I enjoyed the mythological connection of this story, as well as the skill with which Morrison is able to connect a centuries-old story to a contemporary cartoon.  It’s not something I can imagine many writers being able to pull off.

Morrison’s portrayal of Animal Man himself was just as brilliant.  A married father of two, Animal Man (a.k.a. Buddy Baker) wants back into the superhero game, and these stories chronicle his earliest attempts at rejoining the world-saving elite.  Morrison doesn’t make him a carbon copy of any other hero though; no, he gives Baker his own set of morals and ideas of what’s right and wrong.

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The best example being Buddy’s stance on animal rights.

You must admit, he makes a pretty damn compelling argument in the above panel.

It’s impressive that Morrison was able to find a perfect balance between including these moments to allow the reader some insight into Animal Man’s feelings and beliefs without turning the entire comic into a pamphlet for PETA.  His arguments are logical and well-spoken, making them far more persuasive than had they been fanatical and consumed each and every page.

After all, of course Animal Man would be all for protecting animals.  he can literally feel their pain, and this ability to empathize with his fellow creatures is certainly going to create a stronger bond to those animals than the average person might have.

What’s great is that Morrison doesn’t come right out and say all of this.  Instead, he assumes his reader is marginally intelligent and lets them connect the pieces themselves.  I’m personally a big fan of this method of storytelling, as it allows for more reflection and interpretation than if the story had simply been, “No it’s like this and I’m going to explain in exhaustive detail why…”.

Animal Man was a great read, and I heartily believe Morrison’s writing is the primary reason for that.  I’m excited that the Omnibus collection of his entire 26-issue run is coming up on “the shelf”, so I’ll get to see how the character further develops, and what other thought-provoking stories Morrison will come up with.

I do sort of hope Crafty somehow makes a triumphant return, but I highly doubt it.

-Jess