With the famous “The Coyote Gospel” in Animal Man #5, Grant Morrison has directly introduced the idea of levels of existence through fiction, that is, the idea that fiction is the creation of another fiction is the creation of another fiction, which ultimately makes it all real. Morrison writing Animal Man is a story for someone else somewhere else, just as anything Buddy Baker reads is a story for him.
“The Coyote Gospel” was the opening statement of the argument that Morrison, aided and abetted by Chas Truog, Doug Hazlewood, and Tom Grummet, would make over the next 21 issues.
And yet, in an oddly appropriate twist, Morrison’s plans would be diverted slightly by a company wide crossover. “Invasion!’ featured an alliance of hostile aliens invading planet earth, setting off a “gene bomb” in the process. The bomb would serve to expand the number of “metahumans” in the DCU. It would also have an impact on Animal Man’s abilities, allowing Morrison to pivot off the event and into a revamping of Animal Man’s origin.
“Invasion!” ended up being the foundation for Morrison’s next foray into DC, his overhaul of the Doom Patrol. Ultimately, Morrison was able to take advantage of a the company wide event, using the story to amplify what he had already introduced. This would become something of a talent of his, being able to work within a shared universe in a way that would allow him to further his own stories. For all his eccentricities, Morrison has always played well with others when it comes to corporately owned superheroes.
While the first “Invasion!” tie-in featured Hawkman and continued delving into Animal Man’s erratic powers, the second tie-in issue introduced a heretofore unknown villain from the past called the Red Mask. We got our first hint that the color red would be important in “The Coyote Gospel,” now we’re getting it full on with the Red Mask. Given the timing of this series, the continued use of red can only conjure up one allusion: red skies, those that came when the Crisis happened, when the multiverse was merged into one.
On his first job on an ongoing superhero comic, Morrison was already delving into the multiverse, even though it had just recently been destroyed.
The story of the Red Mask in Animal Man #7 is meant to do two things: question Animal Man’s origin and reference Alan Moore. Not only is the issue framed by two scenes that are clearly meant to evoke Watchmen, the Red Mask wears a domed red helmet that is nearly identical to the one worn by the Joker in The Killing Joke. In fact, the Red Mask becomes a stand in of sorts for both the Joker and the Comedian, the anti-thesis to the main character (as the Joker is to Batman) and the impetus for the story (like the Comedian).
To a certain extent, this feels like Morrison beating critics to the punch. He is going down a road of deconstruction with Buddy Baker, and at this point in time, deconstructing superheroes automatically meant copying Watchmen. But while Moore’s superhero story was meant to upend traditional power fantasies, Morrison’s was meant to embrace them. Moore made them darker; Morrison made them brighter.
If the “Coyote Gospel” was the thematic gauntlet being thrown, Animal Man #8 was the introduction of the actual story. Morrison begins this issue with the comic book version of his own computer screen which features a quote from Einstein followed by a blinking cursor. This is, quite literally, the beginning of the end, as Morrison’s work space will eventually become a factor in the story. The quote from Einstein is even addressed by a new character introduced in this issue, James Highwater, a physicist who also happens to be Native American. Both descriptions are important to the story, as the former pushes Highwater to investigate the possibility of multiple Earths, while the later forges his bond to the natural world, something Animal Man himself connects to — or at least did, until his powers started going in and out.
Is the name “Highwater” an allusion to the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that flooded the world so that it could start again? It seems likely, given future events.
The main villain in this issue shouldn’t be surprising: It’s the Mirror Master. Not only is MM the perfect villain for a story that involves deconstructing the hero (Mirror Master is literally a mirror image), he’s also a Flash villain, and Morrison has made no bones about the fact that the Flash is his favorite character, and has been since he was a child. Mirror Master also travels via another world located on the other side of the mirror, a not so subtle version of the multiple earths that used to exist.
Going forward, Morrison gives us 3 narratives: Animal Man struggling with his powers and his origin, James Highwater trying to figure out the secrets of the universe, and Morrison himself, right there on the page.
These 3 narratives are peppered throughout A plots involving animal-related guest stars, from Vixen to a new B’wana Beast to Dolphin. It’s as if Morrison pulled out his Who’s Who in the DCU and decided to use any character that might relate to Animal Man. But it works. It creates a real sense of unity in the series, the idea that the Animal Man comic isn’t an island, but a specific corner of the DCU that counts more than just Buddy Baker in its number.
Animal Man has a run in with the aliens who gave him his powers, who seem to be able to create and un-create people as if they were editors of Buddy Baker’s world. These aliens seem like precursors to the Morrison’s Seven Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp who manipulate the tapestry of reality.
While Buddy is facing his origins, James Highwater is investigating the origins of the DCU. He finds a copy of a book labeled “Alice in Wonderland” in his apartment, odd in that the book is actually called “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” When Highwater picks up the book, he thinks “Through the Looking Glass” – another variation of the same thing. He opens the books to find an underlined passage: “..you’re only one of the things in his dream” and a piece of paper that says “Ask the Psycho Pirate.”
Consider, for a moment, how bold this was. Aside from the layers upon layers that Morrison is adding to the story, there’s the simple fact that Highwater finds this note in Animal Man #9, published at the beginning of 1989, just three years after Crisis. DC had only been operating with a new, unified universe for a few years and here was new writer Grant Morrison bring up the old one.
Highwater listens to this mysterious note and goes to Gotham, to Arkham Asylum, to visit the Psycho Pirate. Luckily, Highwater went to school with one of the doctors there. During their conversation we learn that Highwater recently had an article published in “Omni” about superstring theory and the implicate order. Superstring theory is one of Morrison’s favorites, something that will come up over and over again in his work, whether it’s stated or not. Small wonder that a man who counts the Flash as his favorite character would be fascinated by the idea that the world is defined by vibrations. As for “the implicate order,” we’ll come back to that in a minute.
At Arkham, Highwater has a run in with the Mad Hatter and even the slowest of us can see what Morrison has done there. One might even claim that this bit was too clever. The Mad Hatter calls Highwater “redskin” which, aside from being pigmentally inaccurate and politically incorrect, is another reference to the color red. The Mad Hatter also rambles about the fact that they’re all just words on a page, characters in a script, written by “some cheap hack.” And again, Morrison is beating his critics to the punch.
Highwater’s meeting with the Psycho Pirate is everything a Morrison fan could hope for and more. Psycho Pirate whispers a great many things, then finally addresses Animal Man: “What do you want? Did the wolfman give you my name?”
The “wolfman” is, of course, Marv Wolfman, the writer of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Psycho Pirate has been expecting Highwater and has a message for him, a message in the form of a page from a comic book. On one side, we see the story of a young boy and his father, narrated by the man that boy would become. On the other side, we see the origin of Animal Man. Highwater has his next clue: he needs to talk to Animal Man.
The 3 narratives — Animal Man, Highwater, and Grant Morrison — escalate in Animal Man #14. Buddy faces off against a shadowy figure who appears to be stalking his family, someone he remembers seeing when he was 10 years old. It’s a mystery he’s unable to solve, at least in this issue.
We get our first full glimpse of Grant Morrison the comic book character. He’s pale with unkempt black hair and looks not unlike Dream from Sandman. This is fitting as he walks around his world, eventually ending at a slumbering James Highwater. Morrison wakes him up by touching his head, but he also seems to pass along the narrative, as the captions switch from being Morrison’s inner dialogue to Hightwater’s. This makes perfect sense, as Highwater is Morrison’s avatar in Animal Man’s world. This is the machinery being exposed on purpose: not only is Morrison writing the story, he’s now placed a version of himself in the story to make it go the way he wants.
Highwater wakes up in San Francisco, en route to finding Animal Man, because Highwater is the one who will trigger the events of the next year of stories. Again, this is Morrison beating the critics to the punch by embracing the fact that he has created something of a deus ex machina.
In his first full appearance on the page, Morrison references physicist David Bohm. This is the first overt reference to Bohm, the second coming in Animal Man #19 when are able to see Morrison’s work space, in particular his copy of Bohm’s “Unfolding Meaning.” As far as my tiny brain can piece it together, Bohm argued that the belief that all of reality could be divided into either the physical or the mental was too limited. Bohm’s theory the division was ultimately one of a pieces and a whole, in that the pieces or unfolded “explicate” order can be seen as a portion of the “intricate” order, thus linking all things into a system.
There’s far more to it than that, but I’m a simple man, so that’s as far as I’ll go. Regardless, Bohm’s theories clearly had an impact on Morrison and were on display in Animal Man.
In Animal Man #16, Buddy and his wife go to Paris via his JLE teleporter. Yes, Animal Man is in the Justice League. It may seem like an odd fit at first, but it worked well, both in Justice League Europe and in Buddy’s own book. Giving him a regular connection to other superheroes — not to mention the DCU at large — underscored the fact that Buddy always felt like an outsider, even when he joined the foremost superhero organization in the world.
While in Paris, Animal Man and the League face off against the Time Commander, who is seemingly using his abilities for good, but causing chaos nonetheless. The Justice League defeats him, despite Animal Man trying to intervene. Again, we see that Buddy doesn’t think or respond like a traditional superhero.
It may seem like the fight with the Time Commander is something of a fill-in issue but, as with most things in this series, it’s laying the groundwork for big things to come.