Route 66 Revisited: "Animal Man", and Family in Tow

The two great modern myths are the safety and security of family, and the wild, freedom of the open road. In Animal Man #7 and in the issues preceding, writer Jeff Lemire tackles them both.

Animal Man #7

Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman
Price: $2.99
Publication Date: 2012-05

Choice, Greil Marcus reminds us in a sublime edition of NPR's "Talk of the Nation", is a geography. Some seven years ago now (can it really have been that long?), Greil appears on the show to promote his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. There's plenty to talk about; the full complement of the backup musicians, the crafting of the lyrics that resist a cultural specificity of the 60s and become timeless instead, the turn in Dylan's music around the time "Like a Rolling Stone" releases. But crucial to whatever else is happening in the interview, crucial to Greil's own struggle with naming his book, is the idea of choice, and the idea of geography.

Greil begins referencing this with, "The metaphor 'the crossroads', it can mean what you just described, it can mean somebody simply realizing that his life is going to change, the world is changing. Now it's a question of which way do you go? Do you have the guts, do you have the strength or the imagination to think in a new way, in Bob Dylan's case to sing and write in a new way? And of course it echoes that story of Robert Johnson or other Blues singers from the 20s or 30s at the crossroads, having to make a question of whether they're going to commit their lives to the Blues and really a life of self-destruction, loneliness and wondering. Or if they'll turn their backs and go home and settle down and disappear into the anonymous life that most of us live". And slightly after that opening salvo, Greil continues speaking about the actual Highway 61 immortalized on the Dylan album, "Well it is a metaphor…It goes from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, it divides the country right down the middle, and it says 'Ok, go West, you have the nerve. Scurry back East if you don't'. All those questions are there".

How easy is it to fall into the mythicality of not only the Dylanesque Highway 61, but the deeper, deadlier, more seductive myth of the Open Road. More than once I've caught myself falling into that particular dream, and you have too. Infinite road stretching in front of me, I'm heading South on a Harley Davidson Muscle (for me South has always had the greater appeal of not just trouble, but actual danger). Maybe for you it's West, maybe it's a Mustang, or a 'Vette. Whoever you are it's always the same. It's a slow and deliberate movement in a direction you're only now just beginning to come to terms with. It's a machine that will answer to that pace, or, when needed, will kick into high gear and give you the kind of speed that allows Zen communion with pure intransigency, with the permanent, the immanent. It's the thing inside us all that we will one day teach to Howl, that we will one day set loose, one day set free.

But of course this is not the case. We're all Back East in our own way, even if we've made it West or South. We've all be set into laptops and coffee-shops, generations upon generation of iPlod. Choice is the geography of liberation only insofar as it lives in the moment. Upon arrival, our conclusions are more or less always the same. This is the real Battle Against Tomorrow--the possibility that the momentary freedoms we experience become a new kind of perpetual. Or to put it another way, we've all had that dream of the Open Road, but how many of us have conjoined that with a dream of a nuclear family.

And yet, it is exactly this drama that Animal Man writer Jeff Lemire masters with such absolute skill. We don't really see it very clearly in the opening issues of the series--there's a good deal of what parades as a regular superhero story. The idea of a set of Villains, the Hunters, who can wear the skins, and the very lives of humans and animals as a disguise is a metaphor for the kind of comicbook Animal Man becomes. In the first issue we see Animal Man Buddy Baker conform to the superhero genre--there's trouble at the local hospital, Buddy swoops in to save the day. But the real story is what happens at home, how Buddy's four year-old Maxine seems to have inherited her father's powers in the most twisted of ways--as an ability to reanimate the dead pets of the neighborhood.

As trouble ensues, Buddy and Maxine are drawn in one direction, while wife Ellen and son Cliff seek shelter with Ellen's mom. Even the spectacle of the confrontation we've all been waiting for, the grand conflagration between Animal Man, his heir apparent, and the Hunters Three, falls into a kind of ignominy. The real engine of the story is Buddy's family, how they're torn apart, how they reunite, how they pack themselves into an RV, with Grandma, and take to the road to escape whatever Animal Apocalypse might be coming.

The real art that Jeff finds, is the art of intersection. One the one hand there is the myth we've all been raised on, the myth of the Open Road, the myth of infinite, unfurling space, the myth of infinite choice. And on the other hand, the myth of the nuclear family, the myth of stability, the myth of home. By intersecting these two grand mythologies, Jeff pushes us into directions we've never dared dream, pushes us to pose questions we've not dared ask. What happened to Hunter S. Thompson's family over the course of Hell's Angels, and over the course of his career? They were there at the beginning of the book, but what happened to them? The question isn't just about the specifics of Hunter's vanishing family, it is a question for us all. Are we really locked into the choice Robert Johnson and Stagger Lee faced? Or like Buddy, is there the possibility of more?

Once read from the point of view of intersectionism, Animal Man can be seen to unfold a wonderhell of the postmodern condition. The rescue scene in issue #7's "Animal vs. Man" is instructive in this regard. It's one of the two superhero rescues that I can readily remember, one of the two that I'm actually excited to tell people about (the other is the server's retelling of her rescue at the hands of Superman in Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee's For Tomorrow). Caught in town, Cliff approaches two "dangerous" girls, one wearing an Animal Man tee. He opens with his connection to Animal Man, only to get shot down. Buddy shows up only to "hurry Cliff up" because the "Justice League needs them".

But more than just the ultra-cool of having a superhero dad who can rescue you from embarrassment as much as from the reanimated dead, Animal Man is about a working through of an entire family staring down the barrel of infinite choice, and open geography. It's about Cliff watching the Ryan Daranovsky film "Red Thunder" (a deliberate retrofitting of The Wrestler, with Buddy in the role played by Mickey Rourke) on his iPhone as the Bakers attempt to outrun the Animal Apocalypse. It's Ellen pretending to hold it together even as all the while she's freaking out--not so much at the pure weirdness of the Animal Apocalypse, but at not being able to deal with the emotional turbulence of Buddy and her mother never exchanging a word. And it's Buddy himself, flung into the future to see a vision of a grownup Maxine having donned the mantle of Animal Woman, uncertain if he should trying to wrest his daughter free from her apparent destiny.

Imagine Easy Rider, now imagine Easy Rider with families. There's still contraband being smuggled from LA to New Orleans, there's still the Death Throes of the American Dream, there's still the illusive Hunt for Freedom, but it's a journey undertaken by the Huxtables, (or the Simpsons, the Addamses or the Munsters) not by counterculture icons. Imagine a "silent majority" that would never have voted Nixon into office.

Jeff Lemire's Animal Man is all of these things. It is the existential angst of not only the "Death of the American Dream" (we already have Easy Rider, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and a slew of other giants for that), nor is it simply the portrait of a crisis in the idea of family (for that we have the Simpsons, X-Men, and dozens of other immortal works). Jeff's Animal Man is the simultaneous breakdown of both of these modern myths, family and freedom. And in writing it, Jeff suggests that perhaps we too easily bought into the idea that choosing one, means excluding the other.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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