A Story within a Story
“Books are the blessed chloroform of the mind.” — Robert W. Chambers
To help understand the complexities of metafiction it is important to explore its origins and highlight how it has been used to inform literature and theoretical studies. In ancient Greek, the term ‘Meta’ translates to ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between’ and (in true Lovecraftian fashion) ‘beyond’. It was during the late 20th century that the philosophy of ‘Metatheology’ aided in our persistence to see within, often setting the individual on a quest to look for the answers to such questions as: “What makes us human?” “How and why do we study God?” Philosophies that mankind has reflected upon in an attempt to understand their place within the universe.
Although often associated with modernist movements; particular tropes of metafiction can be linked as far back as Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 14th century and the later work of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy in 1756, in which all these stories contained elements of self-reflexive devices. It was in such narratives that characters became aware of their own existence and forged a literary device that first attempted to break the fourth wall. This device has been used to delve much deeper into narrative forms and — at least from an analytical point of view — this self-conscious method is primarily used to help highlight a work’s significance as an artefact within itself; one that primarily provokes one to question the relationship between ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’. As a clear analogy, the method could be compared to theatre where it becomes more difficult for an audience to separate themselves from the performance, yet it is within the words on the page that metafiction reminds the reader they are aware of reading a fictional account.
In Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal masterpiece Don Quixote, the use of metafiction was written to great effect through its use of ‘realism’ and became a benchmark for any novelist who used this more self-conscious process in their writing. It could be argued that realism and metafiction are one and the same and simply another technique of parody to help highlight the zeitgeist of the time, forcing the reader to reflect on the world around them and, in turn, themselves. Don Quixote is metafiction because the central story highlights the nature behind the method of fiction through its own procedures and assumptions, yet Cervantes still managed to build a world that balances the fantastical element by delivering it as a state of mind and therefore is accepted more by the reader.
In 1970 the writer and philosopher, William H. Gass first coined the term ‘metafiction’ in an essay; later collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1983). Gass’ interpretation can simply be summarised as ‘fiction about fiction’ and therefore it would be easier to label Don Quixote as a ‘book about books’. Within Cervantes’ novel, the multiple use of authors develops an awareness of how the name and image of the original creator influence the meaning behind the story. It is only in the opening prologue that Cervantes’ friend advises him on how to make the book Don Quixote resemble other tales of chivalry. Later, during further inquisition of Don Quixote’s own tomes, they discover Cervantes’ first novella, La Galatea and deem it worthy of existence. All the while, various other characters and authors within the text discuss processes, attitudes, history and social circumstances — even Cervantes himself — and as Quixote continues through the story it becomes more and more clear that the books are the very crux of his madness.
With all of this in mind, there is a genuine sense that when reading such fiction the reader himself begins to delve into the very mindset the central character is possessed by. In Ronald B. Richardson’s metablog on metafiction, he states:
The madness is that most people think ‘realism’ is realer than other forms of fiction. These people are confused by the name of the genre. They take it literally. They suppose that only tragedy is honest, only violence is authentic, and only the downtrodden are ‘real people.’ When a French student of mine was leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, I warned him that Hollywood was not as glamorous as he might imagine. When he came back, he told me he was not disappointed since the dirtiness made Hollywood seem more realistic. But dirt is no realer than glitter and diamonds. And what tortuous logic induces an intelligent man to look for realism in Hollywood? “Don Quixote: The Origin of Realism and Metafiction”
In 1895, Robert W. Chambers’ novel The King in Yellow delivered a series of short stories centred around a forbidden play which induces despair and madness in those who read it. Although the central characters are not self-aware there is a fabricated myth of a story within a story that would go on to inspire the delirious works of H.P. Lovecraft. With his Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft had created a cosmic deity that had become a nightmarish source of anxiety for all humanity and (in the context of its own universe) had become the subject of worship by a number of religions around the world. This malevolent entity was depicted as the amalgamation of a giant humanoid octopus and dragon; hundreds of meters tall with human appendages and a pair of crude wings on its back; a nightmarish leviathan that harkened back to creatures of ancient legend. Here, Lovecraft was building his own world to explore in which it would become difficult to separate the writer from his fiction. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is a direct homage to Lovecraft and a prime example of metaphysical horror… a homage to the madness dormant in such writing.
With obvious rifts of Lovecraft in his remake of The Thing - John Carpenter plunged several more layers with In the Mouth of Madness which made good use of homage to build on its metafictional storytelling.
From Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, readers have witnessed central characters pulled into the very worlds they read about and, in King’s instance, even write themselves into their own fantasy like a modern Cervantes. However dark or enlightening seminal literature has been; it is clear that the greatest works transcend time because they have resonance. If there is nothing entertaining at its core then it will not last, and in a day and age where digital content, streaming platforms (and A.I.) seem to rule; now, more than ever, a metafictional state is the perfect platform to engage new readers and build on intellectual properties.
So, we arrive at sequential art. Before cinema was dominated by the superhero movies, comics books (in all their forms) were often frowned upon by the literary circle. Since the mid-’80s the comic book has attempted to reinvent the medium, particularly the perception of how the superhero functions within a modern world. Although Frank Miller was to break new boundaries with The Dark Knight Returns, both Batman and Superman were able to paint a very clear picture of Regan-era America that helped to connect with a wider audience. However, it was in the pages of DC’s more obscure title, Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had already been setting the precedence in how to delve much deeper into a fictional world. In true, gothic fashion, Moore’s stories were rich in texture and romanticism and it was shortly after the title’s success that DC sought a similar approach in Grant Morrison’s treatment for the z-list character Animal Man, helping to set the foundations for DC’s imprint, Vertigo.
A Different Species
“Sometimes you wonder, in an interconnected universe, who’s dreaming who?” — Grant Morrison
British writer, Grant Morrison was born in 1960 to a working-class family from Glasgow where his father had become a political activist who was a member of the Committee of 100, an anti-nuclear group who retaliated by producing underground reports. In an interview with The Scotsman, Morrison once stated:
My father was, for me, a genuine superhero. A big man. A super-tough soldier guy. He was really clever. I saw him going out on campaigns, going up against the police, breaking into bases and taking photographs to get information out to working-class people. He was an immense presence, and he actually helped people. My mother would say that maybe he didn’t help his family as much as he helped everyone else, but you know what these committed activist guys are like. He was always looking to improve somebody’s life, while maybe neglecting what was going on back home. That was his Kryptonite. But I only saw that later.
Walter Morrison would take Grant as a decoy provoking his son to kick a ball over the fences of the missile bases. It was here he would witness striking and unforgettable imagery of cardboard coffins in prep for the casualties of a nuclear war; a hidden world that was more than enough to spark the imagination of the young Morrison and, along with his father’s political stance, forged a strong, activist voice in his later work. Glasgow’s ties to America are therefore not difficult to see through the US nuclear submarine bases at Faslane and Holy Loch where the US Navy brought their American pop culture to the fringes of Scotland. Morrison has stated that the Yankee Book Store in Paisley may have been the first shop in the UK to sell American comics; stocking up on what was made available to the US Military personnel. With the fear of Armageddon, it is also of no surprise that Grant Morrison found solace in comic books.
With a strong taste for music and fashion, Morrison’s devotion to his mod-psychedelic punk band, The Mixers had waned in the mid-’80s and, therefore, began to commit himself more to his writing. Having briefly produced work in the late ’70s with his Moorcock-influenced Gideon Stargrave strip (later incorporated into their series The Invisibles) it wasn’t until just after the success of Alan Moore’s Marvelman (Miracleman in the US) that Grant Morrison and artist, Steve Yeowell, made their first impact with 2000AD’s Zenith; a futuristic satire that examined the impact of celebrity culture. With Alan Moore already pond-hopping after the success of Miracleman, his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing had sparked an interest in British writers and with the popularity of Zenith, it wasn’t long before the headhunters of DC were about to offer Grant Morrison a similar opportunity to dust off one of their lesser-known characters.
Created by Dave Wood and influential artist, Carmine Infantino in 1965, Strange Adventures #190 introduced the reader to Animal Man’s strange powers. After being caught in the blast of an alien explosion Buddy Baker learns to temporarily absorb the abilities of any animal within close proximity, which enables him to fight crime. With his brief appearances during the 1980s; including Crisis on Infinite Earths, the crossover (and modern retellings) of popular superheroes ushered in the modern age of comic books and an opportunity to rebuild another universe… what has, ultimately, evolved become the renditions of onscreen multiverses we are oh so familiar within the bloated behemoths of the big screen.
As one of the more obscure characters of the DC Universe, Buddy Baker and his alter ego, Animal Man, had become one of many disposable commodities to throw towards the rise of talented British writers who had emerged during the mid-’80s. With the reinvention of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing character, Alan Moore’s genius intellect paved a unique path, not only for Morrison’s interpretation of Animal Man but also for the reawakening of The Sandman by Neil Gaiman.
Where Moore’s take on Swamp Thing was very much steeped in classic EC horror titles and gothic literature, there were still traces of his interest in the dreamscape — that man is in tune with his consciousness — a belief that we are one step closer towards understanding the true power of art and therefore the power of magic. For both writers, these notions are very much one in the same and have become the foundation of their works; Morrison in particular believing that the stories he creates are his spells. In an interview with Publishers Weekly (2008), Morrison stated:
Comics specifically seem to be quite magical to me — in the sense that they are directly drawn onto paper. They relate to the very first drawings that people did on cave walls, and people believe now that those things were meant to be magical, that by drawing and creating a model of the bison, you could affect what happened to the real bison. Your hunt would be more successful the next day. So the idea of drawing and creating representations is the very first notion that we had of magic, that you could make an image of something and affect the image and, in turn, affect the reality of the thing. Like sympathetic magic, when you make, for instance, a little doll of someone and then stab it, they will experience something. So that idea of representation, I think, is the first magical idea, and comics are still very close to that.
There is no doubt that these two Mages of graphic literature have had a seismic impact on the comic book industry, which has remained just as important three decades later. Without delving too much into the contemptuous relationship between these two writers, this essay focuses more on the ‘nature’ of Morrison’s run on Animal Man and why it has remained an important piece of graphic literature in its own right.
Morrison’s approach — which becomes more and more apparent as his Animal Man storyline develops — is very similar to Moore’s in terms of a writer’s belief system and personal experiences of altered states and spirituality. As Buddy Baker’s story begins to elude more and more towards a metaphysical arc of the character, it is often very clear that Morrison was injecting the story with many unconventional concepts that have often been referred to as shamanic. Where Moore’s Swamp Thing travels a more two and even three-dimensional plane through space and time, Morrison attempts to push the narrative further and create planes that not only break the panels of the traditional sequential art form but also the very boundaries of reality.
It is during Morrison’s reinvention that the titular character becomes more and more self-aware of his fictional state. Planting the meta seeds in “The Coyote Gospel” (volume 1, issue #5) — in which a version of Wile E. Coyote experiences a cycle of violent deaths — slowly, over the course of the following issues and Buddy’s experience with what is perceived to be a ‘fictional’ character, his consciousness becomes so elevated, that the arc concludes with him meeting his creator who is, in fact, a version of Morrison himself.
With such a lateral approach to the construct of this tale, one is reminded of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This not a pipe). From this lateral point of view, the reader is forced to question whether this is Grant Morrison or rather a picture of Grant Morrison. As he continues to interact with Animal Man and reveal the cruelty and torment he inflicts — much like human beings inflict on nature — the sequence of images adds further to the illusion of the medium. As Buddy engages in his final fight, his suffering is juxtaposed by Morrison thanking his collaborators and even urging the reader to join the organisation, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). “You care about animals because I wanted to use you to draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the world.”
In order to understand the subgenre of metafiction, Morrison’s Animal Man takes you through Buddy Baker’s growth in human consciousness that explores an abstract ideal of a spiritual world beyond the physical; a key concept that deals with such metaphysical issues. During the course of the story, Buddy gradually embraces and masters his animal instincts and forges his ability to his advantage. As his quest becomes more and more challenging through an increasingly abstract perception of his world, it is here that Morrison’s narrative is saturated in familiar motifs that are built on the importance of semiotics. This is where Animal Man travels a more cerebral plane; reminiscent of many religious beliefs and philosophies. As already referred to, Morrison is somewhat of a shaman himself and well known for traversing particular planes of existence, more than often threaded into his multi-layered storylines. Animal Man’s quest is somewhat reminiscent of enlightenment where only the truly wise may reach the borders of their own existence and transcend to a higher plane.
When Buddy Baker questions his reality; Morrison goes on to explain how “You’re more real than I am”, which alludes to Hindu mysticism where the soul reincarnates on earth over and over again until it is perfected and therefore reunites with its Source. With this in mind, there is a karmic philosophy and undertone that constantly drives the narrative of Animal Man.
It is in these metaphysical states that both Moore and Morrison, through their own controversial beliefs and British cynicism, helped reinvent the comic book; elevating it beyond ‘puerile’ and ‘juvenile nonsense’ left over from the post-war era. Both writers’ leanings towards philosophy and more implicit methods have helped maintain a multi-layered approach to their stories. Both intended to break boundaries in storytelling and through Morrison’s emphasis on the existence of fiction and reality the fourth dimension becomes all the more accessible as he blurs the line between creator and creation; the idea and the final product. Some would argue that any neglected superhero could have been used to experiment with storytelling with these concepts but the mere idea behind the metaphor of man’s relationship with animals can be a similarly cruel one and during the final scenes of the story, Morrison’s message becomes all the more clear and helps to justify why Buddy Baker has been chosen.
While writing Animal Man, Morrison’s other DC title, Doom Patrol also delved into the use of meta-fiction, albeit more of a parody of popular titles such as Marvel Comics’ The Uncanny X-Men and The Punisher. Much like the discarded Animal Man, the characters of Doom Patrol were relaunched post-Infinite Crisis with Morrison taking over the writing from issue #19. As the antithesis to the X-Men, through the Doom Patrol’s weird adventures the truly uncanny nature of a group of outcasts was explored, literally painting a rogues gallery of surreal villains centred around the Dada movement and the free association of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up techniques. Morrison not only delivered a unique vision but also pushed how far the written word could be fragmented; forcing the reader to analyse and therefore decipher what characters such as antagonists, the Scissormen, were saying.
Rather surprisingly, the recent Doom Patrol TV series (2019-2023) lent heavily into the weird, including oddity Danny the Street; a sentient piece of geography that houses a number of other obscure characters from the DC universe. Looking ahead, amongst the ‘swamp’ of superhero movies and fatigue of multiverse choices, it looks as though we are one step closer to witnessing Buddy Baker and his alter ego come to life beyond the pages; an obscure enough character that James Gunn may adopt. Not only are there opportunities to play with breaking down those (four) walls but also an apt character to comment on the state of the world — how we treat the planet and each other — ironically, through the eyes of a character trapped within the confines and corruption of a Hollywood system.
The ultimate ‘stunt’. Oh… how meta.