Animal Man existed in the DC Universe for twenty-three years before he became a character of considerable note at the hands of writer Grant Morrison. This post-Crisis transmutation created a platform to do a metaphysical examination of what it is like to be a fictional character observed by a nonfiction world. It highlighted the struggles of a working-class superhero with a family. Issues surrounding the environment and animal rights were brought up and discussed at length. Ultimately, Animal Man became a character who still resonates through the DCU today, but he certainly didn’t start that way.
Buddy Baker was created by writer Dave Wood and legendary artist Carmine Infantino, first appearing in Strange Adventures #180. Strange Adventures was DC Comics’ first science fiction anthology that spurred the trend of putting gorillas on the cover of issues. This was a weird trend in the 1950s-60s where DC saw sales go up on books with gorillas on the covers. You would end up seeing Superman fight Titano, a King Kong rip-off, while the Doom Patrol took on Monsieur Mallah. The Flash would gain Gorilla Grodd as a nemesis. It was an extraordinary time, to say the least. Strange Adventures came to serve as the launch point for some of DC’s lesser-known superheroes like Captain Comet, The Atomic Knights, The Enchantress, and Deadman. Animal Man was considered one of the more forgettable characters.
Buddy Baker was a movie stuntman who had an encounter with aliens that imbued him with the ability to mimic nearby animals’ abilities. If he wanted to fly, he just needed to reach out with his mind to find a bird. If he tried to knock down a wall, he’d just happen to be next to a zoo and summon the strength of an elephant. It was an intriguing hook but with very little meat on the bones. He’d pop up very sporadically over the next few years, eventually becoming a member of the aptly named Forgotten Heroes. They first appeared in the pages of Action Comics, penned by Marv Wolfman (New Teen Titans, Crisis) and drawn by Gil Kane (Green Lantern). His teammates were other obscure figures like Cave Carson, Congorilla, Dolphin, and Immortal man. By the time Crisis on the Infinite Earths rolled around, these characters were either erased or drastically rebooted included Animal Man.
In the wake of the Crisis, Buddy Baker was now a married man (wife, Ellen Baker) with two kids, Cliff and Maxine. The family moved to the San Diego suburbs. His best pal Roger Denning lived nearby, and everyone had the ideal 1980s life. Buddy was trying to support his family financially, using his powers for his stuntwork but kept getting pulled back into the superhero business. He’d clash with Flash rogue Mirror Master, have to take down his friend B’Wana Beast, and eventually be given a spot on the Justice League International roster. Things drastically changed when he met Native American scientist James Hightower who believed Buddy’s powers were connected to the morphogenetic field, an elemental force that allowed Buddy to reshape life.
The first moment of personal crisis came when Buddy, who had devoted himself to being a vegetarian and environmental activist, failed to rescue a firefighter at the scene of an eco-terrorist attack. He realized that being a masked vigilante wasn’t furthering his personal philosophy or holding true to any of his beliefs, so he completely abandoned the Animal Man identity. It was too late, though, as a corporate cabal made valid threats to murder Buddy’s family because of his left-wing activism, and he was forced to team-up with his recent nemesis Mirror Master.
Simultaneously, the foundations of reality recently settled after the Crisis three years prior were coming undone. Psycho-Pirate, a Golden Age villain who has been the chief henchman of the Anti-Monitor, was unraveling the characters in Limbo that were being erased. Buddy ends up confronting Psycho-Pirate in his cell at Arkham Asylum as all existence crumbles around him and ultimately meets his own writer, Grant Morrison. At this moment, Buddy realizes he is a character inside of a comic book, being manipulated by a writer, and having his tragedies becomes part of a voyeuristic thrill of the readers. It is one of the greatest moments in the comic book medium when Buddy looks at you and calls you out as you read.
With the ending of Morrison’s run, writer Peter Milligan came on board and retconned these reality-breaking stories by having Buddy wake up from a coma. Milligan would try and recreate Morrison’s magic for a couple of arcs, but it just never really took. This was followed by writer Tom Veitch who further distanced Animal Man from the DC Universe. Under his run and later Jamie Delano’s, Buddy became the head of an environmental commune, with his daughter Maxine becoming a sort of nature-messiah. Buddy would transform into a based on his connection to The Red, the lifeforce that flows through animals. This was created as a counter to Swamp Thing’s The Green, the lifeforce of plants.
Buddy would die and resurrect, becoming even further distanced from his superhero days. He’d combat enemies that were more metaphysical in nature, turning his character into a cosmic figure. The title was under the Vertigo imprint where DC presented stories aimed at Mature Readers. Buddy has a spiritual affair with Annie, one of the women in his commune, and she gives birth to a daughter who was the incarnation of the World Soul while Buddy shared his power to make the whole of humanity the Body of God. And then…it was all erased and forgotten.
When Grant Morrison was writing the Justice League, and he reached his grand finale, sending the Earth up against the cosmic threat of Mageddon, had the classic Animal Man tossed in there, signaling a return to the previous superhero status quo. He’d pop in minor roles through the early 2000s, never back to his prominence in the late 1980s/1990s. When the Infinite Crisis event happened, Animal Man was one of those heroes brought by Donna Troy to New Cronus, where the core of reality was crumbling. In the wake of that event, he ended up stranded in space with Starfire and Adam Strange. Their odyssey back home to Earth was one of many subplots in the year-long weekly series 52.
Buddy died while in space and was buried by Starfire and Adam Strange. But his metaphysical nature revealed that he couldn’t die and was immediately resurrected and taken outside the boundaries of time & space by the aliens who first gave him his powers. Animal Man was able to reach out to the sun-eaters, a colossal species of space animals, and use their homing sense to view his family via a wormhole. Like Odysseus, Animal Man kept pushing forward and eventually returned home, adopting Starfire as a family member.
With the New 52 reboot, most of this was erased or turned into a new mishmash. In this new reality, we are introduced to the Parliament of Limbs, animal-presenting cosmic beings who are awaiting the birth of their new Avatar. In the interim, they need a champion and choose her future father, Buddy Baker, who interpreted what happened to him as an encounter with aliens and became Animal Man. These powers proved to be lucrative for him in the stuntwork field. Everything in his life fell apart when The Rot emerged, the shadow side of The Red, a physical representation of death & decay. This led to Buddy’s nationwide odyssey and his family on the run from these monsters who wanted to consume his daughter Maxine. Ultimately he would have to team up with Swamp Thing for an epic elemental battle with The Red & The Green taken on The Rot.
Since this highpoint of the New 52 reboot, Animal Man has once again faded into the background. He’s appeared briefly in the pages of DC’s current event of the year, DC: Heavy Metal. But it doesn’t seem like there is much on the horizon for the hero. I think Animal Man is rife for a television adaptation, though. It would have to be something less CW and more HBO, akin to Lindeloff’s Watchmen mini-series. With HBO and Warner merging, the chances of something like this happening are the best they’ve been. Maybe one day.