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By Gregory Silber

 

On paper, Animal Man seems like a joke. It’s about as generic-sounding as a superhero name can be, and with the power to absorb the abilities of any creature in the animal kingdom, it could be something a jaded Silver Age creator might come up with after wondering what was left after Batman, Spider-Man, Hawkman, Ant Man, and the like. He’s called Animal Man, he has the power of every animal, and he’s a Hollywood stuntman in his day job. It’s silly enough to be parodic.

That’s even before you get to his 1988 reimagining written by Grant Morrison, with pencils and inks primarily by Chas Truog and Doug Hazelwood, respectively, colors by Tatjana Wood, and letters by John Costanza. This 26-issue run, edited by Karen Berger, is in some ways less about Animal Man himself, Buddy Baker, than its young writer. Buddy becomes a vegetarian and trips on psychedelics before finally meeting Morrison himself, who spends the bulk of his final issue talking at the reader about the nature of fiction, lamenting his shortcomings as a writer, and even encouraging them to donate to PETA.

It’s difficult to discuss any part of Morrison and company’s Animal Man without discussing all of Morrison’s Animal Man, and that’s part of what makes Animal Man #5, “The Coyote Gospel,” so fascinating. It’s self-contained enough to be understood and appreciated without reading any other Animal Man issues, but in the context of the entire run, it’s both a microcosm of the entire saga, as well as a harbinger for the shape that that larger story would be taking.

The Coyote Gospel’s premise, like other elements of this run, might read like a joke. A coyote named Crafty — think Wile E. Coyote — is cursed to roam the desert in an eternal cycle of violent deaths and gruesome resurrections. Originating in an anarchic, savage cartoon world — the world of Looney Toons, for all intents and purposes — he questioned the senseless violence the fellow inhabitants of his realm were accustomed to.

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In exchange for bringing peace to his world, the faceless, paintbrush-wielding God—literally written in the text as “GOD”—transports crafty to the comparatively realistic Earth inhabited by Animal Man in the DC Universe. Unfortunately, Crafty’s suffering is more pronounced here, as he’s hunted, and repeatedly murdered by, a man who sees Crafty as a demonic figure who killed his friend and ruined his life.

When I first read Morrison and co.’s Animal Man nearly a decade ago, I was struck by how different this issue was from the previous four, and how it signaled the peculiar shape the series took from that point forward. I knew it would end with Grant Morrison appearing on the final page, because wanting to see how the series got to that point was what motivated me to read it in the first place (it’s also why I have no shame about “spoiling” the finale for others). It wasn’t until I reread Morrison’s prose introduction to the first volume of the trade paperback that I realized the stylistic shift of “The Coyote Gospel” was a matter of creative necessity.

Morrison writes:

Initially, Animal Man was conceived as a four-issue miniseries. My intention was to radicalize and realign the character of Buddy Baker and then leave him for someone else to pick up and develop.

It’s difficult to imagine those first four issues as a miniseries. Too many plot threads are started to imagine Morrison leaving them dangling, whether another writer would’ve picked them up or not. Still, it’s something of a miracle that a relatively unknown creative team were able to see such an obscure character through a complete journey, and if it had been canceled at four issues, at least they would’ve succeeded in dusting off a nearly forgotten Silver Age antique for a quirky, political sci-fi superhero romp with a uniquely family-oriented hero.

This second chance wasn’t asked for, but it allowed Morrison to exercise the metafictional tendencies he’s now known for.

“Having no desire to produce yet another grittily realistic exploration of what it is to be superhuman and/or an urban vigilante with emotional problems, I cast desperately around for a new direction. What I finally came up with was ‘The Coyote Gospel,’ which became the template for the further development of the entire series and which remains one of my own personal favorite stories…’The Coyote Gospel’ initiated a plotline which was ultimately resolved in Animal Man #26, my final issue as writer.”

That final issue is important, but from Animal Man #5 forward, every issue contributes towards building Morrison’s thesis. Failing to save Crafty at the end of “The Coyote Gospel” is just one of several misfortunes leading Buddy to an existential crisis. What cruel god could allow — or cause — such a strange and miserable turn of events throughout the 21 issues that follow? Who else but a writer.

That’s made explicit in Animal Man #26, but it’s telegraphed here in Animal Man #5. Inspiration is almost certainly drawn from “Duck Amok,” the classic Looney Toons short in which Daffy Duck resists, and ultimately proves powerless against, his artist.

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In “The Coyote Gospel,” that “man vs god” struggle” takes on a more literal, even biblical turn, even ending with a dying Crafty (one might suppose he could resurrect again, but it’s implied that getting shot through the heart may have finally done him in). As Truog’s “camera” perspective zooms out from crafty on the final page (and in what was likely at least a partial nod to the first page of Watchmen), Crafty lies with his arms outstretched like Christ on the crucifix in the center of a desert highway crossroad. The panel is even composed in such a way that the road itself looks like a cross. Buddy, too, is presented in a Christ-like pose as an artist paints him on a canvas in Brian Bolland’s cover.

Clearly, Crafty has become a Christ-figure, but this is bigger than a commentary on violence in children’s cartoons. Until he finally appears on-panel and spells it out in the run’s finale, this is Morrison presenting his thesis at its most blunt: storytellers are cruel gods, and fictional characters are their hapless victims.

Again, this might all sound like a joke. Perhaps it started that way. There’s certainly humor to the premise, even if it’s presented to us with a straight-face. Yet the brilliance of The Coyote Gospel, like so much of the rest of this run (and much of Grant Morrison’s oeuvre in general), is that it presents something to readers we may never attempt to take seriously, acknowledges its inherent silliness, and forces us to reconsider the seriousness of storytelling as a human endeavor.

Animal Man #5 – The Coyote Gospel
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Chaz Truog
Inked by Doug Hazelwood
Coloured by Tatjana Wood
Lettered by John Constanza

Gregory Silber is a writer, editor, and academic who has appeared in Panelxpanel as well as at CBR and most often at Adventures In Poor Taste. He wrote a paper on Animal Man for the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) academic conference, so you can kinda see why I was keen for him to write this piece! You can find him on Twitter here.

Animal Man #5 was voted as the 8th best comic of all time by critics. Head here to find out more!

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