Madness and Metafiction – Grant Morrison and the Superhero

God, another post about metafiction?

Well, the best I can say is that this one is about a comic book, so hopefully the sequential art will distract you long enough for me to make my great escape!

Right up front, I’m going to say it… Grant Morrison is probably the smartest guy writing comic books.  Many of his books have a lot going on beneath the surface, and I’m fairly certain I don’t understand half of what’s going on.

For instance, Morrison’s Doom Patrol run has some of the strangest villains in all of comicdom…  Bad guys with names like The Brotherhood of Dada (a group who superpowered anarchists fighting against reality itself) and The Scissormen (a group of villains who literally cut people out of reality… like clipping a coupon!).

Much of the series devolves into maddening trysts of philosophy, morality, and madness.  Luckily, Cliff “Robotman” Steele (yes, Steele… he was created in the 60s, okay? Subtlety wasn’t exactly the cornerstone of comic writing then…   It is the same era that brought us Matter-Eater Lad, let’s just leave it alone) is there to make us feel less stupid.  Cliff will often voice his confusion, letting us know that we aren’t the only ones not making all the connections.

But before Doom Patrol, before Morrison’s fantastic Arkham Asylum, before his seemingly Reich-like 1000 Year run on Batman, Grant Morrison wrote Animal Man.

Animal Man, as a character, doesn’t really have the best history.  Created in the sixties, he was never part of the top-tier of superheroes.  In fact, he wasn’t really ever a part of any tier.  Outside of a few brief, sporadic appearances, Buddy Baker seemed to be headed for the dustbin of comics history, next to Prez Rickard and Brother Power The Geek.

And along came Grant Morrison.

After impressing with work in 2000 AD, a weekly comic which has featured other major British comic writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman,  Morrison presented a re-imagining of the to DC Comics who approved a 4-issue miniseries.  When the series took off, DC gave Morrison free rein to do whatever he wanted and… boy does he.

But the book begins relatively simply.  Buddy Baker, A.K.A. Animal Man, has been called to investigate a break-in at a laboratory.  What follows is standard superhero fare.  Animal Man fights and wins… all while attempting to balance his home life with wife and children.

But…

Sweet tapdancing Christ, I still have trouble believing this issue exists in the world… it is so weird, even for Grant Morrison that I almost hesitate to talk about it… except that I love it too damn much to gloss over it.

The fifth issue, entitled “Coyote Gospel” is where shit starts to get weird.  I’ve used issue 5 to introduce people in the series (and I like it so much that I own a copy of the single issue for that exact reason).  In this issue… well, there’s a coyote who walks on two legs and a trucker is constantly trying to kill him.

The trucker runs him over with his truck, shoots him, and even throws him off a cliff and drops a giant boulder on him (sound familiar yet? meep meep!).  Near the end, Animal Man comes across the broken body of the coyote and the coyote delivers a scroll to Animal Man.

The scroll tells the story (in a wonderful, Saturday Morning Cartoon sort of style) of a world where the beasts fight amongst each other, but cannot die.  Until one day, the coyote takes an elevator to heaven and demands the Creator stop the madness and end the suffering of the creatures.

The Creator agrees… but only if the coyote will take the suffering all upon himself (and seriously, what kind of dick move is that?).  The coyote agrees and is banished to our world… erm, well the DC Comics world… which is like our world, but has Batman.  And Superman.

Animal Man stares at the scroll… is it with intense thought?  No, no.  Dear reader, that would be too kind to the poor coyote.  Instead, Animal Man is confused.  He tells the coyote that he can’t read it and… to add insult to injury (well, insult to DEATH in this case) the coyote is shot and killed by the trucker… this time with a silver bullet, to guarantee that the creature is dead.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

And that’s only the start of it all for Animal Man.  Over the next twenty-one issues, Buddy Baker will meet (among others) aliens who “reboot” his powers and watches, confused, as the same aliens literally dissolve a villain (in a really awesome sequence where the villain goes from fully inked and colored, to inked, to pencils, to roughs, to a blank panel… ONLY IN COMICS!), an old Flash villain named The Mirror Master, a bizarre failed villain named The Red Mask, and an equally bizarre old villain known as the Psycho Pirate.

Oh… and Animal Man also comes face to face with both the reader (quite literally), and with Grant Morrison himself in the final issue.

And for the most part… the work holds up.  Animal Man is used as a sort of conduit for a lot of the thoughts and ideas that Morrison was dealing with at the time (such as Morrison’s conversion to vegetarianism), and the comics, though designed as mostly typical superhero fare, are incredibly thought-provoking, and a lot less dense than some of Morrison’s work from the same era (especially Doom Patrol).

Since his successful runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Morrison has gone on to do great work with DC Comics.  His superhero stuff (JLA, Batman) is fantastic, as his non-superhero work for Vertigo (We3, Joe The Barbarian), and he doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

If you’re interested in checking out more of his work… I’d suggest All Star Superman (which is 12 issues of pure, unadulterated bliss), or his recent run on the New 52 version of Action Comics.  And if you really want to give yourself a mindfuck, check out the newly reissued trade of Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery.  You won’t know what hit you.
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