Saturday, 15 September 2007

Grant Morrison's Animal Man -- From the Archives

With Great Power

I've just finished re-reading Grant Morrison's Animal Man run, and I've got a few thoughts on the series that I want to try and articulate here.

[Warning- there'll probably be *SPOILERS* in this post, so If you don't wanna know how this series ends then don't read what I'm about to write]

First things first then: Animal Man! Isn't that just a great name for a comic book character? It's one of those names that, like Hellboy, or Zenith or the Flash, just seems to encapsulate something about the character in a wonderfully trashy way: he's both 'the man with animal powers' and the superhero that cares about animal rights, just like it says on the tin! There's a goofiness to this double meaning that is central to what makes Morrison's Animal Man a great and enduring comic book: it's kinda cute and silly (as these things tend to be), but it's still very well conceived all the same. The only element of the comic that the title doesn't hint at is the strange pathos that Morrison and his collaborators will wring from this odd set-up. But more about that later. First, how about a little context?

Animal Man, like many other titles of its time, owes a lot to Alan Moore's cliché-rupturing Swamp Thing run, during which the bearded English eccentric transformed a traditional monster comic into an eco-centric horror title. A whole sub-genre of DC comics was brought into being, inspired by Moore's muck monster; with books like Jamie Delano's Thatcher-baiting Hellblazer directly spinning off from Swamp Thing while titles such as Peter Milligan's Shade the Changing Man applied the same techniques to other old comic book characters. Grant Morrison's Animal Man is an experiment the later mold, and like all of the aforementioned titles, it re-imagines the traditional comic book as a battleground for various modern literary/political conceits. This is the kind of work upon which DC's adult-oriented Vertigo imprint was built, and while you'd think that the combination of high and low brow materials wouldn't come-off, it was often brilliant, and was (in its initial stages at least) rarely less than compelling.

I recently unearthed this little Peter Milligan quote, which I think is very relevant to any discussion this era of comics:

'As in any art that takes itself seriously, there's a continuous struggle to achieve aims and I think that those aims are actually there to be attempted rather than actually reached. I think looking back, Vertigo's been fairly successful in at least attempting to, in a mainstream context, deal with certain subjects which hitherto hadn't been dealt with.'
Animal Man certainly saw Morrison trying to do a lot of different things at once: It's at an attempt to comment on animal rights issues, an examination of the nature of 'reality' in the DC universe, a reaction to the wave of grim and gritty 'adult' superhero comics that popped up in the late 80's/early 90's, and a meta-fictional story which examines the relationship between writing, reading and the real world. I'd even go so far as to say that it succeeds on all of these levels, and I think I know why: Morrison's stories and characterisation here are amongst the simplest and most effective of his career. Sure, there are a couple of issues that are a bit pedestrian, but on the whole these are great superhero stories, with a lot of heart and a quiet imagination. There's not many like it, I'll tell ya that for nothing.

The element of Animal Man that could most easily have ended up seeming trite was obviously the story's political, animal rights-centric component. Morrison's wandering narrative takes in foxhunting, animal testing, and African politics; all valid issues, all of which might have seemed cheap in the context of a day-glo superhero story. Somehow, however, Morrison pulls it off—possibly because the incongruity between these stories and their context makes them feel more 'real' and shocking than they would have in a more naturalised set-up. This is one of the weird effects fantastic fiction can achieve: its overtly artificial nature can make the true fucked-up-ness of real events seem even more pronounced by way of comparison. Animal Man's initial efforts on this front are well-intentioned, if naive acts, and as he goes on he learns something about the possible consequences of his actions (in issue #17, the oh-so-subtly titled 'Consequences'). There's a scene at the end of this issue that shows him trying to defend his actions on a TV show, emphasising the fact that he's flawed, human and doesn't want to be seen as a role model, despite his status as a superhero. It's almost like a (more relevant?) revamping of the motto of another old comic book, 'With great power, comes great responsibility'. This is so perfect within the context of this particular story as it loops back round into the key theme of the animal and environmental rights. Does Animal Man have the right to get involved in these political issues simply because his powers allow him to? As Morrison himself says during his famous appearance in the last issue:

'In the end it all boils down to three words. Might makes right. Man is able to abuse and slaughter and experiment on animals simply because he's stronger than they are. Other than that, there's no moral ground on which to justify any animal exploitation.'
Whether you agree with the man or not, you've got to admire the way that the story rotates around this idea on several levels, tying the meta-fictional in with the personal, and the personal in with the political.

'With great power, comes great responsibility.' Hmmm… we'll come back to that later.

The episodes that deal with Animal Man's home life as Buddy Baker are every bit as brilliant as the political/adventure stuff. Buddy is such a simple, relatable everyman character: a slightly un-hip, well intentioned family man, who wants to go on big adventures, to make a difference, and to live right. Some of my favourite scenes involve mundane things, like Buddy discovering that his son cliff has been eating meat despite Buddy's wishes that his family becomes vegetarian. Since we're talking about the unity of theme at work here, how well does Buddy's dilemma about forcing vegetarianism upon his children fit in with our whole power/responsibility riff? Now that's good writing! Anyway, because of the grounded nature of Buddy's relationship with his family, his struggles with his superpowers and political ideals never feel outlandish, despite the craziness of the world he lives in.

It's also remarkable just how much variety Morrison can draw from Buddy's family life. Issue #9 of the series, 'Home Improvements' is a low-key story in which Cliff receives some help scaring off bullies from the Martian Manhunter. It's a sweet episode with a big heart, and as such it could of came straight out of the silver age. In stark contrast to this there are episodes like issue #14, 'Spooks', in which Buddy's family is haunted by a shadowy presence while Buddy himself is away. It's daft, yes—but it's also very creepy, with a genuine sense of unease coming from the multiple breaks that are inflicted on the comfort of the Baker family home. 'Spooks' is also one hell of an issue in terms of foreshadowing, with this one episode setting up the majority of what is to come in a genuinely unsettling way. You can tell that these events are the start of the end for the comfy family element of the book, and when Buddy's family are murdered later on, you genuinely feel for both them and Buddy himself because of this sense of meaningless inevitability. As I've mentioned before, Animal Man is a daft wee superhero story, but it draws you in and makes you care about the characters in a way that few books in the genre ever do.

The humanity in this book isn't just reserved for the portrayal of Buddy's family life though; Morrison also embellishes the superhero side of things with a great deal of pathos and sadness too. Look at issue #7 and issue #16 for example, both of which see Morrison taking a campy old villain (the Red Mask and the Time Commander respectively) and constructing a genuinely melancholic little story around them. It should be stupid—men in tights moping around like teenage Smiths fans—but it just works.
Time Commander: 'So. Do you want to fight me too? Do you want
to try and hit me?'

Animal Man: 'No. Not really. Just because I wear a costume doesn't mean I enjoy fighting. I'm just a little concerned about what you're doing here. Maybe you should think about it.
Here, it becomes even clearer than ever that Morrison is writing a comic book character that is a million miles away from the Wolverines and the Punishers of the comic world. There's an inherent niceness to the character that harks back to an earlier age of superhero comics, while remaining grounded in the modern world. I think the key to what Morrison is trying to do here comes from the same conversation that I quoted above, where the Time Commander says sadly 'People like me make the world more interesting.' And you sympathise with this gaudy character, or I do anyway. You want more fun… more randomness… more useless, costless nonsense. But can you stand by while someone imposes their version of a better world on someone else? That's one hell of a question, y'know? But there are always other forces at work, both in real life and in Animal Man; there's always some other agenda to suffer, some other
solution or reconciliation to embrace.
Time Commander: Giant sundials, dinosaurs and hourglasses made out of light… I'm not doing anything wrong, am I?
Going back to the idea of strangeness as a good thing, Animal Man can partly be read as an attempt to recapture some of the fun and wilful oddness that had been abandoned by many of that era's superhero creators. Short, received opinion overview: in the wake of the 'realistic' books such as Alan Moore's Watchmen, there was a general feeling that street-level violence was as good as veracity in superhero fiction, and thus became the dominant mode. This totally ignored Moore's literary sense of pattern making, as well as his generally colossal ambition, but isn't that always the way with imitations?

Animal Man feels like Morrison's attempt to fight against this fad, to re-imbue the DC universe with some kindness, which is why it feels so brutal when Buddy gets put through the wringer in the last third of Morrison's run on the book. The death of his family, his brief transformation into a Punisher-lite revenge-monster, and his discovery as to the nature of the DC universe (a world where continuity replaces history, and you live again every time someone reads your stories) may be fascinating to us, but also feel brutal in comparison to the book's previous good-natured humanity.

Everything in this comic ties into the metafiction. It's something that threads through the whole series from issue #5 onwards. All of the themes and ideas that I've so far discussed come to a head in that brilliant, audacious final issue. Issue #26 'Deus Ex Machina' sees Buddy entering a simulation of the real world and meeting his writer, Grant Morrison. It's an idea that's been done before, but it's still a valid idea, and one that works particularly well here. A lot of big questions get asked, and I think this is the key to Animal Man's brilliance. Are fictional characters any less real than we are? What right do we have to read/write about their pain and suffering (power and responsibility again)? Why are we excited by this kind of stuff? Why should fiction have structure when real life doesn't? Are violent superheroes somehow more 'adult' than normal ones, and if so what does that say about adults? What is the nature of reality? What right do we have to exert our power over the other animals on our planet? Why do we solve our differences by beating the crap out of each other?

All this and more is addressed during the course of Grant and Buddy's conversation, and while not everything gets answered, it's the fact that the questions asked are good one's that counts. Here's a Grant Morrison quote on this topic, which I think sums up a lot of my own feelings on Animal Man, and life in general:
'My ambition knows no bounds but I don't think I'm actually going to offer any answers. I'm more interested in posing better questions. Final answers do nothing but close off all lines of inquiry, whereas questions tend to open things out and stimulate creative thought.'
The issue ends with Morrison deciding to go for the 'cop-out' that he had dismissed earlier in the issue; he gives Buddy back his family and life as it was before Morrison started breaking it apart. 'Maybe for once we could try to be kind' he concludes. I think that maybe, just maybe, he's right.

Power and responsibility… kindness and cruelty… what can it all mean? Despite the fact that Animal Man is sometimes held up as a good early example of 'adult' superheroics, I can't help but think of how great a children's/young adult's story it is. All the political and metaphysical ideas raised in this series would be a brilliant thing to expose a 14 year-old kid to, and hell, a little bit of fantastic adventure never went down wrong with that age group. Just ask Philip Pullman!

(How dirty is this starting to sound, by the way? 'Hello little boy... do you want to see my Animal Man?!' Filthy stuff!)

But still—I think Animal Man would really give a bright kid a lot to think about. Ah, if only kids still read comics these days... (Grumble grumble old-man cakes).

[Missing from the above: an analysis of my romantic/po-mo enjoyment of unanswered questions; any mention of the (admittedly stiff and unremarkable) art whatsoever; and a balanced consideration of the value of fiction for children or young adults. Also, I fall into the trap of uncritically referring to superhero comics of the sixties/seventies as though they were all wonderful. Still, despite all such concerns, I still like this piece. Oh well, so much for self-criticism. What was it that Dennis Potter said about looking back on your past self? I think it was that you should always do so with a sort of 'tender contempt', which sounds about right to me. Let's acknowledge our own faults, but let's do so with at least a smidgen of affection.]

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