A Fine Pyrrhonism; or, (Put Your) Faith in Crisis
(or, this whole review is a massive spoiler, so please avert your gaze if you haven’t read Animal Man yet!)
A lot is made of Morrison’s assault on the “4th wall” in this series–as if the whole thing was some damn-fool excercise in a Matrix-style revelation of “the way things really are”… So, um, take the blue pill and, uh… take the red pill–it’ll…uh… Actually, I forget which did which, but my point is that Animal Man has nothing to do with this tradition! This series is not about “false consciousness” dispelled by a glimpse of The Truth. We don’t get anything like a vision of “the Truth” in this book (despite what the peyote scenes imply)–what we get is a character who travels back and forth between several levels of narration. Emerson’s “Circles” is the key text here…
What’s special about Buddy Baker?
Just one thing–he occupies a liminal position between the pre- and post-Crisis DC Universes. For whatever reason, the reconfigured Animal Man of 1988 remembers his origin story exactly the way it was printed in 1965. As Buddy discovers in issue #22–“the mystery is solved. and the mystery is me.” All of that stuff about a creator/God/writer up there pulling the strings is fun, and offers up boffo critical opportunities to the kinds of folks that use the word “liminal” in every second sentence, but the heart of this series (as with all meaning in Animal Man) is elsewhere. We’ve just spent a fun week with the ultimate structuralist super-hero work, but Animal Man is post-structuralist–nothing has any final relationship to anything else in the text (Morrison even brings in the names of lettercol habitues in issue #26!). We are never permitted to get comfortable with an interpretation of what’s happening to Buddy (hmm…the government’s messin’ with him…no it’s those aliens…no, wait, it’s Grant Morrison!–or maybe, as the final flashlit peephole out of the author’s browned-out layer of the abyss implies, it’s all some character called Foxy’s doing! and do you really suppose that the creative bleeding stops there? it’s an infinite egress!)
One thing’s for sure–no one’s got any free will. Morrison does some big talking about the prerogatives of the artist, but he leaves some pretty crucial stuff out. For instance: “crisis-II”–what the Hell’s that all about? Does anyone think that Morrison wanted to banish all of those wonderful Discontinued Characters back into the medusa mask? Why sacrifice a character like Highwater to the greater glory of the “new DC”? Did the author understand the anguish of the Time Commander, who wished to abolish the boundary between past and present–thus “rebooting” the Adventures of Adam and Eve? Did he empathize with the Psycho-Pirate, who remembers the whole mountainous corpus of a lost multiverse gnawed into a more Digestible Continuity by “the Wolfman”, and whose tears sneak the unmentionable back into the conversation–even if it’s only as wet colour-slicks on the pavement in the playground of “the real”? And did he feel the full impact of these characters’ failures?
I would have to answer “yes” to all of these questions, which is all to the good! The only thing an artist requires more than “childlike madness” is a sense of limitation (and Grant had it here in spades! perhaps because of his earnest attempt to grapple with the insoluble contradictions of an animal rights commitment–let’s not forget what generated this series in the first place!)–and whenever you find these moods in tension, “another circle is created”, and the Crisis raves on!
So why doesn’t Animal Man enjoy the critical prestige that Watchmen and Dark Knight do? Could it be the old “loose baggy monster” syndrome? A perceived weakness in the design? Reviewers praise the metafiction, wondering all the while what the hell it has to do with the animal rights content. Or they decry the narratological bells and whistles as a cop out–evidence of a failure of nerve on Morrison’s part. Nowadays they’re more likely to think–“well, this is a series that broke some ground, once upon a time, but, you know, so what if Buddy knows he’s a character in a comic book? Didn’t John Byrne do the same thing with She-Hulk?” Nuff said!
But Animal Man #1-26 is no schizophrenic experiment–it’s an overgrown weed of a masterpiece; narrative moss coating the bare rock of Emerson’s lament: “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.”
Sure I know Grant Morrison is Mr. Trickster-God/I’m just a shimmering bit of plankton on the ocean of consciousness these days–but back in 1990, I thought he was the greatest moral philosopher on the planet. This is no playful meditation on the creator’s godlike prerogatives vis a vis his/her creations, this is an anguished game of chicken with solipsism. In the fourth issue (which was to be the last of the mini-series, before DC okayed an unlimited run), Ellen rushes home from the woods with a blanketful of kittens, after enduring a horrific near-rape. In shock, she asks her neighbor, Mrs. Weidemeir, for help with the starving animals. The older woman takes one look and pronounces them D.O.A. Tears stream down Ellen’s cheek as she whispers “Why does everything have to die? I saved them. You can’t tell me they’re dead.” (anyone remember ASM #121?) Meanwhile, the B’Wana Beast moans: “Paradise… we were given paradise…and we turned it into an abattoir…”
That’s what the series is about. It’s a prolonged (not “profound”–there’s no such thing, as far as Morrison is concerned) skate upon iced tears. The mind screams out for security blank-myths–evidence that “evil comes out of good”, that “death is the final enemy”, that there is value in suffering… That’s where stories come from. “God takes special care of little animals honey. And remember, their mother’s up there waiting for them,” Mrs. Weidemeir explains. “In cat heaven?” Maxine asks. “That’s right. In cat heaven.” Meanwhile, Ellen Baker quietly breaks down. The artwork in this sequence is extraordinarily powerful, I think… Truog does human expressions so well, and without that the series wouldn’t be worth anything! Here, as in almost every issue, Morrison goes for maximum emotion (and I’m not talking Claremont’s Crocodile-angst here, I’m talking about people coming face to face with the unspeakable suffering in the world, “alienation” isn’t the disease in Animal Man, it’s the cure!) and Truog’s characters live in their eyes, which are Manga-sized without the robotic manga-pupils. At every step of the way, those eyes speak eloquently against the monist philosophy that Morrison foists upon us. The effect is breathtaking–it’s a dramatization of the human tendency to trace “arcs” around abysses; and yet, in this series, those circles don’t “contain” the threat of meaninglessness–they highlight it!
In the final confrontation, Morrison tells Buddy: “Of course I know [how you feel about the death of your wife and kids]. I wrote your grief and your rage and your acceptance.” He also explains that he killed them in the first place in order to “add drama”. Buddy says: “That’s not fair.” And then Morrison gives him the real explanation for the grim turn in the series–“No. It’s not. One of my cats died last year. Something, maybe a bone, punctured her lung. Pus built up in her lungs so that she couldn’t breathe. She suffered for four weeks and then died at the vets, a couple of weeks after her third birthday. Her name was Jarmara. That wasn’t fair either but who do I complain to?”
The truth is that there is no “compensation” for the wrongs that befall us in real life. So artists close the loop in their work. Sometimes they even make preemptive strikes upon their fears, as Morrison implies when he says: “I told you about my cat Jarmara. I took her to the vet every tuesday and thursday. I liquidized her food and fed her with a dropper. I prayed for her to get better… I’d have done anything to save her really. And yet there was a part of me–the part that observes and writes–rubbing its’ hands and saying, ‘well, at least if she dies, I’ll be able to use it in Animal Man’…” As Rorschach would say–“one more body in the foundation.” But where Moore argues that political orders are built upon the suffering of the expendable, Morrison offers a far more radical formulation–our lives are built up at the expense of those who mean the most to us…
Death is not the final enemy in Animal Man–the rationalization of death is. Morrison tells Buddy that he couldn’t possibly bring Ellen and the kids back, because “that wouldn’t be realistic”. But then he changes his mind. Why? Isn’t it because he recognizes that the “integrity” of Buddy’s march toward acceptance–his “developmental arc”–doesn’t make real suffering any easier to endure? Ultimately, Buddy’s desire to see his family again is the only “real” thing about him. And we owe it to ourselves to be kind to others, if it is in our power to help them… Who knows? They may turn out to be real. (just like Foxy…)
okay, now get ready ’cause it’s time to go
Spelunking for Apocalypse
Okay, I’ve been doing a lot of talking about Animal Man as a “narrative field” radiating out of the abyss–and it’s about time I dove in there(I’ll call out if I need you!)
These story arcs trace circles ’round a center that just ain’t there, so forget about taking the measurements–but if there’s a pi in the swirl, it’s “Ghosts of Stone”…
I know many of you have never come across this story, from Secret Origins #46(Dec 1989), so I’ll be as concrete here as I can!
It’s a JLA story…pencils by Curt Swan/inks & coloring by George Freeman.
The first page shows various figures in conflict with their own costumes. Black Canary. Martian Manhunter. Green Lantern. Aquaman. That crowd. Barry Allen’s suit is on the scene, but the Scarlet Speedster’s late to the party. That’s his schtick remember? A voice in a shimmering box says: “But first…tell me your story…”
We cut to a scene in which ol’ Flash makes his excuses to Iris West–he’s all revved up for the first official meeting of the JLA. But when he pops his costume out of the magic ring, it bolts for the door, laughing all the way. Barry grabs a spare and takes off in pursuit. It’s a closed loop. The splash page awaits!
Green Lantern subdues the costumes and J’onnz figures out pretty quickly that they’ve been possessed by aliens! “Aw not aliens again!” Barry whines… Meanwhile, the captives bust loose and dive into the side of a mountain. The Flash vibrates in after them–and the story proper gets under way…
The mountain speaks in blue boxes–giving a sketchy account of its origin. “Born in the collision of warring continents…Traumatic birth frenzy…” Doesn’t sound like an origin to me–but what else is new? No one knows where consciousness comes from–and this rock is no exception. So there’s nothing at the core, but everything in the past few billion years or so–well, that’s a different story. With apologies to Prego, “it’s in there”. “All my days diaried in the lattice. Profound memory of stone coded in the lattice structure…Recorded in the defect lattice…”
We watch as species rise and fall upon the earth, and a strange ship full of creatures lands… They die off and their vessel crumbles. “All the fleeting fragile lives… all of it recorded here and recreated in dynamic aural sculpture…”
“Vibration is the trigger”
The Flash finds he can’t take any more and extricates himself from the walls… This is the JLA and even at this early stage of their careers, they know aliens, and they know “giant silica macrochips”… Put these two things together and what do you get? Of course! The possesed costumes come in peace–they only want one last glimpse of their comrades who passed this way, so long ago. Dinah asks: “Will the canary cry do?” and lets loose. You may be sure it does the trick! The costumes fall to the ground. The Flash sums it up: “That’s all they wanted–just a moment to see their lost loved ones again. My God.”
Of course they move into the mountain and make it their home–wouldn’t you?
“Those brief radiant sparks that live and die… filled me with their noise and their haste…filled me with the brightness of their being, lit me like a lantern…all these echoing secret grottoes…and then they were gone… I often wonder what became of [them]… Now my heart lies empty, untenanted. And I grow old in the slow light of the stars… Sometimes some small creature will pass through me…activate the lattice memory with its ultrasound…and for a moment they are with me once more…burning brief candles of life…bright and splendid…flickering…long gone. Ghosts of stone.”
It’s sort of like “Till human voices wake us and we drown”, in reverse… And there you have it, friends–the cavern-mind of Grant Morrison! Ready to replay the stories echoing through its’ chambers for our pleasure–and his own…
But the vibration is the key.
The first sign of a ripple occurs in Animal Man #6 (usually written-off, thanks to the Invasion badge on its’ cover). I think it’s a mistake to pay too much attention to the famous “Coyote Gospel”… It’s a brilliant story, sure–but it throws us off the track, ramming that fourth wall… justifying the craze for a dead end… Killing coyotes doesn’t solve anything… it certainly won’t bring Billy back… Is this a paint brush I see before me? Out out damned ink blot!
So yeah, in issue #6 we find “Morrison”‘s first avatar–the Thanagarian “art martyr”. What’s his deal? He gives us a good synopsis on page 17: “I’ve psi-recorded my entire life experience onto the bomb, fully cross-referenced and infinitely detailed. The bomb will conduct a high-speed random search through my life fractal and when it encounters my most emotionally charged moment…It will detonate.” Previously, he had explained that: “A fractal shape is one which reveals more detail, more information, upon closer examination. It can be magnified indefinitely and still reveal new complexities. It occured to me that life itself could be regarded as having a fractal shape.” He thinks rather highly of himself: “[I am] A thing of rock. My heartbeat measures geological time. I feel invicible. I can do anything. Anything. And in the end, only one thing matters… The performance.”
Crazy art martyrs–they’ll be the death of us yet! But not this guy! The bomb finds its’ target (a proud moment: the creation of a fractal bird sculpture, a “great tortured shape wracked by infinities”, which causes its’ sculptor to wonder whether he is “creator or created”) and Buddy stares in horror as it gets ready to serve up the void… Luckily, good ol’ Katar Hol stops by, flashing a wry grin under that crazy beak: “All you had to do was switch it off.”
That’s Hawkman: 1, Apocalypse: 0.
You can’t throw a rock at a page of Animal Man without hitting some nut who wants to bury the space-time continuum in gray matter. You may remember the Red Mask’s friend–The Veil? An insubstantial avatar, to be sure. He’s got the vision. But he’s terminally lacking in the power department. Spoons his eyes out when he can’t take it anymore…
The Time Commander is another story entirely. I believe I’ve read somewhere (haven’t I?) that he’s supposed to be a version of Dr. Manhattan–that makes sense, he certainly possesses the latter’s enlarged temporal awareness–but he’s not content (as the blue guy was) to keep this to himself: “There is no death! Love denies entropy! Through love, we abolish death!” uhhh… no dude! Through love, we give meaning to death–without love, death would be meaningless. And love needs time to grow. Yes, the man does beautiful things for people in this story–mourners steal moments with dead spouses, parents, pets…unfortunately, he’s also turning Paris into a version of the whacko cartoon world that Crafty opted out of! “We’ve just seen German tanks and cavemen chasing Jean-Paul Sartre… The French Revolution’s happening right around the corner!” Is there any doubt that the “final transformation” this man is preaching would fulfill the art martyr’s mission?
Next up we’ve got the Psycho-Pirate–whose memory defies the raging current generated by the Big Bang of the Crisis… The end of time is bad enough, but the convergence of every dimension upon one poor asylum is catastrophic! How many story angles can dance on a pinhead? The Psycho-Pirate resolves to find out–chanting the names of the abolished dimensions… Meanwhile, Buddy walks through his own past trying to warn his family of the dangers that await them–unable to make himself known to them, like George Bailey in IAWL; or Scrooge in the Past; or Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls… There’s a simple message here: “Time is cruel”… But the desire to go back is crueller still…and the desire to forget is worst of all… Only the (often jagged) ground of remembrance gives meaning to the present, gives us the power to be kind… There really aren’t any other options–just canonball dives into loneliness and the void. Solipsism. There is no death ’cause I made this–and every choice is up to me. Emerson trod this path for years, off and on, but he could never quite rinse the dirt from his first wife’s grave off of his fingernails–and if he had, he wouldn’t have had much to say now would he…
Finally, from out of the catacombs of the Psycho-Pirate’s hubristic mind comes the Overman–a memory that even this mad conjuror wants to repress…but the floodgates are open, and the super-demon leaks out, armed with a warhead. Ranting, drooling: “IvegotthebombIvegotthebomb”, he stalks around the asylum, boasting of his plans… It’s a clear case of unchecked ontological aggression upon the phenomenal world–the Overman comes to bomb Morrison’s humane society back to the stone age.
But Buddy has learned a few things in the 18 issues since the Art Martyr landed–and this time he explains to the yellow alien chorus: “A piece of advice for when things are going badly… All you have to do is flip the switch.” And he does.
From that point it’s all academic. And not in a “death of the author” kind of way either–on the contrary, this author is “born again” into a world re-enchanted by Morrison’s brave refusal to sacrifice Buddy and his family to an unappeasable longing for some vision of “acceptance”. There is no acceptance in this story, no cathexis for the recurrent waves of apocalypse, no demolition of the Platonic Cave which is the only home that any human being with a sense of limitation will ever know. We find those limits at the border to other minds. We may not be able to pass through the barrier. But we can shine a light across.
In “The Myth of the Creation” (which you can find in Secret Origins #39, reprinted in volume two of the Animal Man trade series) we get Morrison, Grummett, and Hazlewood’s version of the events depicted in Strange Adventures #180 (1965)–it’s a typical DC Silver Age origin: guy with not too much going on in his life gets a wake up call from space and an immediate opportunity to thrash some beasts–goes home feeling powerful, blurts out a marriage proposal to his breathlessly waiting sweetheart and faints… That’s Buddy the first…
In Animal Man #11 we get the origin again (drawn by Truog this time)–featuring costumes and hair redone for the late seventies, and words scrambled into magnetic fridge poetry. Clearly, there’s a problem here…although it’s supposedly solved the following month, when the key scenes recur a third time, with the original syntax restored… So they rebooted the character and they’re shameless enough to glory in this fact–so what, right? Wrong! There’s so much more going on here than a critique of silly superhero conventions! The bookend “myths of the creation” (which bring to mind the two versions of the beginning of the world in Genesis) completely undermine each other, leaving the middle one–the meaningless one–to stand as the “true” secret origin of Animal Man… It’s so secret, in fact, that it’s absolutely opaque! These aren’t “creation myths”, this is creation as myth! And without a stable origin, Buddy Baker has no real identity–he will always be other than himself…In issue #12, the reborn character discovers an ability to multiply himself, by absorbing the powers of self-replicating bacteria… In more ways than one then–Buddy II becomes Animal Men…
There’s a powerful anti-ontological argument running through this series. The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that consciousness springs out of the void. The standard antidote to this supposition is to posit a God or an Ideal which is the one and only something, and which we are all a part of (solipsism/pantheism)… I think most people would actually rather embrace nihilism than entertain the notion that whatever meaning there is in the world is founded upon radical absence! “Something” out of “nothing”? What the hell? So we lasso each other and the stars with mental umbilical cords, or hang ourselves with them…
Issue #18 opens with a voice saying “…Buddy?…” in the dark, and a surreal vision of Tricia and Roger bearing down upon the unseen protagonist with tearful concern and a glass of water. In green boxes someone thinks “there’s something important I mustn’t forget… is that a door in the darkness?” Then we loop back into kitchen-brightness: Ellen pouring a glass of water for a flustered James Highwater (whose limbs have been disappearing for short periods lately), the kids chattering in the background… Then Buddy and James launch their adventure in monism, dreaming bridges across abysses under the influence of peyote, and the tutelage of an intelligent fox. A lot of cool stuff happens, but none of it counts for much against Buddy’s return to consciousnes in #20, on the floor of his kitchen, where he’d been since Roger offered him the first glass of water. During that whole burst of a-mesa-ing grace, Ellen and the kids were already dead! Morrison beautifully dramatizes a mind attempting to cope with the unthinkable–not its’ own anihilation, but the loss of what it loves! The cure is far worse than the disease. By plugging into “unity”, we lose the capacity to relate (how can you relate to yourself?), and relation is the only fount of meaning in this fallen world!
The mystic’s vision of union with the divine is a self-defense mechanism, a sop to the apocalypse, and humans generally gain access to it by poisoning themselves with intoxicants, starving themselves, or depriving themselves of sleep… I know a lot of smart people have bought into this over the years, but I prefer to believe my senses when they’re working properly…
Far from being “at one with the universe”, Buddy isn’t even at one with himself! He has no identity–or, at any rate, he is not identical to himself! In issue #22 (illustrated by Paris Cullins & Steve Montano, not by Truog, or even by Grummett, who had filled in before) Buddy wanders, alienated, through his past, thinking: “sometimes I watch them but they don’t seem real. They’re his family, not mine. My family is dead. It’s driving me mad. It’s driving me mad.” Unlike Dr. Manhattan, who is everywhere in the continuity at once, Buddy is never in continuity. His reality is fluid–he’s treading “elseworlds”… I think we get a minor version of this shock every time we look at old photographs of ourselves. I certainly do. That’s not my world in there. That’s his world… I have no identity. Like Buddy, I fill in the blanks between the panels of my life with guesswork, not a continuous self. And so do you.
Do You Remember?
Finally, what I want to know is–what the hell is Morrison doing with that monkey-at-the-typewriter in limbo? On the surface, this figure seems like just another avatar of the author-creator, in the proud-mad tradition of the Art Martyr, the Time Commander, and the Psycho-Pirate. But is it really that simple? Let’s not forget that this scripter-God shares a level of Hell with the alienated dregs of the DC universe… The monkey enjoys none of the world-historical significance that his predecessors did. The Art Martyr almost blew up the planet. The Time Commander did manage to destabilize the timestream. And the Psycho-Pirate reverses the Crisis on Infinite Earths through an act of memory/will. But our simian friend just types out a passage from The Tempest, smiles, and keels over–becoming a dead-weight in Buddy’s arms as the latter wanders purposefully nowhere through the meaningless tundra. What’s it all about? The creator as a burden upon the created? Well, yeah–but what else?
Bolland’s cover for issue #25 shows us the monkey nervously scripting the issue at hand… and the first two panels deliver as promised. However, that second panel is a close-up of these words on a page:
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero, in his last extremity, asks the audience to abrogate the dire chain of cause-and-effect at work in the narrative… And this is exactly what Morrison does! Merryman tells Buddy that the monkey “used to be famous but no one’s allowed to say his name anymore. He sits on a hill writing, you know? He did the complete works of Shakespeare, purely at random. There’s a kind of legend that says one day the monkey will write us all out of limbo.” This sounds like a joke, but if you think about, it’s damned serious–The Tempest is believed to be Shakespeare’s last play, and if this “omnipotent creator” is merely creating according to a predetermined plan, then of course it stands to reason that he would collapse immediately after “completing Shakespeare”! Is anyone free in this book? I would say no. Morrison saves the characters he has grown to love by splicing his hopes to the Shakespearian comedy, which brings something out of nothing by calling for a (customary) sympathetic response… But maybe it’s just luck (the last play could have been a tragedy!)–Buddy’s fate could easily have been Crafty’s…
The creator himself collapses in issue #25, and the figure of the monkey metamorphoses into a stand-in for Morrison’s dying cat, Jarmara, whom the author had carried back and forth on endless trips to the vet that ultimately proved to be of no help at all. Some may scoff, but Jarmara’s death is THE preeminent symbol of limitation in this book. Literally anything else can be changed on a whim–but not this. As Morrison tells Buddy, her death was “not fair. But who do I complain to?” Clearly, there is no one…
But this is not the case with Buddy’s family. They are inhabitants of a “world created by committee” (I interpret this concept, which Morrison introduces in #26, to mean more than just “created by a group of professional writers”–the commenters are boardmembers as well!), and this committee is quite as capable of conspiring to bring dead characters back to life–no matter (as letter-writer George Gustiness puts it in #23) “what sleazy stunt [they] have to pull”–as it is of visiting horrific persecution upon its’ charges. It becomes a question of which convention the audience will embrace–comedy or (“grim n’ gritty”) tragedy, which, paradoxically, has always been far more satisfying to the tortured human psyche.
In issue #25 (page 12), the mysterious typing figure who proves to be Morrison thinks (in response to Merryman’s question: “Let’s face it, who cares about the space canine patrol agents in this day and age?”) “I care. It’s stupid, I know, but I care. All the things that meant so much when we were young. Under the blankets late at night, listening to long-distance radio. All those things: lost now or broken. Can you remember? Can you remember that feeling?” Shades of the Ramones! (and very apt, I would say!) The monkey cannot unilaterally write these characters out of limbo. That’s the Psycho-Pirate’s way. Cyclopean visionaries cry out for a corroborating eye–when that transcendental ball rolls back in its’ socket, you don’t get a “poetry of insight”, you get distorted bogeymen with nukes! (or perhaps these two things are synonymous?) The author-figure is right to bring in the names of specific letter-writers on page 17 of issue #26, because, ultimately, it is they, as a community of wellwishers, who agree, for old time’s sake, to waive their right to a sacrificial lamb, thus empowering Morrison to restore Ellen, Maxine, and Cliff to Buddy’s world… Strangely enough, comedy–which is generated by a recognition of the Other, and the limits of the imperial self–makes anything possible (and everything meaningful), narratively speaking…
Which brings us to:
Ontology & Paranoia
In a comment-thread from a couple of days ago, Rose asked:
I’m really interested in your argument about ontology, now that I can go back and really read what you said. There was a scene when Buddy and Grant are talking in which Grant, for no apparent reason, kicks a stone into the water, which gave me two impressions:
1. He’s being motivated by an external agent to do things. This action is a mimetic support to his argument, not that he needs to make a good argument when he literally ‘controls the discourse’ anyway.
2. He’s secretly saying, “I refute you thus!” I think it would be a good allusion under the circumstances, but in some sense Grant is contra Samuel Johnson, because he’s not kicking a real stone and so his action doesn’t prove anything at all. It proves, by loose analogy, that the world is not real at all.
How can I resist an invitation like that?
The incident in question occurs on page 9 of Animal Man #26… “Grant” doesn’t kick the rock, he throws it–but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about who made him do it! Unfortunately, this way, we don’t get as perfect a segue to Doctor Johnson, but since we’ve got the interpretive conch at the moment, what say we just pretend he kicked it, hunh Rose?
Alright then! Where is the ontological ground of “reality” in Animal Man? For my money, it’s in the lettercol… In issue #26, “Grant” tells Buddy: “Of course you’re real! We wouldn’t be here talking if you weren’t real. You existed long before I wrote about you and, if you’re lucky, you’ll still be young when I’m old and dead… You’re more real than I am.”
What does he mean by that? Well, presumably that Buddy’s continued existence is made possible by the readers. “Reality” is consensual… There is no first cause. If people stop caring, he’s gone! That’s a precarious situation, certainly–but what other options are there? When you’re alone (I don’t mean for a day or a week, I mean ALONE), you might as well be dead, no? That’s why we invented “God” in the first place. So you never have to be alone. It’s in all of the brochures…
But it’s not enough just to meet up with God. It doesn’t become “real” until you make the encounter known to others. Their belief ratifies your experience. That’s why the Puritans made such a big deal of their conversion narratives. Anyone can go off into the woods hopped up on zeal and have themselves a “Yahweh” old time! The hard part is convincing others that it actually happened–if you do, then it did…it’s as simple as that.
Of course, no one likes to be so dependent upon empirical Others, but it can’t be helped. And it’s no accident that those religions which place the greatest emphasis upon the individual’s personal knowledge of the Divine are also the most evangelically-inclined! Catholics can afford to be more chill about this stuff, because the faith is grounded upon baptismal certificates, not ravishment by Grace… in either case though, the principle is the same–if I believe you are a member of the true Church, then you win a trip to Heaven!
But even the minimal commitment to the idea of a Deity that Catholicism requires of its’ adherents has become unthinkable for most people in the modern world, and the search for a new organizing principle is on! Very few people seem to want to face the fact of their dependence upon each other so nakedly–it’s so much easier to proselytize than to relate! So now, instead of God, we’ve got conspiracy theories. The “Marxist-Feminists”, the phone company, the Masons, the “liberal-rationalists”, the “Media”, and, of course, that old reliable, the “military-industrial complex”. You just choose one that suits your animus, start ranting, make yourself a like-minded friend, and voila, you’ve established a little church for yourself–and the world has structure again. Sure, it’s an “evil” structure, but I’ll tell ya, I’ve read most of Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and his God was far nastier than any Masonic cabal ever dreamed of being…
This all goes back to Moby Dick, I think… That whale? A honcho in the Bavarian Illuminati–for sure! Ahab’s syndrome is a pandemic by now. We’re born flailing at the “pasteboard mask” of “false consciousness”…
Morrison has some fun with all of this in Animal Man, throwing a series of totalizing schemes at the protagonist. We get the yellow aliens–with their absolute dominion over the fabric of reality; we get the monstrous government plot against Buddy; all of which collapses into the idea that the world is merely a spectacle orchestrated by that arch-conspirator and puppet-master, Grant Morrison… Why does he throw the rock? I’d say he does it to produce those circles on the surface of the lake on the following page. You can send out your metaphysical sonar all you want, and “consciousness” might even “expand”, but those waves are never coming back, and those circles are never gonna harden into anything “real”–eventually, they just dissipate… If you’re looking for “feedback”, you’d better make do with what you get from other peoples’ sonar, and that’s where the lettercols come in! It’s an epistemological crossfire: in becoming an Object, the Subject is “grounded”–at least provisionally, which is all we have any right to expect, really…
The use of “vast conspiracies” as narrative scaffolding for entire comic book series was rampant in the eighties–in Watchmen, in Power of the Atom (a particularly unsuccessful example, I think) and Gruenwald’s Captain America (where the Red Skull’s activities, behind the scenes, in issues #307-350, rival Morrison’s in terms of sheer omnipotence, although the face-to-face showdown between Cap & R.S.–and they’ve got the same face!–doesn’t turn out so pleasantly as Buddy’s meeting with “Grant”, mainly because the Skull can’t let go of his desire to screen his pain on another, while “Grant” elects, finally, to ground the electrical charge of loss within himself, thus abandoning his role as a conductor, passing on the shock to his creations, and making possible one of the only truly satisfying endings that I know of in any work of art); later on, of course, The X-Files and The Matrix would make use of the same device, and, from what I’ve read of The Invisibles, it seems that Morrison himself lost the ability to live without faith in a grand scheme! Luckily, we’ve still got Animal Man–in which a man sustains a terrible loss, and that loss becomes real, because we care… nothing more, nothing less…
Hey if you’re still out there–thanks for reading!