By Scott Tipton
October 15, 2003
HE’S AN ANIMAL, MAN
Last week’s mention of the Psycho-Pirate, as well as the recent news of Grant Morrison’s exclusive deal with DC Comics, brought to mind an old favorite of mine, and in my opinion one of the best and most overlooked comics published in the late 1980s: Morrison and Chas Troug’s ANIMAL MAN. The Morrison-Troug series was one of the early successes in what would later become the “Vertigo” house style, taking obscure and little-known DC characters and radically rethinking them with a harder edge, following the debut of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated SANDMAN by only eight months. Before we take a closer look at the series, which really broke out Grant Morrison on the American comics scene, let’s take a quick look back at Animal Man, admittedly one of DC’s more obscure characters.
Animal Man first appeared in the logically named story “I Am the Man With Animal Powers!” in STRANGE ADVENTURES #180, way back in September 1965. In his fairly routine debut appearance, Buddy Baker, out on a hunting trip, is caught in the blast of an exploding alien spaceship, and discovers that he has gained the ability to duplicate the powers of any animal that’s near him.
If a bird’s around, he can fly; if a bat’s near, he has sonar. You get the drift. Precisely how he can fly without wings and such is never really addressed. With his new animal powers, Buddy sends the remaining aliens packing, and embarks upon a short-lived career as a superhero. The adventures of Animal Man, or “A-Man” as he’s also called, are a recurring if somewhat ho-hum feature in STRANGE ADVENTURES for the next year or so, with the high point being his battle with the Mod Gorilla Boss, a talking gorilla in a pinstriped zoot suit.
Animal Man slipped into obscurity for awhile, resurfacing in the 1980s in the pages of ACTION COMICS along with a bunch of other obscure DC also-rans, in a storyline that resulted in the formation of a new superhero team, formalized in a later appearance in DC COMICS PRESENTS, a series which teamed Superman with different guest stars every month. In DC COMICS PRESENTS #77 (January 1985), Superman teamed with the aforementioned brand-new DC super-team, the Forgotten Heroes. A catchy name, I suppose, but probably not so good for team morale.
Aside from Animal Man, the Forgotten Heroes consisted of Immortal Man (a fellow who would reincarnate over and over after repeatedly dying in the line of duty), Congorilla (soldier of fortune Congo Bill, with his mind transferred magically into the body of the Golden Gorilla), renowned spelunker Cave Carson, the amnesiac water-breathing Dolphin, former Suicide Squad leader Rick Flagg, Dane Dorrance (the former leader of the DC Comics scuba team the Sea Devils) and scientist and time traveller Rip Hunter. Not exactly Justice League material, if you know what I mean.
After their four appearances in ACTION COMICS and their two-issue stint in DC COMICS PRESENTS, the Forgotten Heroes only appeared once more, in DC’s epic CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS miniseries (but then again, who didn’t?). And that was pretty much it for Animal Man, until his revival in 1988, when writer Grant Morrison entered the picture.
Following the critical and commercial success of Alan Moore’s run on SWAMP THING, DC Comics made a talent-recruiting tour of the United Kingdom, hoping to strike gold once more. Considering that Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison were both soon after given their first DC work, I think it’s safe to call that trip a success. Morrison was initially assigned ANIMAL MAN as a four-issue miniseries, but as the work from Morrison and artist Chas Troug came in, DC must have been increasingly impressed, because by the time issue #2 was published, the decision had already been made to make ANIMAL MAN an ongoing series. While the first 4-issue story arc had merely set up the status quo for the new series and revived character, with the news that the series was continuing, Morrison set long-range plans in place for the book, to explore both his own beliefs and doubts about the animal–rights movement, as well as the very nature of fiction and the relationship between author and creation. In the very first issue after the initial 4-issue storyline, Morrison tells a heartbreaking single-issue allegory that turns out to be the road map for the next two years’ worth of stories. It’s the kind of narrative foresight that was unheard of at the time, and even now is rarely done to best effect (such as recent issues of NEW X-MEN, in which a new member of the team has been revealed as a long-thought-dead foe in disguise, and yet it all makes sense in retrospect, and the reader is left slapping his forehead in disbelief that he didn’t see it coming. The writer? One Grant Morrison. Imagine that.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by taking a look at Animal Man’s return. When the series begins, we learn that Buddy has been retired from the superhero game for years, and is happily married to his high-school sweetheart Ellen, living in the San Diego suburbs with their two children Cliff and Maxine and working as a stuntman to pay the bills. Inspired by the newly reformed Justice League International making lots of headlines, Buddy decides to get back into the super-hero business, hoping to make a little fame and fortune along the way for himself. Buddy gets his costumes out of mothballs, adding a jacket to give him a place to carry his keys and wallet (and also, he confesses to his wife, because he gets a little self-conscious running around in skintight spandex).
(Side note: I think Animal Man was the pioneer of the unfortunate ‘90s trend of adding a leather jacket to every superhero costume. By the mid-90s, even veterans like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were wearing the damn jackets with the sleeves pushed up. And you haven’t seen stupid until you’ve seen a guy like the Black Knight, WHO’S WEARING ARMOR FOR GOD’S SAKE, sporting what looks like a Members Only jacket over his plate mail. Just remember, Buddy did it first, when it was cool.)
Following a talk-show appearance, Buddy is called by STAR Labs, which had been under attack by strange animal hybrids, to help track down a stolen test animal, an African mountain gorilla. In the course of the investigation, Buddy discovers that the lab, under the command of its head scientist Dr. Myers, has been involved in some morally shaky animal experimentation, and that the stolen gorilla is bearing an engineered strain of anthrax that could wipe out California’s population. Even worse, the gorilla had a friend: the obscure DC hero B’wana Beast, an African super-hero with the power to combine animals into new, strange creatures. It was the B’wana Beast who had stolen the gorilla, and was now infected with the anthrax as well. Driven mad with grief at the death of his friend, B’wana Beast and Buddy have a fierce battle at the San Diego Zoo, before the Beast succumbs to the anthrax. Buddy manages to save the Beast through innovative use of his powers (a trademark of the Morrison run), but abandons the mission and returns to STAR Labs to quit, as well as give the weaselly Dr. Myers a piece of his mind. Myers would soon receive another visitor: B’wana Beast, who returned to the lab with the body of his friend and used his hybrid powers to combine Myers and the gorilla, leaving him to be dissected alive by his own assistants.
This kind of Rod Serling-style twist ending was commonplace on Morrison’s ANIMAL MAN, which alternated between single-issue stories with well-crafted codas and longer, cliffhanger-style continued stories that moved forward the greater narrative. All of which kicked off in ANIMAL MAN #5, with “The Coyote Gospel.”
As the story opens, we see a strange wolflike creature run over by an 18-wheeler, then mysteriously, painfully regenerate and return to its feet.
As the creature is tormented by its continual deaths and excruciating resurrections, the reader starts to get it: It’s Wile E. Coyote. A passing Buddy notices the fracas between the creature and his attacker, and stops to check it out, where he’s given a document by the creature: The Gospel According to Crafty. Illustrated in a Looney Tunes style, the gospel tells of Crafty tiring of the continuous cycle of cartoon violence on his world, and offering to “bear any punishment that will bring peace to the world.” Crafty’s cartoonist Creator exiles Crafty to the world above, the “real world,” where he is made to suffer, in exchange for the peace of his own world.
Unfortunately, Buddy can’t read the scroll, and just then Crafty is downed by a bullet through the heart. In the final panels, Buddy stands confused by the dying Crafty, as the camera pulls back to reveal Crafty on the crossroads, crucified for his world’s sins, as his “Creator” uses a paintbrush to add the finishing touches to his suffering.
There’s a lot going on in this issue. The realistic approach to Crafty’s regeneration is wrenching, and makes it difficult to enjoy a Roadrunner cartoon for awhile afterwards. We also have the first of many adventures for Buddy where he doesn’t quite know what’s going on, and feels like a bystander in his own life. The notion of Wile E. Coyote as a Christ figure is a startling one, and it plays directly into what would become the theme of the entire series: the tyranny of creation, as writers torment their fictional characters for our amusement, just as Crafty is tormented by his Creator, and as Buddy will eventually discover, just as he is tormented for ours.
And all of this comes under a stunning cover by Brian Bolland, who provided covers for the entire run, and who did a remarkable job of encapsulating not just the narrative of the story, but also the mood, in a single image.
In following issues, Buddy finds himself gaining the success as a superhero he was after, even earning membership in the European branch of the Justice League. Along the way, Buddy also finds his beliefs evolving, shifting to a vegetarian lifestyle and going on more missions for environmental and animal-rights causes. Buddy begins to realize his beliefs have made him a target when his home is invaded by the Mirror Master, who warns him to lay off the activism or else his family could pay the price. A swift kick in the vitals from Buddy’s wife Ellen soon sends the Mirror Master on his way, however, all while a mysterious figure watches from the shadows…
ANIMAL MAN issues #10 – 12 begin to explore Animal Man’s origins, sending Buddy on a quest to Africa to encounter the mysterious beings who gave him his powers. It’s not a pleasant trip, however: witness his departure, in which Buddy, in a no doubt deliberate reference to animal experimentation, is literally vivisected.
Once he’s made it to the aliens’ craft, he notices the first hint of his fictional nature: an image of himself from his first 1960s comics appearances, pre-CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Buddy is told that the events of the CRISIS had somehow passed him by, and he and his origin needed to be reconciled with the new reality. Before Buddy can ask any questions, he’s interrupted by the villain of the storyline, a local warlord, who, in another nod to fictionality, is erased from the page like a pencil drawing. “Terrible times are coming,” say the aliens as they fade away. “Be strong. Be careful.”
While Buddy’s away in Africa, his family are visited again by the mysterious shadowy figure (who resembles Buddy, and is even mistaken for Buddy by his daughter Maxine), and are also subject to strange manifestations in and around the house, involving the numbers “9 27.”
Buddy’s involvement in animal-rights causes continues to grow, as he teams up with former Forgotten Heroes teammates Dane Dorrance and Dolphin to stop the needless slaughter of dolphins in the Faroe Islands, in which large number of whales and dolphins are driven close to shore and brutally butchered, essentially for sport (a practice that continues in the Faroe Islands to this day, believe it or not). Buddy and company’s efforts to stop the hunt are cross-cut with the thoughts of a dolphin desperately trying to find his mate and child.
Buddy, Dolphin and Dane manage to save most of the dolphins and whales from the hunters (in a nice bit of dialogue, when the Danish whalers ask the American Dorrance what gives him the right to interfere, he responds, “I have a moral right. I also have a loaded machine gun.”), but not before the whalers’ ringleader slaughters a baby dolphin, an act that enrages Buddy, who loses his temper:
The drowning whaler is met under water by the dolphin searching for his family, who can smell the blood of his child on his clothes. The dolphin delivers the murderer safely to shore, rather than leaving him to die: “that is the way of the sad hu-men … our way is different…”
Buddy’s animal-rights activism comes to a head when he accompanies some protestors to a lab to free some test animals, and the protestors deliberately set fire to the lab, causing a blaze that injures three firefighters, one critically. Buddy resolves to leave the animal-rights movement and his superhero career, and is then met by Professor James Highwater, a theoretical physicist who has been led to Buddy by mysterious messages that look like comic-book pages. Buddy and Highwater follow the pages to a remote mesa on Navajo land, where they find peyote buttons. The two take the peyote, and are met with several startling revelations. Buddy discovers that his powers tie him to the morphogenetic field, from whence all molecules originate.
Accordingly, Buddy doesn’t have to be near an animal to access its abilities, as he’s connected to the essence of every creature that’s ever existed. That’s minor stuff, compared to what Buddy’s about to find out.
As the vision continues, Buddy meets the original Animal Man, from before the events of the CRISIS rewrote DC Comics history. And he’s not happy.
Buddy is beginning to understand that he’s a fictional character, made all the more terrifying in the moment when he looks through the page and sees the reader.
Although startled by the visions, Buddy has begun to write off much of what he saw as a peyote-induced hallucination, and returns home to a horrible discovery: the bodies of Ellen, Cliff and Maxine, murdered in their kitchen.
In despair, Buddy is about to kill himself when he gets a call from the Mirror Master, who had turned down the hit on Buddy’s family, and was willing to give him the names of those responsible. Buddy and Mirror Master track down the three corporate fatcats who wanted Buddy out of the way, and this time, Buddy isn’t taking prisoners:
Soon enough, both the hitman and those who ordered the hit are brutally murdered, and Buddy is no happier. In his grief, Buddy settles on a new plan: he’ll get a time machine and fix everything. Using his Justice League credentials, Buddy lies through his teeth to his former time-travelling teammate Rip Hunter (although they don’t remember each other at all, thanks to the CRISIS), and is given a recently repaired time machine.
Buddy activates the machine, but it malfunctions, sending him through his recent past, but leaving him unable to touch anything or communicate with anyone. In a brilliant bit of foreshadowing revealed, we discover that the shadowy figure stalking Buddy’s house as far back as 14 issues earlier was actually Buddy himself, futilely trying to warn his family of the arrival of the assassin on September 27.
All Buddy’s efforts to are for naught, and Buddy winds up in the 1960s, chatting with long-lived DC types like the Phantom Stranger, Jason Blood and the aforementioned Immortal Man. There he re-discovers his will to live, and fades back to his own time, where things aren’t going at all well…
Since their peyote vision on the mesa, Highwater has been summoned to Arkham Asylum, where one of the inmates has been having some health problems. To be exact, he’s vomiting up comic books through his eyes. And not just any inmate; this is Roger Hayden, formerly the supervillain known as the Psycho-Pirate, as discussed here last week. Following the CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, Hayden was the only one left who remembered the way things used to be, with the existence of the multiple Earths: Earth-1, Earth-2 and so on. Apparently Hayden’s memory is allowing the continuity to weaken, and soon characters that were erased from the DC Universe by the rewriting from the Crisis are starting to fade back into reality at Arkham Asylum.
Worse, they too are starting to realize the fictional nature of their reality. See here the returned Ultraman, who was killed in the opening pages of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #1, test out his newly realized constraints:
Things are rapidly getting out of control at Arkham until the arrival of Buddy, who is able to use his knowledge of his own fictionality to begin to put things to order.
Meanwhile, Highwater preaches his own newly realized gospel to the assembled characters: “Our lives are replayed every time someone reads us. We can never die. We outlive our creators. Every time someone reads our stories, we live again!”
With that, all the characters are assumed into the Medusa mask, which Highwater agrees to wear, confined to a cell in Arkham, accepting the burden of keeping the new DC reality safe from its past.
Subsequently, when Buddy returns home, he finds himself in yet another strange landscape; this time, he’s in limbo, where forgotten characters bide their time until they’re remembered and written about again. Buddy is given the tour by Merryman of the Inferior Five, and even told that they’d met previously when Buddy was here before, until he was written out and returned to the continuity. While there, Buddy also encounters such forgotten characters as the Green Team (a 1960s-era boy millionaires’ club), Ultra, the Multi-Alien and the Space Canine Patrol Agents. (Ironically, some of the folks Buddy encountered have actually been written out of Limbo and appear in DC comics nowadays, such as Max Mercury, Mister Freeze and the Red Bee…)
Buddy wanders the wastelands around Limbo on a useless quest, eventually winding up back at his own house, where he opens a door and finds himself in Scotland, where he stands face to face with his writer, his own personal Creator, Grant Morrison.
Morrison’s world, and by extension our world, is a gray, colorless place in which the brightly 4-colored Animal Man sticks out like a sore thumb. In issue #26 (entitled “Deus Ex Machina,” in reference to the theatrical convention from ancient Greek theatre, in which the play would end with the gods coming down from above and providing a happy ending), the final issue of Morrison’s run, Morrison and Buddy have a 22-page heart-to-heart about the nature of Buddy’s reality, and the limits and frailties Morrison has felt as his writer.
It’s at once ludicrous and compelling, and yet doesn’t at all feel self-indulgent, perhaps because it so perfectly capped off all of Buddy’s frustrations at not being in control of his own life, and contrasted them with Morrison’s frustrations with not doing a better job creating Buddy’s life. And in the end, having put Buddy through so much, Morrison is a wise enough writer to know when to reward his character (and his readers) with a little much-needed creative license. “Deus Ex Machina” indeed.
The series continued after Morrison left, but was never as compelling as those first 26 issues. By breaking down a bit of the wall between creator and creation, and between character and reader, Morrison created in Buddy Baker one of the most fully realized and identifiable characters in comics, precisely because Buddy, like most of us walking around these days, did the best he could in muddling through a world he never quite understood. Buddy may have been a puppet, but unlike the rest of us, he was at least given a glance at the fellow pulling the strings.
There are two paperback collections of ANIMAL MAN available, ANIMAL MAN and ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, with a third, DEUS EX MACHINA, coming out soon. I highly recommend it.
Scott Tipton vividly remembers walking out of the comic shop in Santa Barbara in 1990 and flipping to that last page of ANIMAL MAN #19, only to see Buddy’s family murdered. Man, was he pissed. Got any questions bout comics? Send ‘em here and we’ll smarten you up. One line, no waiting.
E-MAIL THE AUTHOR |