Issues #1-5. (Sep 88)
[Another installment in our ongoing Morrison Reading Project. This was originally posted on 21 June 2009 (and had to be moved here when the Groups were about to be shut down). Some discussion on the first 5 issues followed in Jeff Carter's original Morrison thread. Find the attachment here.]
As he did on the first page of Doom Patrol, Morrison's work on this series begins with a statement of intent. At the end of the first page B’wana Beast bemoans the sorry state of modern city living by saying 'why did we come down from the trees?' The next page has the hero up a tree and his neighbour is shouting 'Watch you don't fall! It’s a long way down.'
There you have it. We are being drawn into a superhero version of the fall of man. Evolution and the bible are both evoked. The loss of the lower animal's state of grace equated to Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Reaching? There aren't a lot of sentences in a comic book, but Buddy manages to get in a reference to 'the Fall' (aka Autumn to us non-Americans) later in the issue. Buddy’s wife Ellen is listening to 'The Garden of Eden' on the radio just before Buddy enters. It’s a very old tune, written in 1916 but not my type of song. I did find an excellent version by Sam Cook but I can’t link to it anymore.
In issue two we have the scientist comparing the organism molded from all the monkeys to ‘watching Adam rise up out of the dust’ and the rednecks in the woods keep referring to the Garden of Eden.
There are other hints and clues to what the rest of the series will be about. Ellen mentions the Crisis, which must have been a no-no at that time. DC were still trying to establish that this was a whole new reality rather than a continuation of the pre-CRISIS DCU. Morrison gets to conduct his own little Crisis in this series later on. Buddy’s attitude to hunting foreshadows his commitment to animal rights. He even mentions that he feels as if a higher power is pulling the strings, which foreshadows the most memorable strand of this whole run.
The blue skies and sunshine that this issue basks under would have been a welcome change at this point in mainstream comics’ history. I especially like the training scenes with Buddy's wife. It makes sense that a grown-up father of two would carefully measure the limits of his powers before taking up the superhero game again. If he takes it seriously, so should we. Note that these scenes seem to echo those of Mike Moran and Liz testing his newfound powers in Moore's Marvelman.
I don’t want to go into the symbolism of the first 4 issues and how they tie into the 5th issue, which in turn is a synopsis of the whole series. The stuff I wrote on Doom Patrol, above, was mainly my own reaction to what was on the pages, but I’ve read a lot of Animal Man commentary and interviews since I first read this series, so I don’t think I have anything too original to add on the symbolism. I have to direct your attention to one particular podcast which discusses the first TPB in full.
Internet Morrison expert Geoff Klock contributes a great commentary on the collection. As a bonus (and the reason I sought out this podcast to share with you guys years after I first heard it), most of the regular contributors are comically incapable of seeing anything in a Morrison story beyond men in tights punching each other. One in particular is the embodiment of Morrison's archenemy, the literal-minded reader, utterly dismissing any literary intent on Morrison’s part. He loves Tom Clancy novels.
So leaving aside a metatextual, esoteric gloss on the first four issues, there are some things I have to admire. Stuff that would benefit any superhero comic. The character building and world-building here is great. Buddy’s San Diego suburban world seems very convincing. The neighbours, the kids, everyone seems to have their own personality.
Continuity is used just to make the world feel real (it is the DCU after all) and Morrison cherry-picks the elements from a long history that tie in artistically with the story he’s telling. S.T.A.R. labs for one and B’wana Beast’s name is a nice inversion of Animal Man’s when you think of it. B’wana means Lord or mister in Swahili, but B’wana was probably understood to mean ‘man’ or ‘white man’ when he was created. So the Man Beast is the first foe of Animal Man. Story and continuity elements all come together naturally. The White God with the intelligent ape friend, animal testing and Animal Man’s radicalisation towards animal rights all sit together. His first adventure dramatises his radicalisation whereas another writer would have just had him become an animal rights campaigner as a ‘neat idea’ leading from his powers.
Another thing that flows naturally from the whole setup is that Buddy wouldn't have to fly to far outside San Diego to encounter the desert landscape of the Wile E Coyote cartoons. Or at least I presume so, as most American cities named San Something tend to be near the Mexican border where I'm sure the entire landscape looks like a Sergio Leone movie.
The lack of an origin in the first arc is also refreshing. He was a corny old-school hero with slightly daft powers coming out of retirement. Good enough once you accept the basic premise of the DCU itself, that this is a world where people get weird powers.
There were a few things that were a bit off. Perhaps the hunters are a bit one-sided, but then Buddy and his friend are both shown to be one-time hunters without being psychotic nutters, and it is one of the hunters themselves that eventually resolve the situation.
Morrison often brings in scientific theories to bolster his philosophising, but the science here is a bit off. The rubbish ideas of cutting an earthworm to produce two viable new earthworms and killing any attacking dog by pulling its forelegs apart to burst its heart were both playground urban myths in my day but cited as facts here. But then urban myths are bread and butter to Grant when he gets to The Invisibles
So, as this is a discussion board I’d be interested in your reactions to issue 5, the rather unique and ground-breaking ‘Coyote Gospel’ tale. If you’ve read it before and can’t remember it, go ahead and dig it out. You’ll be glad you did.
[This is another repost in advance of the closure of the Morrison group, originally posted on 21 June 2009. A look at the remaining four issues collected in the first trade paperback will follow. Some discussion on the first 5 issues followed in Jeff Carter's Morrison thread, here.]