Age-old DC, Marvel comic schism continues

Superheroes have established a unique niche in our current pop culture. With some of the largest names in cinema bearing DC and Marvel banners, it goes without saying that comics have been enjoying a new renaissance.

This is good news for the enthusiast. I would like to claim to be one, albeit I am very green concerning the subject. I can’t claim to have been into Batman my whole life (I didn’t even care for the animated series as a child. It would be years until I could actually appreciate it) and the circumference of my knowledge base doesn’t allow me to pile much on top of it.

Despite these shortcomings, I would like to introduce to you a title that has captured my imagination and augmented my faith in comic books as a literary medium: Animal Man. Specifically, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.

During the 80s (after the Crises on Infinite Earths run) DC decided to dust off a few of its unused properties and dole them out to several cynical (predominantly English) writers. They were entrusted to revamp their respective stories as they saw fit.

This period established some of the most well-known and influential works in comics.

Alan Moore gave us Watchmen as well as Swamp Thing. Neil Gaiman produced Sandman. Grant Morrison was given Animal Man. Readers were treated to a dark existential adventure through time and space which challenged the notions of reality, morality and consequence.

Morrison’s run detailed the life of Buddy Baker as a husband, a father, and washed-up B-list hero.

He seeks to re-establish himself as Animal Man, embarking on what begins as a rather standard superhero story.

Baker champions the causes of animal rights and environmentalism (causes Morrison himself was passionate about) after his initial encounter with B’wana Beast, a man capable of controlling animals and fusing them into bizarre chimeras.

While B’wana Beast initially functions as an antagonist, Animal Man soon realizes that the research facility employing his aid has been performing inhumane animal experiments and that B’wana Beast’s ultimate goal has been to rescue creatures from the facility.

From this point on, things start getting strange.

After the publication of “The Coyote Gospel,” the tone of the entire Animal Man story changes dramatically. “The Coyote Gospel” itself stands out because of its unusual style, structure and literary value. The issue functions as a Looney Tunes Christ allegory; a Wile E. Coyote figure searching aimlessly to bring his gospel to man, unable to communicate that he is destined for eternity to die painfully and endlessly in order to redeem his kind.

If that doesn’t catch your interest, I’m not sure what will.

The story only becomes more convoluted and self-aware as it goes on, ultimately culminating with Animal Man transcending his own medium to meet his creator, or the sub-creator, as Tolkien would have had it.

Personally, Morrison’s Animal Man is a fine example of the complexity of comic books as a literary medium. The comic challenges the idea that superheroes are the next step in the evolutionary line. It stipulates that this could not possibly be the case if such beings are incapable of resolving any of their differences without physical conflict.

Initially, Morrison’s prose caught my eye. The dialogue and structure of his writing is poetic. The twisting, visceral nature of his work is reflected perfectly in what he communicates to the reader. The writing is absolutely stellar.

Additionally, covers and illustrations by Chas Truog and Tom Grummett are captivating. The 80s structure and palette gradually warps into a psychedelic calliope, with colors and frames bending, twisting and disintegrating as the fragile world unwinds. Every cover is a dark spectacle, often bordering on gruesome; they really tie the whole work together.

Morrison quickly established a place in my heart next to Alan Moore. While Animal Man isn’t exactly Watchmen, it doesn’t have to be. Morrison’s run established a similar principle: comics are a unique medium, capable of much more than most people tend to believe.

I’d say that if a work can re-establish the value of a medium, it might be worth a read.