I had planned on talking about Animal Man in three chunks: the four issues that kick off the series’ reboot; the twelve following issues, which mostly describe Buddy’s adventures with animal rights groups and other superheroes; and then the final ten, where metafiction and commentary on comics really come to the fore. But Animal Man 5 is just too cool and important for what is to come to not treat on its own. Here, we discuss Animal Man 5: The Coyote Gospel.
To recap: A trucker while driving down a highway in the desert runs over a large, anthropomorphic coyote. Understandably frightened, he keeps driving. In the mean time, the coyote has pulled himself out of the dirt and his wounds begin to knit on their own – he’s named Crafty, a thinly veiled Wile E. Coyote analog. In the ensuing months, the trucker’s life goes to hell as friends and family die in freak accidents. He blames his bad luck on the “devil” he ran down in the desert and goes back to hunt him down. He shoots the coyote, blows him up, then shoots him again. Crafty finally dies, but before he does, he gives Buddy, who coincidentally was flying by, a scroll he was carrying – “The Gospel According to Crafty.” It describes Crafty’s suffering in a world populated by Merry Melodies-style ‘toons constantly fighting. Fed up with this eternal torment, Crafty takes an elevator to heaven and confronts the creator, who transports Crafty to another order of reality, Buddy’s reality, to suffer for the ‘toons sins.
This issue can be read as a sad little story that stands quite independent from the rest of Animal Man. Buddy appears only very briefly and doesn’t figure very much in the main action, and certainly I’ve always wondered what it would be like if, say, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, or Wile E. Coyote were a little more self-aware. Maybe they would hate us for taking such joy in the brutality inflicted on them for our amusement.
But this story, and those considerations, have significant relevance for what Animal Man goes on to treat. In this issue, for the first time, questions about the nature of fiction and the relationship between creator and created begin to weigh on our minds. Crafty has been uplifted from a reality full of strife, but apparently free of pain, into Buddy’s reality, a crueler and more real universe. He goes from being a cartoon coyote to a big and frightening anthropomorphic one at the stroke of the creator’s brush:
Now, transported from that other chaotic, but seemingly innocent, world to Buddy’s world, he must deal with a disturbing consequence of the “real world”: while he may be able to regenerate from any wound, that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt badly. When we first meet Crafty, he is run over by a truck, and his recovery is shown and described in gut wrenching terms.
So a character from another, more innocent, and less self-aware sphere is confronted with the “real” world by the creator and forced to undergo the cruelties that entails. As I discussed previously, this is what Morrison did with B’wana Beast – and resists doing to Buddy for the time being. This is one way we can treat our creations and tell stories: we can transport them into a world like ours and explore just how brutal this world can be. This issue reminds me very much of Swamp Thing 32, “Pog,” Moore’s tribute to Walt Kelly’s strip Pogo, in which analogs to the tiny, but anthropomorphic, animal characters from Pogo meet violence and death when they land in Swamp Thing’s swamp.
A theme of the issue, and a theme of Animal Man, is that nobody ever really knows what’s going on. The trucker thinks his life has gone to shit because of his encounter with Crafty, who he begins to believe is the devil, at the beginning of the issue. But running over Crafty was just a grotesque and terrifying accident (and an ultimately harmless one, since Crafty’s body regenerates). The deaths of the trucker’s friends and family are tragic and disconnected strokes of fate. Buddy himself has even less of an idea going on. He happens on the trucker’s assault of Crafty at random after he has stormed out of his house in a huff because of a fight with his wife and started flying over the desert. Crafty gives him the scroll, the “Gospel According to Crafty” that describes his ascent into Buddy’s world, but it’s just a jumble of squiggles – Buddy can’t read it!
Crafty, of course, is the saddest character at all. He is similar to Zibarro of All-Star Superman 8, a stranger in a strange land, estranged from everyone and everything because of his self-awareness. But Zibarro was at least able to bequeath the chronicles of his miseries to someone who could read them.
But like the trucker and Buddy, Crafty’s knowledge is incomplete too. He thinks he is suffering and dying to redeem the other the cartoon characters from his own reality, and he thinks that they fight and he suffers only because of the whims of his creator.
But we know that this isn’t really the case, or not exactly the case. Crafty hasn’t completely seen beyond the fourth wall: he doesn’t know about us, the readers. He doesn’t know that he is really suffering and dying for our sake. This is happening to him because we are reading the book, because we enjoy reading about his tribulations and get some kind of meaning out of them.
When the trucker shoots Crafty for the final time, Crafty doesn’t regenerate, get up back up, and suffer some more. The trucker thinks it’s because he has shot Crafty with a silver bullet fashioned from a cross that a dead friend had given him. But we know better. Crafty’s suffering finally ends because his creator has taken pity on him. That brush descends once again and ends his misery.
The issue’s cover, in which Buddy is in that same pose as Crafty, like Christ on the cross, alludes to what is to come. Buddy, like Crafty, will have his own share of transformation and suffering. But Morrison’s run on Animal Man will end the way the issue ends, not with cruelty, but with mercy.