This is my second review of Animal Man. My first was written in the white heat of extreme irritation caused by the rather tedious animal rights rhetoric of Animal Man, Book 1, and this blinded me to the manifold excellence of this third volume of the sage and also Animal Man, Book 2: Origin of the Species. Hence this new review: on calm consideration, my view has changed and I can now see what a remarkable story Grant Morrison has told.
So, let me start with a word of advice. Most of volume 1 is material of lower quality, so I recommend the cautious reader to skip all of that book except for the story called The Coyote Gospel, which sets the scene for all that is to come. If you then proceed to books 2 and 3 you will have read not a piece about animal rights, but a profound, often hilarious and moving study of the nature of reality, the nature of fiction and the many convolutions in the history of the DC Universe.
Animal Man is a very minor, or so we think, superhero, who can take on the power of a nearby animal, so if he sees a bird he can fly, etc. Okay, fine. But then he meets an animal who gives him a manuscript written in an alien tongue. Then he encounters aliens in Africa who seem to know more about him than he does. And then reality starts to shift and he begins to meet slightly different copies of himself, almost as if they were earlier drafts. All this while his family live in an atmosphere of menace and eventually tragedy strikes, leading to our hero entering a state of deepest despair. And that is precisely when the Psycho-Pirate, who had been incarcerated in Arkham Asylum, decides that he doesn’t like the way the DC Universe is nowadays, and tries to bring back all of the old characters who had been written out of the story. Reality fractures. Animal Man (sort of) saves the day, and then goes on a quest as pointless as the one in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail only at the end he meets, well, God. Of a sort.
So, that’s a top-level view. The thing is that Morrison virtuosically plays with multiple levels of reality and multiple layers of reality, so there aren’t just multiple version of Animal Man floating about, there are universes embedded within one another: the stories of one universe are real to the inhabitants of another. The Psycho-Pirate seems to be aware that Crisis on Infinite Earths was a comic book and that he is a character in a comic book. And in one of the most amazing moments in the story the character turns and looks out of the page and sees – us. So we are pulled into the DC Universe just as it is pulled out into our world, the bounds of reality dissolve, and there is always the inevitable question: if Grant Morrison is writing the adventures of Animal Man, does that mean that someone else is writing the adventures of Grant Morrison? Morrison leaves that question unanswered, but it is left tantalising us right to the end. If we turned round, who would we see?
Now let’s get to the obligatory pretentious bit. One of the key difficulties in epistemology is the precise status of counter-factuals. That is to say, if I ask ‘what if?’ and so question what the world might have looked like had something been different from the way it actually was, how do I tell what the answer to my question is? I can scarcely appeal to facts on the ground, as they relate to reality, and I am talking about something different from reality. Many words have been wasted on this, with some writers proposing that in fact counter-factuals never make any sense. But this is too sweeping: asking what the world have been like now had President Kennedy not been shot is clearly untenable, but asking what the temperature in a saucepan of water would have been had I lit a fire under it is easy to answer in some way that is hard to explain. And so in On the Plurality of Worlds, David Lewis proposed that in fact all possible worlds have equal ontological status and so counterfactuals merely consist of statements about worlds other than the one we currently inhabit.
This is rather startling, but in the context of what I’ve said about Animal Man, you can probably see where I’m going. If Lewis is right (and his thesis is the most persuasive I have seen on the subject) then the fictive world conjured by Morrison is just as real or fictional as the one we and Morrison inhabit, and so is the world of the characters in the comic books that Animal Man’s children read. So we have both an infinite regress of universes and a family of equally possible worlds, and Grant Morrison, by taking a minor DC character and utterly subverting his world, has shown us just how strange reality might be. If there were such a thing, that is.