William Shatner has said that one of the secrets to a fulfilling life is learning to say “yes.” Sure, you sometimes make mistakes, but if you say “yes” enough times you wind up recording albums with Ben Folds. For this reason, even though it goes against my nature, whenever I have an unusual opportunity, I often try to say “yes.” Sometimes that means I wind up writing a weekly column about comic books.
Other times it means I wind up giving a guest lecture about Michel Foucault.
Now if you don’t know Foucault from the Foo Fighters, I can’t say that I blame you. Michel Foucault was a French philosopher from the second half of the 20th Century, and he is regarded as one of the leading figures in the tradition of Post-structuralism. Yeah, it’s about as fun as it sounds. But I knew I wasn’t being asked to lecture because I had any special expertise in Foucault. I was there to talk about “The Coyote Gospel.”
The class I would be meeting was “Literary Theory”—an English course where students learn to apply the theories of some really heavyweight philosophers to the books they’re reading. Maybe it doesn’t sound so tough when I put it like that, but if you try wading through some legalistic English translation of abstract philosophy, you’ll quickly learn why Literary Theory is often the most frightening class any English major can take. It’s our equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster—a class stitched together out of the dead body parts of a bunch of complex and unintelligible French philosophers. Needless to say, you have to be incredibly smart in order to teach it which is why normally I never have to worry about it.
Did I mention it was my wife’s class?
The students had already learned the basics of Foucault, so it was time to apply all those fancy new ideas to something practical and she wanted to use a comic. I suggested the legendary Grant Morrison story, “The Coyote Gospel,” from Animal Man #5. Next thing I know, I’m studying her notes on Post-structuralism and wishing I had a copy of Foucault for Dummies. What could go wrong?
Now many of you have probably read “The Coyote Gospel.” It’s one of the most famous single issues in comics history, and for good reason. For me, it marks the moment when Grant Morrison truly found his voice as a writer—the moment he went from simply writing clever and skillful comics to producing something far more profound.
With Animal Man, Morrison had originally been hired to write a four-issue miniseries designed to revamp the mostly-forgotten superhero. He produced a very solid story that applied real-world logic to the largely absurd character. It was typical of much of the revisionist era and was quite good.
But when Morrison was asked to continue the series, there wasn’t a clear path to follow. He wasn’t much interested in continuing the straight revisionist approach, so he decided to take the series in a wildly different direction. His first effort, “The Coyote Gospel,” mostly abandoned the character of Animal Man, instead writing a story that posited Wile E. Coyote as an ironic Christ figure. It was as audacious, absurd, and utterly unconventional as anything DC had ever published, and it meant that for Morrison there was no going back. This was Glasgow Calling, and Morison had just smashed his guitar on the stage.
It became an instant classic, and yet, like a lot of Morrison’s stories, it’s tricky. The closer you read it, the trickier it gets. “Meaning” in the story is kind of like the pea in a shell game. You follow it for a while, but just as you think you’ve got it, everything gets blurry and you realize everything you thought you knew is gone and you’re starting from scratch again.
That’s where Michel Foucault comes in.
Actually, Foucault would’ve hated everything I’ve just written. He wasn’t interested in the author’s biography or intentions. He thought the idea of an “author” was overblown. For Foucault, there aren’t any real “authors” any more than there are real, essential, truths. So when it comes to reading a story, what most of us might call “meaning” is relative—it only lasts for a moment, and it depends on countless other factors. “Meaning” is kind of like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. You work on it until finally it comes together for just one moment in time, then crashes into a thousand pieces all over again, waiting to be rebuilt, only this time with a different picture. That’s meaning.
And since, in the post-modern world there aren’t essential, fixed truths—there’s no one meaning for “cow,” for example, because a cow means different things to different people at different moments in time—the primary way we come to understand anything is by looking at the relationship between binaries or opposites. What is good? It’s the opposite of evil. That’s how we try to understand it. And those opposites are rarely treated as equal—we like good more than evil, for example.
Well, what happens in a story is that the less favored concept fights with its counterpoint for supremacy. That’s how we construct temporary moments of meaning—through the tension and conflict, where these two opposing ideas slip off their fixed labels and struggle to be on top. Consider all the sympathetic villains or flawed heroes you’ve seen—pretty much the entire moral vision of something like Watchmen, for example. These ideas, like good and evil, are constantly trying to alter their identities and overtake each other.
Are you still awake? ‘Cause believe it or not, this stuff is all over “The Coyote Gospel.”
Take the cover image by Brian Bolland. What do we see? Animal Man laid out in a Christ pose. And immediately, you can sense the tension. This is to be a story about a garishly-clad superhero—a proud embodiment of “trash” culture taking center stage in the re-enactment of the core story of one of the world’s major religions—low art challenging high culture.
But the conflict doesn’t end there. On the cover we also see a strong contrast between the aesthetics of color and monochrome. And the presence of the artist’s hand in the corner holding the paintbrush hints at a conflict between realities—the so-called “real” world versus the cartoon world of comics.
In fact, Morrison keeps slamming these opposing concepts against each other at a nearly jarring pace. In the very first line, in order to describe the heat of the desert, Morrison compares the air to water. Later on the first page, when the hitchhiker and the truck driver try to explain why they do what they do, the hitchhiker mentions the Tarot and the driver clutches the cross he wears around his neck.
When the scene shifts to Buddy Baker’s home, we get more binaries. First, we see a close-up of a fraudulent televangelist giving the usual spiel, “Jesus needs your money!” (6). Buddy’s son then says, “Dad, this is radical!” presumably talking about the preacher on television. However, the next panel changes the perspective and we realize he’s actually talking about Buddy’s decision for the family to become vegetarians. Buddy, in contrast to the televangelist, is promoting a sincere ethical and spiritual lifestyle decision.
When Buddy’s wife, Ellen, returns, the artist, Chas Truog, juxtaposes images of each of them, Buddy, sitting in the floor with late-’80s cutoff shorts and Ellen, with a stern facial expression and a business power suit. The traditional gender roles are reversed as the two concepts of gender slip their labels and compete for power.
Honestly, there are competing binaries on virtually every page of the comic, often more than one per page. But where it becomes most prominent is in Morrison’s Wile E. Coyote-as-Christ metaphor. In his first appearance, the coyote is hit by a semi-truck, but readers quickly learn that the blow was not fatal. Slowly, and quite painfully, the coyote’s body begins the process of reassembling itself, with the narration detailing each methodical step. The tone of the narration is very matter-of-fact, but when the coyote finally stands upright, the narrator’s dispassionate medical voice gives way to high-toned Biblical rhetoric: “Behold! / The miracle of the resurrection!” (4).
However, whatever clarity the reader might have about the coyote is undermined by a competing metaphor. The scene itself, with desert vultures circling overhead and the slumped, demon-like creature, invokes much of the imagery from W.B. Yeats’s famed poem, “The Second Coming,” with the stooped coyote standing in for Yeats’s anti-Christ, described in the final two lines of that poem as a “rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.” It’s as if two different coyotes were fighting for screen time.
As the story picks up a year later, the truck driver has returned to hunt down the coyote, whom he believes is the devil. The ensuing scene reinforces the ways in which all the labels for interpreting the characters and their roles ultimately break down. At first it seems clear: the hunter shoots the coyote, and like the long-suffering Wile E. from the Road Runner cartoons, he dutifully falls off a cliff before being hit by a boulder. But there’s only one problem. Morrison’s coyote wasn’t hunting. He was the prey. Instead, the truck driver, acting as hunter, is playing out the Wile E. Coyote role, first hiding dynamite and laying out a trip wire and then carelessly getting too close to it when the coyote eventually trips the explosion.
And just as the Wile E. Coyote role shifts identities, the religious metaphors return to battle for space once again. When the coyote emerges from the explosion, the wounded driver sees him and immediately exclaims, “Oh God” (16). The line is playfully ambiguous, and the resulting image, likewise, seems an equal blend of angel and demon, with swirling smoke forming a halo and angel’s wings for the otherwise charred, demonic-looking beast.
However, the angel/demon elects not to punish the driver, instead seeking out Animal Man and presenting him with the “Gospel” of the story’s title. As Animal Man looks at the scroll, we see the tale of Crafty the Coyote and his cartoon world of neverending, mindless violence. The notion of the cartoon world presents yet another set of binaries, this time the cartoon world pitted against the “real” world of Animal Man. Traditionally, the “real” world would be privileged, but in the Gospel, when Crafty challenges “God,” a figure who appears to be an artist, Crafty is condemned to leave the cartoon world and is sentenced to the paradoxical-sounding “hell above”—Animal Man’s “real” world (20). While Crafty’s world is violent and needs redeeming, Crafty’s Gospel still presents it as morally, if not geographically, superior to Animal Man’s real world.
The presence of the artist-God complicates the binaries even more. If Animal Man’s world is the “real” world, where does Crafty’s “God” reside? His or her world seems to be below Animal Man’s world physically, but at the end of the story we see the God figure drawing the final panel, much like the artist’s hand on the cover. Are these the same God/Artist figures? Or is the final hand image reflective of a different, competing God, ruling over Animal Man’s world as surely as Crafty’s God rules over the cartoon world?
The Gospel itself also carries the same dueling metaphors for Crafty. On the one hand, he acts as sacrificial martyr, dying over and over again in Animal Man’s world so that the cartoon world might live and hopefully find peace. Yet, Crafty’s plan is to return to the cartoon world one day and overthrow the “Tyrant God,” which again places Crafty in the Lucifer role, plotting to challenge God. So perhaps when Crafty isn’t too busy being a Christ figure, he can fill in as a Lucifer figure as well.
These competing interpretations continue to swirl around so that when the truck driver finally shoots the coyote with his “silver” bullet, the driver calls him “Satan!” (22) and dies believing he, the story’s new, rifle-toting Christ figure, has “saved the world” (23). But not so fast. The final page shows the coyote on the crossroads, stretched out in cruciform like just another random bit of Southwestern roadkill—some jackrabbit Jesus—that has supplanted Animal Man’s position from the cover.
Confused? No doubt. What does it all mean? Well, it’s tempting to say it means everything and nothing, all at the same time. That’s a little cliché, but it’s still not a bad answer. One of the reasons “The Coyote Gospel” remains so compelling is that, much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the story seems to perfectly illustrate the ideas of its time. That’s why it makes a very nice story for talking about Foucault. For a comic book where the hero never fights anyone, there is still conflict on every page, with ideas and concepts competing with each other for space and supremacy, and where “meaning” must be repeatedly constructed and then reconstructed from scratch.
That’s a lot of work for a reader who has to constantly chase after meaning without ever quite catching it. We readers, desperate to capture meaning, wind up constructing elaborate, interpretive traps and mechanisms, but somehow just when it seems like they’re about to work, everything blows up in our face. Perhaps we all have a little bit of coyote in us.
 In yet another example of binaries, compare Crafty’s Gospel, carried around his neck, to the driver’s cross necklace with its inscription. Both wind up being unreadable and losing their meaning.
 Obviously, Morrison re-visits these issues and by issue #26 presents a version of himself as the creator. But the depiction is different than in #5. Moreover, for this type of reading, we’re just looking at one story of 24 pages and trying to see how things work within that single issue.