The coyote savior
I have a confession to make; I don’t understand some of Grant Morrison’s stories. What I mean to say is that I usually can follow the plot and generally comprehend the basic narrative but I feel like I’m missing important things within the tales. It seems as if I am only reading the surface and there is so much more below. My geek resume is strong — I read my first comic book when I was ten years old and I think I have a fairly decent comprehension of the how comic book stories generally work. I understand panel layouts, reoccurring themes and ideas, and have a working knowledge of comic book continuity and history. In other words, I’m a fanboy (albeit a middle-aged one). This means that I’m generally able to relatively easily process and understand the comic books I read each week. Frankly, many of them are reheating older ideas that I have encountered at least once and probably several times before. Superman loses his powers and has to prove it’s not only his super-abilities that make him a hero. (I’ve read it before.) Spider-Man has to protect the very society that fears and persecutes him. (I’ve seen it many times.) A comic book publisher creates a company-wide crossover that promises to change everything; I’ve invested more money than I can count into these tales and have the issues of Invasion, Zero Hour, and House of M to prove it.
Since I believe I know most, if not all, of the comic book tropes, it bothers me when I find something that I can’t completely wrap my head around. Some of Grant Morrison’s stories do this to me. The Invisibles — I’m still trying to grasp many of the stories’ imbedded concepts. Arkham Asylum — I think I understand it but then I wonder if I’m missing something. Final Crisis — don’t even get me started on this one. This confounds me because All-Star Superman and Morrison’s Doom Patrol are two of my favorite comic book runs ever. It irritates me that I can’t completely follow all of Morrison’s storytelling, especially since I agree with him that narrative is a powerful force that is widely underappreciated.
The other reason that I would like to better follow all of Morrison’s references and motivations is he wrote a comic book story that to this day still deeply resonates with me. It’s Animal Man #5, “The Coyote Gospel,” a heartbreaking tale of heroism and loss, the like of which rarely finds its way into superhero comics. The story features a Wile E. Coyote stand-in named Crafty (get it?) who serves as the story’s messianic figure. If you start with the elevator pitch of “Wile E. Coyote is Christ” you’ve already got a bizarre and amazing idea but Morrison adds heroism and sorrow to the mix. He somehow makes the reader care about the coyote savior while at the same time making us question ourselves and the world around us. A pretty mean feat for a “funny book” about a guy who received animal powers from aliens.
In “The Coyote Gospel,” Crafty comes from a Warner Brothers-like cartoon world where life is poor, nasty, brutish, and long. The land’s animated denizens are continually battling each other with Acme-type weapons and cartoonish methods. This causes only pain and strife though none of the cartoons question their lives. One day Crafty rebels against this system of violence and appears before his god. Appropriately, Crafty’s god is the artist who created him and presumably writes and draws the coyote’s adventures. The creator sends Crafty into the comic book version of the reader’s world and declares that the cartoon coyote has been sentenced to Hell. As long as Crafty suffers in this other existence the creator promises to allow peace to flourish in the cartoon world. Crafty is given a new body and suffers pain and humiliation again and again but he seemingly cannot die. The former cartoon coyote agonizes so his people (read animals) will not. He bears his world’s pain and sacrifices himself in order to fight misery and injustice. In the end, a conservative Christian, who believes that he is slaying the devil, kills Crafty. The coyote cries as he holds a crucifixion pose and dies in the middle of a four-way intersection, which looks suspiciously like a cross. The story ends with a giant hand using a huge paintbrush to fill in the artistic details. The artist god has killed Crafty and the pact that kept the animal’s world safe is now broken.
I read this story about once a year and it always manages to touch me and force me to ponder life, death, selflessness, and the nature of God. Not bad for a comic book tale featuring a Wile E. Coyote look-alike and a yellow and orange clad superhero. Maybe I want too much but I wonder if more of Morrison’s stories could touch me this way if I better understood them. All-Star Superman did. I reveled in connecting the dots between DC One Million and the twelve issue series. I loved the numerous winks to Silver Age stories and issue number six broke my heart. This makes me ponder if I should work harder to understand Morrison’s writing and do the necessary research to better connect with the author. Something about that idea leaves me cold though. If I have to studying in order to understanding Morrison’s work, will the benefit be the same? Will I feel it as deeply as I do with Animal Man #5? Maybe sometimes our histories and interests coincide with an author’s imagination and we cannot force this connection. Perhaps, it is something unique when a writer and a reader share a narrative bond and these moments should be treasured for their rarity. I probably will never completely understand Grant Morrison’s stories but maybe that’s a good thing.
Jeffrey Johnson is an avid reader of comic books, watcher of television and film, and an annoying fount of 1980s and 1990s trivia. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University and has written numerous journal articles and book chapter about popular culture. His latest book is entitled Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. He currently lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.