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A year ago I reviewed Alasdair Gray‘s Lanark on my former blog. Instead of insisting on the post-modern content of that novel, or for that manner the religious themes, with references to Gnosticism and the inherent conservatism of the church as an institution – I compared the book to a comic by Grant Morrison named Animal Man.

Perhaps some might find that offensive? Personally the medium of a story has no categorical importance – it’s the content that interests me and I have no problem with raising this piece of popculture up on the same critical pedestal as Lanark.

Of course, and some of you may have realized, there was a small problem in my making the comparison – I had not actually read Animal Man. The page illustrated above was my sole reference. So to amend that little hiccup, I’m reviewing the final collection of Morrison’s run on the title today.

Animal Man is a minor superhero named Buddy Baker, who has been operating for just under a year. He has a wife, Ellen, and two children, Maxine and Cliff. An accident involving an alien spaceship has granted him the ability to borrow traits from animals, hence his superhero moniker. Unlike most other superhumans, Buddy’s heroics are more politically sensitive, such as environmental activism, agitating against animal testing and fighting against Apartheid in South Africa.

However, Buddy’s family has been under surveillance from a mysterious figure, seemingly able to appear at will. Unable to protect his wife and children from the ‘weirdness’, in his life, the everyman superhero has also recently undergone unusual experiences, hinting at some outside force manipulating his life for the purpose of entertainment.

Then tragedy strikes. Ellen and the children are assassinated.  The killer, no supervillain but an ordinary gunman , was hired by a group of businessmen affected by Animal Man’s actions. Buddy hunts them down and avenges his family, but is left broken by the experience. Desperate to save his family, he travels back through time – but finds himself sucked into a conflict with a number of other heroes who have been erased from the timeline. He is just a character in a comic book, and it is the writer who is responsible for all his suffering.

“Who are you? Who did you say you were?”

“Me? I’m the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I’m the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. I’m your writer.”

The final encounter between Animal Man and ‘Grant Morrison’, is thankfully not just an example of po-mo nonsense. The culmination of year’s worth of dangling plot-threads, it allows the writer to wrap up the storyline with a flourish, while also addressing the central concern of the book. As a comic that did not shy away from political themes, Animal Man was principally about the defence of the helpless – lab animals, slaughtered dolpins, South Africans suffering oppression.

In a neat inversion, Morrison proposes that the superhumans of DC Comics are themselves helpless victims – of us and our changing tastes in entertainment. The creations that were enjoyed by readers in their childhood have become tarnished, grim and violent vigilantes. Their suffering is the stuff of modern entertainment. Their moral values are irrelevent. The Morrison that Animal Man encounters is unapologetic about this. He is after all only one writer among many, who vented his frustrations with the world through the medium of this comic book, but in the end he is as powerless to change the world as Buddy is.

Confronted with this seemingly uncaring demiurge, we really begin to sympathize with Buddy’s plight and care about the lives of these characters – who are only, lest we forget, commercial products. At one point one of these ‘erased’, creations exclaims: I don’t care what I am. I don’t care if I’m just a minor character in a bad story…I’m not going to let this happen. You hear me? I’ve still got my dignity!

There is even a page where Morrison conjures up some random foes for Buddy to fight in the background, while he addresses the reader and says his thanks to the editors and artistic team that worked on the book. He apologises for the preachy tone of the book – while at the same time making one final attempt to sway the audience to the themes addressed in Animal Man. For this cynical Morrison is just as much a fictional creation as Buddy, whose defeatism is rejected on the very last page.

Emotionally personal and intimate. A classic.

I remember the advertisements for Zero Hour, a major crossover between titles for DC’s superhero comic book line. The series gimmick was eye-catching – each issue was numbered in reverse order from #4 to #0. Also the hype was contagious for 14-year old Emmet – ‘Everything will change’, the promotions declared. Wow, I gotta check this out I thought. I never did read it in the end though. Now I suspect that was a blessing in disguise.

First off, I do not recommend this collection to casual readers. Comic book annotation sites were invented for books just like this. The cover shows well-known DC characters Superman and Batman leading a charge of superheroes. However, they barely feature in the storyline itself.

The ‘plot’, is concerned with a character named Waverider, a time traveller from the future, warning the heroes of 1994 that the villain Monarch is somehow interfering with time itself. Unfortunately for everyone, Waverider’s intervention only increases the threat. Now empowered with the ability to travel through time, Monarch seems to be somehow responsible for an entropic force eroding the universe’s future and past. Renaming himself Extant, the villain takes on the combined force of the Justice Society of America, World War II era superheroes who were transported into the present day (just….just run with me on this).

Using his control over time itself Extant kills and disables the team, leaving the surviving heroes the difficult task of trying to stop the forces of entropy in both the future and the past. As the chronal wave advances  through time billions of lives are erased. Protected by Waverider’s powers, a small number of heroes remain to face Extant. Only for the shocking reveal that the real force at work is former Green Lantern Hal Jordan, now calling himself Parallax. Having been driven mad the one-time hero has decided to restart creation itself, according to his own designs.

Alright……to steal Linkara’s catchphrase, this comic sucks! The plot is incomprehensible; characters appear and disappear in a confusion of cameos; and without an encyclopaedic knowledge of who’s who readers will quickly become rudderless in a sea of continuity fixing. Here’s where another history lesson is need. Zero Hour is actually a sequel to a previous crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The irony is that ‘Crisis’, was an editorially mandated effort to make the DC Universe less confusing, by eliminating a series of ‘alternate earths’, that resulted due to the sliding timescale caused by characters were first emerged in the forties still being published in the present day. So the older adventures of Batman, for example, occurred on a different earth from the present-day stories that contemporary readers were following. Zero Hour was an attempt to resolve further problems that had emerged due to Crisis, including the continuity snarl of the Hawkman character, eliminating the Justice Society for the crime of being too old I guess and to the annoyance of an oh-so-annoying-nerd-cult named H.E.A.T. making Hal Jordan a bona fide super villain. Also the Flash died again. Flashes always die during a DC Crisis event for some reason. In Zero Hour the death of the Flash is delivered in such a perfunctory manner that it is hard to care.

In a sense this was a thankless task for Jurgens and Ordway to attempt. I get the impression the miniseries was intended to launch a new era of the DC comic line, with several new characters briefly appearing during the storyline. Most failed, with the notable exception of James Robinson’s Starman series. Furthermore, most of the deaths featured in Zero Hour have since been reversed. Hell the villains Extant and Parallax have both returned from beyond the grave redeemed as heroes.

I would advise anyone reading this to avoid Zero Hero if possible. Maybe play a couple of games of Little Big Planet instead, as I saw several kids do in my local library when I wandered back from the lonely comic section. Comic commentators wonder why kids today are refusing to read the ninth art and spending their parents’ money on games instead. Titles like this, with the convoluted continuity issues recently condemned by Darwyn Cooke (he says it much better than I ever could..), are among the primary causes for this evacuation of the medium.

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