A Different Species
‘Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?’ Grant Morrison
British writer, Grant Morrison was born in 1960 to a working class family from Glasgow where his father had become a political activist. As a member of the ‘Committee of 100’ the anti-nuclear group retaliated by producing underground reports.
‘My father was, for me, a genuine superhero. A big man. A super-tough soldier guy. He was really clever. I saw him going out on campaigns, going up against the police, breaking into bases and taking photographs to get information out to working class people. He was an immense presence, and he actually helped people. My mother would say that maybe he didn’t help his family as much as he helped everyone else, but you know what these committed activist guys are like. He was always looking to improve somebody’s life, while maybe neglecting what was going on back home. That was his Kryptonite. But I only saw that later.’ www.scotsman.com
Walter Morrison would take Grant as a decoy provoking his son to kick a ball over the fences of the missile bases. It was here he would witness striking imagery of cardboard coffins in prep for the casualties of a nuclear war – a hidden world that was more than enough to spark the imagination of the young Morrison and along with his father’s own political stance forged a strong, activist voice in his later work. Glasgow’s ties to America are therefore not difficult to see through the US nuclear submarine bases at nearby Faslane and Holy Loch where the US Navy brought American popular culture into Scotland. Morrison has stated that the Yankee Book Store in Paisley may have been the first shop in the UK to sell American comics; stocking up on what was made available to the US Military personnel who were based in Scotland. With the fear of Armageddon it is also of no surprise that Grant Morrison found solace in comic books.
With a strong taste for music and fashion, Morrison’s devotion to his mod-psychedelic punk band, The Mixers had waned in the mid ‘80s and therefore began to commit himself more to his writing. Having briefly produced work in the late ‘70s with his Moorcock influenced Gideon Stargrave strip it wasn’t until just after the success of Alan Moore’s Marvelman (Miracleman in the US) that Grant Morrison and artist, Steve Yeowell, made their first impact with 2000AD’s Zenith – a futuristic satire that examined the impact of celebrity culture. With Alan Moore already pond-hopping after the success of Miracleman, his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing had sparked an interest in British writers and with the popularity of Zenith, it wasn’t long before the headhunters of DC were about to offer Grant Morrison a similar opportunity to dust off one of their lesser known characters.
Created by Dave Wood and influential artist, Carmine Infantino in 1965, Strange Adventures #190 introduced the reader to Animal Man’s strange powers. After caught in the blast of an alien explosion Buddy Baker learns to temporarily absorb the abilities of any animal within close proximity which enables him to fight crime. With his brief appearances during the 1980s; including Crisis on Infinite Earths; the crossover and modern retellings of popular superheroes ushered in the modern age of comic books and an opportunity to rebuild another universe.
As one of the more obscure characters of the DC Universe, Buddy Baker and his alter ego, Animal Man had become one of many disposable commodities to throw towards the rise of talented British writers who had emerged during the mid ‘80s. With the reinvention of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Alan Moore’s genius intellect had paved a unique path, not only for Morrison’s Animal Man but also the reawakening of the Sandman by Neil Gaiman.
Where Moore’s take on Swamp Thing was very much steeped in classic EC horror titles and gothic literature, there were still traces of his interest in the dreamscape and that man is in tune with his own consciousness; a belief that we are one step closer towards understanding the true power of art and therefore the power of magic. For both writers, theses notions are very much one in the same and has become the foundation of their works – Morrison in particular believing that the stories he creates are his spells. In an interview with Publishers Weekly (2008), Morrison stated:
‘Comics specifically seem to be quite magical to me—in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate back to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing. Like sympathetic magic, when you make, for instance, a little doll of someone and then stab it, they will experience something. So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea, and comics is still very close to that.’ publishersweekly.com
There is no doubt that these two Mages of graphic literature have had a seismic impact on the comic book industry which has remained just as important three decades later. Without delving too much into the contemptuous relationship between these two writers, this essay focuses more on the ‘nature’ of Morrison’s run on Animal Man and why it has remained an important piece of graphic literature in its own right.
Morrison’s approach, which becomes more and more apparent as his Animal Man storyline develops, is very similar to Moore’s in terms of the writer’s own belief system and personal experiences of altered states and spirituality. As Buddy Baker’s story begins to elude more and more towards a metaphysical arc of the character, it is often very clear that Morrison was injecting the story with many unconventional concepts that have often been referred to as shamanic. Where Moore’s version of Swamp Thing travels a more two and even three dimensional plane through space and time, Morrison attempts to push the narrative further and create planes that not only break the panels of the traditional sequential art form but also the very boundaries of reality.
It is during Morrison’s reinvention that the titular character becomes more and more self-aware of his fictional state – his consciousness, of which becomes so elevated, that the arch concludes with him meeting his creator who is, in fact, a version of Morrison himself. With such a lateral approach to the construct of this tale one is reminded of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (‘This is not a pipe’). From this lateral point of view the reader is forced to question whether this is Grant Morrison, or rather a picture of Grant Morrison. As he continues to interact with Animal Man and reveal the cruelty and torment he inflicts; much like human beings inflict on nature, the sequence of images add further to the illusion of the medium. As Buddy engages in his final fight, his suffering is juxtaposed by Morrison thanking his collaborators and even urges the reader to join the organisation, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). ‘You care about animals because I wanted to use you to draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the world.’
In order to understand the subgenre of metafiction, Morrison’s Animal Man takes you through Buddy Baker’s own growth in human consciousness that explores an abstract ideal of a spiritual world beyond the physical – a key concept that deals with such metaphysical issues. During the course of the story Buddy gradually embraces and masters his animal instincts and forges his ability to his advantage. As his quest becomes more and more challenging through an increasing abstract perception of his world, it is here that Morrison’s narrative is one that is saturated in familiar motifs that are built on the importance of semiotics. This is where Animal Man travels a more cerebral plane; reminiscent of a number of religious beliefs and philosophies. As already referred to, Morrison is somewhat of a shaman himself and well known for traversing particular planes of existence and more than often are threaded into his multilayered storylines. Animal Man’s quest is somewhat reminiscent of enlightenment where only the truly wise may reach the borders of their own existence and transcend to a higher plane.
When Buddy Baker questions his reality; Morrison goes on to explain how, ‘You’re more real than I am’ which alludes to Hindu mysticism where the soul reincarnates on earth over and over again until it is perfected and therefore reunites with its Source. With this in mind there is a karmic philosophy and undertone that constantly drives the narrative of Animal Man.
It is in these metaphysical states that both Moore and Morrison, through their own controversial beliefs and British cynicism, helped reinvent the comic book; elevating it beyond ‘puerile’ and ‘juvenile nonsense’ left over from the post war era. Both writers’ leanings towards philosophy and more implicit methods have helped maintain a multi-layered approach to their stories. Both intended to break boundaries in storytelling and through Morrison’s emphasis on the existence of fiction and reality the fourth dimension becomes all the more accessible as he blurs the line between creator and creation; the idea and the final product. Some would argue that any neglected superhero could have been used to experiment on with these concepts but the mere idea behind the metaphor of man’s relationship with animals can be a similarly cruel one and during the final scenes of the story, Morrison’s message becomes all the more clear and helps to justify why Buddy Baker has been chosen.
While writing Animal Man, Morrison’s other DC title, Doom Patrol also delved into the use of meta-fiction, albeit more of a parody of popular titles such as the Uncanny X-Men and The Punisher. Much like the discarded Animal Man, the characters of Doom Patrol were relaunched post Infinite Crisis with Morrison taking over the writing from issue #19. As the antithesis to Marvel’s X-Men, Doom Patrol would explore the truly uncanny nature of a group of outcasts that literally painted a rogues gallery of surreal villains centred around the Dada movement and the free association of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques. Morrison not only delivered a unique vision but also pushed how far the written word could be fragmented; forcing the reader to analyse and therefore decipher what characters such as antagonists, the Scissormen were saying.