Menu Close

Ecce Animot: Or, The Animal Man That Therefore I Am

By Adnan Mahmutovic, David Coughlan, and Stephen Blake Ervin

In his groundbreaking Animal Man (1988-90),1 Grant Morrison is concerned with the ways in which man and animal reflect upon each other, and with the way in which man, ultimately, cannot conceive of himself outside of a relation to the animal. Indeed, as the writer of Animal Man, Morrison took the opportunity to create an avatar of his own social and political ideologies:

shortly after beginning my work on Animal Man, I joined the Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group and I ate my last steak. … It now seems to me that the subject of animal rights is probably too vast and complicated to be dealt with adequately in the pages of a super-hero comic book, but if Animal Man helped alert some readers to the pointless atrocities that are committed daily in the name of research, then it will have been worthwhile. (Introduction np)

Given that the series quite overtly dramatizes animal/human relations and advocates animal rights, it is odd, as Marc Singer notes, that scholars “have evaluated the series only as metafiction, leading them to overlook other, equally important features of Morrison’s newly emerging style and, in some cases, to discount the work’s formal and thematic complexity” (57).

The present essay takes its cue firstly from Singer’s observation, therefore, and looks closely at the way Morrison uses Animal Man to detail his philosophical stance on the animal question. Ironically, however, it turns out that it is exactly Morrison’s use of metafiction which provides some of his most profound insights into the animal experience. Our second cue relates to the problem of the human representation of the animal, and the difficulty in avoiding a representation which frames an animal’s experience in human terms or which, in trying to evade this first trap, excludes the animal altogether. In this respect, we adopt the taxonomy developed by David Herman in “Storyworld / Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives,” where he argues that “narrative affords a bridge between the human and the nonhuman,” and indicates the range of available approaches when he states that “stories provide this link not merely by allegorizing human concerns via nonhuman animals or engaging in anthropomorphic projections, but also by figuring the lived, phenomenal worlds … of creatures whose organismic structure differs from our own” (159). Herman develops a scale by which to distinguish between what he characterizes as coarse-grained and fine-grained representations of nonhuman experiences (166). At one end of the scale, coarse-grained representations “encompass nonhuman experiences but remain anchored in humans’ own interactions with their environment” (166). Such representations include animal allegory, where “nonhuman animals function as virtual stand-ins for humans” (167), and anthropomorphic projection, where “human motivations and practices continue to be used as the template for interpreting nonhuman behavior” (167). At the other end of the scale, fine-grained representations “anchor interpreters in (a conception or model of) what it is like for nonhuman agents to interact with their environment on a moment-to-moment basis” (166). Such representations include zoomorphic projection, which “shows what it would be like for human characters to take on nonhuman attributes” (167), and what Herman terms Umwelt exploration, which shows “a concern with nonhuman ways of encountering the world” (167).2 Herman argues that Animal Man falls primarily within the category of zoomorphic projection (171-74), a conclusion with which we broadly agree, but, even as Herman notes that “any given text may use a range of strategies for figuring agent-environment interactions” (179n10), we would suggest that the range of strategies Morrison’s Animal Man employs finally exceeds Herman’s categorization.

As Herman emphasizes, it is important also to examine “how the representation of what it is like for (nonhuman) characters to experience events is shaped by medium-specific properties of graphic narratives” (160). In this context, when it comes to delivering his message, we will argue that Morrison seems unwilling or unable to exploit the multimodality of comic narratives to deliver an exploration of animals’ Umwelten. In fact, Morrison’s progressive politics are not matched by his superficially conventional representation and philosophical understanding of the animal question. Animal Man does criticize humanity’s constant need to distinguish itself from animals, and define itself against animals, in order to create a hierarchy of power which places humans over animals. But, in his treatment of some of the characteristics that are often used by philosophy to divide humans from animals—for example, good and evil, language, reason, and being-in-the-world—Morrison could be accused of redrawing rather than undermining these distinctions.

However, taking our third cue from the work of Jacques Derrida, and in particular his The Animal That Therefore I Am, we further argue that, ultimately, Morrison’s narrative is not concerned with bridging the divide between humans and animals, but rather that it comes closer to Derrida’s position on the question. Derrida is enormously concerned with the question of animals, but he is not primarily interested in restoring to animals what philosophy has normally deprived them of, and arguing from that basis that humans should therefore treat animals better. Because, for Derrida, this approach leaves untouched the assumption that some things, such as language, are proper to man and, as Matthew Calarco states, “the logic of the proper functions to draw a simple and reductive line between human and animal” (104). Even an effort to extend that line, or to promote certain animals (say the higher primates) above the line, still excludes most animals. Derrida, therefore, has first tested these clean divisions by questioning whether humans have a unique claim to traits such as technology, spirit, or an awareness of death.

At the same time, Derrida does not seek to erase oppositions between humans and animals because, as Lisa Guenther points out, the aim of his approach “is not to say that we cannot identify meaningful differences, but rather that there is no definitive difference between humans and all other animals” (152). Given that “the ontotheological philosophical tradition is fundamentally humanist and anthropocentric” (Calarco 104), Derrida has looked to frame the debate in a new way. When he quotes Jeremy Bentham’s question about animals—”Can they suffer?” (qtd. in Derrida 27)—he wants us to focus not on what the animal can or cannot do (speak, laugh, cry, suffer), but on the way in which the animal has here elicited a response in the form of a question. Regardless of how we define them, therefore, animals confront us and call for a response; “animals have the capacity to interrupt one’s existence and inaugurate ethical and political encounters” (Calarco 106).3

In light of this, we conclude that Morrison’s cameo in the series, which seems to serve to deliver even more directly the authorial message of Animal Man, actually interrupts the image of Animal Man as mere vehicle for Morrison’s ideas. Following the encounter, the character, revealed as a character and therefore deprived of a proper self-identity, falls from the position of man, and, paradoxically, becomes more humanly alive as a finite and vulnerable being living in a world in which animals also live. Animal Man, therefore, cannot serve as a straightforward allegorical representation of political and philosophical ideals, which perhaps explains some of the inconsistencies in the presentation of the animal question. As Morrison explains in his introduction to the first volume, his “intention was to radicalize and realign the character of Buddy Baker” as he “becomes involved with animal rights issues and finds his true vocation in life” (np). In effect, therefore, the series purposefully opens with a conventional understanding of the animal so that a more radical view of animals can later evolve.

That Buddy Baker and Grant Morrison start from contrasting political and philosophical positions is evident if we consider the superhero name that Buddy has chosen for himself: Animal Man. We could ask how we are supposed to read the two terms of this name given that they are not typographically linked in any way, as with Spider-Man, to suggest a merging of some kind, or a hybrid offspring. We could ask what is added to or subtracted from the man called “Animal Man” given that, scientifically speaking, a man is already an animal? The name “Animal Man” is tautological, but at the same time it speaks to the binary thinking of animal and man. It reminds us that, as Derrida observes, “The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name that they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to the living other” (23) and what this word does is to “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (32). “Animal” itself is a loaded term used in this subjugation of nonhuman life because it “applies to the whole animal kingdom with the exception of the human” (40). For Derrida, “This agreement concerning philosophical sense and common sense that allows one to speak blithely of the Animal in the general singular is perhaps one of the greatest and most symptomatic asininities of those who call themselves humans” (41). It is worth quoting Derrida at length on why the use of The Animal is “an asinanity [bêtise]” (31):4

Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than “The Animal” or “Animal Life” there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living. … These relations are at once intertwined and abyssal, and they can never be totally objectified. They do not leave room for any simple exteriority of one term with respect to another. It follows that one will never have the right to take animals to be the species of a kind that would be named The Animal, or animal in general. (31)

The problem with the name “Animal Man” is exactly that it opposes, along one line, the homogenized animal on one side with the homogenized man on the other.5

Derrida tries to effect change in the way we speak about animals by introducing a new word into the field: animot.6 The effect of the word animot would be “to have the plural animals heard in the singular” (47). “Neither a species nor a gender nor an individual,” he says, “[the animot] is an irreducible living multiplicity of mortals, and rather than a double clone or a portmanteau word, a sort of monstrous hybrid, a chimera” (41). It is for this reason that it is so significant that Buddy’s first foray as Morrison’s Animal Man pits him against B’wana Beast, a man with the power to communicate with animals and to merge animals, to create chimeras. The final page of the first issue, therefore, does not bring Animal Man face-to-face with the animal but with a monstrous animot, a singular plurality of merged laboratory monkeys (Fig 1), a lurid mess of limbs and faces. Here, Morrison confronts Buddy with the inadequacies of his conception of the animal by creating a creature which both speaks to the multiplicity of the animot but also figures, in a very material way, the violence done to animals in reducing them to the animal (fig. 1 and 2). This represents an attempt, therefore, to make Buddy realize that “there is not only one border, unified and indivisible, between Man and the Animal. … there are, between different organizational structures of the living being, many fractures, heterogeneities, differential structures” (Derrida and Roudinesco 66). The name “Animal Man,” which seems to set Animal and Man on either side of the one border, limits a discourse on animals which itself must speak of and to the chimera, must be multi-faceted, multi-faced, many-limbed. Animal Man must become, by the end of the series, Animot Man.

Figure 1
Figure 2

“It’s talking!” “It’s a monster!” “Kill it!” “It’s disgusting” “It’s all hairy!”

The first few panels of the first issue of Animal Man establish the main issues the entire series is going to circle around: affinities and differences between humans and animals, the notions of agency, power, intelligence, instinct, ethics, and of course the metafiction of “narrative” as such. The story begins with the slow movement of the character B’wana Beast striding towards something not yet revealed. Presented as free indirect discourse, B’wana Beast’s thought, “Why did we ever come down? Why did we come down out of the trees” (1.1), is followed with a full-page panel in which our hero Buddy Baker is in a tree trying to save a cat (fig. 3). In the panel, his neighbor, Violet Weidemeir, whose cat he is trying to save, is crying, “Watch you don’t fall now, Buddy! It’s a long way down!” (1.2).7 Immediately, therefore, in these references to evolutionary theory and the story of “The Fall of Man” from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Morrison engages with some of the dominant “discourses on the so-called animal, all the anthropo-theomorphic or anthropo-theocentric logics and axiomatic, philosophy, religion, politics, law, ethics” (Derrida 64), within which the figure of The Animal is deployed by man.8

Figure 3

On the next page, Buddy indeed falls, and the artist, Chas Truog, removes the tree from the image to show the long fall of Buddy Baker, the human, and the rise of Animal Man, the superhero (fig. 4). He has “just absorbed some agility from the cat” (1.5) and landed on his feet. This is when we first get to see Animal Man in action, but it is not the moment of revelation for Buddy. He had already discovered his powers, and this is not, therefore, his origin story, which is revealed only halfway through the series. This way, Morrison eliminates at the very beginning the import of the “origins” in the superhero discourse, and in a sense, questions the “originary” impact of the story of Genesis. Much later in the series, we will learn that Animal Man was dissembled by aliens, who used the so-called “field” (18.17) or “template” (12.18) and “grafted onto [his] essence the essences of the beast avatars” (12:18), “the essence of every creature that has ever existed” (18.17). It is explained that each essence is like a Platonic “ideal form” (18:17), and he can “breathe underwater without gills … fly without wings” (9.16), as if the powers are in their ideal state and not really a part of the physical universe. When Animal Man absorbs the power of an animal, therefore, it is the essence of the animal he draws on; his powers relate to The Cat and not a cat. The presence of an animal serves to merely wake up and make functional a particular beast-essence in his DNA.

Figure 4

This order, of creation and fall, of course follows the path of Adam’s story, which is key to the beginning of both Morrison’s and Derrida’s text. In the process of his creation, man is given power over the animals. In the first book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are told to “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (1.28). In the second book, which is the second telling of the story, Adam, even before the creation of Eve, is given the task of naming the animals: “God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (2.19). God’s summoning of the animals so that Adam might name them is the inauguration of man’s authority over the animal.9 There is, for man, the power to give a name, which is to rule, and there is, for the animal, the passivity of having been named. The significance of this naming is evident in the opening storyline of Animal Man also, where the names assigned by Buddy’s neighbors to their cats, Rufus and Sheba (both Biblical names), contrast with the self-identified, “signed” (3.1), names of the apes held captive in S.T.A.R. Laboratories, Roon and Djuba (B’wana Beast’s friend and the reason for his arrival in the city).10 More importantly, for Animal Man, as for Adam, his authority over the animals goes hand in hand with an act of naming; in fact, his power to take on the essence of a creature is exactly a power of naming because, by drawing on the wings of a bird, the nose of a dog, or the balance of a cat, for example, he identifies what it is that makes a cat The Cat.

Following his fall, Animal Man is expelled from a garden, though in slightly less dramatic circumstances than Adam: “Now will he get out of my garden and give me some peace?” says Morris Weidemeir (1.4). Morrison further underlines, however, the deliberate parallels with the Biblical story by having Buddy return home to find his wife Ellen singing, “We could go on living in the same old way … a garden of Eden, just made for two” (1.5). In a further reference, when Buddy dons his Animal Man costume, he puts a jacket on too because, he says, “it’s kind of embarrassing wearing a skin-tight costume” and appearing naked (1.19).11 This symbolic fig-leaf effectively sees Animal Man placing himself in opposition to The Animal because, as Derrida observes, traditionally, “naked without knowing it, animals would not be, in truth, naked,” and so “[c]lothing would be proper to man, one of the ‘properties’ of man” and he “would be a man only to the extent that he was able to be naked, that is to say, to be ashamed” (5). Knowing nakedness, and embarrassment at his nakedness, Animal Man removes himself both from the Garden of Eden and the animal kingdom.

Throughout the first four issues of Animal Man, this Edenic subplot runs alongside the main story. As Buddy tracks down the B’wana Beast, Ellen and her daughter Maxine encounter four hunters in woods described as “a regular Garden of Eden” (2.8) (fig. 5).

Figure 5

The second issue opens with the Weidemeirs’ missing cat, Sheba, shown hunting a rodent, her actions contrasting with the senseless killing by the hunters of a bird in the first issue because the cat has litter of kittens to feed. The neat juxtaposition of the cat’s rapacious-looking face as it attacks the rodent with the nameplate which hangs from its collar stating “My name is Sheba” (2.1) is perhaps meant to remind us of the wild animal in the domesticated pet, of the final unknowability of such an animal, and of our hubris in looking to name such a savage creature. At the same time, the events that follow frame this as a savagery without evil intent. With the appearance of the serpent (2.18), good and evil seem to apply only to the men in this Garden of Eden, one of whom shoots a doe, throws Sheba to their dogs, and, identifying Ellen as his “Eve” (1.18), threatens to rape her. Such actions might remind us of Martin Heidegger’s observation that, “However ready we are to rank man as a higher being with respect to the animal, such an assessment is deeply questionable. … No animal can become depraved in the same way as man” (194). Ultimately, however, such a narrative simply repeats a discourse which, as Derrida describes, “images the animal in the most contradictory and incompatible generic terms [espèces]: absolute (because natural) goodness, absolute innocence, prior to good and evil, the animal without fault or defect (that would be its superiority as inferiority), but also the animal as absolute evil, cruelty, murderous savagery” (64). This discourse is later reinforced by Buddy when, in an act of pure revenge, he goes to kill Lennox, the man who has murdered his family. Holding his discarded jacket in his hand, so that he is effectively naked once more, Buddy tells himself that he “must be an animal. An animal. An animal” in order to murder this man without compunction. Buddy, therefore, seems at this point still to be a believer in the “cruel and capricious” (2.2) nature of animals.

The lesson of this subplot seems to be summed up by B’wana Beast’s observation that, “We were given paradise … and … we’re murdering the world. … Oh God, we’ve … fallen so far” (4.17). It represents an implicit warning to Animal Man: he was there to rescue the Weidemeirs’ cat Rufus, a good deed which saw him hailed (somewhat ironically) as “a wonderful human being” (1.4), but he wasn’t there to rescue his wife, and it’s Morris Weidemeir instead who intervened. But, at the same time, the subplot indicates some of the difficulties facing Morrison as he looks to re-educate Animal Man. Morrison wants Buddy to change his spots, so to speak, on the animal question, but Morrison himself falls into the trap of conventional understanding too in his struggle with how best to tackle animal rights. He places an emphasis in the opening issue on the fall of Animal Man, but what he needs to remember is that “the animals were named, before original sin” (Derrida 18). The Animal emerges in advance of any conception of good and evil; indeed, what Derrida seems to say is that good and evil emerge from that encounter where a man stands naked face-to-face with an animal: “The Other leaves a trace of the shock of the encounter within me, and how I respond to that trace—whether I affirm or negate, avow or disavow—constitutes ethics, properly speaking” (Calarco 126). Perhaps Morrison is on the right track when an encounter with the chimerically merged laboratory monkeys is described as being “confronted by a fabulous new lifeform. It was like watching Adam rise up out of the dust on unsteady legs. … And then it fell” (2.5); this description both speaks to the time before the Fall, and also requires us to consider whose eyes are watching Adam here, God’s eyes or animals’ eyes, and what it is that they make of Adam. Nevertheless, the continuing tension between Morrison’s desire and his execution will become apparent as we focus now on some of the common terms that emerge in the debate on animal and man, in particular language and being poor-in-world.

“Meow-meow language.” “Aaoowm?”

Animal Man’s power to name the animal and reduce it to a means to his end, aligns him uncomfortably with the scientists of S.T.A.R. Labs who reduce animals to weapons, a food supply, and test subjects. The lead scientist, Dr. Myers, discusses the genetic differences that allow him to classify animals, and explains that his work involves exactly scientifically drawing the line between the human and the animal, by distinguishing between “the lower animals and the higher primates, like apes and men” (3.17). What Buddy sees in the laboratories plays a large part in his adopting by the end of the arc an ethical and ideological stance in opposition to a mindset that views animals as mere supplements to a human existence.[12] He moves from effectively complaining that the dogs provided by the laboratories are not fit for his purpose because they are not “healthy dogs” (2.7), to a more profound understanding of the dogs’ situation: “I don’t want to think about the dogs in Myers’ laboratory … the way their eyes looked” (2.9). In the end, seeing how much animals suffer, he expresses an ethical stance, “the work you’re doing here is barbaric and immoral. I’m ashamed I ever got involved” (4.19). The ethics here arise from the encounter with the gaze of the other, the animal.

Morrison provides a fitting conclusion to Myers and Djuba’s story when B’wana Beast returns to S.T.A.R. Labs and merges Djuba’s dead body with Myers (fig. 6).

Figure 6

Commenting on this sequence, where Djuba-Myers learns what it is like to be subject to experimentation, Herman draws attention to what it is like for Myers to be deprived of verbal expression: “Here the mode of human-nonhuman blending associated with zoomorphic projection is literalized in the visual channel. … If anthropomorphism involves familiarizing the nonhuman, zoomorphism involves defamiliarizing the human.” Ultimately,

zoomorphism can entail the loss of language by the species assumed to be its rightful possessor. … The visual track focalizes events in a way that hews close to Djuba-Myers’s interactions with an environment in which she-he … experiences severely circumscribed agency. But here the reduction of agency is doubly profound, because Djuba-Myers is aware of having been moved down in the hierarchy that Myers had exploited and helped maintain—a hierarchy whose topmost level is occupied by those capable of human speech and the forms of domination, technological and other, that it enables. (174)

The lack of language is, of course, one of the key properties by way of which philosophers have distinguished humans from nonhumans. As Derrida puts it, among the many “questions concerning what is proper to the animal,” is “Does the animal have not only signs but a language, and what language?” (63). The answer, so far, has been no: “All the philosophers … say the same thing: the animal is deprived of language. Or, more precisely, of response, of a response that could be precisely and rigorously distinguished from a reaction … and hence of so many other things that would be proper to man” (32).

In Animal Man, the default human attitude is taken to be that animals cannot answer. Even if they are spoken to as pets, it is an imagined conversation. The scientists who experiment on animals never think of the possibility of a response from the objects of their study, or allow themselves to recognize a communication as response. Morrison engages directly with this question, drawing attention to language as a point of distinction between humans and animals by giving Djuba intelligence, but leaving her without language. All the instances of communication involving Djuba, all the expressions of feeling or emotion, her weeping as Roon’s body is carted off by the scientists, B’wana Beast cradling Djuba as she dies, B’wana Beast’s cry of sadness and rage when she is gone, even the “signed” (3.1) names exchanged by Djuba and Roon, can be seen as automatic reactions rather than true responses if one wants to argue, as philosophers have done, that the animal’s “capacity to produce signs is foreign to language and limited or fixed by a program” (Derrida 89).

To address this situation, where animals are contrasted with humans on the basis of a lack of language, Morrison in places provides them with language. The most extended example is in the issue “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” where Morrison gives voice to a dolphin’s thoughts and speech through a first-person narration and dialogue (fig. 7). For instance, the dolphin, surfacing, thinks, “I break through the skin of the world into a sudden empty discordance” (15.1).

Figure 7

This strategy is comparable to Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s in Pride of Baghdad where, as Herman describes, “they use speech balloons to confer on the lions a capacity for human language” (170), but Herman’s criticism of this approach is that it remains at the level of anthropomorphic projection, because “the text also invites readers to construe their experiences via models drawn from the human domain—at the risk of flattening out, or even voiding, the phenomenological specificity of nonhuman encounters with the world” (170). Despite Morrison’s efforts to “other” human language through the dolphin’s stream-of-consciousness and use of words like “hu-men” (15.11), Herman’s point seems very true when the dolphin thinks that “now the world grows colder close to the polar regions” (15.1), where the “polar” reference jars. When an animal’s experience of the world is couched in human language, it seems the human will always talk over the animal that runs beneath. Therefore, though Morrison may grant an animal speech, it retains his voice.

Unlike all the philosophers, Derrida will argue for an understanding of animal communication as more than mere reaction. Animal voices or songs, he says, are “declarations of love or hate, peace or war, and of seduction or hunt” (60), and he will say this in opposition to those philosophers who would grant “the animal auto-affection or auto-motion” but deny it “the power to make reference to the self in deictic or autodeictic terms, the capability at least virtually to turn a finger toward oneself in order to say ‘this is I'” (94). At the same time, he is wary of “the indivisibility of the frontier that separates … reaction from response” (125) and cautions that the difference between reaction and response should be taken into account “without reducing this differentiated and multiple difference … to one between the human subject, on the one hand, and the nonsubject that is the animal in general, on the other” (126). Ultimately, however, he is more concerned with asking “How can the gamut of questions on the being of what would be proper to the animal be changed?” (63). He dreams of another language. He dreams, he says:

to have myself heard in a language that is a language, of course, and not those inarticulate cries or insignificant noises, howling, barking, meowing, chirping, that so many humans attribute to the animal, a language whose words, concepts, singing, and accent can finally manage to be foreign enough to everything that, in all human languages, will have harbored so many asinanities concerning the so-called animal. (63)

Perhaps the language of comics as a medium, if there even is such a thing, could serve this dream of a language that is just foreign enough to change the question of the animal. In an analysis of Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3, for example, Herman comments on a panel “conveying the headlong urgency of [the animal characters] 1’s and 2’s downhill run” (175). WE3 is remarkable for such art, which so often presents an environment from a ground-level perspective, as if it is being seen through animal eyes, or, in some cases, as explicitly focalized through one of the animal character’s particular perspective. The opening thirteen pages, which see not a word spoken, are remarkable in their Umwelt exploration, and seem to answer positively Herman’s question, “Do graphic narratives afford possibilities for representing consciousness not afforded by monomodal or ‘single-channel’ print texts, and vice-versa?” (160). In this respect, Animal Man, as a much earlier work, is, perhaps naturally, less experimental, because, while exhibiting an awareness of the importance given to language to mark the line between human and nonhuman, it does not exploit the capabilities of comics’ visual language to challenge the dominance of verbal language (the one exception being a single panel that provides an image of a space as seen through bats’ ultrasound [12.11]). Early on, though, Animal Man, having a dog’s sense of smell, comments that, “There’s a whole smellscape that we just never experience. It’s incredible … the texture of everything” (2.9), but no attempt is made to capture what a smellscape might look like. Elsewhere, Animal Man absorbs the body language capabilities of apes, their facility for “non-verbal communication” (11.12), and is stressed by his instinctual urges and sexual attraction to the character Vixen. This seems like an opportunity to represent what also speaks, the communication that happens at the level of gazes, facial expressions. Instead the reader is never given the opportunity to read this in the image alone, which is presented throughout as secondary to the word: “My God she’s beautiful poetry and I’m as clumsy as graffiti” (11.12).

Could even an emphasis on the visual over the verbal, however, avoid the asinanities spoken with regards to the animal? Perhaps Morrison’s most radical intervention in relation to this question is the famous issue “The Coyote Gospel.” Crafty the Coyote prompts the question: “What was it? Was it an animal?” (5.3). Even within the world of the comic, it is a caricature of an animal which speaks to all the ways in which the image of the animal is employed within human culture, as a cartoon or entertainment or toy, for example, or as myth or fable, or as symbol or proxy, or as part of what Derrida calls “the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition of a war against the animal” (101), which invokes “the necessity of sacrifice” (91) all without referring to the reality of the animal’s existence. The conceptual path from a real coyote to Crafty takes any number of turns and exemplifies quite forcefully what the human use of language as well as image does both to what is termed “animal” and “human.” Crafty is both “the Devil” (5.10) and a savior, who knew “with each terrible death and resurrection … that by his torment, the world was redeemed” (5.21). The relation between language as expression and suffering, which we will analyze later, is at its peak here.

Crafty’s appearance and his hybrid features recall the merged face of Djuba and Myers, at the sight of which one of the lab workers says, “Look at his eyes, man. You’d think it was almost human.” (4.27). The workers recognize something human in the hybrid’s face but dismiss it because of their conception of it is as an animal. In fact, though this is a face that tests the division between animal and human, they work to maintain it, which not only shows that the divide is a social construction, but that ethics also has to do with this divide. This new face puts some pressure on the reader, and in fact the artist. When the readers see the image of the hybrid, do they see it the same way the worker does? Before or after the worker says what he sees? What comes first, the image or the text? Crafty’s strange appearance, therefore, recalls Derrida’s discussion of the significance of the face in Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics. Derrida suggests that “one could be tempted … to see in a figure of bestial evil a still more inevitable idea of the face” (110), whereas Levinas denies any animal, “good” or “evil,” a face. This is why, for Levinas, “Thou shalt not kill” “doesn’t forbid one to kill an animal; it forbids only the murder of the face” (110). This issue sees the coyote as roadkill (5.3), sees him resurrect (5.4), and then sees him die several times in the same typical ways we find in the Road Runner cartoons (falling into a canyon, blown up by a bomb blast, crushed with a boulder). Crafty’s repeated deaths and resurrections gesture to the general and permitted slaughter of animals, to the fact that “exercising power over the animal to the point of being able to put it to death when necessary is not forbidden” (Derrida 91), and to the possibility that only an “evil” animal is permitted a face.

Perhaps it is Crafty’s indeterminate status as nonhuman-nonanimal which permits him to have a language, because Crafty carries the written word, a literate response (fig. 8), the Gospel of what might be called “an autobiographical animal” (Derrida 48), created not through a touch, like in Michelangelo’s painting, but through the handing over of a written text. In fact, Crafty’s intent is to communicate his allegorical story of suffering, and tell of how he would save the world from a tyrannical God. Ultimately, however, even Morrison’s animals are incapable of crossing the boundary of language. We see Crafty in a number of situations where it looks like he is about to speak, or where he might actually be conversing with his maker, but there are no speech bubbles. What we can see is his narrative, the Gospel, presented both as a comic strip done in the style of the Looney Tunes cartoons, and as a manuscript in an unintelligible writing system, but a writing system nevertheless (fig. 9). The Gospel, or the origins of the new incarnation of Crafty as he enters Animal Man’s world, is a simple narrative of a creature that rebels against its creator only to be condemned to a world more cruel and violent than his own. Once the message of the Gospel is delivered, the readers see Animal Man meeting Crafty’s face and gaze, and then Animal Man confesses, “I can’t read it” (5:21).

Figure 8
Figure 9

The failure reflects interestingly on Herman’s final conclusion, that narrative can be “constituted on different grounds: in the very attempt to imagine how a different kind of intelligent agent might differently negotiate—enact—the world” (178). The coyote’s story both supports and undermines this conclusion because, though this issue is a narrative attempting to capture this alien other’s experience of the world, its conclusion is that this experience is unknowable outside of human language, verbal and visual. The attempt to imagine is always an attempt by humans to imagine. Language here, therefore, is an impossible division to cross, but it turns out that Morrison’s intention was never to promote the animal from that place to which it had been relegated because of a lack of language. The language barrier is addressed not in order to bridge it but exactly in order to attempt to imagine the experience of a creature without human language existing in a world of human language. So, having communicated Crafty’s message as if through the eyes of Animal Man, Morrison shows the readers they were privy to a communication that is impossible in the world of Animal Man. But this impossibility does not deny this animal the power of language. The issue becomes the story of a translation between worlds, and shows “how a concern with nonhuman ways of encountering the world can reshape humans’ own modes of encounter” (Herman 167), not by opening the readers’ eyes to a nonhuman way of encountering the world as such, but by opening the readers’ eyes to the ways in which their language shapes any experience of such an encounter.

By necessity, Crafty abides by different rules than Animal Man, and lives in a different world. This is why the truck driver is, in a sense, correct in saying, “I saved the world” (5.23) when he kills Crafty. Because Crafty requires us to ask “What is the world? … And is the presence of life, of animal life, essential or not to the mundanity of the world?” (Derrida 80). Sudden knowledge of the world as seen through the eyes of the animal would be akin to this sudden appearance of an alien character disturbing the fundamental principles of the human world. It would be like discovering the presence of Animal Man in our reality. Such a thing would represent a shift in this reality as it is. It would, like Crafty’s presence in Animal Man’s world, draw attention to our own reality’s fictionality. This construction is why the driver cannot see Crafty as anything but the Devil, because the Devil is the part that the evil animal plays in his world. Finally, Crafty’s death at crossroads, which resembles Jesus’ crucifiction, must be read together with the cover of this issue, which places Animal Man in a similar pose and position, and shows him partly undrawn, incomplete and unfinished. This move, which locates Animal Man at the same time on various axes, animal and human, real and fictional, is key to Morrison’s intention to address the reader on the issue of animal ethics from a very different angle.

“It’s a fable. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a realistic portrait of the animal kingdom.”

Although much critical attention to Animal Man circled around Morrison’s use of metafiction, this feature has been taken more as a postmodern play in itself rather than being connected to any social critique. However, Morrison’s metafictional strategies do not serve only to question the relation between reality and fiction, but also, even primarily, as a way of bringing about a different understanding of ethics. This understanding is rooted in the concept of the “world” touched on in the previous section. For Heidegger, “world” is not only the physical environment in which we live, but a structure which incorporates the ability to meaningfully interact and shape the world, and acknowledge other beings as sentient creatures. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, he explains how animals are poor-in-world (weltarm), in contrast with the world-forming (weltbilden) abilities of man. Man is capable of creating and interacting with the world as he pleases, making him rich in world. Man can sense that there are other beings in the environment and is not driven solely on impulse. Meanwhile, the animal is poor in world because it is incapable of developing it, because it lacks the sense of other beings as beings and things as things.13

The question of the animal, therefore, is also a question of world. For Derrida, what interests him most are those moments “when Heidegger more or less says: We don’t finally know what world is! At bottom it is a very obscure concept!” (151).14 For Heidegger, a dog does not a have a world, and Derrida does not disagree, but what he insists is that the differences between a man going up the stairs and a dog going up the stairs “are not those between ‘as such’ and ‘not as such'” (159). Derrida is of course critical of what Heidegger’s attempt to draw a simple line between humans and the “as such” on the one side and animals and the “not as such” on the other. For Derrida, “there is no pure and simple ‘as such'” (160); there is no “man” as such, there is no “the animal” as such. Always, therefore, Derrida urges:

It is not just a matter of asking whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power … . It also means asking whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution. (135)

We would argue that Morrison illustrates this in more and less sophisticated ways. The less sophisticated example, for being more literal, is when Animal Man travels with B’wana Beast to Cape Town, in the midst of apartheid, to find the future spiritual and political leader of the black community, Dominic Mndawe, who is being held in prison by Officer Van de Voort. Dominic is no longer in a position to control the world around him. De Voort has identified him as a threat, and tells him that, in South Africa, dangerous men “die on hunger strike. They fall out of windows or down stairs” (13.12). Dominic is beaten, isolated, and pushed into a space where he is poor-in-world like an animal. Laura Hudson states that such humans, stripped of their basic rights, are held in “spaces of exception” (1664). These spaces are a part of the political system, but the people held within them are not treated as human: “Within these spaces, human beings are stripped of citizenship, denied a political voice, and subjected absolutely to political decisions in which they have no rights or recourse: they are reduced to the animal” (Hudson 1664). Here, “‘animal’ is an insult” (Derrida 103), as when a sergeant says of protestors, “Don’t let these animals walk away” (13.19). Dominic is freed by Animal Man and B’wana Beast, who confers his powers on Dominic, which for him is “like becoming real” (13.16). Dominic, who doesn’t “like the word ‘control'” (13.16) becomes Freedom Beast, avenges his imprisonment, and commits himself to the fight for the rights of black South Africans.15 Dominic goes, in effect, from being poor in world to being world-forming, to having world “as such.” But, of course, this leaves this line between animals and humans untouched. Dominic has simply been promoted above it.

The more sophisticated way of approaching the question of the “as such” has to do with Animal Man himself. Within the series, humans are seen as problematic figures who inflict suffering on animals without acknowledging potential effects. Once Animal Man becomes a vegetarian, he finds himself lecturing his wife and son on the harm caused by the meat industry, not only in terms of its treatment of animals, but in terms also of the environmental consequences for the planet. Humanity seems content that animals must die in order that humans might be more comfortable, more satisfied. In the famous last issue, where Animal Man encounters his writer’s avatar, the Morrison character explains this behavior with the phrase “‘Might makes right.’ Man is able to abuse and slaughter and experiment on animals simply because he’s stronger than they are. Other than that, there’s no moral ground on which to justify any exploitation” (26.13). Man is mighty because he deprives animals of powers that he assumes for himself, such as the powers of “speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institutions, technics, clothing, lying, pretense of pretense, covering of tracks, gift, laughter, crying, respect, etc.” (Derrida 135). But someone other than the animals is denied these powers in the course of this series also, and that is Animal Man. He cannot truly speak, but has his words written for him: “I read my own words, my own thoughts, and I realize they’re not mine after all. They were never mine” (25.21). Morrison tells him, “I can make you say and do anything” (26.3). Morrison tells him also that, “I wrote your grief and your rage and your acceptance” (26.7). Buddy is deprived of his family, as the dolphin was; he is deprived of his powers when he loses control; he cannot laugh or cry except that Morrison writes, “He’s smiling and doesn’t know why but tears start in his eyes” (26.22). As he’s told by an older version of himself, “Our lives [“as such”] are not our own” (19.9). He is, it would seem, deprived of world, like Heidegger’s animal. And yet, we will argue, it is only now that he is living as a human animal.

By affecting his character’s qualitative relation to his world, Morrison brings his readers to the core of his text and the question of the ethics of animal/human relations. However, this aspect of the series is often obscured because the nature of the change in his qualitative experience of the world can be reduced to his discovery that he is a comic book character. In other words, the dominant critical approach to the series, which emphasizes its metafictional aspects over all other, presents his deprivations in terms of reality and fiction rather than human and animal. But, as Singer argues of the comic, “Morrison applies its metafictional elements towards representing a host of thorny moral, ethical, and theological dilemmas” (57). In this context, Singer observes that “violence is universal in Animal Man” (59), to the extent that the “only option that remains is for Buddy to follow in Crafty’s footsteps and petition his own creator—Grant Morrison—to end this endless, senseless brutality” (60). Singer concludes that, “Buddy and Crafty’s position is analogous to our own. … Animal Man’s torment at the hands of his writer becomes a surprisingly apt metaphor for humanity’s existential helplessness” (60) and that, since “we cannot expect such mercy from our own hypothetical creators, Morrison suggests, we can at least show it to and model it for each other” (63). The series, in this way practices its “ethics of compassion” (63).

Singer’s otherwise excellent reading of Morrison’s ethics, however, doesn’t adequately reconcile its ethics of compassion with the existing hierarchies of the narrative world. Morrison describes “A vision of a vast, interconnected universe where every part contains the whole” (14.6) and Singer rightly shows that the character “Hightower explains how interconnection and implicate order theory can provide a basis for ethics: ‘everything in the universe is connected, you see. From atoms to galaxies. We’re all responsible’ (19.15)” (59). If Crafty’s and Buddy’s stories, however, are examples of the part and the whole contained, each of them exists not just in “nested realities” (Singer 58) but in hierarchical realities where the uppermost level is occupied by God or a creator, some “inscrutable, capricious higher power” (Singer 60), who acknowledges no responsibility. Instead, as the Morrison character puts it, “All the suffering and the death and the pain in your world is entertainment for” the creator (26.19), as is made clear in Crafty’s story. Therefore, since we cannot expect compassion from above, we should at least show each other mercy, but this fails to make those above the line who have power subject to any ethics. In terms of the animal question, such a conclusion would, in conventional understanding, mean that animals can expect no compassion from man, but they should at least show it to each other.

It is for this reason that it is so significant that the interconnected stories of Buddy, Crafty, and, we should say, Djuba-Myers too, see also the characters moving up or “down in the hierarchy” (Herman 174). We should be compassionate towards others, therefore, towards those deprived of powers, because our own power is not absolute, and we, too, might be demoted. But, of course, the message of the series is that, ultimately, there is no hierarchy, no simple line between those with and those without powers, because Morrison manages to subvert the hierarchies without reducing everything to sameness. As Singer observes, Morrison is “even more helpless than his characters” (Singer 60), to the extent that he observes to Animal Man, “You’re more real than I am” (26.10), while another character exclaims, “The creators … They’re not real either” (24.14). The creator, too, is deprived of the power to have world “as such.” He cannot attribute to himself what he refuses the character, cannot “ever possess the pure, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such” (Derrida 135).

If all animals, human and nonhuman, are deprived of world “as such,” then animal and man cannot be differentiated from each other on the basis of this single characteristic. And no animals, nonhuman or human, can be herded to one side or the other of this divide and named in general. Therefore, when Animal Man is deprived of world, it does not mean that he has been reduced to the level of the animal, and has become more Animal than Man. Such a statement would ignore the questions posed by the series of that supposedly indivisible limit between animal and man, and would ignore that “the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line” (Derrida 31). In other words, he is more and other than his name would indicate because, as Derrida explains, “drawing an oppositional limit [between Animal and Man] itself blurs the differences not only between man and animal, but among animal societies—there are an infinite number of animal societies, and, within the animal societies and within human society itself, so many differences” (qtd. in Calarco 139). There are so many different experiences of world; no one has world “as such.” Instead, we would argue, both Derrida and Morrison pursue a strategy that “would consist in pluralizing and varying the ‘as such,’ and … in marking that the human is, in a way, similarly ‘deprived,’ … and that there is no pure and simple ‘as such'” (Derrida 160).

Returning to one of the original cues for this essay, it is difficult to classify what Morrison is doing according to Herman’s taxonomy. This is not what Herman would term Umwelt exploration because it does not convey “what it is like for nonhuman agents to interact with their environment on a moment-by-moment basis” (Herman 166). It is perhaps a kind of human allegory, a mutation of Herman’s animal allegory, in which humans stand in for nonhumans, so that it is as if Herman’s taxonomy has been turned back on itself, except that this story of being without power belongs to humans and nonhumans both. That this is a story about animals and humans cannot be doubted. Morrison’s metafictional design is centered on the animal: the smaller stories, of Djuba-Myers and Crafty, within the larger story, of Animal Man, both concern an animal; the limbo of cancelled characters through which Animal Man wanders is also the land of extinct animals (see 25.2, 25.4); and the key to the series’ final issue is produced by a monkey (see 25.21). And, importantly, that scene which Singer describes as “one of the most transgressively charged moments in the series, if not in Morrison’s entire career” (55), when Animal Man turns to the reader and declares, “I can see you!” (19.11), gives dramatic voice to the gaze of that cat which so unsettles Derrida’s world at the start of The Animal That Therefore I Am.16

As Calarco explains of Derrida’s mad encounter with his cat, “I come to myself and arrive at self-consciousness only in and through other animals, that is, other living beings, whether human, animal or otherwise” (125). Animal Man can see you. He interrupts your world. How will you respond? Because this can no longer be a response programmed along the lines of a simple opposition. The response must have regard for a multiplicity of limits, for all the structural differences that vary worlds as such. Like Derrida, Morrison reminds us that we are mortal, and all deprived of powers, all suffering and seeking compassion, more or less, animals and humans (fig 10).

Figure 10

In the end, Morrison’s Animal Man dramatizes what living is for nonhuman and human animals, and exemplifies what Derrida calls the “possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower” (28).


[1] Animal Man had originally been created in 1965 by writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino, appearing in Strange Adventures #180. Morrison’s Animal Man ran for 26 issues from 1988, with Peter Milligan the first of a series of writers to take over writing duties on the series until its cancellation with issue #89. The Last Days of Animal Man, by Gerry Conway and Chris Batista, appeared in 2009, and Animal Man was relaunched in 2011 with Jeff Lemire as writer and Travel Foreman as artist. Morrison wrote the character again in 52 (2006).

[2] Herman is here drawing on “what the German-Estonian philosopher-biologist Jakob von Uexküll termed the Umwelten” (159), the different world experiences of differing (human and nonhuman) selves, even within the same environment.

[3] Derrida’s text opens with an encounter with his cat: “I often ask myself, just to see, who I am—and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example, the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment” (3-4). In the original French, Derrida is here playing with the sense of the words je suis, which mean both “I am” and “I follow.”

[4] Derrida is using the French word bêtise (translated as “asinanity,” a neologism coined by the translator David Wills “to retain the pejorative reference to animality” [Wills qtd. in Derrida 163n6]) because, “One cannot speak … of the bêtise or bestiality of an animal. It would be an anthropomorphic projection of something that remains the preserve of man” (41).

[5] When Derrida speaks of what is proper to man, he does so fully aware that, too often, the human subject has been conceived as a masculine subject. Therefore, as he interrogates the idea of what is “proper,” he interrogates also the idea of “man,” and the way in which “the metaphysics of subjectivity works to exclude not just animals from the status of being full subjects but other beings as well, in particular women, children, various minority groups, and other Others” (Calarco 131). We too, in this paper, speak of “animal” and “man” in order to reflect on the binary terms of “Animal Man,” which can only be thought to name all living things if so many differences are excluded.

[6] In a translator’s note, David Wills explains that, “This portmanteau neologism, combining ‘animal’ [in French, animal] and ‘word’ [mot] is pronounced, in the singular or the plural, the same way as the plural of ‘animal’ [animaux]. With its singular article and plural-sounding ending, it jars in oral French” (qtd. in Derrida 165-66n35).

[7] References are to issue and page number.

[8] The first issue’s title is “The Human Zoo,” which is later going to be used by a host of a TV-show to ridicule Animal Man as if his animal-based powers make him not only a lesser superhero, but also an inferior human being. But the question of the animal is also a question of language in view of the animal, of hearing “The Human Zoo” in a new way. Animot Man will need to assume this title intended as an insult and, after unraveling in the gaze of a fabulous animal (10.22), be reborn “in the zoo … an encyclopedia” (11.4).

[9] On the question of “the ambiguous position of woman in relation to both ‘man’ and animal,” see Guenther (153).

[10] Roon’s existence within Animal Man relates to Derrida’s remark that the naming of animals is a way to use human language to ensure control and order over the nonhumans. In one panel, the reader can see that the chimpanzee has been named Lucky by the scientists (3.1). However, the chimpanzee identifies himself as Roon, rather than the doubly ironic moniker given to him. Rather than being known by the name he chose—which is an impossibility even within Animal Man—Roon has a name assigned to him by a human.

[11] For more on the domesticated Animal Man, see Coughlan (243, 245-46).

[12] In later issues, Animal Man helps a group of foxhunt saboteurs (10), and unites with ecoterrorists to save dolphins (15) and free animals from testing facilities (17).

[13] In Animal Man, many animals are portrayed as rich in world (e.g. the dolphin). However, this can be chalked up to anthropomorphic projection.

[14] All of this impacts also on the concept of umwelt (“environment”) that Herman takes from Uexküll (to whom, Derrida notes, Heidegger makes “copious references” [Animal 143]), and especially on the issue of whether humans have an umwelt or welt.

[15] The word “bwana” is a Swahili word meaning “master,” and used as a respectful form of address. The change in the Beast’s name disrupts, therefore, the implied hierarchy of animals and those who control them. Freedom Beast continued to fight for human rights up until 2009.

[16] Important also are those panels where Buddy is looking directly out at the reader while he addresses another character, as when he confronts Ellen with some home truths about the groceries (5.8), lectures Cliff on the consequences of eating meat (17.10), or debates Roger on the ethics of animal testing: “Think about it for a minute. What makes a human being any more important to the universe than a rat? I mean, think about it!” (6.5).

Works Cited

Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.

Coughlan, David. “The Naked Hero and Model Man: Costumed Identity in Comic Book Narratives.” Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture: Essays on Real and Fictional Defenders of Home. Ed. Lisa DeTora. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 234-52. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. New York: Fordham University Press. 2008. Print.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. “Violence Against Animals.” For What Tomorrow … : A Dialogue. Trans. Jeff Fort. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004. 62-76. Print.

Guenther, Lisa. “Who Follows Whom? Derrida, Animals and Women.” Derrida Today 2.2 (2009): 151-65. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

Herman, David. “Storyworld / Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives.” SubStance 40.1 (2011): 156-181. Print.

Hudson, Laura. “A Species of Thought: Bare Life and Animal Being.” Antipode 43.5 (2011): 1659-1678. Print.

Morrison, Grant. Introduction. Animal Man. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 1991. N. pag. Print.

Morrison, Grant, and Chas Truog. Animal Man. #1-26. New York: DC Comics, 1988-90. Print.

Singer, Marc. Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Print.

Related Articles