Friday Feature: Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man

DC’s massive “New 52” reboot has been met with, we’ll say, a mixed response. Of the 52 books originally launched with the reboot, a few didn’t make it past their 6th issue, others have lost creative teams, and others just never had the stuff to grab new audiences the way the relaunch was supposed to.

But Jeff Lemire’s relaunch of Animal Man was one of the books that gained critical favor relatively quickly and managed to retain it throughout its run.

With the exception of a few hiccups and minor missteps, Animal Man has been the book to read from the New 52. The title ceased as of March this year when Lemire said he felt like he had finished the story he wanted to tell, and, according to his blog, appreciated that DC let him end the story on his own terms.

My process of mourning the end of one of my favorite comics came as soon as I opened the first page of issue #29, the final issue, and I’ll miss the Animal Man solo title until DC decides to bring it back to life. Animal Man is currently represented in the pages of Justice League: United, but if I’m being perfectly honest, that’s a book with more shortcomings than positive traits.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool character. He’s a celebrity actor, a family man, he has a dorky name, his power set is just described as “animal powers,” and he has a confusing back story (that maybe involves “aliens”), but in the hands of a good creative team, he is unquestionably my favorite hero. Good writers can tell very potent stories about Buddy Baker and his family. Lemire is one of those writers, from book one, Baker’s driving motivation is his children and his wife.

Because of this, his heroics are often reluctant. While it seems like Buddy gets some pleasure out of his powers, he would give them up in an instant if it meant his family would be safe.

A-Man and his family…

In Lemire’s storyline, however, Animal Man learns that he and his powers play an important role in the cosmic makeup of the earth. He is the Avatar of “the Red,” the aggregate of all animal life, is is responsible for defending it from the other kingdoms of life: “the Green,” plant life, and “the Rot,” decay. Each kingdom has an Avatar, which are responsible for keeping life in balance.

So Lemire sets a cosmic stage in which to tell an intimate story: the story of Buddy Baker’s relationship to his family. If this sounds like your cup of tea, there’s nothing to wait for! Hit up your nearest local comic shop and pick out as much as you can of Lemire’s run on Animal Man. Then when you’re done, go back and read Grant Morrison’s run, from which we get my favorite single comic chapter ever: The Coyote Gospel.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.

The Coyote Gospel

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.”

Cover of "The Coyote Gospel." (Animal Man #5)

Cover of “The Coyote Gospel.” (Animal Man #5)

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.

The coyote's first death.

The coyote’s first death and resurrection.

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?

Crafty's final demise.

Crafty’s final demise.