The last four issues of Morrison’s run on Animal Man focus exclusively on the idea of worlds within worlds, that fiction is another reality’s reality, and that everything that has happened has still happened. There is no such thing as fiction. There is no such thing as a reboot. Everything exists, simply on different planes of reality.
The doorway to this maelstrom of realities is the Psycho Pirate. We see him at the start of issue #23, back in his costume, standing in a room full of bits and pieces from alternate realities: a wanted poster for Abraham Lincoln, guilty of treason, a poster of Hitler as the leader of America, and a Daily Planet that says “Mondale wins!” on the front page. Interestingly enough, there are two comics in this panel: the “Flash of Two Worlds” which saw earlier, and now a copy of the collected edition of Watchmen. While this could just be seen as another nod to that series by Morrison, it’s worth remembering that Watchmen was released after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, when they destroyed all their alternate realities. But Watchmen was set in another reality, using analogs of characters who were now incorporated into the mainstream DCU. It was, in a sense, DC’s first new alternate universe.
This wouldn’t be Watchmen’s last inclusion in this scene, although that all depends on perspective. After getting all dolled up, Psycho Pirate walks out of his cell at Arkham and down the hall. He passes the Scarecrow’s cell and Dr. Crane asks him to let him out. Crane goes so far as to say that they’re birds of a feather, given they both manipulate emotions, although he only works with fear. Psycho Pirate response as if he’s Grant Morrison discussing the post-Watchmen/post-Dark Knight Returns world:
“I’m sick of fear.”
This issue came out in May of 1990 and it’s hard not to see this as Morrison hoping that the trend in comics for the last four years would end. That was sadly not to be.
Psycho Pirate eventually discovers a gathering of characters who were all erased after Crisis. Ultraman demands to know why he’s been brought back. Psycho Pirate makes them all happy. He says they were never really gone and that they’re all coming back.
Outside, James Highwater has been brought to Arkham by the aliens who gave Animal Man his powers. They tell him that his working theory of reality is correct. They watch as images of every version of Arkham Asylum in the history of DC flashes before their eyes. The aliens explain that all the realities that were deleted are returning, and that they’re meant to stop it from happening. But they key to their fight is Animal Man, and he’s no where to be found. Now they want Highwater to help them.
Animal Man is in the past, hanging out with the Phantom Stranger.
If we’ve seen Morrison make nods to Moore before now, this issue he clearly nodding to Gaiman — or he would be, if he’d had time. The Sandman had launched a year earlier, yet this issue feels like it’s referencing stories Gaiman was telling at the same time as Morrison. Gaiman’s immortals first start meeting in Sandman #13, published in March of 1990. Morrison does it in this issue with the Phantom Stranger, Jason Blood (the human host of the Demon) and the Immortal Man. This story was published in May of 1990. That’s not enough time for Morrison to be referencing Gaiman.
Yet Jason Blood also gives a nice speech about death, which seems to suggest he’s talking about Death of the Endless yet, again, Sandman had only been running for a year at this point.
Regardless, the Phantom Stranger takes Animal Man to his meeting and the immortals attempt to give Buddy a new outlook on life. It ultimately boils down to “you can choose life or you can choose death.” This is Animal Man we’re talking about here, who’s connected to all life on Earth, so he makes the choice you would imagine. And then he returns to his own time.
Meanwhile, the Psycho Pirate remembers a crazy alternate version of Superman named Overman who kills all the other heroes on his earth and eventually gets his hands on an atomic bomb so he can destroy the world. Psycho Pirate calms himself down and stops thinking about him; he believes he’s managed to stop Overman from coming back to life. But he’s wrong, Overman has returned, and he’s brought the bomb with him.
Yes, the lunatic Superman analog has an atomic bomb. Morrison is nothing if not consistent with his issues.
But never fear! While one of the aliens who gave Animal Man his powers has been walking through Arkham with Highwater, the other has gone to find Buddy. And he succeeds! Animal Man triumphantly returns on the last page.
Animal Man #24 is the climax of the Crisis story line and it is filled to the brim with Morrison’s ideas on fiction and reality. It opens, appropriately enough, with captions that are descriptions pulled from the script. It’s here that we learn that Psycho Pirate is aware that Morrison is pulling his strings. “I know you’re there,” he says, “trying to make it hard for me to think. I feel strange. I feel so strange.”
Psycho Pirate realizes that what’s happening to him is all because of Morrison, so he tries to convince the refugees from past universes to break through the panels and destroy both Morrison and those who are reading this comic. But before anyone can decide whether to listen to Psycho Pirate or not, Overman shows up with his atomic bomb. He easily dispatches a few other Superman analogs; it seems like no one can stop him.
Animal Man is certainly not powerful enough to stop Overman, but that’s only if he’s playing by the rules of the comic book. Instead, he steps outside of the comic and attacks Overman from the whites pace between panels. Animal Man eventually defeats him by first pulling him into the white space with him, ostensibly showing him that he’s just a character, and then creating a panel that shrinks down until he’s erased.
What’s particularly interesting about this bit is what Overman, the crazy Superman with an atomic bomb, says as he’s being destroyed: “No! Let me out! I’m not like you! I’m real! I’m realistic! This can’t happen to me!”
Yet again, we see Morrison commenting on the grim and gritty trend that has invaded comics. And yet again, what he has to say about it isn’t good.
Meanwhile, Highwater explains to the formerly dead characters that they are all fictional and should no longer exist. That knowledge is enough for those character to disappear. But Highwater notices that they aren’t completely gone — they can be seen, struggling to get back via Psycho Pirate’s Medusa Mask. The aliens who created Animal Man explain that this is Highwater’s part to play: he’s to put the mask on and keep the dead universes as bay through sheer strength of will.
Animal Man returns just in time to shut off the “doomsday bomb” that Overman had left behind. Crisis averted.
In the aftermath, Buddy feels like someone should be with him after the battle; he no longer remembers Highwater. He served his purpose and has been unceremoniously erased from the minds of the rest of the world. Psycho Pirate, meanwhile, fades away into nothing, as the aliens quote Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Buddy returns home and asks the aliens for some answers. He’s also returned to his old costume, no longer the dark version of himself. The aliens refuse to give him any real information before they, too, fade away.
Then a disembodied voice calls out to Buddy.
“Buddy? Time to go now. Time to put aside all worldly things. Time for the last adventure.”
Buddy opens his front door and finds a massive graveyard where his neighborhood used to be.
Animal Man #25 is entitled “Monkey Puzzles” and it features Buddy’s return to comic book limbo.
I would read the hell out of a book about DC comic limbo. I am a huge fan of the weird, ridiculous characters created pre-Crisis. So the fact that the first person Buddy meets is Merryman from the Inferior Five thrilled me to no end, particularly since I already knew who he was.
Merryman explains the situation to Buddy and introduces him to his team, who inform Merryman and Buddy that “the monkey” is dying. Who is the monkey? “He used to be famous, but no one’s allowed to say his name anymore,” says Merryman. “He sits on a hill writing, you know? He did the complete works of Shakespeare, purely at random.”
This is, obviously, a reference to the infinite monkey theorem, the idea that a monkey, randomly hitting keys on a keyboard for an infinite amount of time, would eventually produce a given text, usually the complete works of Shakespeare. So what is this monkey doing here?
Well, the obvious answer is that it’s another example of Morrison beating his critics to the bunch, although I doubt that this is so calculated. No, I think this is Morrison being self-deprecating, while simultaneously taking the shine off of comic book writers in general. Given time, a monkey could do our jobs, he’s saying. We aren’t special.
And perhaps this is another response to the late 80’s phenomenon that saw comic book creators have mainstream success. Yet Morrison himself would become one of those creators later in his career.
If we need more evidence that the monkey represents comic book creators, Merryman tells Animal Man that legend has it that the monkey will eventually write the characters stuck in limbo out of limbo which, of course, is exactly what Morrison is doing in this issue.
The monkey appears to be some kind of focal point, so Buddy asks Merryman and the rest of the Inferior Five to take him up the hill. On the way there, they run in to a number of old DC characters who are no longer in use. They also run into a good number of animal side kicks.
“It’s the animals I feel sorry for,” says Merryman. “They’ll never get out of here. Time have changed and no one will ever want to bring them out. Let’s face it, who cares about the Space Canine Patrol Agents in this day and age?”
The next page is, in many ways, the emotional core of Morrison’s Animal Man run, and to a certain extent the emotional core of all of his superhero stories.
We pull back to Morrison’s hands, typing away, and we get Morrison’s internal narrative in the caption boxes. He’s responding to Merryman.
“I care. It’s stupid, I know, but I care. All the things that meant so much when we were young. Under the blankets late at night, listening to long-distance radio. All those things: lost now or broken. Can you remember? Can you remember that feeling?”
Morrison follows that up with “Perhaps I ought to see a doctor,” but it’s unnecessary. We don’t need him to be depressed, we don’t need the suggestion that loving these old characters, love these old comics, is somehow unhealthy. The sadness is already there; it’s loss.
The monkey needs help and Animal Man volunteers to carry him through the wastes of limbo to the city of Formation. Along the way he meets a number of characters from DC’s past, almost all of whom have been revived since this story, so I suppose that’s something. Buddy walks for five years. He never makes it to the city. Instead, he finds himself back at his house. He walks in and finds the skeletons of his pets, long dead. He knows that the monkey has died, too.
But the monkey is holding pages. He’s holding the script to Animal Man #25, and Buddy reads it and decides to take action. He pulls out some scissors and cuts a piece of paper out of the script, a piece of paper in the shape of a key. He then uses the key on the door that took him to limbo.
This time, he opens a door into our world.
He walks around for a bit, finally arriving at someone’s home. He doesn’t knock or ring the doorbell, but someone comes to the door nonetheless.
“Hi. I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Grant. You coming in?”
And Grant Morrison opens the door to his home for Buddy Baker.
The reverence for which most Morrison Animal Man fans discuss issue #5 is the way that I discuss issue #26, “Deus Ex Machina.” It is everything I’ve ever wanted to do in a story. It says so much about the creative process that when I first read it I thought Morrison was a wizard (D&D style).
And, yes, Morrison has hair in this story. This was before he became a rock star.
Morrison’s world, as we’ve seen it before, is depicted in various shades of black, grey, and a little brown. It is not the brightly colored spectacle of the comic book world and that is, of course, part of what makes Morrison tick; he wants our world to be a brightly colored spectacle and he will do whatever he can to make that happen.
Morrison introduces himself to Buddy as his writer. He explains that he didn’t create any of the characters in Buddy’s world, he just stepped in and soiled them. “It’s a little bit Satanic, I suppose.”
Buddy, naturally, doesn’t believe him, so he attacked Morrison and attempts to throw him out the window, but Morrison is impaled on shards of glass…
…and then appears behind Buddy, perfectly fine. “I made you do that, too,” says Morrison. He explains that he thought the beginning of the issue needed some violence to keep people interested.
Morrison hands Buddy a stack of Animal Man comics and Buddy opens them to see the last few years of his life. Morrison explains that he killed Buddy’s family to add drama. He explains that he knows it’s not fair to Buddy, but that life isn’t fair. He mentions how he recently had a cat die and asks if that was fair.
The cat bit may seem silly, but it’s important, trust me.
Page nine could be my favorite page in this entire issue. Morrison and Buddy go for a walk down by the river and Morrison explains to him that he’s trying to think of what to say. He says he’s been planning this meeting for two years, but now he has to try and fit everything into 24 pages. He is literally working through the process of writing this issue on the page, something I do on a regular basis. It works because it’s been a part of the narrative for two years now.
Morrison has a bunch of crazy things happen in the background while Buddy says that the past two years of his life seem to have been just a series of adventures that are unconnected, even though everyone he meets tells him they are. Morrison, in yet another attempt at self-deprecation, says: “Yeah, well, that’s the trouble with my stories — they always seem to build up to something that never actually happens.”
And that is a statement that still holds water today.
Morrison creates new villains for Animal Man to fight, created based on suggestions from readers. He adds them to the issue because he thinks the story is getting boring and there needs to be more action. And while Animal Man fights for his life, or the simulation of such, Morrison address the reader directly.
He thanks the rest of the creative team. He thanks the readers, specifically those who have written letters. He gives the contact information for PETA. And he turns back to find a deceased Animal Man, who he instantly revives.
Then we come back to the cat.
“I’d have done anything to save her, really,” says Morrison. “And yet there was a part of me — the part that observes and writes — rubbing its hands and saying ‘well, at least if she dies, I’ll be able to use it in Animal Man. It’ll add a nice touch of poignancy.”
That was my whole world when I read this. Because it’s true. The most devastating thing can happen to me or someone I know and there’s always a part of me thinking that it will make good material. It is the absolute worse feeling in the world, yet I can’t shut it off. I would imagine it’s the same for all writers.
Morrison spends one last moment wondering about the state of comics, the state of the world. He wonders why bloodshed still excites us, why making comics more mature meant making them more violent. He wonders if it’s possible to be kind.
He tells Buddy to go home and forget they ever met and he disappears.
The background goes white and then fills in behind Buddy. It’s his living room and he’s sitting on the couch. The door bell rings. He takes off his mask and goes to answer it.
It’s his wife and kids. It’s Ellen, Cliff, and Maxine, alive and well. Morrison gave Buddy his happy ending.
There are three more pages left to Morrison’s final issue. The first is him sitting at his computer, having finished writing the final script. I’m going to share the last two here because, honestly, they should be read, not described. And they offer the perfect ending to this four part series on a groundbreaking, heartbreaking, mindbreaking series.