Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Animal Man #5 (1988)


Animal Man #5 (1988)
"The Coyote Gospel"
Writer - Grant Morrison
Penciller - Chas Truog
Inker - Doug Hazlewood
Letterer - John Costanza
Colorist - Tatjana Wood
Assistant Editor - Art Young
Editor - Karen Berger
Cover Price: $1.25

This is one of those issues I've wanted to discuss for awhile, but have honestly been a bit intimidated by it.  This is one of those issues that is no stranger to the "best of..." lists, and as such, I know that many hold it quite dear.

I too have a special place for this issue, yet I hesitate to speak about it out of fear that I'm missing some things that just go over my head.  Gonna try to break this one down best I can.  Apologies if I miss any symbolism or deeper undertones.  Feel free to fill me in if I leave anything out.

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We open on a lonely desert road, Death Valley California.  An over-the-road trucker (for the AJAX company) has picked up a hitchhiker called Carrie.  She's left home to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood... an endeavor that the driver feels is folly.  We learn a bit about our drivin' buddy here.  He's got a boyfriend named Billy waiting for him back home.  The driver comments that Billy saved his life and introduced him to Christ.  He wears a silver cross that he had been given.


The pair continues on their trek across the desert while jauntily singing along with the radio.  In the distance, what appears to be an anthropomorphic coyote standing in their path.  The trucker is unable to stop before plowing over the creature.  Carrie begins to panic... he calms her down by instructing her not to look back.


We get a closeup of the apparent roadkill... and watch as it somehow knits itself back together... bones mend, flesh heals, lungs re-inflate, and ultimately... he stands back up.  This was almost a year ago.


We shift scenes to the Baker home where Buddy is on a vegetarian rampage.  He's tossing all of the meat from the fridge, and trying to talk up the finer points of tofu with his son Cliff.  Buddy's wife Ellen enters the scene, and the couple begins arguing about Buddy making this decision without first discussing it with her.  The discussion gets pretty heated and ends with Buddy storming out... and almost immediately regretting it.


In the desert, we rejoin our friend the truck driver as he is setting up some dynamite between rocks.  He reflects on how his life fell apart, seemingly ever since he ran over that "devil" in the desert.  Over the past several months Billy was killed after being hit by a truck... the driver himself lost his job, and his mother died of cancer.  The last straw for him was finding out that Carrie his hitchhiker turned to prostitution, and was killed.


He's in the desert this day... because he's hunting coyote.  He tracks the critter to the edge of a canyon... where it's just minding its own business.  He takes aim... and shoots it right through the heart.


The coyote falls into the canyon, and the driver approaches to survey the damage.  He sees that his target is still stirring, and so... crushes him with a large rock.  If you've never read this before... by this point, you may be getting a feeling where this is headed.


Animal Man enters the scene... not really for any reason, he just happens to be flying by.  The coyote again emerges... alive and well.  He begins walking toward the truck driver, but does not appear to have any malicious intent... but that just be my take.  In his approach, he triggers the bomb the driver had set earlier on.


Which, if you're following along... absolutely decimates the coyote's body... but it isn't long before he regenerates.  Animal Man lands to see what's going on... and the coyote approaches him.  He hands over a rolled up sheet of paper and pleads with him to read it.


This is the Gospel According to Crafty.  We learn that this coyote once lived in Looney Tunes kind of world... he really is a "real life" Wile E. Coyote here.  In this world, everyone was cruel and violent toward one another... as is made evident if we have any familiarity with these type of cartoon shorts.  Lotsa AJAX stuff here... 


Crafty Coyote finally had enough one day... and so he boarded an elevator in the middle of the desert, and ascended to stand before God.  God is armed with a paintbrush, and wears a watch on his left wrist.  He is none-too-pleased with Crafty's protest, and so sends him to the "real" world where he will still be able to take the same amount of punishment... however, he would feel the pain that comes along with it.


While on Earth, he died time and again... yet would always return to life.  He hoped to one day return to his home... and make it a better place.  I assume this is why he's approaching Animal Man... but sadly, the paper he gave him was indecipherable.


In the distance we find the truck driver stirring.  He mentions how he had the silver cross Billy gave him when he "saved" him melted down into a silver bullet.  He takes aim one last time... and fires... through the gospel and through the heart of the "devil".


We close out with Crafty lying in the intersection with tears in his eyes... perhaps for the first time, unsure of what's to come.  We look on while the hand of the creator enters the frame, and fills in the red of the coyote's blood... finally allowing him to rest in peace.


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I'm really unsure whether or not I can put how I feel about this issue into words... not sure I have the wordsmithery to adequately pull it off.  I will say that this is one of the sadder issues of a comic book I'd ever read.  Like, it's a really sad story... in almost a haunting kind of way.

Let's discuss our truck driving friend.  He blames so much of his misfortune over the past year or so on the "devil" he hit with his rig.  His boyfriend dies, his mother succumbs to cancer, he loses his job, and finally the girl he helped "go west" became a prostitute and was murdered.  He's frantically trying to find a reason why his life has taken this turn... and it's easier for him to pin it on a "devil" rather than the fact that from time to time "life sucks", and sometimes you just become its punching bag.

It's so often that folks would rather subscribe to ideas like "evil" or that of conspiracy.  It's so much easier for us to swallow that bad things occur for a reason... rather than realizing that at any given moment misfortune can befall us.  Without warning... without reason, bad things happen.  I can empathize with the trucker here... I have trouble swallowing "reality" myself from time to time.  Without a visible... even tangible antecedent, I struggle to digest or reconcile traumatic events too.

Moving on to Buddy.  I'm pretty sure when I read this in my youth I thought he was being a bit precious with regard to his newfound vegetarian lifestyle... and his attempts to force it on the unwitting (and/or unwilling) Bakers.  Now, not that I'm a vegetarian or anything, I can appreciate what he was attempting to do.  You'd figure if any DC character would feel uncomfortable eating meat, it's going to be Animal Man.  I can dig that.  Even the argument with Ellen works, as Morrison always made Buddy's story as much domestic as supernatural.  This is something a married couple would discuss... or endeavor to discuss... and may not see eye-to-eye on.  Fine work here.

Finally, let's talk about the star of the issue... Crafty.  Such a tragic character... one who wanted something more than his Wile E. Coyote existence... to the point where he actually stood in opposition to God... whether that's a deity-kinda God or a Grant Morrison-kinda God, I'm not sure.  Knowing where this series... at least the first 26 issues, winds up... I suppose it may be Morrison.  I'll concede that I cannot say for sure.  Good stuff here, either way.  You'd almost figure if fictional characters could gain self-awareness, they would eventually begin questioning their lots in life.  Being a pseudo-Wile E. Coyote, you gotta figure he was tired of being blowed-up and squished all the time.  He'd probably be really annoyed at his regular invoices from ACME AJAX as well.

Crafty is given the blessing/curse of immortal life... on Earth... a place where, as the entire cast of this issue can attest, pain is real.  We watch poor Crafty get wrecked in a number of ways... and see him painfully regenerate.  It really was pretty heartbreaking.  The look of utter defeat when he realizes Animal Man cannot understand the Gospel... really powerful.

Crafty's death scene was also quite gripping.  Were the tears in his eyes because he was relieved to be finally free of suffering... or because he was coming to terms with the fact that he was actually dying?  Again, it doesn't matter... either approach is powerful.  The final brushstrokes of the "creator", showing his creation mercy was a great way to end this one.  Not sure if I "get" the Christ imagery here (or on the cover)... is Crafty dying over and over again supposed to be for the other cartoon character's sins?  Or his own perceived "sin"?  Or maybe even... with this being Morrison, the reader's sins?  Like, all the abuse he took as a cartoon character was for "our" entertainment and amusement... is our engagement to that kind of behavior "sinful"?  I dunno... I'm kinda scrambling here.

Highly recommended.  Even though I've just ruined the entire thing for you... I'd still say this is an issue any comics fan owes it to themselves to experience first-hand.  It's been collected in the first Animal Man TPB... which is now available digitally.  I hate using the word "brilliant" because since the internet has gone mainstream its lost a lot of its meaning... buuuut, the entire Morrison run really is. 

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