Animal Man #1-26 (1988-1990)
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Tom Grummett, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazelwood
It’s no secret that I love Grant Morrison’s work. He’s like the second coming of Julius Schwartz, the crazy DC Comics innovator of the Silver Age mixed with metaphysical, post-modern sensibilities. Just a year after Watchmen’s publication, Morrison wrote what was in many ways a response to Watchmen’s attempt at realism. With Animal Man, Morrison created a hyper real look at the comic book reality and its the relation of creator and creation. The fact that these were mainstream comics published by DC, yet so innovative and experimental is amazing. Its hard to see anything like this happening again, though there was a brief attempt with Brian Azzarello’s Architecture and Morality mini-series in 2006, more on that later.
Animal Man was created decades before, in 1965 in Strange Adventures. The character could take on the abilities of what ever animal life was in the vicinity, so if a bird was around he could fly, if an elephant was close he could charge with massive strength, etc. The character was pretty flat an uninteresting, and even ironically became a member of a team called The Forgotten Heroes in the early 1980s. It was in the late 1980s, that the young upstart Morrison, newly imported from the UK was given the character. DC deemed it fairly safe to test the young writer out on a superhero with little fanbase invested in him, so if he screwed up it wouldn’t cause very much damage. What Morrison managed to do was turn Animal Man into one of the most complex and interesting characters DC published. The character continues on in popularity, having been a major player in events in the last five years, as well as getting his own eight issue mini-series.
Morrison began things by making Buddy Baker, the civilian identity of Animal Man, a family man. He had a wife, Ellen, and two kids, Cliff and Maxine. In the first story arc of the series, Buddy become involved in a battle between fellow animal-linked hero B’Wana Beast and a company using animals for scientific testing. The story is dark and poignant and there aren’t your typical hero versus villain battles. B’Wana Beast dies and Buddy is changed significantly. In resulting stories he goes vegan, his powers now linked to the emotional spectrum of animals, feeling their suffering. Morrison doesn’t let him get away with this easily, and Buddy ends up in some heated arguments with Ellen who doesn’t appreciate Buddy forcing his personal lifestyle change on the rest of the family. As you can tell, this is not the sort of thing you expect from comic books and its incredibly refreshing.
The most mind blowing story up this point came in Animal Man #5, “The Coyote Gospel”. In this story, a humanoid coyote wanders the desolate roads of the American southwest. He’s hunted by an obsessive truck driver who kills him, only for the coyote to rise from the dead again and again. Animal Man, who plays a very backseat role in this story, shows up and the coyote hands him a scroll. The story shifts to the content of the scroll which explains that this coyote came from a universe very much like that of the Warner Brothers cartoons. The inhabitants lived in a state of un-death, dying but constantly ressurecting. This coyote finally became fed up and question his world’s creator. The creator, depicted as a man in a plaid pants and wielding a paintbrush condemned the coyote to wander other worlds. Morrison pulls us back to show that to Animal Man’s eyes the scroll is unintelligible chicken scratch. He tells the coyote that he can’t read this and at that moment the trucker fires, shooting the coyote point blank in the head and killing him. The final full page panel is off a hand drawing this scene which has faded away partially at the bottom as just a simple pencil sketch.
This single issue serves as the thesis statement for the rest of Morrison’s run on the series. He begins to deconstruct the ideas of continuity in comics and how Animal Man’s original creator and his own intentions for the character are drastically different. Morrison looks at the idea of the multiverse and about what happens to comic book characters who are forgotten and never used. All of this culminates in a meeting between Animal Man and Morrison himself. What also has to be one of the trippiest moments in comics books occurs during this run, as Animal Man has gone to a mountaintop and taken peyote in an attempt to break free from the physical constraits of his universe. In this moment, he suddenly feels that he is being watched, then looks right up at the reader, shouting that he can see you, that he knows you are watching. Chills!
As further reading, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang got together for a very small series of back up stories in the mini-series Tales of the Unexpected (2006). Much like Morrison’s stories, these explore the nature of forgotten characters and their relationship with their creators. The series is a lot of fun and features some crazy characters (Genius Jones, Infectious Lass, The Gorilla Brigade) as well as poking fun at DC’s editorial staff. It’s available in a collected edition titled Architecture and Morality.