Ken Jennings


March 27, 2009

Plenty of arty cartoonists (Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Art Spiegelman, Cathy Guisewite) have explored the relationship between the drawn cartoon panel and the story taking place within its borders. But I wanted to close out Meta Week with a tribute to the comic that rocked my world when I was fifteen, because it crashed sophisticated metafictional storytelling headlong into the party where it seemed least to be invited: mainstream superhero comics.

Best metacomic. The 1988 revival of DC Comics’ Animal Man. Animal Man was a 1960s D-lister with your typical not-very-imaginative origin (aliens bathed him with rays!) and not-very-imaginative superpowers. (He can absorb the powers of animals! Of course he can–aliens bathed him with rays, weren’t you listening?)

In 1988, when Animal Man had barely been seen in decades, he was reinvented by Glaswegian comic book writer Grant Morrison in his own series. Animal Man was now an easy-going suburban dad, trying to make a living as a full-time superhero. An encounter with B’wana Beast (another embarrassingly named 1960s relic) radicalized his politics, and Animal Man became the first vegetarian, PETA-member superhero. A reasonably clever take on the character, I thought. Then things got weird.

Animal Man gradually started to suspect that he was a fictional character, at the whim of his writer and corporate overlords. His origin had recently been updated in a DC Comics event called Crisis on Infinite Earth, and Morrison explored what it might be like to have your past rewritten for you retroactively. The quantum theories of philosopher/physicist David Bohm were trotted out to suggest that all realities–not just comic book universes, but ours as well–might be epiphenomena emerging from higher orders of reality. During a peyote trip, Animal Man actually caught a glimpse of the thousands of oily-skinned voyeurs enjoying his monthly struggles. He didn’t wink at the audience, like Groucho or Daffy Duck. It freaked him out.

At the end of Morrison’s run, he even wrote himself into the story: Animal Man met his maker, a Glaswegian comic book writer named “Grant Morrison,” who tried to explain to his super-protagonist why he’d put him through 26 issues of hell. They debate nothing less than the purpose and the morality of literature–and Morrison is brave enough to let his creation win the argument.

Even today, when I’m no longer shocked by the idea that a superhero comic could actually be about something, I think these charming comics hold up pretty well. They’re available today in book form, if you want to watch Animal Man watch you back.

Posted by Ken at 4:20 pm