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Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 11, 2006

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.

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