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Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina

Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina

After reading and reviewing Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, I discovered that he has a blog and that there’s a whole movement to treat comics as a valid literary field of study. However, the movement is in its earliest stages. Hatfield’s latest blog entry (at the time I started this review, not necessarily the time I finish it) is a list of various comics studies Charles would like to see, such as “Well-documented accounts, historical and critical, of American feminist comix” (here, here) and a “Greater formal study of comics that test the limits of narrative.” Go read his full list, it’s interesting.

The good thing about academics like Charles; a professor at California State University, Northridge; tackling these subjects is that libraries now regularly have graphic novel sections. This is particularly great for people like me who still want to read comics and GNs, but are sick of having them pile up in the house. (One of these days I’ll get on eBay and clear out the old crap or something.)

One trouble with this, though, is that libraries, like here in Los Angeles, usually keep the GNs in the “Young Adult” section, which can lead to problems. One recent issue in the news was the library in San Bernardino that pulled Paul Gravett’s Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics off the shelves after a concerned mother worried that her teenage son may have looked at a sexual image. Apparently the book was misfiled, but the incident created a mini uproar in both San Bernardino and in the comics blogosphere. Luckily, Charles’s book when I took it out was properly in the adult section of the library, so hopefully that won’t share the same fate.

The other problem with libraries and GNs — and the one I’m really concerned about since it affects my immediate well-being — is the serial nature of many comic book collections and the perfect example of this issue is my reading of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.

First of all, I guess I don’t understand the economics of the comic book industry that it can’t make an affordable collection of a 26-issue comic series, which is the number of issues Morrison worked on Animal Man. So instead of an all-in-one volume, Animal Man is broken up into three separate collections. You can read my review of the first collection here and what you’re reading now is my review of the third collection. What you won’t read is a review of the second, or middle, collection. Why? Because it doesn’t appear that the Los Angeles library system has it. This is like trying to read a novel with the middle chapters torn out. Anyway, I figured it was better to read Parts 1 and 3 without Part 2 than to not read any Grant Morrison at all. And I’m not going to fare any better with his other collected series, which I’ll be getting to in the weeks to come.

When reading about Grant Morrison’s pretty famous Animal Man run, all reviewers/commentators/historians are going to mention one thing and ruin the end of the book. I’m not going to be any different because you can’t talk about the comic without doing that. The story goes, and I’m not sure if this is comics legend or the truth, but Morrison originally came up with the idea for the first four issues of Animal Man, then planned to turn the book over to another writer. But he stayed with it and developed an epic 22-issue storyline that culminated with the titular hero meeting Grant Morrison.

Characters meeting their creators, or in this case their writer since Morrison didn’t invent Animal Man, is nothing new of course. (And if you want to really read my opinion on authors doing such a thing, follow my reviews of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.) But in this case it was very unusual since Animal Man was a character in a mainstream book who is heavily involved in a company’s regular continuity. So at the time it was a pretty bold thing for a superhero writer to do. However, reading the series now, I think Morrison missed his mark.

This third collection begins with Morrison re-writing Animal Man’s secret origin much in the same way Alan Moore revamped Swamp Thing. This is a good thing since Animal Man had pretty much the stupidest origin of any superhero. The original story is that an alien spaceship blows up in front of stuntman Buddy Baker and he suddenly has the ability to absorb the power of any nearby animal.

Now we find out that the alien explosion actually incincerated Buddy who was then rebuilt by the aliens to give him the ability to tap into the Earth’s “morphogenetic field,” which is a complicated theory you can read more about on Wikipedia if you’re so inclined (just follow that link). However, once we learn this, for the entire rest of the series Animal Man barely ever uses his superpower. He does a little bit to fight a giant robot in one sequence, but instead he mostly just wanders about slowly coming to the realization that he’s a construct living within the panel borders of a comic book page. (There’s also a whole complicated plot about the undoing of the DC Comics “universe,” but I won’t get into that even though it’s great fun for us comic nerds.)

The plot finally culminates in Animal Man meeting Grant Morrison, an event that follows the same exact formula that every “character meets his maker” event follows. But that didn’t bother me. Here’s the problem, though: Morrison has been making this distinction through the series that all the characters in the book are just fictional constructs. In the end, Animal Man, of course, does not meet Grant Morrison. Instead he meets a fictional construct of Grant Morrison and I was disappointed that Morrison didn’t make that distinction in the book. Buddy Baker never does escape from his comic book “prison.” Even when he thinks he’s escaped by leaping out of the panel borders, he’s still just stuck in another comic book page with another fictional character. The way the series was drawn out, I think that would have been the real “meta” way to end it all.

Beyond that picky detail, Deus Ex Machina is still a fun read and maybe someday I’ll get to read the middle chapters.

Underground Film Feedback (3 comments)

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  • I looked back at your Dark Tower reviews, but don’t really understand your complaint about an author “appearing” in their work. What do you think the author is trying to achieve? Do you think the goal is worthwhile? Do you think it’s successful in execution?

    You understood that the Morrison in Animal Man is a fiction, so why do you need it pointed out?

    (BTW, you might be interested in Timothy Callahan’s analysis of Animal Man, which starts here.)

  • Mike says:

    I haven’t read a ton of metafiction, so I don’t know why all authors insert themselves into their work. Stephen King pretty much says why he did it. He thought the Dark Tower series was such a vital part to his career, he thinks it’s his signature work, that it “only made sense to him” that he should appear in it. In other words, that the saga of actually writing the book is as important to what’s actually in the book. I don’t recall reading Dave Sim’s reason for inserting himself into Cerebus, but I assume the motivations would be along the same line.

    But, as a consumer of these works, what I actually care about is the saga of me reading them, not them writing it. As I said in a Dark Tower review, I don’t really care about Stephen King, I’m not emotionally invested in him the way I am invested in his characters. So, to have them “step out” of their fictional worlds to interact in a fictionalized “real world,’ just takes me out of the actual “reality” of the fiction. Especially in Cerebus that had years of backstory building up about the nature of the universe only to find out that that backstory was totally irrelevent because it was all made up by a guy named “Dave Sim.” Man, when I read that I felt so totally gypped. All the secrets and innuendo and competing religious theories he developed were just thrown out the window.

    Morrison’s point is a little different since Animal Man isn’t his defining work. He was just trying to make a point that no matter how hellish Buddy Baker’s “life” got, it was nothing compared to the real world tragedy faced by Grant Morrison. That’s a somewhat interesting idea, but again I feel a little bit gypped because as a reader Buddy Baker is more “real” to me than Grant Morrison and taking Buddy out of his environment just points out how “fake” he is, leaving me unsatisfied.

    Thanks for the link. Timothy’s review is a more detailed style of review than I do here on Bad Lit. I do find it interesting that he can’t review the series without having to explain things that happen OUTSIDE the actual series, i.e. DC’s Invasion event. Shouldn’t a book exist in and of itself?

  • I don’t think the series requires an explanation of the event, but it’s a genre trapping of a certain kind of review. It’s no different to reviews of literary novels that can’t help bringing in author-biographical or historical information. But we all bring knowledge to whatever we read.

    Thanks for the expansion on your metafiction complaint. My reading was a little different: that Buddy’s life is in some way real, and his particular reality takes its flavour from our real life (he’s marginalised, in the dark, pre-determined, tragic). Most revisionary fictions paint a hopeless view of life, as in the Coyote Gospel, but Grant restores the hope of the real Gospel, that sometimes our creators can be kind. Your mileage may vary – I’m afraid I cried like a baby over the Jamara story.

    But I think Morrison has multiple points in writing himself in. It’s worth getting the whole story, and it rewards rereading. I often think it is his best work.