In Animal Man 5, we start to see a developing sensitivity to the cruelties and horrors creators inflict on their characters. Who is Morrison to write about the adventures and sometimes torturous misadventures of Buddy and his family? Who are we to watch with amusement his triumphs and sufferings? What are our responsibilities? What kind of stories should we tell with superheroes like Buddy?
The world of fiction is in many ways greater than ours: it has greater capacities for good and evil; for success and failure; for beauty and ugliness. It lasts longer than any single writer, and I think part of the sensitivity and the tension between creator and created we find in Animal Man is because Morrison is well-aware that Buddy Baker existed before Morrison himself was born and probably will exist long after he and any current reader are dead.
We can create and manipulation fiction only because we have the property of being “real,” not because we are intrinsically somehow better or more responsible than our creations, and given that they will continue when we are gone, maybe we’re not that much more “real” after all. In some way, our relationship to our creations is analogous to our relationship to animals, at least as it’s described in Animal Man. They are weaker than us in a few basic ways, and therefore we can exploit them, not because we have any basic right to do so.
How should we treat our fiction, then? What can our characters mean to us? Should we really subject them to some cruel simulacrum of our reality, where they will suffer and be debased like us for our entertainment?
This is what happens to Crafty in Animal Man 5 and B’wana Beast in issues 1-4: they are subjected to a cruel, amoral, and incoherent world that grinds them down and deprives them of whatever they love. Their special powers and their good intentions don’t make anything better; on the contrary, they suffer all the more because of it. Buddy avoids this treatment for the most part until towards the series’ end. He is able to remain well-meaning and pretty much innocent, with his main trauma coming from his realization in issue 17 that his animal advocacy has inadvertently hurt innocent people and is probably too simplistic. But in issue 19, those cruelties he has been so lucky to avoid catch up with him: while he’s off on a vision quest, an agent for one of those faceless corporations who disapprove of his animal advocacy kill his family (no family member is stuffed into a refrigerator, but they are gunned down by one).
This move is typical for a book that is a little simplistic in some ways, is floundering a little, is getting too stuck in the status quo. Morrison knows this, and that’s what he’s playing with. He gets a dark and gritty new look to accompany his newly pessimistic outlook.
Somewhere along the line, he gets a Freddy Kreuger style glove to slice and dice his way to revenge.
He’s no longer motivated by anything complicated like animal rights, but by the need to kill his family’s killers. That’s right, he’s no longer trying to improve the world and humanity. His motives are personal and his methods are brutal: he failed to elevate the world. Instead, the world broke him. He’s given up on making himself and others more humane and has now become a murderous animal. This take on his situation (he thinks, “I must be an animal. . .an animal,” as he cuts to pieces the hit man who killed his family) is very significant; throughout the series, Buddy argued and the series has shown us that animal are better than humans. They represented something honest, genuine, and temperate. The take Buddy has here is a complete paradigm shift. Only an animal would kill so brutally and wantonly, Buddy seems to think here. Not only has he given up on himself as a superhero and as a good man, he has thrown away the very ideas that he had expressed throughout the series.
The tension between creator and created now begins to really ramp up. In issue 5, Crafty, the Wile E. Coyote analog, stormed up to heaven to confront his creator about the meaningless violence and cruelty he and the other ‘toons were constantly enduring. In issues 25 and 26, Buddy, too, goes to confront his creator. Morrison clearly feels accountable to his character for the cruelties he has inflicted on him, and so Buddy goes on the last adventure:
He treks through comic book limbo, where he meets Merryman and some other forgotten characters (the place and the character reappear in Superman Beyond twenty years later!). Ultimately, he meets Morrison himself, who explains the recent unpleasantness:
It was all for excitement, for drama, to tell a fun story, even if it seemed brutal and meaningless. What Morrison was essentially trying to do was to make Buddy’s life closer to “real” life, a life that is made up of incoherent and sometimes cruel moments and loose ends.
However, let’s turn from this problem for a moment to consider Foxy, an fictional character from Morrison’s boyhood. Foxy first appears in issue 10 in a story written on a crumpled piece of paper that was found on the floor of Psycho Pirate’s holding cell. We don’t know it at the time, but the story was written by Morrison himself and tells about a ritual Morrison had as a boy (by my reckoning, he was about ten): he describes about how when he used to walk back from his grandmother’s house, he would stand on a hill and see lights flickering on the horizon. They were headlights from cars, he knows now as an adult, but as a boy, he thought that an intelligent fox, Foxy, was signaling at him. So he got a flashlight from his parents and used to stand on that hill and signal back.
Eventually, he became an adult and stopped. But sometimes, even now, he wonders if Foxy is still out there, signaling to him. . .
Foxy next appears in issue 18 and 19, in which Buddy goes on a spirit quest. Foxy appears as Buddy’s totem animal:
He leads Buddy to the realization that he is somehow a character in a comic, somehow being read. Buddy doesn’t fully comprehend what this means until he later meets Morrison, but it helps Buddy begin to realize that his life is not what it seems, and it leads to one of the greatest pages in comics: Buddy gazing back in confusion and terror at the reader:
Foxy, then, functions as a kind of mediator here between Morrison/the reader and Buddy.
Foxy appears for the last time in the closing pages to issue 26, the end of Morrison’s run. After Morrison has talked to Animal Man and tried to explain himself to his creation, Morrison, still in the “real” world,” is shown going back to that hill he went as a child. In a scene I, at least, find extremely affecting, he flashes a light, pleading with his creation: “Foxy, I came back, I didn’t forget.”
Soon, Morrison gives up and turns away; Foxy is lost and gone, or rather he never really existed and doesn’t really matter. But then, wait – after Morrison has left, there it is:
A light on the horizon; Foxy signaling back. He’s still alive and well, still there waiting for the boy who left him. That act of imagination that made sense of the world, that innocence, joy and wonder are still out there waiting for him.
This is what can make comics and their content such powerful totems, such useful technology for informing our lives and shaping our realities. Sure, comics can be like “real” life, and cats can be torn apart by dogs, B’wana Beast can be utterly debased by the “real” world, Buddy’s family can be murdered while he’s gone. Things can not make sense, and stories can be just as incoherent, disconnected, and cruel as we feel our own lives often can be. In “real” life, we are compelled to live at once with the sick certainty that Foxy doesn’t really shine a light, and also the desperate hope that maybe he is still doing it once our backs are turned.
But as Morrison shows us, it doesn’t have to be that way: here, at the end of Animal Man, in the world of the imagination, that light can shine, and we can know – in the world of the imagination, Foxy is out there, shining his torch. Buddy’s family doesn’t have to be gunned down because he is a superhero. Things can make sense, people can be happy, or at least find meaning.
This sounds escapist, I guess, but I don’t think that’s fair. The aim isn’t to escape our reality and ignore it, but to give serious consideration to how the world of the imagination relates to our world. This is a question Morrison poses time and time again. We see it in Flex Mentallo, in All-Star Superman, in Superman Beyond, in Final Crisis, and I’m sure elsewhere. In those cases, and in this one, the world of the imagination is not simply equal to our reality. Imagination and comics are shown to have the possibility to be realer, truer, more authentic. The world of the imagination isn’t something that is a perversion or manipulation of our world, but, on the contrary, our world is a pale, corrupt shadow of the world of the imagination. In some of the aforementioned cases, Morrison goes as far as to pose the idea that our world was in fact generated by agents of the imagination (for instance, in All-Star, Superman creates our world as an experiment to see what a world without a Superman would be like).
We shouldn’t necessarily be trying to make comics more brutal, more gritty, and closer to our world; we should be trying to reshape our reality to be more like the best of what our imagination has to offer, more like comics.
That having been said, I certainly wouldn’t claim, and I’m sure Morrison would not argue himself, that the medium of comics has no space for the brutal or gritty or “realistic.” The medium of comics has nearly endless possibilities for the varieties of art it could embrace, and I would never dream of restricting it. Like many readers, Watchmen is one of my favorite comics, and I think the world would be poorer without it. What I’m talking about, and what I suspect Morrison is really railing against, is the systematic debasement specifically of older and more innocent superheroes to put a new and brutal spin on them, to bring them up to date, to reorient them in the “real” world. Why should we debase our heroes? Why should we instead not elevate ourselves?
The biggest argument that I usually run into from fans is that these heroes are boring and can populate only boring stories; the only way to get “good stories” with them is to make them gritty, brutal, and brutalized. That’s why we need a bullet in Barbara Gordon’s spine, Batman’s back broken, some heads in refrigerators, and Buddy’s family dead. I think this is ridiculous – you can tell good stories with characters who are not systematically debased. You just need better, or at least different, story tellers. Most authors may not be capable of telling a good Superman story without some absurd modifications to the character, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just look at some of the best books of the last twenty years, Kingdom Come and All-Star Superman – or, for that matter, Moore’s run on Supreme.
In issue 26, Buddy begs Morrison to write his family back to life; he even suggests that Morrison use the old cop-out “it’s all a dream” to explain it. No, that wouldn’t be realistic, Morrison says.
Morrison repeatedly connects the pain and senseless violence in Buddy’s life with the death of his own cat, Jarmara: her lung was punctured by a bone, Morrison explains, and even though he did everything he could, she died at the vet’s a few weeks after her third birthday.
Life isn’t fair. We’re all messed up, broken, and have lost something for no reason. None of our lives make good sense. But Morrison does bring Buddy’s family back to life. It was all a dream. Everything in Buddy’s life is magically fixed, and Buddy can go back to being a good and well-meaning, if sometimes clueless, family man and hero. Even if Morrison’s life, and our lives, are peculiarly broken, Buddy’s doesn’t have to be.
Maybe some people feel that this is indeed a cop-out, or at least authorially lazy. From the rules we know of the DC universe, it doesn’t really make sense, and Morrison doesn’t try to justify it mechanically. This stands in pretty sharp contrast to the labor Morrison devoted to resolving the continuity problems of the two marginally different Animal Man origin stories earlier in the run. But after reading twenty-six issues of Animal Man, and seeing Buddy struggle and try to be a good person, seeing the fun and joy and meaning of it, I really don’t care, and the point must be that we shouldn’t care. Often we can get better, more enjoyable, more meaningful stories without debasing our characters and without becoming slaves to rules, continuity, and “realism” because that’s how we feel our lives work. Becoming a slave to those is a poverty of the imagination, it’s losing Foxy all over again, it’s giving up not only on the stories we create but the joy and wonder we could find in our own lives too.
When Buddy’s family returns at the end, I wasn’t puzzling over the mechanics, what this would do to the continuity, what the Mirror Master, who had accompanied Buddy on his revenge spree, would think about all of this, or how this would all work out. I loved Morrison for not damning his character and brutalizing him because, well, that’s just how comics, fiction, and even real life operate. I loved him for telling a story that takes Buddy to the brink and beyond of despair, into the world of limbo and metafiction, and, ultimately, lets him be restored whole – a strange and wonderful story.