Posted - January 23, 2011 | Updated August 5, 2015
Grant Morrison's Animal Man
Back in the 80s I never paid any attention to Animal Man. Years later, Grant Morrison's run on the comic has become legend. I have read so much positive feedback on it that I just have to know what the fuss is all about. So let's go . . .
The first page is very eighties and nothing very special. Some fever-brained nutcase walking across the desert in a trenchcoat headed to the city - it's all very vague and unpromising.
Then we have Buddy Baker a.k.a. Animal Man up in a tree helping a neighbour out with a stranded cat, we get to see his powers in action as he borrows the cat's agility to land safely on the ground. Mmm hmmm. Getting a bit sleepy.
When Buddy goes into the house, and into the kitchen, where his wife is busy preparing dinner, this comic becomes very interesting to me. It's the conversation that Buddy has with his wife. He talks about 'going full time' into the 'superhero' business. His wife Ellen says she's heard it all before. Buddy talks about joining the Justice League, after all, Blue Beetle , who is essentially powerless, is a member. His wife makes him consider a more junior team and work his way up. It also comes out that Buddy paid eight hundred dollars for his Animal Man costumes and that he's unemployed and they're living on Ellen's paycheck. Wow. Suddenly I'm not so sleepy anymore. What happened with this sequence of events in the kitchen is that I'm able to empathize with Buddy Baker. He's got issues with money, ego, identity just like me. Just like us.
Later on, Buddy absorbs the proportionate strength of a Spider and lifts his wife's Jeep a la Spider-Man.
The next three sequences are pure comics goodness as Animal Man goes into training mode prior to going full-time as a superhero. He demonstrates that he can breathe underwater like a fish, fly like a bird, and run as fast as an ant (70+ mph). It's a very impressive power but his wife, who is very supportive, does not seem too impressed. Lesson: It doesn't matter if you have the power of the Silver Surfer, if your wife brings home the paycheck, all this superpower stuff is just very nice dear. Hehehehe.
If anything is bringing the first issue down its the subplot were this shadowy figure is walking around doing violence and hearing voices in his head. Too vague, really.
One of Buddy's friends is a marketing guy who also knows about his powers - actually I'm getting the feeling Buddy really doesn't have a secret identity. Anyway he lands Buddy a spot on a late night talk show, that, in turn, brings Buddy to the attention of S.T.A.R. labs who asks for his help. He arrives there to find several monkeys from the lab spliced together into some kind of messy monstrosity.
As the story progresses, our attention is drawn to a one of the most powerful subplots of the early issues of Animal Man which actually began very subtly last issue. Last issue, we are shown three hunters, obviously weekend warriors, understandably happy at being 'let out of the cage', so-to-speak. But one of them is not so much happy but angry. Yes, angry. At his job, his wife, his life. So the weekend hunting is a release that, at this point in the story, is very surely becoming out of control. This hunter happens upon Ellen, Animal Man's wife (unfortunately our hero is off on his S.T.A.R. labs adventure) and he looks like he's about to hurt her. This is pretty much where this subplot leaves off for now but the tension created by Morrison is the strongest so far.
Back at S.T.A.R. labs, after being shown the monkey mess and being told that it came after an attack by a giant cockroach (that's right); Animal Man decides to investigate. He knows, we know, and the guys at S.T.A.R. Labs probably suspect, that he has no investigative abilities whatsoever. That's probably why we find him on a rooftop later eating chips and dip and worrying about what to do next. Then who happens to drop by? Superman. The brief meeting emphasizes the difference between a rookie hero like Animal Man and and established heroes, quite frankly, makes me root for Buddy all that much harder. Now let's go back to that cockroach thing back at S.T.A.R. labs.
That's right, the cockroach.
Remember the people at the Labs said that the place was attacked by a giant cockroach? Morrison mentions in his narrative that insects can't grow beyond a certain size because their trachea would collapse if they got too big. I love little details like this. I knew there was a size limitation to insects but I always thought it was the insect exoskeleton that was holding them back. The biggest ever insects were some giant scorpions found in the fossil record, I think three feet long? Pretty monstrous.
So far, Morrison's portrayal of Buddy is extremely likeable. We get a sense of Buddy being a bit lost but nonetheless determined. He's going nowhere with his investigation when he's attacked by a Rat-Man that reminds me of Vermin from the Amazing Spider-Man. Driving home the point that Buddy is indeed very new at the hero game, the confrontation end's with Animal Man's arm being severed by the rat creature!
Issue three begins with an armless Animal Man on the ground. Beaten up. Frantic. Activating his powers. Buddy manages to 'borrow' the regeneration capabilities of an earthworm which he uses to grow back a new arm. This guy may be an amateur but the powers are very real.
We are also finally given the identity of the mystery man that has been so ineffectively presented by Morrison in a series of vague sequences for some time now : He's the B'wana Beast - a land-based version of Aquaman, able to control animals with the additional power of being able to splice two creatures into one (thus explaining the giant cockroach, the Rat-Man, and the spliced monkeys at the lab. It's going to be the last time I refer to the monkeys; it's making me gag).
Additionally, we finally know what he's trying to do. Turns out, he lives in Mount Kilimanjaro with a highly evolved ape, Djuba. This ape got kidnapped and put in a lab as the subject of different experiments. The pain and torture suffered by Djuba has called B'wana Beast all the way from Africa. He intends to rescue Djuba and wreak vengeance on the scientists running the labs. This is Morrison's treatise against the use of animals for lab experiments. In the end it is too late for B'wana Beast to rescue his friend, Djuba dies in his arms.
So now we come back to the highly charged subplot when a bunch of hunters confront Ellen Baker in the woods, with one of them evidently ready to rape her. Yes, rape her. You know what this jackass says to Ellen? He says "You know what a 'double veteran' is?". That's right. In a comic. Unbelievable. The tension I feel as a reader is at an all-time high at this point. Specially because I know that Animal Man won't come flying in for the rescue because he's away at Metropolis. So who saves the day? Well, Maxine, her daughter, runs to Mr. Weidemeir, their next door neighbor, who comes in with a gun to put a stop to things. Weidemeir doesn't need to fire off more than a warning shot though, since our would-be rapists' hunting buddy decides that things have gone on too far and shoots the offender himself. Ellen's reaction to the downed hunter is understandable - she begins cursing and hitting him even as he lies dead on the ground. This comic is solid. This is the strongest subplot so far; and this story should be retitled "Mr. Weidemeir". No disrespect to Animal Man but Weidemeir is definitely the hero at this point.
Morrison concludes the story arc and there is no way the ending could have been better or more satisfying. This is when we get to see the throwdown between two animal heroes. It's our boy Animal Man vs B'wana Beast. The venue, the San Diego Zoo. How fitting. The more experienced B'wana gets the better of Animal Man early on. The Beast splices several creatures together recreating the legendary Griffin, and creating a Gorilla-Tiger, sending all the creatures against Animal Man who barely escapes with his life. At last, it's the one-on-one fight and Animal Man absorbs B'wana's capabilities and uses it against the Beast. They are dead even for a while but I would have bet against Animal Man since B'wana knows his power better, but, B'wana is deathly sick with anthrax poisoning from his simian friend Djuba. He collapses and Animal Man goes from trying to stop him to trying to save him. In one of the most brilliant moves I've ever seen Animal Man uses B'wana Beast's power to splice together two different kinds of anti-bodies in B'wana Beasts bloodstream to form a super anti-body that conquers the anthrax. Incredible save!
That alone would have made a great ending but Morrison has more up his sleeve. B'wana Beast tracks the chief scientist responsible for the simian experiments and splices him with the dead body of Djuba. In a grim twist, the scientist will now get to feel what it's like to be the subject of experimentation. He is shown in the last panel quaking as a scalpel is held over him. This just ended like an issue of House of Mystery. Where's Cain and Abel?
By now, it is very evident to me why this run is highly regarded. The subsequent issues will bring home another fact: Morrison is having lots of fun writing these issues.
The next story is whacked out crazy fun!
It starts by showing us a creature that gets run over by a truck and then is able to regenerate itself. Who is this creature? This creature is Wile E. Coyote.
Yes. He came from cartoon world into our world in order for there to be peace among the Looney Tunes characters. Yes. How awesome is this? This is incredible.
In the end he gets killed by being shot with a silver bullet right in front of Animal Man. This means that the Looney Tunes world is back to a state of war which is okay because the cartoon characters heal instantly from every wound no matter how fatal.
Many questions here. Why does the gunman blame Wile E. Coyote, whom he calls the Devil, for his ills? Why is a Silver Bullet effective? Why does Wile have a message specifically for Animal Man? Oh for heavens sakes! Why am I even asking these questions. I just accept this tale for the tripped-out story that it is and thank the stars that Morrison wrote it. Bravo!
Next we're back to the mainstream DC Universe.
This issues first neat trick is to immerse us in Thanagarian technology and culture, inciting feelings of weirdness and fascination. The very first panel shows us the Thanagarian fleet surrounding Earth. Chas Truog and Dough Hazlewood's art show us interesting ships using the bird motif of the Thanagarians. Inside one of the ships, Thanagarian artist Rokara Soh has just drank a potion that begins to kill him. This is all part of his last performance art. An art which also involves planting a bomb that will destroy the United State's western seaboard. All for art. The Thanagarian military supports him since the art bomb is inline with their plans to invade earth covered under the DC-wide Invasion event.
Rokara Soh plans to detonate his bomb in the San Diego Zoo, favorite hangout of our hero Buddy Baker. Unfortunately for Animal Man, Rokara has brought along one of those sexy, and deadly, Thanagarian warrior women. He almost gets wacked by a mace to the back of the head. His victory over the Thanagarian points to a greater level of battle confidence compared to the Animal Man that went against the B'wana Beast.
What follows next is a fascinating account of Rokara Soh's life and glimpses of Thanagarian culture and society. It is actually a universal paean to the life of the artist. It was through Rokara's father that he first saw the beauty of art and his chosen destiny. But his sire, a great warrior himself, wanted a warrior for a son, and could not accept an artist. Parent rejects child but this does not prevent Soh from weeping at his father's funeral. And what a funeral rite these Thanagarians have, their bodies burn as they rise up into the air. Rokara speaks of extreme devotion to his art. His creation of the greatest work he has ever done, his appreciation of it for one day, then its destruction by his hand.
While this incredible account is being narrated Animal Man is having a nervous breakdown because he can't find a way to diffuse the bomb! In the end, Hawkman comes along and stops the bomb with a press of a button.
More so than ever Animal Man is my kind of hero. He's an Everyman in spandex. C'mon be honest. Who would you really be in this situation? Hawkman standing right there? Or our boy Animal Man so drenched in sweat he needs to rehydrate? Honestly?
The next story introduces us to Red Mask. A former villain with a terrible power : The Death Touch. It's absolutely terrible. Anybody he touches dies. Think about it? Rogue should know about this guy in order to feel better. Anyway the Red Mask is old, sick and about to kill himself by jumping off the side of a building. Right before he does it, he unleashes a clanky bunch of robots he won off another super-villain during a poker game, on the city. They're more nuisance than danger.
It's all very straighforward until the arrival of Animal Man who stops Red Mask from jumping. Upon hearing our hero, Red Mask turns and asks "What makes you think I can't fly?". Red Mask can't fly, but it's still very much on his mind. Flying. That's the power he really wanted when he reached out and touched that strange meteor so long ago. But he got the death touch instead. A power that killed his dog and destroyed his marriage. When he became a villain he partnered with another super-powered villain, The Veil. The Veil could make himself intangible. Unfortunately, in this form, the Veil could see the spirit world and what he saw there slowly drove him mad.
In order to keep him from jumping, Animal Man offers Red Mask an opportunity to be on tv - through his connections. The funny thing is Animal Man flies off after saying this, albeit with the assurance that he'll be back soon; Red Mask makes the counter promise that he will be waiting.
Animal Man never goes back.
Red Mask doesn't wait for him.
Still enthralled with flight, Red Mask jumps off, making believe he can fly before ending up dead on the sidewalk.
There seems to be a story beneath this story.
I think that after assessing the situation both Animal Man and Red Mask came to the conclusion that suicide was the best option for Red Mask. There is also no way in our society to bring this sentiment across in any way for it to be acceptable. If Red Mask simply said he was going to jump, he would get an instinctive reaction from Animal Man preventing the jump because 'that would be the right thing to do'; even though it wasn't. And they both knew it. So what happens is very subtle. A little play they put on for each other so that Animal Man can leave and Red Mask can take the best option.
What a story.
There is a little dedication box in the next story. The dedication is to Flash creative forces John Broome, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox. John Broome wrote a lot of Silver Age Flash stories. Carmine Infantino illustrated the Flash's adventures up until the hero's death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Gardner Fox created the Golden-Age Flash. And there is a further dedication to "the late great Barry Allen". Wonderful.
What's a Flash dedication doing in an Animal Man comic? The answer is this issue's villain : Mirror Master - member of Barry Allen's infamous Rogues Gallery.
Why do I like some villains and not others? I don't really know. But when I like a villain the comic becomes more enjoyable. Mirror Master is very likeable in this comic. Morrison does a great UK take on him (I'm sure someone else will be able to tell the actual area of the UK from the dialogue but I don't have that deep a familiarity). I also love the creativity shown with Mirror Master's area of expertise. Let's look at a few examples.
Here's Mirror Master coming out of the bathroom mirror looking like Animal Man.
Here he is coming of the mirror tripping up our hero.
Here he is breaking up like glass
Then pulling in Animal Man to experience things from his side of the mirror.
My favorite is when he turns Buddy into a human looking glass so that Buddy becomes a mirror image of everybody he bumps into.
It's fun to watch all these hi-jinks but things have to come to an end at some point. Ellen helps out with this through a well-placed knee.
Mirror Master's actions were a warning against Buddy's increasing enviromentalist stand. Not to worry though, some security is going to be placed in the Baker home courtesy of Animal Man's membership in Justice League Internatonal.
The next story starts of with J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, visiting the Baker Home. I think it extremely cute that little Maxine, not knowing what a Martian is, calls him Marshmallow Hunter. Anyway, hearing of last issues attack, J'onn has brought in some technicians to install security devices in the Baker home. As mentioned, this is one of the perks of Buddy's League membership.
Buddy has been having some problems with his powers behaving in unexpected ways but he hasn't told J'onn or the League about it yet. He invites J'onn for a flight to tell him the news. I love this scene drawn by Tom Grummett when one moment they're walking the sidewalk, then the next, they're gone
The Martian Manhunter is portrayed as he should be. Not just as an experienced hero but a senior, and ranking, member of the League - he is scripted as magisterial and authoritative by Morrison. I particularly like these two panels of dialogue.
Once again we have a human interest subplot here that is so emotionally charged it almost overrides the main plot. It's hard to portray bullying as anything but an emotional situation. The victim is Buddy's eldest child, Cliff. I like Cliff. He's spunky, a bit rough around the edges but, at core, he's every bit the good guy that his Dad is - now that I think about it, after reading so many storie, I'm really getting close to the Baker family. Anyway Cliff is having trouble with a bunch of kids his age and has just lost his bike to this gang of creeps. It's a problem, and we spend the early part of the story seeing Cliff soldier on under the weight of his problem, walking around the neighborhood, hands in pockets, trying to think of a way out. At home, he's very sensitive and bad mannered because of the whole thing. His Dad notices and asks him what the problem is. Now, this is were most kids become ashamed and clamp down; usually snapping that they have no problem. Letting the issue percolate and their parents worry. And this is why I like Cliff. He is not like most kids. He knows that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you are being bullied. You are not the problem, the bullies are, and you should tell people; not being afraid to show them that you don't like it one bit.. So Cliff tells them his problem. The them in this case includes the shape-changing Martian Manhunter. What happens next is this.
Needless to say, Cliff gets his bike back and I'm one satisfied reader.