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Comics You Should Own flashback – Animal Man #1-32

In order to break up the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk, I’m doing some flashbacks! This time around – something I wrote about four years ago. Holy crap, I’ve been doing this for a while!

Animal Man by Grant “Did I just blow your mind?” Morrison (writer), Chas Truog (penciller, issues #1-8, 10-13, 15-21, 23-26), Tom Grummett (penciller, issues #9, 14), Paris Cullins (penciller, issue #22), Doug Hazlewood (inker, issues #1-9, 11-13, 15-21, 22-24), Mark McKenna (inker, issue #10), Steve Montano (inker, issues #14, 22), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #25-26), John Constanza (letterer), and Tatjana Wood (colorist), with covers by Brian Bolland.

DC, 26 issues (#1-26, cover dated September 1988-August 1990).

BONUS! Animal Man by Peter Milligan (writer), Chas Truog (penciller, issues #27-28, 30-32; inker, issue #32), Steve Dillon (artist, issue #29), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #27-28, 30-31), John Constanza (letterer), and Tatjana Wood (colorist), with covers by Brian Bolland.

DC, 6 issues (#27-32, cover dated September 1990-February 1991).

In looking around for information on the principals involved in the creation of this mind-bending comic book, I came across this excellent critique of Morrison’s run on Animal Man by that crazy nut, Dave Fiore, who offers insights I don’t even want to touch. I’m going to try to put Dave’s criticism out of my mind, because I don’t want this to become an affirmation/refutation of his, but it’s excellent – read it and this back-to-back!

I suppose I should point out that there are SPOILERS ahead. Go read the books if you want to be surprised, although, if you’re a comic fan, you’ve probably already been spoiled. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t mean this isn’t a great run, though – that’s why they’re great comics!

Animal Man is the subject of a great deal of scrutiny in the comic book world, simply because 1) Grant Morrison wrote it, and it’s his first American comics work; and 2) it’s freakin’ brilliant. It also uses the “character-meets-creator” trick to good effect, something that has been done in comics before (Bat-Mite in the 1970s, and I was reading that Ambush Bug did – I may be remembering wrong, so don’t sue me!) and since (Automatic Kafka is a good recent example, I believe). In fact, this is probably the first true postmodern comic book. [Boy, that's a sweeping statement, isn't it? I don't believe it anymore, but back in 2005 I was a bit dumber than I am today. Forgive me for my ignorance!]

For me, “postmodern” is less of a catch-all phrase that many use and more of a narrowly defined segment of literature – fiction that is aware of itself as fiction. Morrison makes his characters aware that they are fictional (Buddy Baker is the most important, obviously, but others are aware as well) and inserts himself into the story. Whenever the author starts inserting his metatextual thoughts into a work of literature, the obvious question for the reader is: Why the bleepin’ bleep is he bleepin’ doing this? Let’s take a look.

At its most convenient, Animal Man is a story about a superhero with animal powers who one day decides that he needs to fight more for animal rights. The only reason he does this is because Morrison himself is an animal rights activist (as Morrison himself tells Buddy, in issue #26, page 13). Morrison quit the book, he said, because he was becoming “too preachy,” a sentiment many in the letters column disagreed with, but something I can see in the book. Morrison puts himself into the comic on one level to let us know that these are the feelings of a real person and that much of what he wrote is based in reality. Of course, readers are always aware that the fictional characters take on the traits of the author, but Morrison felt the issue with which he was dealing was too important to be left in the realm of the fictional. He needed to step into the pages to clarify his thinking and explain what regular people could do about it. Ironically, issue #26 is probably Morrison’s most “preachy” of the series, as he stops telling stories and tells us all what he thinks. It’s not a bad way to do it, but it does take the willingness of the readers to read – and we do, because we have grown to trust Morrison’s vision.

The other reason Morrison inserts himself into the book (issue #26 is not the first time he does it, for the uninitiated) is because of ultimately what the book is about. No, it’s not about animal rights. It’s not even about Morrison’s avowed love for discarded characters and his prodding at the monstrous Crisis on Infinite Earths which changed the DC Universe forever only a few years before he wrote the series. While the animal rights issues are very powerful (the denouement to the first 4-issue storyline is chilling, ironic, and fitting; issue #15, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” with Dane Dorrance, Dolphin and the dolphins is heart-rending and ultimately majestic; issue #17, “Consequences,” is complex and the turning-point of the series in many ways), they are just a way for Morrison to deal with his true theme. The “Second Crisis” is a bit of a red herring, even though it does allow Buddy to go into limbo and meet his (current) maker, because it’s still just secondary to Morrison’s continual theme.

So what, you say, is the book about? Well, it’s not terribly revolutionary, but what Morrison does in Animal Man is look at loss, and faith, and loss of faith. This is a truly spiritual comic book (more so than almost – almost, mind you – any other mainstream book). Every major character experiences some sort of loss, including Morrison. What Morrison does is show us exactly how each of the characters deal with their loss and how this reveals what kind of person they are. This is, I would argue, one of the most depressing comic books ever written, despite the deus ex machina ending (which is brilliant, by the way) and the (dare I say it?) childlike art (I do not like the art – it’s one of the book’s weaknesses, I would say – disagree with me as you will!), which foreshadows none of the book’s downers. I’m serious – this is a tragedy masked as a comic book with a happy ending tacked on. Shakespeare would be horrified. It’s a testament to Morrison’s ability as a writer that we feel for each loss and also that we do not feel cheated when he brings Buddy’s family back to life with a wave of his pen. We also must learn to deal with loss throughout the book, and we do – we rage and we deny and we accept, just like Buddy does (as Morrison points out in issue #26, page 7). The point is, we take the journey with Buddy, and Morrison puts himself into the book at the end to show that our suffering is, well, genuine but also silly – as the tale of his dead cat illuminates. Jarmara (Morrison’s cat) suffered and died, and her suffering was real, as opposed to Buddy’s (and our) “fake” suffering. Writers know exactly what Morrison is talking about when he says that at least he could use Jarmara’s suffering in his comic book – writers are inveterate liars and quite evil, after all. But here’s what no one has ever pointed out – what if Jarmara herself is a creation of Morrison’s mind? Why on earth couldn’t she be? If Morrison himself is a character in the book, couldn’t his cat be non-existent too? We accept that Jarmara actually existed, but not Buddy’s family? Why? Because Morrison tells us it’s true, and we feel his suffering and loss perhaps more keenly than we felt Buddy’s.

The minor characters lose important things in their lives as well. B’wana Beast loses Djuba, the ape. His response is rage and a rejection (even more than before) of humanity. When we next see him, Mike Maxwell is ready to pass on the Beast’s torch and do … something (Morrison never tells us what). Carrie (the hitchhiker in issue #5, “The Coyote Gospel”) loses her innocence and her life. Crafty the Coyote loses his life and his chance at redeeming the World Below (the Creator said “while you live and bear the suffering of the world, I will make peace among the beasts”). The art martyr Rokara Soh dies, and his masterpiece is aborted when Hawkman turns his bomb off (how does Hawkman get the funniest line in the entire run?). The Red Mask kills himself. The Mirror Master loses his job, but strangely enough, he comes out of the whole run looking pretty good, since he retains his self-respect and leads Buddy to the shadowy government body behind the murder of Ellen, Cliff, and Maxine (I don’t like the shadowy government body, since it’s too clichéd, and I’m glad Morrison didn’t dwell on it too much, as it’s a MacGuffin). James Highwater, one of the truly excellent supporting characters ever created, loses his sanity but gains a purpose in the purposeless comic-book universe. The Time Commander loses his ability to dream of new frontiers of reality. Metamorpho loses, perhaps, the respect of Buddy, Ralph Dibny, and Dmitri when he punches the Time Commander and destroys the détente Buddy had going with him. Roger Hayden, the Psycho-Pirate, loses his mask and his knowledge of the wondrous worlds that existed prior to the Crisis.

This is a long litany of loss, but what keeps the series from complete gloom is that Morrison is also looking at faith and whether or not it can redeem us. Yes, the book is about the loss of faith (Buddy, Highwater, Morrison himself) but it’s also about searching for faith and how this helps us move on and create the world anew. Crafty has faith, and he is able to convince the Creator to redeem the world, and even though it comes at a price, Crafty never hesitates. Even Crafty’s killer, misguided as he is, believes that he is doing what he can to redeem the world. The layers of the book are wondrous – there’s Crafty’s world, which in Buddy’s world is the two-dimensional world of cartoons; there’s the world of the Creator, which is separate from Buddy’s world but not quite part of Crafty’s; there’s Buddy’s world, the world we see as two-dimensional comic books; there’s limbo, where comic book character go to hang out until they are used again; there’s the world where Grant Morrison becomes two-dimensional to meet his star; and there’s our world, which Buddy sees in probably the most chilling panel in comic book history in issue #19, but which the Psycho-Pirate also sees quite often, and of which the Mad Hatter has some knowledge. All of these worlds are tied together, and Morrison asks where God is in all this, and who exactly is God? Morrison puts himself in the “God” role throughout the series, but when he meets Buddy, he admits that he is a rather impotent deity. We the readers are cast as “God,” for our purchasing power keeps books going and keeps characters out of limbo. Buddy plays God when he drops Ongur Nielsen in the ocean and kills the men who killed his family and even when he goes back in time to change their deaths, but he is an even worse god than Morrison is. Morrison is also implicating all of us when he says that the only reason we abuse animals is because we can. Is faith a good thing, he asks, when faith leads to tragedy and despair and abuse of power? What should we have faith in? The answer seems to be ourselves, as Highwater deftly illustrates when he takes on the role of the Psycho-Pirate and holds back the flood of “erased” characters. But Buddy has faith in himself, and that doesn’t bring his family back. His “God,” Grant Morrison, does that, as a final miracle before he abdicates the throne.

The greatness of Morrison’s Animal Man is in its ambiguity and its deliberate challenge to the status quo. As with all but one of Morrison’s mainstream comics work, the status quo is not really torn down, but at least he challenges it (the exception is Doom Patrol, which is one reason why it’s his best work). The re-establishment of the status quo, however, allowed new writer Peter Milligan to come on board in issue #27 and fuck with everyone’s head again. Milligan was on the book for only six issues (he had other commitments), but his run is as different from Morrison’s as night from day, and that’s fine. Milligan’s run is actually weirder than Morrison’s, which is saying something. Milligan ignores Buddy’s animal powers for the most part (he uses them, but they’re not the focus) in order to tell a mind-bending story about the fundamental nature of reality. Yes, Morrison toyed with this idea, but Milligan takes it even further into quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s Cat territory. Weird stuff.

The story is pretty simple: Buddy wakes up from a coma to find that the world has changed in a fundamental way. Ellen is a bitch who’s cheating on him, Marvin Gaye is still alive, there’s a jungle in his bathroom – the usual stuff. He is conscripted to protect the president against a trio of superpowered kids known as the Angel Mob. He is helped in this endeavor by Nowhere Man, a very bizarre hero. Other heroes in this world include The Front Page and The Notional Man (both of whom go bad and try to kill Buddy), as well as Envelope Girl, who Milligan later used in Enigma. It’s all very weird, but Milligan is making a serious point: How do we determine what is real and what is not? In his own way, he is also taking a look at DC’s “multiple earths” policy that was killed when the editors went ahead with the Crisis. Interestingly enough, physicists are dealing with “parallel universes” these days, something comic book writers have done for years, and Milligan takes it to its macrocosmic conclusion by splitting off separate universes for Buddy to inhabit. We are confronted with the fact that each time we make a decision, a new universe is created. Buddy is aware of these things because of time travelers from the future, who trapped a far distant ancestor of his (far distant as in, he’s still pretty much an ape) in a time doorway and screwed up his family tree. This gives Buddy the opportunity to explore these alternate universes and understand why they occur. Who is the “real” Buddy? None of them are. They are all Buddy, just Buddys that made different decisions at some point in their lives. Milligan challenges us with the notion that there are different versions of us living just a slight change in frequency away from “our world,” and if you think about it, it’s kind of disturbing (that’s why I don’t). In the end, everything works out, but we’re left wondering how the other Maxine and Cliff will deal with the loss of their father (the Buddy of that world dies) and what happened to Ellen that turned her so hard inside, and whether Buddy’s death will change her. It’s not quite as thought-provoking as Morrison’s epic, but it’s close. Milligan is actually aided by Truog instead of held back by him (as I feel Morrison was) because Truog is inked in these issues by Mark Farmer, one of the best in the business, who gives his lines a little more weight and less cartoony aspects, and in the final issue, Truog inks himself, which is very nice, with much heavier lines and a rougher feel to it all. I’m not an art critic, so that’s all I’ll say about that (some would say I’m not a literary critic either, but you’ll have to deal with it).

The letters in Animal Man are fabulous, too. I did a quick search for Malcolm Bourne, Charles J. Sperling, and Mark Lucas (“Mahalo”) before I wrote this, because those three guys would be perfect bloggers. Bourne actually wrote at least one comic (with a young Mike Allred on art), but I don’t know what happened to the other two. They were always fun to read – just another reason why letter columns need to return (and are, sporadically, in Marvel books, but not, sadly, in DC books). Morrison’s run is available in three trade paperbacks, so if you’re interested, buy them – you won’t be disappointed. Milligan’s run has not been collected (DC continues their awful policy of not collecting good comics), but the individual issues aren’t that dear, and you get the letter columns with them. I have not read Tom Veitch’s take on the character, but Jamie Delano’s stuff was okay, if trying too hard to be “Vertigo.” No one has really done a good job with Buddy Baker since the series ended, although he is back in the “real” DCU these days. There’s a new mini-series coming out soon – I probably won’t get it, but it might be a renaissance for Animal Man.

Hey! Comics You Should Own archives! Who doesn’t love archives?

19 Comments

Hmmm… Did Ambush Bug meet his creators? I know he met Julie Schwartz and got a call from Al, but I don’t recall him meeting Giffin or Fleming. I think he used to yell at them, though.

“I don’t like the shadowy government body, since it’s too clichéd”

Mirror Master’s “See me? Full of tricks” speech does add a nice touch of parody to it.

@ mutt

They were off panel.

I’m usually not a big fan of Morrison. I don’t hate his stuff, just not crazy about it. But Animal Man was fantastic. I think this ended up as #11 when I made my Top Ten Runs list. Great comics.

Graeme Pollock

April 20, 2009 at 4:06 pm

First TPB I ever read. Nearly broke me, mentally. I had no idea what was going on.
The Coyote Gospel hooked me and I still hand it to people to read, urging them to read it.
As a Scot, reading Morrison’s dialogue for Mirror Master, and the scenes in the Necropolis (a big glasgow graveyard) were absolutely mind blowing.
He’s not everyones cup of tea, I grant you. But there are little jokes and digs in all his work that are just for those living in the Central Belt of Scotland, and that has me hooked on everything he write.

For everyone else, there’s the comic lore.

“One and Two and Ess and Ecks” – heh heh, cool.

Hmm..Wheras my only problem with Truog’s art is that it wasn’t Bolland. You need true comic art to tell the story. going with what would become Vertigo house style, would take away from what is ultimately a celebration of super hero comics, in my belief.

The final Morrison panel which is 2 or so after the one you end the article tells the story. In it, Foxy shines back. In the real world…who knows. Morrison wrote an ending that while contrived, is one of hope and wish fulfillment.

DC really needs to reprint the Morrison trades and finally collect Milligan’s run. Both are fantastic.

I agree on the cartoony art really fitting the style of the book.
THIS is the Morrison I love.

There are two strands of experimental storytelling as I see it:
Telling an experimental story in a traditional way and telling a traditional story in an experimental way.

The Animal Man run to me feels like the former, and it works primarily because he’s a really good writer.
The latter stuff (FC for example) generally leaves me a lot colder.

Thanks Mr. Burgas, a really great article. Morrison’s Animal Man is why i still read comics today. It’s one of my all time favourite runs and i re-read it just about every year. I’d almost forgotten about Milligan’s 6-issue run, though. I do remember it being equally brilliant and mind blowing. Guess i’ll have to go dig out the longboxes.

I know you don’t agree Greg, but I might like this run even more than Morrison’s Doom Patrol, simply because he makes Buddy such a likable character.

The “I can see you!” splash page is really something and the ending is just beautiful. It’s a Deus Ex Machina,true, but seeing Buddy’s family safe and sound really touched my hearstrings, in a totally manly way of course!

Although that also happened to me in the end of Doom Patrol with the “Jane, come out of the rain” line. I guess I’m just a wimp

I finally read Morrison’s Animal Man last year, and I think it may very well be my favourite run. That’s partly because Morrison addresses animal rights without beating around the bush, and I think he avoids being preachy too.

If only more people listened.

the panel of Buddy in iss #19 IS the single most disturbing panel in comis history! The build-up to it is so well done that it hits with such force. The first time i read it, i didn’t grasp it for a couple of seconds. When it hit me, i was so taken aback that i had to re-read the lead up to it.
Absolutely brilliant stuff!

I finally got round to reading all of Animal Man last year and I found the metafictional ending pretty dull. Maybe it’s because I already knew what was coming and it would’ve had a bigger impact if I was reading it month to month, maybe not. I also agree with Grant’s view about the comic beoming too “preachy”, although a more apposite picture might have been the panel about not being able to end things well.

Interesting question about the cat. I’d say that whether it’s name was Jarmara or not, I believe he’s referring to something real (and simultaneously balancing that pathos with the ridiculous comparison of his cat dying to Buddy’s family being murdered although, thinking about it, this comparison maybe wouldn’t be so ridiculous to Buddy. Hmm. Clever) as it’s something which recurs in his work. King Mob compares his cats dying to his lover leaving him and I’m sure other characters have said similar things, while Grant’s definitely mentioned it in letter columns. Their affinity with cats is generally a way to tell whose a good guy in Morrison’s work, which is another reason The Filth confuses as Greg Feely’s always nice to his cat.

On the other hand, omni-dimensional monsters from beyond time are a recurring theme in his writing, so maybe that’s not such a guarantee of authenticity as I’d thought.

Not that I didn’t like a lot of it. The Foxy bit was particularly good and another vote for the Glaswegian bits he often slips in.

The “I can see you!” splash page is really something and the ending is just beautiful. It’s a Deus Ex Machina,true, but seeing Buddy’s family safe and sound really touched my hearstrings, in a totally manly way of course!

It’s not a Deus Ex Machina ending. It’s a perfectly logical progression from the story – and it brings a tear to my eye every time!

When people mention Foxy are they talking about Crafty the coyote?

Dan: Foxy is the fox that Morrison signals with his flashlight (“torch”). He’s the imaginary creature that Morrison, when he was younger, believed could see the light from his flashlight. That last panel above shows this.

Ah – I’d forgotten that bit

It’s worth mentioning that the “Hell” where Crazy Jane ends up in the final issue of Morrison’s Doom Patrol has the same sepia colour scheme as the “real world” where Buddy meets Morrison in the final issue of his Animal Man, so Morrison seems to imply they’re the same place. (If Crazy Jane’s “Hell” is the “real world”, that would also explain why supeheroes don’t exist there.) Now, does this mean Morrison thinks real world is Hell? I think what he’s trying to say is that a world without imagination would be colourless (hence the lack of primary colours in the art) and awful, a true Hell indeed. But when Crazy Jane gives the mystery coin to the psychiatrist who was treating her, I think that’s Morrison saying that imagination is not totally lost and there’s hope for this world too. This idea, that imagination is our salvation, is really what ties all of Morrison’s major works together. You’re right that loss is an important theme in Animal Man, but I’d say imagination and what it means to us is the second major theme in this series.

How do you read the whole darn comic i am looking every where on google for animal man comics it keeps showing me about animals not a guy with Animal powers.

[...] Animal Man #1-32 by Grant Morrison and (mostly) Chas Truog, with Peter Milligan’s weird six-issue story added on, because it’s cool. [...]

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