The More Material Comes In The More Confusing It Gets (Book Three Part 5: Secret Origins, Morrison’s Politics)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: After a series of inventive one-shot stories, Morrison prepared for their larger plotline, aided by a promotional push when their was given a spot in the Secret Origins anthology series for Animal Man.
Return to the files. It’s been three days now, and the more material comes in the more confusing it gets. —Neil Gaiman, “Pavane”
It’s an effective and unfussed execution of the brief: introduce the book’s status quo, tell the origin story, and leave some hints about where the book might go next to encourage readers to buy it. But most importantly, it’s an accessible introduction to Morrison’s style—to the sly metafiction they intended to make use of, and to the larger questions of Crisis and its practical effects on continuity that they would deal with over the remainder of their tenure on the book.
Morrison went on to pen two further stories for Secret Origins in the book’s final months. These did not deal with Animal Man or indeed directly with any of Morrison’s books, but rather saw Morrison playing with the wider DC universe. Nevertheless, these stories were clearly revealing about Morrison’s larger interests and intentions. The first, “Ghost of Stone” in Secret Origins #46, saw Morrison writing for Curt Swan to tell the origin of the Justice League of American’s mountain headquarters. He did this with inventive whimsy—the plot involved the Justice League’s costumes coming to life and running off without them—but more to the point saw Morrison writing a loving homage to classic Silver Age Justice League stories for one of the iconic artists of the Silver Age.
Meanwhile in the book’s final issue, released the week before Morrison’s final issue of Animal Man, they took Gardner Fox’s classic “Flash of Two Worlds” story, which introduced the idea of the Multiverse by having the Barry Allen and Jay Garrick versions of the Flash meet, and reworked it into something that made sense within post-Crisis continuity, telling the story of Keystone City and Central City as twin cities one of which had been erased from people’s memory by the machinations of the Fiddler, the Thinker, and the Shade, the villains from Fox’s original. Another element of the original story, meanwhile—the Flash’s appearance as a replacement stage magician—served as a frame story, with Morrison’s version being a school essay, revealed in the final panel to be penned by an eight-year-old Garfield Logan, eventually to become Beast Boy in the Teen Titans. Combining Morrison’s love of the old Multiverse concept and their longtime fondness for the Flash, the story was yet another demonstration of why Morrison was, that point, one of the hottest talents at DC.
Morrison used the Secret Origins boost for Animal Man to set off on a three-part story that expanded on its implications. This was a somewhat intensely overstuffed arc in which Animal Man teams up with Vixen, a superhero with similar animal powers who starred in Gerry Conway’s Justice League of America run to fight Hamid Ali, the immortal simian Arab nemesis of B’wana Beast, as they attempt to excavate a mysterious crater in Africa. The crater turns out to be a crash site for the yellow aliens from Secret Origins, who hover over the plot continuing to discuss the supposed changes to Animal Man’s origin, with the first page of “Return of the Man with Animal Powers” making several increasingly deformed and altered appearances, and ultimately “repair” the character into consistency within the overall continuum. The arc is inelegant to say the least—Vixen’s involvement seems to exist mainly so that inker Doug Hazlewood can add suspiciously nipple-like shading to her haltertop—but in a pleasantly comic book maximalist way that cheerily embraces the idea that more is more.
The more interesting portions of this arc, however, came in the further extension of Morrison’s teasing in Secret Origins that Animal Man might literally be a character in a comic. The aliens explicitly describe themselves as “agents of the power that brings your world into being,” and idly dismissing a man who accidentally died because of their actions as “of no consequence. He had no background, no name. An incidental character.” More revealingly, they ultimately eliminate Hamid Ali by devolving him into a pencil sketch and finally into nothingness. But perhaps the most suggestive elements come at the beginning of the arc, in a plot following James Highwater, a side character who had been wandering around in his own plot since issue #8, waking up suddenly with no real awareness of who he is and discovering in his life a series of clues suggesting he should seek the Psycho-Pirate. This was already tremendously intriguing to dedicated DC fans. Psycho-Pirate was a longstanding villain typically in the vicinity of the Justice Society of America who used a magical mask to project emotions onto people. But he had an extremely prominent role in Crisis on Infinite Earths and ended that story as the only person who remembered the existence of the multiverse, a fact that left him as a raving madman in Arkham Asylum. And it was in this context that Morrison employed him, having him rave about “the Wolfman” and fretting that “if I go to sleep they might decide to remove me from the continuity” before giving Highwater a scrap of paper. On one side, an unnamed character offers childhood memories of his imaginary friend Foxy, with whom he’d communicate via flashlight signalling. On the other, the final page of “Return of the Man with Animal Powers.”
The stretch of issues following this story effectively alternated between issues that furthered this mysterious and no doubt momentous plot and one-shots in which Morrison ground a number of political axes. The former track opened with Animal Man #14, an issue of nebulous spookiness in which Animal Man’s family are visited by a mysterious spectral version of Animal Man offering cryptic warnings of some future calamity. This would eventually be revealed to be a time-traveling Animal Man from the closing issues of Morrison’s run, but for now provided an issue of cryptic horror, including an otherwise contextless scene of a mysterious white man pacing a canal and contemplating his strategies for writing comics and what pretentious quotes he might use. Animal Man #16, meanwhile, saw Morrison giving Animal Man an adventure with the Justice League Europe fighting the Time Commander, who sought to disrupt the flow of time itself to make the world more interesting. This provided an engaging romp of a story with Morrison effectively demonstrating how they’d do the JLE if it were their book.
On the other track, meanwhile, Morrison set about fulfilling one of their original goals in taking on Animal Man. As they put it, “I saw how to use Animal Man as a mouthpiece against cruelty to animals and the general degradation of the environment.” This had been a significant component of their first arc, which was in the end a polemic against animal experimentation, and it had continued to appear throughout the comic. “The Coyote Gospel” featured a scene in which Buddy decided to go vegetarian, and issue #10 opened with Animal Man rescuing the fox from a fox hunt. But in this middle portion of their run they began devoting entire issues to political commentary.
The first of these, however, was not actually about animal rights. Instead, coming off an arc set in Africa, Morrison spent issue #13 taking a detour to do an issue about the apartheid regime in South Africa. Surprising nobody, Morrison is unequivocal in their denunciation of this. The story depicts the apartheid regime with shocking brutality, burning black villages to the ground and savagely beating the people within them. In the issue’s most extended depiction a prison guard enters the cell of a jailed photographer and coldly explains that he’s there to hang him and make it look like a suicide. He beats the photographer, calling him “an ill-educated savage with a chip on his shoulder,” and calling his dream of a state in which the majority of citizens are actually represented in government a “sick fantasy.” It was a portrayal with no nuance whatsoever, which is of course what the situation demanded, and Morrison proves adept at depicting the unthinking cruelty of racist violence perpetrated by the state.
This anti-apartheid polemic provided a platform for Morrison to address a debt that had hung over their first twelve issues on the comic, namely the figure of B’wana Beast. His inclusion in the first arc made a strategic sense—he provided Morrison with a sympathetic antagonist for the arc that had comparable powers to Animal Man that were still interesting in their own right. More to the point, it allowed Morrison to double down on the “revamp obscure old characters in contemporary ways” approach that DC was looking for. And B’wana Beast was well-integrated into the larger plot of Morrison’s first arc. For all that DC had an admittedly large stable of ape characters, B’wana Devil was still notable for coming with a simian character who could be captured to provide the central hook of the tale. It was a choice with solid benefits that they executed well. The problem was simple: B’wana Beast was a hopelessly racist character that had no place in comics.
This was not an ambiguous point. The character had been a bad choice in when he debuted in Showcase #66 in 1967, and was a worse one in 1989. And the problems were baked right into the premise—a white savior narrative in which the true and sacred hero of Africa is an American whose name translates to “master.” There was simply no way to do this well, and even among those DC’s take, which included a text page gushing about how “until recently [Africa] was one of the last great unexplored areas of the world, but in the late nineteenth century, intrepid men from many nations mapped its vast reaches” as if there hadn’t already been millions of people there, was certainly one of the many ways to do it badly.
And yet Morrison had relied heavily on “the white god of Kilamanjaro” in their first arc, and then used the villain from the first B’wana Beast story as the antagonist for their origin arc. For a comic that they envisioned as politically invested, this was a clear problem. And so Morrison set about giving the character a much-needed revamp, having B’wana Beast decide that it’s time to pass the mantle onto someone else. He and Animal Man perform a ritual to find the new Beast, which turns out to be the aforementioned journalist, Dominic Mndawe, who they rescue from prison just before the guard can hang him.
Mndawe proceeds to make an emphatic critique of the concept, dismissing the name B’wana Beast as a “white imperialist title,” and rejecting his predecessor’s insistence that he must be “beyond politics,” noting that “in South Africa… nothing is beyond politics anymore” and condemning him for his failure to protect protesters when the government massacred them in the Soweto uprising. He ultimately renames himself Freedom Beast, foils a plot by the guard who nearly killed him, and becomes a minor but recurring character in DC comics going forward, a small but marked improvement for the DC Universe.
In the back of Animal Man #13, however, there were bad signs for this approach. Assistant editor Art Young dedicated the letters column of that issue to the so-called “controversial” letters they had received over the first year. What this meant in practice was that the letter column was full of people complaining bitterly about Morrison’s animal rights stance, describing it as “something to bash readers over the head with,” arguing that Buddy’s family should be allowed to eat seafood, pontificating at length about the benefits of animal experimentation, and claiming that Animal Man’s disruption of a fox hunt was immoral because, unlike his vegetarianism, it was “deciding something is immoral and preventing others from doing it, even if those others choose to do it and don’t find anything wrong with it.” This last letter, sadly, does not bother to elucidate how this morality is supposed to work with Batman and muggers. Nevertheless, Art Young’s response to all these letters is to largely throw Morrison under the bus, explaining that Animal Man’s politics “seem to have been formulated in the heat of the moment, without being well thought out.”
In spite of the evident lack of editorial support, Morrison plowed on with their animal rights angle. After all, it could scarcely be called a surprise that this was controversial, given that the modern animal rights movement was known in no small part for its tendency towards provocation. This was, however, firmly a modern development in a movement with literal millennia of history.