Twenty-two pages fills up fast. There’s no denying that. Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so. So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, getting 44, 66, 88, etc… pages to tell it. It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about the book, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling. One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.
Grant Morrison is one of the biggest names in comics now, but in the 80’s, he was just another young punk from across the seas. Though he probably got the most mainstream notice for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, many people have long-since learned the truth (in my head): when it came to DC work at that time, Animal Man and Doom Patrol are streets ahead. Animal Man in particular has received a great deal of attention as time goes on, particularly for its meta-commentary on where superhero comics were and where Morrison would like to see them go, and for the fact that it was his first work at DC. Of course, you wouldn’t know most of that, picking up Animal Man #1 – no, Morrison doesn’t tip his hand at all until Animal Man #5, the much- and rightly-acclaimed single issue, “The Coyote Cospel”.
“The Coyote Gospel” is sandwiched between a very standard four issues of comic storytelling in Animal Man #1-4 and a two-issue crossover with the “Invasion!” event in Animal Man #6-7. It’s a weird place for such a ground-breaking issue, but I suppose he was trying to ease readers in, back then, instead of doing what he does now and tossing them in the deep end almost immediately. It follows Crafty Coyote, a thinly veiled take on Wile E. Coyote, who has recently escaped a thinly veiled take on Wile E.’s insane cartoon world. No, not escaped – been banished from. For as long as Crafty suffers in the ‘real’ world, in the gritty DC Universe with its bloody deaths and grim violence, his Creator will bring peace to Crafty’s violent, consequence-free world. From there, we see Crafty’s vivid, painful deaths in the DC Universe, complete with graphic, overblown prose describing the twisted process by which his body quickly stitches itself back together, and his brief, tragic encounter with Animal Man.
One thing Morrison often gets accused of is being cold. There are few who would claim that he wasn’t a smart, gifted writer, and none who could do so seriously, but I’ve seen him accused of being cold more than once, and it always takes a minute or two before anyone can come up with a rebuttal to that. The most obvious is, of course, his stellar We3, but I would suggest that his Animal Man run as a whole, and “The Coyote Gospel” in particular, also offer an excellent refutation. I defy any reader not to feel their heart break, just a little, at Buddy’s polite, “I’m sorry… I… I can’t read it.”
In rereading “The Coyote Gospel”, I was astonished to recall just how little a part Buddy played in the issue, outside of brief moments to bookend the issue. And I had forgotten a key scene almost entirely: for all the suffering Crafty endured at the hands of his malevolent Creator, his mission was ultimately fruitless. Buddy couldn’t not read Crafty Coyote’s Gospel, the brief, heart-breaking explanation as to why Crafty was here. No one knew, no one would ever know, why Crafty was suffering, why Crafty died.
I can’t imagine how out of place it must have seemed then, particularly the chilling, final scene, in which Crafty’s pooling, colorless blood is filled in with red paint by a giant, mysterious, unseen hand from above. Part of the brilliance of “The Coyote Gospel”, however, lies in the simple fact that this isn’t treated as a cliffhanger or teaser for the next issue at all, but a chilling coda to Crafty’s life, an ice-cold reminder of what we demand from our fictional characters. Instead of the hand being revealed next issue, it’s not commented on again for some time, leaving the issue’s message largely self-contained.
Part of the reason the issue works so well is because of that, I think. Allowing the meta-textuality of the moment to stretch into a more traditional arc very probably would have driven people away, angered fans far more by refusing to play by the rules of super-heroics. But instead of writing for a collection, Morrison peppered the seeds of his story here and there throughout more traditional stories, trusting us to keep up with him when things took a turn for the weird. Such an idea is almost unheard of today, but it works extremely well here, giving his entire run a sense of cohesion, a weird sort of realism as a story slowly unfolds so far in the background, even we don’t notice it for issues at a time.
Personally, while some of the Animal Man issues may seem undistinguished, particularly as they’ve aged, they give the series a comfortable rhythm. Unlike some of Morrison’s later work, Animal Man isn’t a dense metatextual meditation that angrily demands multiple reads, but a quirky, emotional adventure that makes you want to reread it. Nowhere is that more evident than in “The Coyote Gospel”, a strange issue that somehow manages to define nearly every single one of the run’s themes without beating you over the head.
– Cal Cleary
One Shot 1: Sandman #8
Coming Up July 16th: Astro City vol. 2, #1/2 “The Nearness of You”
Coming Up July 30th: Fantastic Four vol. 3, #60 “Inside Out”
– Scans should be up tomorrow afternoon.