First of all, welcome to The Promethean Playground. I really hope our thoughts are interesting and entertaining, and I thank you for reading our inaugural post.
When I was considering what to write about for our first post, my thoughts went immediately to Batman. Whenever I’m asked who is my favorite comic book character or super hero I say, “Batman.”
That’s not a lie, exactly, I do love Batman – I think he’s a rich character with a really impressive rogues gallery. But Batman is not my favorite character, or even my favorite hero.
That honor actually goes to Animal Man, but there’s very little Animal Man merchandise available to show my love, and so few people have even heard of him, so I continue to say “Batman,” whenever asked.
Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool hero.
First of all, his name is Animal Man – his name is so pathetically lame to modern ears, but he was created in an era when comic books were still a major entertainment business, and publishers were trying anything (read: scraping the bottom of the barrel) to create new heroes that might increase readership.
Secondly, his costume is pretty consistently weird-looking.
Finally, he’s a celebrity and a family man (both things that an interesting comic book hero shouldn’t be).
But in the hands of a skilled creative team, Animal Man is far-and-away one of the most interesting characters in western comics.
Fortunately for us, Baker has received all-star treatment at least twice in his heroic career. I’m thinking particularly of the current, New 52-run on Animal Man, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh, and the run beginning in 1988, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chas Troug.
Amid Morrison’s 1988 run (now collected in trade paperback) we witness one of the most unsettling, grotesque, and beautiful stories ever written: “The Coyote Gospel.”
It’s partially a macabre parody of the coyote of Looney Tunes pedigree, and Animal Man is a relatively minor character in this particular chapter. It’s a great injustice to the comic, but I’ll provide a synopsis.
A truck driver hits an anthropomorphic coyote on a desert road, nearly splitting it in half. As he speeds off, the coyote’s body begins to regenerate in stomach-turning detail. The creature’s pain is excruciating. A year later, the same truck driver, convinced that the coyote is some kind of immortal “devil,” hunts it out in the desert. The terrified animal is shot, pushed off of a cliff, crushed with rocks, and blown up in an explosion which also wounds the truck driver.
With each new “death,” the coyote regenerates. Animal Man arrives to investigate the explosion and the coyote, ignoring the hunter who has made so many dedicated attempts to destroy it, hands Animal Man a slip of paper containing “The Gospel According to Crafty.”
In the gospel we learn that Crafty was a cartoon resident of another reality where intensely brutal violence and immediate regeneration was the accepted standard of life. Objecting to it, the coyote goes to speak with God (depicted only from a first-person perspective as an artist). For his dissidence, God sentences Crafty to suffer “in the hell above,” but agrees to stop the violence of the cartoon world. The “hell above,” we discover, is the world of Animal Man and the truck driver.
Crafty feels justified in his suffering because he knows it is not without purpose, “with each terrible death and resurrection, Crafty knew that by his torment, the world was redeemed. … and while he lived, there still remained the hope that one day he might return. And overthrow the tyrant God. And build a better world.”
After all of this is revealed in Crafty’s internal monologue, Animal Man confesses he cannot read the gospel, written in the coyote’s illegible hieroglyphs. Before the coyote forms a response, he’s shot by the truck driver with a silver bullet. The shooter dies, believing he has saved the world, and the coyote falls, dying, in a crucifix-like position in the middle of a crossroads while Animal Man watches, powerless to change his fate.
As the comic closes, it pans away revealing, again from the first-person perspective, God’s paintbrush filling in the blood that pools around the coyote’s body.
Words alone can’t do justice to this story, but that’s the best I can do.
The story contains several elements worth considering, but only one that I’ll focus on today: the grim assessment of God.
I’ve noticed that anti-religiosity is rather popular in the comics industry.
This is probably more true of the smaller, independent books than it is the major publishing houses who are very concerned with losing readership, but it’s something I’ve noticed anyway. It’s quite popular to portray religions or religious people as ignorant, predatory, or silly.
It’s not something I inherently have a problem with (of course, horrific things have been done – and are still being done – in the name of religion, and religions have done an impeccable job of ostracizing and condemning people who are “different” from their normative standard).
I think the comics industry should be a place where tough issues are brought out and challenged. Religious ideals shouldn’t be immune to that.
However, Morrison took a unique approach to his criticism.
By only showing us God from God’s own perspective, the art encourages us into an assumed identity.
But by then showing how God is rather more cruel than God would have us believe, the writing disturbs that identity, making us question what kind of God we might believe in – if we believe in God.
“What kind of God do we believe in?” is not a new question. It’s actually very old, and it’s one of the central questions of theology as a discipline. It became a very important question during and after the Holocaust, however.
Many theologians see the Holocaust as the beginning of a theological practice called “theodicy.”
Theodicy is the study of the origin of evil as it relates to God. The Holocaust left theologians with an unanswerable question: “If God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does something so unspeakably evil happen?”
By most logical assessments, one must either relent that God is good or that God is omnipotent, since there is no reasonable relenting on the truth of the evil present in the Holocaust.
The Coyote Gospel, while on a decidedly different scale than the Holocaust, answers the same question.
Its answer, both by the first-person nature of Gods portrayal, and by the questionable acts we witness at the hands of God, is that God is a creator with little regard for the creation. Omnipotent, perhaps, but disinterested or worse – wholeheartedly cruel.
As a writer, Morrison went on to use the Animal Man title as a space for him to consider the relative cruelty that creative teams exhibit over their heroic creations.
Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t yet had an opportunity to read them, Morrison reflects on how characters are pawns in greater games that they don’t understand.
With that in mind, depicting God as a creator – an artist – is quite significant.
Somewhere around the artistic guilt, which tries to walk the line between love of these characters and the need to create interesting stories, and the ridiculousness of satirizing old children’s cartoons, Morrison serves up a powerful theological challenge, one that leads many people into atheism.
If God is the sovereign of history, then God must have sanctioned suffering.
So we’re left with the disturbing question: do we believe in a God who loves us but can’t stop awful things from happening? Or do we believe in a God who can do whatever God wants, but whose love of creation is doubtful? Or do we believe in God at all?