Sunday, 14 July 2013

Grant Morrison's Animal Man

I’d like to start by saying that Animal Man is very good. It’s quite possibly the best thing I’ve read written by Grant Morrison. I’ve noted before that he has a habit of going overboard when writing and that spoils his otherwise very interesting concepts and ideas. It happens here. He goes overboard just as much as he does in Doom Patrol or The Invisibles but nothing is spoilt.

Animal Man, as written by Morrison, was originally meant to be a four issue mini-series revolving around a character who hadn’t been used by DC for years. Those first four issues aren’t actually terribly enjoyable. Nor are they noticeably bad. They exist simply as perfectly average issues that, had they not been written by Morrison would be completely unmemorable. They tell a fairly convoluted story featuring an African superhero with the power to meld animals together saving a monkey from a science lab.

For whatever reason those in charge of DC’s Vertigo imprint were suitably impressed by that tale and decided to offer Morrison money in exchange for sticking with the character. It was after that initial tale wrapped up that Morrison became more experimental with the Animal Man and the comic in general, finally hitting his stride with the title.

There are two big themes running throughout Morrison’s Animal Man. The first is animal rights. It’s a subject Morrison felt very strongly about (and presumably still does). Writing a character called Animal Man was always going to make animal cruelty and related issues an obvious subject to tackle. Morrison does addresses the issues better than most would do in a comic.

We see the horror of scientific experimentation, the thuggish brutality of some of the more militaristic animal rights movements, and the full, titanic scale of the problems clumped under the “animal abuse” umbrella. The point is made more than once that it’s not just animal abuse that’s the problem, it’s humanity’s treatment of the planet in general. It’s a subject very well handled considering the space limitations of the medium, not to mention the fact that not all his time and energy are dedicated to the topics.

The other theme is what Animal Man is probably most well-known for under Morrison. That is the metafictional nature of his writing on the book.

Famously the final issue depicts a meeting between Animal Man and his then-current writer. During this Morrison admits that he feels their conversation is anti-climactic. He has so much to say and not enough space to say it. Towards the end the writer conjures up some humorous bad guys for Animal Man to fight so he can spend a page thanking artists, colourers, letters, and editors. He then takes the memory of the meeting away and sends Buddy Baker back to his fictional world to reunite with his resurrected family.

That final issue is the famous and obvious example of Animal Man being metafictional under Morrison but there’s so much more to it than that. Hints at what Morrison’s building to are dropped into his run very early. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere. You can go through and trace Morrison’s plan from the first collected volume of the book. This is not something you can praise his work with these days. Back in the eighties he was still conscientious enough to construct plots that could be followed by someone who doesn’t have a PhD in comics’ lore.

Morrison seems keen to look at the nature of readers’ relationship with fiction, and comics specifically. He looks extensively at the concept and rules of continuity, with the then-recent Crisis on Infinite Earths being referenced multiple times. Characters see the reader numerous times throughout the book and Morrison introduces a number of characters, both major and minor, who are aware of their fictional status. Sometimes these things are played as serious and sometimes they’re gags. It’s a fascinating idea and one that Morrison has returned to throughout his career. He has arguably never been as good at saying what he has to on it as he is on Animal Man.

As is always the case with Morrison his work is far from perfect. The plot falls apart briefly in the middle. Most of the second volume is a bit of a muddle at the start thanks to a multi-issue arc focusing on a trip to Africa. Part of the reason this doesn’t work is that Morrison spends most of the rest of his time on the book writing standalone entries with character led side plots providing most of the linking material between issues. It’s jarring when a story isn’t wrapped up in twenty-four pages.

This is the first major work of Morrison’s career. Considering his status it would probably be worth looking at even if it was a complete mess. But it’s not a mess. It’s an incredibly well-planned, thoughtful, and creative book that shows how good Morrison is when he’s on form. It’s a book that anyone with an interest in comics as a medium should definitely make time to read.

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