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“God takes special care of little animals, honey.”

It was David Fiore who inspired me to buy and read Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. I’m sure it’s not the Greatest Comic Ever and I wouldn’t want to set anything apart like that, but I feel a lot of affinity for it and it makes good sense to me. And did I mention it’s fun? I breezed through it gleefully, leaving mental notes for later exploration. And now I’m finally trying to get around to that part, which is not as easy or as much fun as the fun.

It’s a superhero story of course, and does what I think superhero stories can do best, show limitations. In part of the recent controversy over superhero merits, Tim O’Neil said that a story in which Superman saves the whales would not be an effective method of getting across a point about the need to save the whales. I concur, although maybe not for the reasons he intended. A story about Superman saving the whale should highlight the fact that even though Superman is great and can do almost anything, we don’t have him. If we want our whales saved, it’s up to us. Any Kryptonian hope would be false, baseless. Much of the point of Superman is that we don’t have recourse to him. I think this is one of the major themes Morrison addresses, one well-suited to the genre. Animal Man is really about the limits of power and the tendency to believe that those limits may not be as confining as they are.

Tonight I’m going to look at power, control and cats. Cats feature prominently in the story as the first and last animals shown, and with major roles along the way. They don’t seem as heavily imbued with meaning as the apes or dolphins or the fox and eagle. They’re cats, the kind you see every day. And there are people who are cat people and those who aren’t, like in the world we know. I’m interested now in cats who are saved and by what means, because this is a story element that, like many others, gets replayed and respun so that it changes meaning and sheds meaning on its other instances.

Issue One begins with a stereotypical cat situation, a cat in a tree being retrieved for a dowdy, fretting woman by a muscular blond. This is of course Buddy, our eponymous hero, who lands on his feet and deposits the frightened kitten into its owner’s loving arms. Isn’t he the greatest? Not only has he carried out the most Boy Scouty move possible, but he is immediately contrasted with portly Morris, who seems to barely humor his wife’s love of cats and certainly prefers his own peace and quiet. The story opening is so straightforward it’s not clear whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or just has some sort of sweet-natured retro innocence. Perhaps that holds true for much of Animal Man. At any rate, Violet, the cat owner, mentions that she hasn’t seen her cat Sheba in several days, which is way too blatant to even be called foreshadowing.

Fastforward to Issue Two, a cat in the bushes. It’s not surprising that it’s Sheba and not surprising that there are now kittens to complicate matters. In the next issue we’ll find that Morris seems not to have moved from his spot, napping with his lemonade beside him. Buddy, though, has gone on to bigger things, fighting mutating beasts in the city, clad in spiffy goggles and spandex. So Buddy’s wife, Ellen, and daughter, Maxine, are off in the woods, where Maxine finds the kittens. Ellen, though, has found a dead doe and a beer can and a snake. It wouldn’t be surprising even if we hadn’t seen them already that the first two have been left by ignorant hunters and the last is there as an allusion in case references to “the garden of Eden” and “Eve” didn’t ring enough bells. This story cuts off there until Issue Three, because the comic is called Animal Man after all, not Animal Man’s Family. Perhaps it should have been called Animal Man’s Family, but not this early in the story. At any rate, we return in Issue Three, where Maxine sees the hunters feed a cat to their dogs and then hit Ellen. Maxine is off like a shot to Morris, who can move when it matters, and who eventually saves the day in a way that’s still painful to all involved. Ellen and Buddy never discuss this in the book, but because of his devotion to animals and more explicitly to being a superhero, he is unable to save his wife. That honor goes to a man who may not even care about whether laboratory dogs suffer and shows that heroism and humane action take many forms. There’s a reason the other superheroes don’t have families, as the JLI representatives remark. They’re incompatible with the dangers and demands of being a superhero. But Buddy doesn’t acknowledge that. He lets the gaps in the story escape his notice because it’s easier and it lets him be the person he wants to be.

The kitten story isn’t over, though. Ellen brings the orphaned kittens home, only to find she can’t save their lives. For me, this was the most emotionally intense and painful sequence in all of Animal Man. She has pushed all of the emotions and fear and anguish of her assault into these kittens she’s saving to create a redemption for herself, and she can’t even do that right. “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” And she buries them with the children and Violet, knowing all the while how close she was to being in a grave herself that day.

And when Buddy returns home, his fear for his children is the world they’ll live in, the pollution and animal testing. He doesn’t realize or can’t understand that danger is more concrete and visceral and direct for the humans in his own family. “There must be some hope,” he thinks. “Just some.” And there is. A kitten is going to live, T.C. (The Cat?) and he has a role to play still.

T.C.’s most major role is in wanting his food in Issue 19. He can’t get any because, as Buddy finds, the rest of the family has been murdered and T.C. waits patiently on the bloodstained floor beside his catfood tin and a can opener. Hope is still there, by why? The cat can be fed, the cat will keep going, but all that matters most to Buddy is gone before he realized this was possible. Ellen was wrong, too. Saving the cats and the hopes placed in them doesn’t matter either. Giving too much power to your symbols doesn’t make them strong enough to hold. It doesn’t make them mean what you wanted them to mean.

In Issue 23, the Psycho Pirate unleashes a supercat from another earth. Like T.C., this cat sits beside its food, but it has laser vision that blasts open the tin for it. It doesn’t need human saving or human meaning or help to give it power. That’s what makes it fictional, even within this fictional story.

T.C. returns again in the penultimate issue to turn to a skeleton in Limbo as Buddy realizes he’s losing control of his metaphors. He’s carrying around a dead monkey to get to a place that doesn’t exist, and when he gets back, the cat is a skeleton. Everything around him has turned to nonsense.

And that leads us to the metacat, Jarmara. Grant Morrison writes himself into his story to explain that being a writer doesn’t matter enough. He has the power to make his characters (now including Grant Morrison) do whatever he wants, and yet this is meaningless to him. When it mattered he could not save the cat he loved. He had written the story and knew its meaning but he, too, found it easy to forget how much was out of his control. Superhero stories are supposed to be about great power and great responsibilities, but they’re really about what lies beyond the power, the responsibilities that can never be met. Even when you write the story, even when you create yourself, there are things that happen beyond you. What you do with them is up to you, but it’s easy to forget that being the author doesn’t mean you can stop it all, and sometimes assimilating the pain and making it part of your story hurts just as much. Grant chastises himself for thinking while Jarmara is dying that he can use her in his story, but he really couldn’t have done otherwise. He admits the boundary between Animal Man and Grant has gotten too permeable, that he feared “just becoming preachy” and that the his own life is being influenced by what he writes. He’s become inseparable from his story, which is why he finally writes himself in to wrap it all up.

The last episode in the book is a return to the fox story, which I haven’t touched on yet, but it’s a variation on the theme. It’s about looking for a meaning and a message when it isn’t there. No-longer-young Grant signals Foxy and gets no reply. That’s because Foxy doesn’t matter when it comes down to it, much as he’d like to believe in him. The last non-human creature in the book is Jarmara, yearning and hopeful in her photo with Grant Morrison staring back. Sometimes the stories you tell yourself aren’t enough. Sometimes there’s only death and loss of control and fear. And hope and love.

When Buddy’s family is “reunited,” there is no cat. There is only Jarmara, back in Grant’s dark room. I can’t believe this could be enough of a break or a boundary to keep out the pain, not for Animal Man’s Family. Probably not for Grant. Certainly not for me.


  1. David Fiore says:

    About the cat-rescue–it is an unbelievably powerful sequence (I mean, I admit that I’m cat-obsessed, but I think it would affect anyone) and probably Truog’s finest hour (what did you think of Truog’s art, by the way?)…

    I’m not sure if I mentioned this anywhere in my Animal Man posts, but I know I was thinking of pointing out the echoes of Spider-Man cradling Gwen Stacy (I saved you, honey… don’t you see? I saved you!) in the “I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead” sequence…

    Can there be any doubt that, while Morrison used the intricacies of DC continuity in order to make his point through narrative, the tale he actually chose to tell has a lot more to do with Peter Parker–the ultimate symbol of existential limitation, whose (silver age) career as an adventurer is a litany of failure?

    This was a wonderful post, Rose! Can’t wait for the next one!


    — 26 February 2004 at 5:56 am (Permalink)

  2. J.W. Hastings says:

    Great post. This, along with what Dave F. has written, has inspired me to dig out my old issues of Animal Man for another look.

    — 26 February 2004 at 6:28 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it, J.W. And somehow I’m sure we haven’t gotten all the Animal Man out of Dave yet!

    I’ve started rereading DKR, so tonight’s project may be looking at heroic death and Hellenism in there. But maybe I can reread Animal Man again, too, and get more inspiration for what I’m supposed to be writing. Or, more likely, I’ll have a 10-hour day here at work and just want to collapse when I get home.

    I’m liking DKR more this time around, although many of the problems I have with it stand. I think looking at it, too, as a story about failure and limitations can help me understand it. I don’t know what it is that’s always prevented me from giving myself over to the story. Contrary to your reading, J.W., I find it makes much more sense when I think abou tit analytically, but maybe I just didn’t have the right emotional responses to get carried by that. I’m thinking and reading, at least!



    — 26 February 2004 at 7:16 pm (Permalink)

  4. Josh Lukin says:

    Having most of the original issues, with the lettercol commentors Grant thanks in the end, I want to share this arcana from them. “T.C.” = “Top Cat.” And the supercat unleashed by the Psycho Pirate seems to be a version of Streaky, the Silver Age Supergirl’s kitty.

    Great reading. Now I understand why Morris W. makes such an impression!

    — 29 February 2004 at 8:04 am (Permalink)

  5. Rose says:

    Thanks for the cat information. I assumed the Supercat had some Silver Age precedent, but I’m not well-informed in that regard. I was definitely not reading comics when Animal Man came out, but I really wish letter columns were collected. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but I guess they’re being phased out now anyway.

    As for Morris and his importance, one of the things I find most interesting about Animal Man is that it shows a clear distinction between acts of human heroism, of which there are several, and superheroics. I wish this were an issue that got addressed more often in superhero comics because it’s something I find truly interesting, but I take what I can get.


    — 1 March 2004 at 3:00 pm (Permalink)