Previously in The Last War in Albion: After an initial arc widely and at least somewhat accurately described (including by Morrison) as an Alan Moore imitation, Morrison found their own style with the fifth issue of Animal Man, “The Coyote Gospel,” which featured a Wile E. Coyote pastiche trapped in the real world and trying to overthrow the tyrannical demiurge of his.
Hello alien friends! Do you like bullet violence? —Kieron Gillen, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt
The comic returns to Animal Man staring at a scroll of incomprehensible symbols. “I’m sorry… I… I can’t read it,” he explains, as the man returns, takes aim at Crafty once again, and shoots him again with a silver bullet. The man and Crafty both perish, Animal Man comforting the dying beast as the view pulls back, revealing him lying, arms outstretched, at a crossroads, while a hand hovering above the page with a paint brush adds his dying blood to the frame. “The end, folks!” It is a spectacularly bleak piece of comics, full of righteous anger and heartbreaking bitterness. It is perhaps not entirely clear what Morrison is trying to say with it. In many ways it appears to simply be a grim and tragic joke—a morbid commentary on the fractured ethics of storytelling from the perspective of those within it. But to look at it in this sense misses the point. What is most bracingly evident about “The Coyote Gospel” is simply that it is a stunningly creative and effective comic—an invigorating fusion of clever ideas and emotionally powerful moments. This was, simply put, a comic that was self-evidently the work of a major talent.
Indeed, Morrison’s usual line on “The Coyote Gospel” is an assertion that it marked the moment they stopped doing an Alan Moore impersonation and began their career in earnest, claiming it as a personal favorite story of theirs. As Morrison put it, after acknowledging Moore’s influence on the start of Animal Man, “My personal work from the same time is written in a very different style, and is more in the vein of Doom Patrol or The Invisibles.You don’t have to take my word for this: it can be verified by looking at the Near Myths material or stuff like the ‘Famine’ strip in Food For Thought from 1985. It can even be gleaned by looking at the clear difference between the first four Animal Man issues and the fifth – ‘The Coyote Gospel’.” Morrison was even blunter at the time. Interviewed by Mark Millar in 1989 after slagging off their first four issues, they noted that “it gets better from issue 5 onwards, or at least I’M happier with the work I’ve done, which is the main thing.” And yet just as the first four issues of Animal Man show rather less Moore influence than Morrison disparages them for having, “The Coyote Gospel” is far more indebted to Moore than Morrison would like to admit. The central concept of dropping a pastiche of a familiar funny animal story into your DC series, after all, originated in Moore’s “Pog” issue of Swamp Thing in which Swamp Thing met a thinly-veiled Pogo knockoff. And there are numerous similarities in the plots—both stories feature an inability for the DC character to understand their cartoon counterparts, a tragedy-inflected backstory explaining their quest, and a denouement in which a representative of the cartoon world perishes.
This is not to argue that “The Coyote Gospel” is a ripoff of “Pog.” Morrison’s story takes a fundamentally different approach to the concept, both on a technical level (Moore drenches “Pog” with a pastiche of Walt Kelly’s distinctive use of language, while “The Coyote Gospel” only pastiches the Chuck Jones cartoons in the context of the bleak savagery of real-world violence) and a level of themes—Moore’s story is a disposable parable about vegetarianism, while Morrison’s is a far more ambitious and ambivalent tale (albeit one that also loudly inveighs against eating meat). The point of this comparison is no more to show that “The Coyote Gospel” is derivative than pointing out Morrison’s departures from Moore’s style in the first arc was to show that Morrison owed no debt to their predecessor. The truth is more nuanced, and yet still simple. Moore was a fundamental and inextricable influence on Morrison—one deep-seated enough that it impacted much of Morrison’s work. But he was never the only influence. Morrison can neither be understood outside of the context of Moore nor explained purely within it. This is not unusual; Morrison is no different from any of the post-Moore wave of British comics writers save for the fact that, like the Coyote, they could not bring themself to abandon their desperate and endlessly backfiring quest to escape from the comparison.
The next couple of one-shots after “The Coyote Gospel” sat firmly in the shadow of Invasion!, DC’s 1988 crossover event, and its immediate aftermath. Here again comparisons with Moore’s Swamp Thing present themselves, as Moore too found himself integrating a DC crossover event into his narrative. Ultimately, however, the comparison reveals less about Moore and Morrison than it does about how DC Comics had been transformed in the three years since Moore’s Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in. An oddity of Moore’s run—one that allowed books like Hellblazer and Sandman to spin off of it in ways that retained only a nominal connection to the DC Universe at large—was that Moore was largely left alone. He tied into Crisis, but on his own terms, essentially creating a parallel Crisis in which Swamp Thing could intervene. Other than that, while Moore flitted about the larger structure of the DC Universe, making use both of relative obscurities like Deadman and Adam Strange and headliners like Batman alike, he was largely left alone by other writers, allowed to run his swamp on his own terms.
In contrast, a mere six issues into Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run they were given a major crossover to tie into. More to the point, they were given a crossover with a very different sort of book. Crisis on Infinite Earths was a year-long book that spent the whole of 1985 as DC’s flagship title—the most important book they were publishing, and, most importantly an end in itself. Virtually every book DC published tied into it, but this was framed as promoting the importance of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Crucially, issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths did not include laundry lists of titles that would be tying into it or the suggestion that one was obliged to read anything other than the main book.
Invasion! was very different. It was blasted out in three eighty-page issues, each costing $2.95 (more than double Animal Man’s cover price of $1.25 and almost four times the price of Superman, Batman, or, for that matter, Crisis on Infinite Earths) over just three months. Furthermore, the first two issues each ended with advertisement pages listing the twenty-seven tie-in books, presenting them as an essential part of the story. The clear expectation was that readers would, after paying $2.95 for Invasion! #1, then go on to buy all seventeen of the comics listed in its back page in order to fully appreciate the event. Where Crisis on Infinite Earths had been a marquee book that every DC reader would presumably buy, Invasion was something else: a book that every DC reader was expected to buy in order to continue enjoying their regular series but also a book that required DC readers to buy virtually the entire line of comics for two months. There was a calculated cynicism to this—a sense that the event was little more than a brutal shakedown of DC fans.
On top of this, there were stark differences in the events themselves. Crisis on Infinite Earths was not, in many ways, a pinnacle of the comics medium—it was a crowded and at times difficult to follow book that assumed a deep knowledge of DC continuity and history. But it had an engaging, epic swagger that rewarded that knowledge, even if it existed in more rudimentary forms than the book clearly preferred. It was not that, in contrast, Invasion! had no appeal. Most notably, the first issue and a half featured art from Todd McFarlane, an emerging superstar just transforming from his early career on Infinity Inc. as something of a Curt Swan knockoff into the superstar who would help transform the industry on Spawn. And the plot of Invasion, with its vast cast of hostile aliens including the skull-like and sinister Dominators behind the eponymous invasion of Earth, gave him a lot of room to demonstrate his skill at horrific monsters. But this was also in many ways the problem. The first issue of Invasion! was eighty pages of squabbling aliens planning their attack, with no significant appearances of any DC heroes more prominent than Adam Strange and the Spectre. It was painfully, aggressively tedious, essentially serving as an eighty page windup to the actually interesting situation of “aliens have invaded Earth and the superheroes have to fight back” before telling readers that to actually get this setup they have to buy seventeen more comics. And this, somewhat astonishingly, is actually the better of its two cliffhangers, given that the second issue ends with the invasion apparently successfully repeled, with no actual tension to spill over into the third issue, which is left to introduce a new situation and then resolve it all in one issue. This was, bluntly, a grotesque wedding of incompetent storytelling and active malevolence towards readers.
Given all of this, Morrison acquitted themself eloquently, turning a bad situation into a clear opportunity. (Indeed, they did so on two fronts, but more about that later.) Their Invasion! tie-in was at once an entertaining bit of storytelling and another key step following “The Coyote Gospel” in establishing the tone they wanted for Animal Man going forward. They narrow the scope down efficiently, pitting Animal Man against a lone alien from Thanagar (the same planet from which Hawkman hails, at least in this iteration of his majestically overcomplicated history) who intends to use Earth as the setting for his final work of art in the medium of planetary tectonics. What this means in practice is that he has set a bomb on the San Andreas Fault that will telepathically transmit a fractal representation of the artist’s life and memories while simultaneously plunging the western seaboard into the ocean. This played out in an issue that was both high on conceptual ambition and charmingly funny. On the one hand, the mad artist’s plans were framed in terms of fractals and the Mandelbrot set, getting to the central metaphor of Moore’s busted masterpiece Big Numbers two years before Moore did. On the other, the issue’s resolution comes when Hawkman finally shows up and condescendingly points a sobbing and despairing Animal Man to the bomb’s off switch. The fusion of the two, meanwhile, was captured by the issue’s epigraph from Crowley’s Liber Legis, “I am the hawk-headed lord of silence and strength… I am the warrior of the Forties; the Eighties cower before me and are abased.” No matter that the quote reversed the order of its two halves (the first part is line 70 of chapter three, while the second is line 46)—Morrison successfully contorted Crowley into making a sly comment on the use of Hawkman, who debuted in 1940, for the iconography of an avatar of planetary destruction in 1988.
Morrison followed this tie-in with another one-shot, “The Death of the Red Mask.” In this, Animal Man confronts the Red Mask, an aging supervillain created by Morrison for this story (Morrison fleshes him out with a history fighting the D-list hero Captain Triumph, created for Quality Comics in the 1940s and obtained by DC in the 1950s, though Morrison was the first writer to actually use him inside a comic. After touching a mysterious radioactive meteor he was imbued with what he calls “the worst superpower in history,” a death touch, a fact he discovers when he kills his dog. With no other real options given his power he became a two-bit supervillain. Years later and with terminal lung cancer, he decides to nihilistically destroy a city with a bunch of killer robots he won in a poker game off of Doctor Fang (an obscure Batman villain from few years earlier, although the robots are admittedly not his M.O., so that may be coincidence), then jump off a building. The robots, which are bright red, are however completely rubbish, falling over and exploding at the slightest provocation. As for his suicide, he is interrupted by Animal Man, who attempts to persuade him towards a less absurdly stupid course of action, but fails as the Red Mask proclaims “ah, screw it” and leaps off the building, momentarily believing that he’s suddenly fulfilled his lifelong dream of flying before splattering on the pavement below.
It’s an issue of grimly nihilistic humor, and one that served as a a follow-up and refinement of a longstanding strand in Morrison’s career reaching back to their work on Captain Clyde and its notion of a faintly rubbish hero, and their future shock “Big Trouble for Blast Barclay,” which dealt with the idea of a washed up ex-space hero who runs afoul of Thatcheresque benefits enforcement. In many ways, this comic was the culmination of that approach—a final envisioning of the superhero (or villain) as a vaguely pathetic figure no more protected from the capricious cruelty of the world than a disaffected twenty-eight year old Glaswegian punk. As with the previous two stories, it was an effective blend of irreverence and poignancy, another clear statement that this was a book unlike anything else DC was publishing at the time.
Invasion!, however, was still far from done with Morrison and their plans; “The Death of the Red Mask” ended with a monochrome splash page of Animal Man in negative, mouth opened and caught out while flying along with the injunction to “follow Animal Man into the pages of Invasion! Book Three!” [continued]