Animal Man Returns to Examine the Human Condition in Superhero Comics

9 06 2009

Animal Man is no stranger to bringing headier concepts to superhero comics, having well explored the intellectual realm under Grant Morrison’s writing in the late 80s. In fact, Morrison’s run on the character are some of my favorite comics ever written, showing I think even more directly than Watchmen that superhero comics can be about things other than superheroes. Despite Morrison’s success however, the character and the concepts he explored still remain on the fringe of the superhero genre. But now Animal Man returns under the pen of writer Gerry Conway, with the art of Chris Batista and Dave Meikis. The six issue mini series, The Last Days of Animal Man, takes place in a near future where Buddy Baker, aka Animal Man, is losing his powers and being forced to confront his own aging and mortality.

The Last Days of Animal Man, issue 1

The Last Days of Animal Man, issue 1 (cover by Brian Bolland)

I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but it’s always exciting when the genre gets into some meatier issues. Just because the subject matter involves muscly guys in tights doesn’t mean it can’t make you think. And while this comic has an ostensibly typical superhero plot, it clearly is being used as a medium to explore concepts and issues related to aging and death: real, human issues. Even Watchmen’s conceit of examining how superheroes would act in the real world doesn’t touch on such personal and human ideas as this comic.

As the average comic readership ages we find ourselves interested in more than just who would win in a fight. In fact, the things we care about in the real world don’t involve superheroes at all. But we still love the characters of our youth and the market remains glutted with them. They’re hard to avoid, so it’s really nice when they’re used to explore things we’re actually interested in. The last superhero comic I remember really achieving this was Kurt Busiek’s and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity from a few years back. I still re-read that one frequently, as it explores the challenges of facing the world, careers, relationships, marriage, children, aging, and passing the torch to a younger generation. Real, human issues are very compelling to me and I’m thrilled to see Gerry Conway exploring it in the superhero genre.

(For other, non-superhero explorations of the human condition, check out Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories. A more beautiful comic about life and death you will never find.)

The Last Days of Animal Man is published by DC Comics.
Ordinary Victories is published by NBM/ComicsLit.

What I’m loving this week:
The Last Days of Animal Man #1(of 6), by Conway, Batista, & Meikis
Proof #19, by Grecian, Rossmo, & Casey
Rawbone #2, by Jamie Delano & Max Fiumara
Ultimate Spider-Man #133, by Bendis & Immonen

What I’m reading this week:
Irredeemable #1, by Mark Waid and Peter Krause
The Muppet Show #3, by Roger Langridge

What I’m thinking of dropping next week:
Wolverine: Old Man Logan #72, by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven

Graphic Novels I’m enjoying:
La Perdida, by Jessica Abel
Strangers in Paradise, vol. 6, by Terry Moore
Tiny Titans: Welcome to the Treehouse, by Art Baltazar & Franco


Musings on The Hero. Part 1.

6 03 2009

So a big part of the “larger picture” that fascinates me about comic books is the exploration of the hero archetype, or “hero myth” as I find myself most frequently referring to it. I know there’s a lot more to comics than superheroes, that’s a whole ‘nother huge category of things that I love about comics. But right now I wanna talk about the hero thing. I also know that Joseph Campbell, among others, beat me to it long ago, but it’s still fun to dissertate about it.

I was reading Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen’s fine Ultimate Spider-Man #131 today on the train, and I turned to the page 3-4 double-page splash and was really blown away. It was one of those great comic reading moments when you really just have to stop what you’re doing and breathe for a minute and stare at this awesome piece of art in front of you and take in all it’s doing and saying to you and then, when you finally turn the page, smile for a minute to yourself that you get to experience awesome moments like this ALL THE TIME because you read comics! Seriously, as popular entertainment goes, I can’t think of another medium, whether it’s movies, novels, music, (well, music comes close,) television, or the internet that even touches on the frequency of being blown away that comics has. Other, less mass-popular art forms come closer, like the many disciplines of live performance and frequently visual art, but, (tragic though it is,) these aren’t popular entertainment. Which is cool, because I guess I just argued a bit that comics are closer to these fine art forms than they are to entertainment for the masses. Cool.

Anyway, this was an awesome, AWESOME panel. It took up the entire two pages, spilling right off the edge. The viewpoint is from inside a Manhattan skyscraper completely submerged under water, looking out through the windows at the destruction. J. Jonah Jameson is the only character in the room, depicted hunkering, weak, small, meek, and human, staring out in disbelief and awe at our HERO: SPIDER-MAN!!! Through the windows we see the hero burst through the water, diving to save a hapless victim of the flood and streaking back towards the surface. The forced perspective of the scene makes Jonah appear barely half the size of our teenage hero, and the window frames do a very neat job of mimicking the effect of traditional comic panels and borders, while keeping everything all in one scene. A real, true triumph in comic art and hero storytelling. God DAMN it’s awesome.

But it got me thinking. So much so that I didn’t even finish the comic till later this afternoon. Thinking a lot about the hero myth thing, which I think about a LOT. I have done so for quite a long time now. Heck, I used to do reports on it in school. And I know most of what I think about is just taken from what others have said, but it doesn’t make it any less interesting.

So, we all know that scholars frequently describe superheroes as our modern day Greek myths and superhero comic books as our modern mythology. These phrases have been beat to death, and there’s a lot to them, but there’s more besides. First of all, it’s important to remember that “mythology” encompasses not just the popular classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There’s also Norse mythology, Pagan, ancient Egyptian, Babylonian & Assyrian, the related Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mythologies, as well as the mythologies of the many native cultures of the Americas and South Pacific Islanders and the Eastern mythologies of the Taoists, Buddhists and others. I would describe mythologies as legendary tales told by a culture to help metaphorically express that culture’s view of the world, their place in it, and their desires for the future of the world. The tales may vary in their details and can be frequently modified in the retelling. Most individuals in a culture are at least passingly aware of the basics of the standard myths of their culture. Also, while some myths may be based on or believed to be based on fact, they are all inherently fictional and many incorporate fantastical elements such as the supernatural or scientifically impossible. It should be noted that this definition does not refer to the age of the tales in question, and while most of what we think of as myths, such as those of the ancient Greeks or Romans, are from extinct cultures, many mythologies are still alive and well today. For example, many Native American societies, while dramatically changed from their immediate ancestors of only a century or two ago, still tell and even occasionally believe their myths about the Coyote trickster god or Great Spirit to be true. Similarly, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures are still very active today and their related myths about their creator god, epic heroes Noah, Abraham, and Moses, as well as their various interpretations of their Messiah characters all have roots that can be traced back to the even earlier cultures of the Babylonians and Egyptians. Perhaps many readers are aware of the oft-cited links and similarities between the story of Noah’s Flood and the Flood tale of the ancient Assyrian/Sumerian hero Gilgamesh. There’s also the British and perhaps Pagan hero myths revolving around the famous King Arthur. And more contemporarily, most American readers at least will be aware of our modern American folklore and myths of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and my favorite: Johnny Appleseed. All these stories can be called the mythologies of their given cultures. So too are the legends of superheroes today.

Think about how ancient tales of gods and goddesses were attempts by ancient peoples to provide explanation of what seemed a harsh and uncaring world, a world where mankind was apparently seen as small and inconsequential by those in charge. Example: Ancient man did not understand the intricacies of atmospheric moisture and static electricity, and so imagined a Zeus or a Thor to explain the lightning and the thunder. Now consider some well-known HERO myths, those of Hercules, Theseus, Gilgamesh, Moses, and Jesus. These characters were basically human in nature, though often part-god, or otherwise supernaturally endowed. Their stories, rather than explaining how and why the world was so indifferent to humankind, instead invoked our self-determinism as humans to wrest control of the callous universe and force it to do our bidding. Remember the awesome story of Hercules digging a trench to divert the course of mighty rivers and clean the notorious stables of Augeas in a single day. Or how Moses called on his God to part the Red Sea and then fatally drop it on the Egyptian army. Or Jesus making the ultimate human sacrifice to allow all of humankind access to the heavens.* These are epic tales of essentially human legends asserting their place in the universe.

Today we have a complex, scientific understanding of a universe to which we are still completely insignificant and cares no more for us than it does the merest bacterium or mightiest star. Science has replaced the gods as our means of understanding the world around us. However, we still have a need to define our place in that world. And where previous heroes drew on the supernatural power of the gods to exert their influence in the world, so do we imagine our contemporary superheroes bending and birthing from the extremes of science to exhibit our natures and desires to control the world. Superman is an alien from a faraway planet, (masquerading as a human,) whose scientifically advanced form allows him to bend the course of mighty rivers here on Earth in the name and best interests of humankind. Spider-Man is a product of scientific experiment gone awry, using the powers granted him by and his further knowledge and control of science to fight for the rights of his fellow humans, vanquishing enemies in their name. We project our best natures and idealized images of ourselves on these characters. We wish that we could all have such power as to be as good and noble as Superman, or Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four, or Hercules. Superheroes are stories of whom we wish to be. Not only do we wish to soar over the streets and cities, and to have the power to stop crime and injustice with no threat to ourselves, but we want to live in a world where these heroes are not needed. We want to create a world where everyone is good and noble and criminals do not exist and everyone has what they need. As we use our science to gain more control over our world, we will become more and more like these superheroes, and our world will come closer and closer to our ideals. What then will happen to our myths? I don’t know. But it’s interesting to explore. And in the meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy our modern myths. Comic book pages will continue to excite a thrill in me when they speak to our greatest and noblest intentions as a civilization.

*Note: As well as Joseph Campbell, I owe the germ of many of these ideas to Michael Uslan, a producer of the Batman movies and a prominent comic book professor.

What I’m Loving This Week:
-Echo #9
-Proof #16-17
-Ultimate Spider-Man #130-131
-The Walking Dead #58
What I’m Reading This Week:
-Daredevil #115
-The Invincible Iron Man #9
-Simpsons Super Spectacular #8: The Sprint
-Whatmen?! (a Watchmen spoof)
What I’m Dropping Next Week:
-Spider-Man: Noir #3

Ultimate Spider-Man is published by Marvel Comics.