Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
When it comes to metatextuality in comics, there’s one undisputed master – and you all know his name, we’re always going on about him on this site, it’s Grant Morrison. Earlier this very year he pulled one of the great comics moments of the last decade or more out of the bag courtesy of the closing pages of All-Star Superman #10, but it’s far from the first time he’s sought to break down or at least blur the lines between reality and the comics page. While some might argue that Flex Mentallo represents the purest, most concise distillation of this pet theme of his, it was his run on Animal Man that really saw him exploring such ideas in detail for the first time – and the manner in which he ties them, in the later issues of his run, so brilliantly into the DC universe and its all-too-recent Crisis make it a series that, for me, still stands as arguably his defining work (if I were more interested in the philosophies behind The Invisibles that view might be different, but still).
Animal Man didn’t start out like that, though. The opening four issues were very good – indeed, it’s perhaps only their influence on so much that has come since that makes them feel a bit more “by the numbers” nowadays – but were more straightforward in terms of playing on a simple, superficial level. Once the series was extended past its original mini, however, Morrison began to put together an overall shape for his run and the themes upon which it would hang – and wasted no time in planting them in the comic, in the shape of issue #5’s “The Coyote Gospel”. While later issues would produce more jaw-dropping moments (“I can see you!” still sends a shiver, as does much of the staggering final issue), this issue is remarkable as a sharp and terse manifesto for what was to come.
As a standalone tale, it’s good enough – it makes for a darkly reflective and metaphysical look at something we’ve always taken for granted: the “suffering” of cartoon animals for our own enjoyment. It tells the story of Crafty (Wile E. Coyote in all but name), who – tired of the constant pain of defeat he’s forced to endure in the never-ending world of cartoon chases – confronts his “creator” (a comic book artist) and is consequently sent to live in the “real world”, to be repeatedly killed and reborn in order to act as “saviour” of his own world. The allegories are, of course, pretty clear, and it’s filled with neat touches and detail – such as the substitution of “Ajax” for “Acme”, or more obviously, Carrie and the unnamed protagonist obliviously singing Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” as their truck inflicts the first of Crafty’s painful deaths upon him. Said deaths – or, more specifically, the subsequent regenerations – are rendered in brutally vivid detail (with some overwrought prose typical of the early part of Mozza’s career), and it’s also interesting to note the lack of relevance that Buddy Baker himself seems to have to proceedings – a bold move considering it was the fifth issue of a series featuring an obscure and unfashionable character.
In the closing pages, however, the true meaning of the tale – and its relevance to the series as a whole – becomes clearer. As Crafty dies one final death before a helpless Buddy, the camera pulls away from the crossroads upon which he lies, and we see that the blood that surrounds him is entirely white – or, more accurately, blank. A panel later, and it’s being filled in red by a mysterious hand and brush from above. Yes, Morrison is making us acutely aware that the “real world” to which Crafty has escaped is, of course, simply another fiction – as if we believed any differently. Furthermore, it’s one that’s susceptible to the whims of another, equally petty and malevolent “creator” – a fact that will become familiar to anyone who goes on to read the rest of the series.
Twenty years on, “The Coyote Gospel” is remarkable comics storytelling in just about every way. It’s fair to say that it does feel a bit less “fresh” than it did at the time, but as an entry point into metafictive exploration of the medium, it’s almost without peer. For a writer and a series so young, there’s something enviably confident about the whole thing – topped off by Chas Truog’s idiosyncratic pencilling style (he maintains the veneer and basic structure of a regular superhero book, while lending a faintly surreal tone with his slightly elongated faces and expressions. It’s not a style I was hugely fond of growing up, but each time I revisit it I come to like it a bit more) and what is – not to put too fine a point on it – one of the greatest comics covers in history. Any way you look at it this is essential comics reading – as is the entirety of Morrison’s run, if you’ve yet to discover it. It’s only twenty-six issues, so starting at the beginning is no great chore – but by the time you reach this issue, you’re sure to be hooked.