The 1980s were a renaissance for the comics industry. The British Invasion of Comics had begun, with the likes of writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison taking huge steps and breaking new ground with each issue. Towards the tail-end of the 1980s, DC Comics started its “New Format” imprint of comic book titles, which was published outside of the Comics Code Authority’s regulations. Many of these titles featured complex, adult storylines, and were typically handled by some of the best writers and artists at the time. One such title was Animal Man, in which the eponymous hero was given new life by Grant Morrison after the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Today, we will be taking a look at Morrison’s run on the series by examining one of its finest issues: “The Coyote Gospel.” Things are gonna get deep. You have been warned.
Animal Man is an absolute pleasure to read, from cover to cover. The first sixty some-odd issues feature stunning cover artwork by the legendary Brian Bolland. Bolland is perhaps best known for his work with Alan Moore on The Killing Joke, while our friends from across the pond will also remember him as the artist who gave Judge Dredd his signature look in 2000 AD. With interiors by Chas Troug (pencils), Doug Hazelwood (ink), and Tatjana Wood (colors), Animal Man offers a visual carnival that is representative of some of the best work in DC Comics’ history, while being the definitive look for its time. Of course none of this would be possible without the genius wordsmith himself, Grant Morrison.
Like most of Morrison’s work, Animal Man is an experience that is often deeper than your typical superhero book. In “The Coyote Gospel” Buddy Baker (Animal Man) decides that his family will become vegetarians, much to the chagrin of his wife who feels she has been left out of the decision. The resulting argument helps to show that while being a superhero and family man, Baker is still flawed in some ways. Aside from this small taste of superhero deconstruction, Baker’s decision brings up an interesting moral dilemma: can we protect nature while we consume it?
Despite being an issue of Animal Man, “The Coyote Gospel” features surprisingly little of Baker himself. Instead we follow the exploits of “the coyote” (also referred to as a “devil” by some characters), who comes from another dimension in which cartoon characters fight each other with comical armaments supplied by the “Ajax” corporation (Acme, anyone?). When the coyote decides he wants to bring peace to this “cartoon realm,” his creator sends him to the “comic book realm” where the coyote will face countless comic book deaths as a sort of twisted sacrifice. To do this, the creator “paints” the coyote out of the cartoon realm and into the comic book realm, where he takes on a slightly more realistic appearance. Got it? Good. Now then, let’s get existential!
Not unlike the film Inception, “The Coyote Gospel” features varying degrees of reality. The first, and farthest removed from our own reality as we understand it to be is the cartoon realm where the coyote comes from. This realm looks like something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon, most specifically one that might feature Wile E. Coyote and a certain Roadrunner that perpetually eludes him. Complete with tragically (and hilariously) malfunctioning cannons and tasty bright red sticks of dynamite, this war-torn cartoon world is the stuff Saturday mornings used to be made of (they might still be for some of us).
Next, we have the comic book realm, which while slightly more “real” than the coyote’s realm is still outrageous in comparison to our reality. Nevertheless, this comic book world is real to the coyote, who experiences pain with each death and resurrection, explained in grisly detail by Morrison. The comic book realm serves to bridge the gap between our reality and the reality experienced by the coyote in the cartoon world.
It is in the comic book realm that the coyote meets his nemesis: man. An unnamed man stalks the coyote throughout “The Coyote Gospel,” blaming him for recent tragedies in his life. It is unclear what connection, if any, the coyote had to these tragedies, but it appears as though the man is simply looking to place blame on something, rather than accepting the often chaotic nature of life and the potential consequences that follow as a result. During his initial failed attempts at killing the coyote, the man is accidentally injured by one of his own explosives and left near death just in time for Baker to show up and intervene. When the coyote hands Baker a letter he had been carrying, the man takes a final shot and manages to mortally wound the coyote, exclaiming “I saved the world!” as he succumbs to his own injuries. Tragically, Baker is unable to read the strange language in the letter, and can only look on as the coyote dies in the middle of a desolate highway.
This brings us to the last of the realities that exist in “The Coyote Gospel”: the reality of us. The human experience that, while strange and incredible, is sometimes plagued by fear born of misunderstanding and ignorance of our own existence; a question to which we may likely never know the answer. The man uses the coyote as a scapegoat for the problems in his life, and projects his “victory” upon the world, all the while the coyote having been sent to a strange land with a message of peace. Heavy stuff. Lastly, as the coyote lies in the road he bleeds white, until the hand of the creator with his giant, magical paintbrush appears and colors it red. And with that, it becomes apparent that we are the hand that paints our reality, whether it be sky blue or blood red. What will it be?
“The Coyote Gospel” begs the question: what is real? Is it the cartoon world, the comic world, or our world as the reader that serves as reality? If you actually sit down and think about it, there is no way for us to know that existence isn’t some sort of odd, collective dream. Picture the universe as a giant game of marbles for an even larger existence, then go and do something really fun and happy. You’ll need it.
Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man is sure to exercise that brain and open your mind to the infinite possibilities within. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and pick up a few issues or a trade paper back, and let us know what you think in the comments section or on our Twitter page!