Grant Morrison has a problem. He is neither so original nor so profound a thinker as he would like to believe he is. He clearly sees himself as some kind of daring non-conformist, showing us the truth that ‘they’ try to hide from us, and yet in reality his non-conformity merely entails repeating every other tired canard that you hear at the kind of upper-middle class dinner party where everyone is on the side of the workers and against ‘the man’, and yet if one were to inquire one would find that nobody there present could remember when they last committed social interaction with the working classes. To put it another way, Morrison sees himself as a fearless seeker after truth, whereas in reality he is the kind of person who believes everything he reads in the Guardian (for Americans and others lucky enough to not know what the Guardian is, substitute the Huffington Post).
So in the course of Animal Man we get that boring old lie that AIDS was engineered by the US government (and it must be true, because the hero says so, and the person who disagrees with him is a scientist! who wears a white coat! who does experiments on animals! who works for the government!). We get any number of rather uninteresting ‘debates’ on the ethics of experimentation on animals or the demerits of an omnivorous diet (it’s a good thing Animal Man doesn’t own a pet cat!) or leather clothes in which the ‘debate’ consists entirely of our oh-so-perfect hero putting ludicrous strawman arguments into the mouths of his enemies and then, unsurprisingly, demolishing them. Surprisingly incompetently, I might add. I am in favour of using animals as experimental subjects where there is no alternative and the research is genuinely justified and all measures are taken to minimise suffering, but I could rebut Animal Man’s fake arguments better than he does. Interestingly he exposes the fallacy at the core of the likes of the ALF and PETA (Morrison, heaven help us, actually boasts of being a supporter of the ALF) in which first of all we are expected to feel empathy for little cuddly suffering animals, but none for the suffering people whose suffering the research aims to alleviate, which to my mind argues that Morrison and his ilk are seriously defective when it comes to basic humanity, and second we are expected to boo the bad guys for hurting the animals, and then cheer when the hero or other appointed good guy enacts horrifying vengeance upon the bad guys. Double standard? And no, I am not making this up – at the end of the initial story arc in book 1, a ‘good’ character does something that is simply vile to another character. The other character is not a nice man, though I suspect he is not as nasty as Morrison wants us to believe, but what is done to him is beyond cruel; it is psychotic.
What else do we get? Well, lots of boring stuff of the rather insidious indirect-racism variety so beloved of ‘liberals’ everywhere. So it’s laudable to want to get in touch with a truer, purer, simpler style of life that involves a rejection of European culture. Indeed, we learn (which I found fascinating) that apparently being a physicist is incompatible with being a Native American. I’d love to know why. And, of course, ‘natural’ cultures don’t go in for exploiting the Earth and so on and so forth – oh no, that is the preserve of Western Civilisation, the Ultimate Evil. This was stupid, ahistorical, patronising nonsense when Rousseau first spouted it, and it is still stupid, ahistorical and patronising nonsense now. But I’m sure Mr Morrison will be pleased to know that Heinrich Himmler agreed with him.
And now, beyond Morrison’s defectiveness as a purveyor of the unconventional, what about the actual plot? Well, the hero is a boring, whining, self-righteous ass, and his family are simply ciphers whose purpose is to stand around in astonished reaction to his glory or to suffer horribly when the wayward vagaries of the plot require it (of course, you wil be pleased to learn, at the hands of ‘the man’, or at least of men who are, as we learn, indeed all rapists, especially when they are the sort of men who like to go out hunting). The Coyote Gospel story is quite good fun, but the rest is . . . let’s just put it this way: The Knight Of The Burning Pestle is over 400 years old, and it deals with the whole issue of the collision between fiction and reality, with each infiltrating the other, with far greater wit and rigour. There is nothing that Morrison does when he introduces himself to his hero that has not been done before and much, much better. Stanislaw Lem has played this game frequently, and manages to be funny at the same time.
In Morrison’s best work, either, as in We3, he works over a short span and maintains discipline, or, as in the earlier Doom Patrol books, he allowed his tendency to generate a new idea every five minutes to be an asset and used it in a playful and positive way. Unfortunately, as here, and in the later parts of the Doom Patrol, and the grossly uneven The Invisibles he has a terrible urge to show us how right he is and how wrong we are. And that is when his intellectual failings become so desperately apparent.
That said, I do wish Morrison would do something genuinely original. He has prodigious talent and a wild imagination. It’s a shame he doesn’t really pull the stops out and do something really scary instead of the bargain-basement bogeymen he often uses. The Filth seems to be a start in that direction. And I’d love to see the further adventures of Mr Nobody from Doom Patrol.