Route 66 Revisited: “Animal Man”, and Family in Tow

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.

RATING 7 / 10


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