This article was originally published at DC Comics News on December 10, 2013.
Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man began as a four-issue mini-series that was equal parts tragic and goofy.(1) The success of these four issues and DC Comic’s ambition to maintain British talent (e.g. Moore, Morrison, Gaiman) led to the continuation of the title. With a potentially unlimited run ahead of him, Morrison used the fifth issue of the series to refocus his ideas and craft a thesis statement for the twenty-one issues to come. This issue, The Coyote Gospel, remains one of the best single issues ever published under the DC Comics banner.
Animal Man #5 functions as a self-contained comic. The ideas packed into twenty-four pages are varied and complex. The variations of modern Christian mythology, the nature of creation, the power of stories upon our lives, and, most importantly, animal rights, all fit into twenty-four pages of images and words. These disparate concepts relate back to the foundation of the comic and its most prominent feature: the ability to communicate stories and ideas through language.
The cover reminds the reader immediately that they are reading a fictionalized account that was written and drawn by another’s hand (as if reading a flying man in spandex didn’t make that clear enough). The hand and dripping paint clarify that effort was put into the book in order to communicate the author’s ideas. Throughout the first five pages, there are bounties of these reminders. The standard nine-panel structure (2) on the first page establishes the book to be a superhero publication in line with the popular formatting of the time. Within those nine panels are multiple stories, each of them acting as a subtle reminder that language and fiction are the basis of what is in the reader’s hands. From popular films of the time (Carrie) to mystical predictions (tarot cards) to confessions (the driver’s tale of personal salvation), stories are ever present in the beginning. As the prelude ends with a splash panel on page five, another reminder of this account’s construction by an unseen creator arises, as a narrator’s voice intrudes on the page stating, “That was a year ago.” Before the titular Animal Man ever enters the frame, Morrison establishes that this is not just a superhero story, but a carefully crafted piece of writing designed to impart meaning to the reader. It is rhetoric.
As the narration continues, now with Animal Man populating the panels, the comic becomes mundane and, at least at first glance, irrelevant to the greater story at hand. This scene also focuses on the issue’s core conceit though, being communication or the lack thereof. Buddy and his wife, Ellen, argue about his becoming a vegetarian, but the verb “argue” constitutes an exchange of opposing viewpoints. Buddy never actually communicates with his wife; he only shouts rhetorical questions before throwing his arms up in disgust and leaving. Although dialogue occurs, communication is absent.
Buddy’s strong feelings about meat products in this scene are vitally important to understanding the rest of the story as well. The superhero is our avatar when reading superhero comics. Whether it is Superman, Batman, or some other character, they are the protagonists and guides of the genre. They allow readers to experience wish fulfillment or fantasize about impossible lives and situations. When reading a Superman story, we do not primarily empathize with Jimmy Olson (the ever awkward, but eager young person who acts as a more realistic analog for most fans), but with Superman, the morally and physically perfected specimen who sets the golden standard for the genre. So in Animal Man, we are expected to once more identify with the superhero. In this instance, the hero holds a widely unpopular opinion (3) (4), but can expect to garner sympathy for it by simply being the hero of the story. Buddy’s surrogacy for the reader, both as an actor and a conduit to empathize with the moral philosophy of vegetarians, becomes vitally important in the conclusion of the story.
Buddy flies away and into the action of the story. He enters a battle between Crafty and the driver, both introduced in the prelude. The battle plays out in such a way that it is anti-superheroic. Buddy is entirely useless. He flies in only to watch as both Crafty and the driver are killed. His powers are useless, as he cannot understand what is occurring. This begs the question of why he is in the story at all.
As the reader’s surrogate, his feelings of impotence and confusion inspire those same emotions in the audience. These emotions are not easy ones to process and act as a provocation. When confronted with unpalatable circumstances, the human condition is to engage in a fight or flight response. Buddy’s inability to act frustrates the reader who desires a less tragic outcome. For those who finish the comic, it serves as a particularly powerful call to action, even if it is not an overt one.
The outcomes are truly tragic, both for Crafty and the driver. Both characters suffer greatly before their lives are ended in the final pages, in desperate attempts to act for the greater good. The driver is led to believe that he is confronting the devil and potentially averting the apocalypse by attacking Crafty. Crafty on the other hand is pursuing the sort of feat that billions of people have based their lives around, suffering here on Earth in order to absolve the suffering of his fellows (in this instance, other cartoon animals). He is an obvious Christ analog and this helps add weight to his death, in the same way it does for Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath.(5)
So as the story ends, there is no resolution, only the deep sadness that good tragedy sets out to provide its audience along with one final reminder, as the paintbrush colors Crafty’s growing pool of blood: This was a story created using the language of comics. This tragedy is one manufactured by misunderstanding. Morrison with the help of Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood is able to convey Crafty’s story, clearly and concisely, in only three pages (18-20). Crafty can do nothing to communicate though. All of his writings, set on a scroll just like the books of the New Testament, amount to nothing more than random scribbling in Buddy’s (and the reader’s) eyes.
This all began when God passed judgment upon Crafty, stating, “You must spend eternity in the hell above, while you live and bear the suffering of the world, I will make peace amongst the beasts.” This pronouncement is deceiving in two ways. The speaker is not God, but man. However, in Crafty’s eyes there is no difference. This is a being that holds absolute power over him and chooses his fate based not on what Crafty wants, but on its own pleasures and whims. Furthermore, despite the obvious analogs to Wile E. Coyote and the Looney Toons collective, he is not making peace amongst “cartoons” or “animations”, but among “beasts”.
This is because Crafty is not a cartoon at all. He’s an animal. He is every animal that has been mistreated, abused, eaten, etc… by us.(6)
Despite the allusions to the diversification of Christian mythology, the relationship between artist and art, and the power of stories upon their audience, Animal Man has never been primarily about these things. It begins and ends as a story about animal rights in the 20th Century. The obvious analogy of Crafty and Christ does not exist because Morrison felt like being especially clever, but because both figures die for a belief in a morality that could not be realized until well after their deaths.(7) The story goes further than to simply characterize the struggle for animal rights as being important or moral in melodramatic terms, it explains why the struggle is so difficult to understand. That is why the concepts of language and stories have been pounded into the reader’s head beginning with the very cover of the issue.
The ideas of this comic and the ideas of modern Christianity are all expressed through shared language. By applying the medium of comics, Morrison has sought out one of the most accessible means of communication available to people. The illustrations of a comic provide a symbolic language that defies the boundaries of formal written or spoken language. Even without the speech bubbles and narration available, the story is still cogent. It is possible for someone to read English comics without understanding the English language. Language, whether it is spoken, written, or drawn, is the foundation of human understanding and morality. It’s also something of which animals are entirely incapable.
We are made so aware of the communication occurring in this issue, both in words and pictures, that the inability to communicate becomes more climactic than the gunshot and death that follows. Crafty’s tears reflect the howls of monkeys subjected to medical testing, the forlorn stares of beaten dogs, the mad scrambling of lobsters being thrust into boiling water.(8) Yet it is only through the comics created by Morrison that the death of this one coyote takes on any sense of tragedy or meaning.
This is not to say that we should all become vegetarians or that all animals are inherently entitled to the same rights as people. However, it is worth considering how the ability to communicate changes our perspective. Just consider how large of a boundary is created between human beings who do not share a common language. Consider how alien the plight of Syrians is made out to be in American news coverage, simply because the vast majority of Syrians do not speak English. This leads to a lack of interviews with victims and an abundance of coverage based upon the voices of American politicians, assorted experts, and run-of-the-mill mooks, none of which have lost their families to sarin gas or troops dispatched by an authoritarian dictator. The story is the same, but so very different.
So when we engage with a comic, a novel, a movie, or a conversation, it’s important to not take that gift for granted because we (or from Crafty’s perspective, God) only know how valuable that gift really is.
(1) I really do mean goofy. The other hero in the book is a character named B’Wana Beast, a white, African man who runs around the San Diego Zoo in a loincloth and shiny helmet fusing various animals together.
(2) Animal Man #5 was published less than two years after Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which established the nine panel page as a standard of comics at the time and also acted to reinforce the idea that the reader was consuming a comic (something you should never forget when reading Watchmen critically).
(3) Less than 10% of Americans (the primary audience for this book) identify as vegetarian now. That number was even smaller in 1988. Only some of those people do not eat meat because they find it to be immoral. So Buddy’s reluctance to consume meat is inherently unpopular.
(4) It’s worth noting that this application of the vegetarian philosophy was applied to a different DC hero, but received a very vocalized and largely negative outcry; the superhero in question being Superman in Mark Waid’s Birthright. It seems that most readers were not happy to see their idealized self reflect something they either do not believe or do not want to think about. This may be why Superman rarely reflects any religious beliefs and when he does, they are a generic form of Christianity.
(5) For those of you unfamiliar with The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Casy (J.C. like that other guy…) is a minister who has abandoned his post and travels with the Joad family. He acts as the novel’s moral compass and is eventually martyred while fighting for the rights of immigrant workers. John Steinbeck used the same form of shorthand that Morrison does here, by providing an obvious analog to the most famous character in Western history that readers can easily identify and draw themes from. This type of shorthand is a great way to help draw out shared themes and ideas, without spelling too much out.
(6) I think it’s very important at this point to make clear that I am not a vegetarian. This is not a “vegetarian-ist” reading of Animal Man #5. I enjoy eating cow, pig, lobster, and other intelligent animals. However, I also have struggled with the morality of doing so and have not come to any satisfying answers. There’s your full disclosure.
(7) It took more than a millennium for Christ’s basic teaching to really seize hold in the Enlightenment and it’s arguable that we’re still far from the ideal morality that is preached in the New Testament.
(8) Yes, this is an allusion to David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster”. If you’re unfamiliar with either the essay or the author, I highly recommend you look into both. Publications like the New York Times don’t confer the status “best mind of his generation” lightly.