I don't often review trades, I generally prefer the quick pace of doing individual issue reviews, and I will likely go through each issue in this trade individually at some point; but my motivation's been at a low, and I'm trying to see if this could jump start it.
With solo issues, it's easier, and makes more sense to do nice easy rundowns of all the key pros and cons, but a trade is often too comprehensive for such a simple approach. Somtimes you just have to sit down, start writing, and see where it takes you.
So why this? Animal Man? The third trade in the series? The answer is Grant Morrison. Certainly there's a wide range of Morrison stories out there, nearly all equally deserving of the heaps of praise they get. But which Morrison series is the 'best'? There's still plenty I haven't read, and I'm not definitely saying Animal Man is THE best, but no other Morrison series I've read has captured the perfect balance of every single element that defines the general career of Grant Morrison.
Morrison has spent 17 issues leading Animal Man through a variety of strange situations, reshaping his life and origins and constantly brushing him against the 4th wall; while also pushing some heavy handed environmentalist messages as well. It's all been well and good, but something's been missing. I definitely did not find the second trade NEARLY as engaging as the first. Some of the 4th wall stuff was groaningly blatant, the environmentalism was running the risk of being shoved down out throats, and some of the main arc felt a little repeated from the first arc. And none of the one-shot stories held half the weight of the stupendous Coyote Bible issue. So Morrison does what he does best. He grabs the ends of the threads he's left across the series and he pulls, hard.
Deus Ex Machina begins with Animal Man and James Highwater going to a mesa and tripping peyote for about 2 solid issues in a mind blowing sequence that's probably every bit as enlightening as a real peyote trip. It culminates in one of the biggest heart-skipping-a-beat moment's I've ever seen where Animal Man stares straight at you. Yes you.
And when Animal Man returns, he's dragged through the same thing the rest of the genere started going through. The gritty anti-hero phase. Morrison drags Animal Man through a painful gauntlet in absolutely every level; physical, emotional, and spiritual. A gauntlet pieced together from every loose plot hook he left behind in previous issues. A gauntlet so punishing that Animal Man looses himself in just about every possible way. But Morrison isn't finished with him yet.
Using Psycho Pirate, Morrison crafts a story that isn't just a mainstream superhero comic, it's a story about the idea of a mainstream superhero comic. It's not just the story of someone discovering the 4th wall, it's every set of ramifications of a character in a mainstream shared universe discovring the 4th wall. Crisis On Infinite Earths was a catalyst for so much invisible devastation.
Finally, Animal Man is given all the answers; and Morrison atones for literally every single flaw this series has ever had. He pretty much tells us that no matter how bad a fictional character's life can be destroyed, their lives are better than ours in every way. Morrison may have manufactured terrible tragedy for Animal Man, but anything can be overturned, and everything had a reason. Who can Morrison turn to when his cat dies? He has no almighty writer to magically fix things, or even to blame.
The final issue basically tells us that Animal Man was a very personal project for Morrison. Many major plot elements were imagined things and rituals from his childhood. He poured his own life, quite literally, into this series. He sometimes used it as a soapbox, and other times resorted to cheap drama. But he atones for it all. And most importantly, he shared his knowledge with Animal Man. He straight up tells Animal Man that he is the same god for him that he is for the Doom Patrol, but that he didn't tell them that like he did to Animal Man. And despite everything he says, despite his bitterness at his inability to fix his own tragedies and telling Animal Man he should suffer the same, despite the points he's trying to make, despite the almost assholish way he forces Animal Man to kill him or sic monstrous foes on him for no reason other than adding a fight to the mostly conversational final issue; he gives Animal Man the greatest parting gift, and then fades these 27 issues from memory.
So, inserting his self aside, why is this a crowning achievement of Morrison's? For one, even though it's full of wild insane storylines that don't fully realize until the end; it's never as painfully confusing as much of his other work. It's more enjoyable to read through when doing the first read. And nothing seems like it's bizarre for the sake of it, like Invisibles and Doom Patrol sometimes do. But what it really comes down to, is that no other series I've read have ever broken the 4th wall with such incredible depth; it actually made me feel that Morrison's more recent works are a tad inferior to his Vertigo stuff because they don't trascend the media quite as strongly. Sure his Batman stuff has some incredibly deep things; but transcending the media was an integral part of the very core of the story for his works from this time; and so far I think no other work he's done captures this spirit quite as well as Animal Man, and Animal Man reads easier than Doom Patrol or The Invisibles.
So do yourself a favor and pick this series up from the start. It is hands down one of the greatest comics ever written.
Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina recieves a 6/5 for achievements above and beyond perfection. The art is solid, the book literally appologizes for or justifies ANY and ALL flaws that may have popped up along the way, and frankly there's just nothing quite as sublime as this.