Animal Man. Who cares, right? Well, no one really did. That’s why he’d been virtually forgotten when DC revived him for his own ongoing. So why give such a character an ongoing? Well…
Comics legend Alan Moore had recently taken Swamp Thing from an irrelevant comic to an artistic and commercial smash. When he took over the title, Moore had been a British comics writer all but unknown in the United States. DC sought to repeat the experience, seeking out British writers to reinvigorate — or in some cases invigorate for the first time — more obscure DC characters. Neil Gaiman would be brought over as part of this effort, a move that brought comics his seminal The Sandman. Animal Man was the project given British comics writer Grant Morrison.
Morrison wrote later that he initially could only plan the first four issues. Forced to come up with a plan for an ongoing series, Morrison began to lay the groundwork for the remainder of his run. #5, “The Coyote Gospel,” featured a cartoon coyote (like Wile E. Coyote) named Crafty who enters our — or at least the DC Universe’s — reality only to be shot. In the story, the coyote hands Animal Man The Gospel According to Crafty — a text that tells of how Crafty tired of the endless violence and struck a deal with his (artistic) Creator to suffer in our world — or the DC Universe — in exchange for peace in his cartoon world. Crafty dies in the end, held by Animal Man, and the “camera” pulls back to show Crafty bloody on the road where it crosses, making him a Christ-figure; what’s more, we see the fingers and brush of Crafty’s Creator putting red blood over the image. Filled with Native American overtones of the coyote as trickster figure, and complete with a series of suggestive epilogues that hinted at the postmodern twists Morrison would later apply in the series, the issue stands as the first one that really feels like Morrison’s own.
Morrison soon had to incorporate the Invasion! crossover event into the title, though he did so with panache. DC placed Animal Man in the Justice League around the same time, though Morrison largely chose to ignore this fact in his comic, at least after Martian Manhunter’s worthwhile appearance that announced the transition for Animal Man readers. Morrison also used Mirror Master, a Flash villain, making the character someone to be feared for the first time; Mirror Master would reappear throughout Morrison’s run. Around the same time, a mysterious figure began appearing in the environs of the Baker household. Animal Man then met a series of DC’s animal-related characters, including Vixen and Dolphin as well as B’wana Beast, who had appeared in Morrison’s first four issues. Animal rights and environmentalism took greater stage, in no issue more than #15 — which smartly had Animal Man attempt to kill a mass killer of animals only to have, ironically, a dolphin save him, narrating “our way is different.” But it is the conclusion of Morrison’s run on Animal Man for which his work on the title — and the title itself — is justly famous.
In a series of peyote-induced hallucinations, including of the pre-Crisis version of Animal Man, followed. During the hallucinations, Buddy Baker looks up and out of the page at the reader — a breaking of the fourth wall. Writing off his experiences for the time being, he returns home to find his family dead. With Mirror Master, scorned by the fat cats who hired him, Animal Man proceeds to kill off those fat cats responsible for his family’s death. Animal Man, going mad, swindles a time machine from Rip Hunter — who half remembers meeting Animal Man before, a reference to their time together in the pre-Crisis team, The Forgotten Heroes. Travelling back in time to prevent his family’s death, Animal Man finds that he was the mysterious figure spotted lurking around his house and that he cannot affect the past but is torturously forced to watch it unfold again.
Morrison reintroduced the Psycho-Pirate, a.k.a. Roger Hayden, who had last been seen in Arkham Asylum at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The only character alive who remembered the Crisis and the destruction of a multiverse of characters and universes, DC had ignored him and had no official policy on what its characters remembered of the events, which had left lasting effects that must be comprehended by any character experiencing them but which could not be properly remembered, since memory of the collapsed multiverse was eradicated. Despite all this, Morrison had the Psycho-Pirate talk explicitly of continuity and its revisions. Through his power, characters eliminated in the Crisis — such as (the adorable) Streaky, the super-cat — began to reappear. Characters begin to move outside of the panels on the page and to refer to the faces of their readers staring down at them, sadistically enjoying their pain and wishing to view characters fight. Returning to the present, Animal Man uses the ability to move outside of the comic’s panels as a tactic in combat. Characters articulate his belief that they are all fictional characters created by malevolent creators, that they (the characters) live each time a reader reads their stories, and that they ironically can outlive their creators.
Animal Man next journeyed to limbo, where characters go when not being written, only to be greeted by those who remembered his recent departure from there — to appear, of course, in the Animal Man ongoing series. Characters in limbo include such greats as the dogs of the Space Canine Patrol Agency as well as characters like Mr. Freeze who have been subsequently and even frequently revived. The monkey at the typewriter, seen occasionally in the title for almost two years, is seen writing the script for the present Animal Man issue, only to himself die. But the coup de grace was delivered in the end of the penultimate issue as Animal Man arrived in our own world and met none other than writer Grant Morrison.
In the issue-long conversation that followed, Morrison and Animal Man walk through a world colored in drab grays — in stark contrast to the imaginative color of Animal Man’s world of super-beings. Morrison apologized for his own writerly failings and justified torturing Animal Man — while the protagonist read his own comic and raged about the killing of his family. Morrison spoke to his readers directly, delivering the final words and acknowledgements typically delivered on the letters page of a writer’s final issue. At the end, Animal Man was reunited with his living family, as if everything had been a dream — out-of-continuity, its risks therefore rendered somehow safe. An epilogue featuring Morrison is one of the few truly autobiographical moments in his work.
Probably the most groundbreaking elements of Morrison’s run were those dealing with comics continuity and with the nature of fiction. The idea of a limbo for unused comic book characters is essentially the same idea Alan Moore used in his first issue of Supreme. Dave Sim in his magnum opus Cerebus also had his protagonist meet his creator. And Morrison would later develop the ideas first explored here into a kind of fiction theory — such as in his thrilling mini-series The Filth — a theory of reality also used by Warren Ellis in Planetary.
And thanks to trade paperbacks (though there was a long pause in publication between the first trade and the last two), Morrison’s Animal Man itself continues to live — as do, perhaps, its characters… over and over, each time we read.