Animal Man

Issues #1-5. (Sep 88)

 

[Another installment in our ongoing Morrison Reading Project.  This was originally posted on 21 June 2009 (and had to be moved here when the Groups were about to be shut down).  Some discussion on the first 5 issues followed in Jeff Carter's original Morrison thread.  Find the attachment here.]

 

As he did on the first page of Doom Patrol, Morrison's work on this series begins with a statement of intent. At the end of the first page B’wana Beast bemoans the sorry state of modern city living by saying 'why did we come down from the trees?' The next page has the hero up a tree and his neighbour is shouting 'Watch you don't fall! It’s a long way down.'


There you have it. We are being drawn into a superhero version of the fall of man. Evolution and the bible are both evoked. The loss of the lower animal's state of grace equated to Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Reaching? There aren't a lot of sentences in a comic book, but Buddy manages to get in a reference to 'the Fall' (aka Autumn to us non-Americans) later in the issue. Buddy’s wife Ellen is listening to 'The Garden of Eden' on the radio just before Buddy enters. It’s a very old tune, written in 1916 but not my type of song. I did find an excellent version by Sam Cook but I can’t link to it anymore.

In issue two we have the scientist comparing the organism molded from all the monkeys to ‘watching Adam rise up out of the dust’ and the rednecks in the woods keep referring to the Garden of Eden.

There are other hints and clues to what the rest of the series will be about. Ellen mentions the Crisis, which must have been a no-no at that time. DC were still trying to establish that this was a whole new reality rather than a continuation of the pre-CRISIS DCU. Morrison gets to conduct his own little Crisis in this series later on. Buddy’s attitude to hunting foreshadows his commitment to animal rights. He even mentions that he feels as if a higher power is pulling the strings, which foreshadows the most memorable strand of this whole run.

The blue skies and sunshine that this issue basks under would have been a welcome change at this point in mainstream comics’ history. I especially like the training scenes with Buddy's wife. It makes sense that a grown-up father of two would carefully measure the limits of his powers before taking up the superhero game again. If he takes it seriously, so should we. Note that these scenes seem to echo those of Mike Moran and Liz testing his newfound powers in Moore's Marvelman.

I don’t want to go into the symbolism of the first 4 issues and how they tie into the 5th issue, which in turn is a synopsis of the whole series. The stuff I wrote on Doom Patrol, above, was mainly my own reaction to what was on the pages, but I’ve read a lot of Animal Man commentary and interviews since I first read this series, so I don’t think I have anything too original to add on the symbolism. I have to direct your attention to one particular podcast which discusses the first TPB in full.

Internet Morrison expert Geoff Klock contributes a great commentary on the collection. As a bonus (and the reason I sought out this podcast to share with you guys years after I first heard it), most of the regular contributors are comically incapable of seeing anything in a Morrison story beyond men in tights punching each other. One in particular is the embodiment of Morrison's archenemy, the literal-minded reader, utterly dismissing any literary intent on Morrison’s part. He loves Tom Clancy novels.

So leaving aside a metatextual, esoteric gloss on the first four issues, there are some things I have to admire. Stuff that would benefit any superhero comic. The character building and world-building here is great. Buddy’s San Diego suburban world seems very convincing. The neighbours, the kids, everyone seems to have their own personality.

Continuity is used just to make the world feel real (it is the DCU after all) and Morrison cherry-picks the elements from a long history that tie in artistically with the story he’s telling. S.T.A.R. labs for one and B’wana Beast’s name is a nice inversion of Animal Man’s when you think of it. B’wana means Lord or mister in Swahili, but B’wana was probably understood to mean ‘man’ or ‘white man’ when he was created. So the Man Beast is the first foe of Animal Man. Story and continuity elements all come together naturally. The White God with the intelligent ape friend, animal testing and Animal Man’s radicalisation towards animal rights all sit together. His first adventure dramatises his radicalisation whereas another writer would have just had him become an animal rights campaigner as a ‘neat idea’ leading from his powers.

Another thing that flows naturally from the whole setup is that Buddy wouldn't have to fly to far outside San Diego to encounter the desert landscape of the Wile E Coyote cartoons. Or at least I presume so, as most American cities named San Something tend to be near the Mexican border where I'm sure the entire landscape looks like a Sergio Leone movie.

The lack of an origin in the first arc is also refreshing. He was a corny old-school hero with slightly daft powers coming out of retirement. Good enough once you accept the basic premise of the DCU itself, that this is a world where people get weird powers.

There were a few things that were a bit off. Perhaps the hunters are a bit one-sided, but then Buddy and his friend are both shown to be one-time hunters without being psychotic nutters, and it is one of the hunters themselves that eventually resolve the situation.

Morrison often brings in scientific theories to bolster his philosophising, but the science here is a bit off. The rubbish ideas of cutting an earthworm to produce two viable new earthworms and killing any attacking dog by pulling its forelegs apart to burst its heart were both playground urban myths in my day but cited as facts here. But then urban myths are bread and butter to Grant when he gets to The Invisibles

So, as this is a discussion board I’d be interested in your reactions to issue 5, the rather unique and ground-breaking ‘Coyote Gospel’ tale. If you’ve read it before and can’t remember it, go ahead and dig it out. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

[This is another repost in advance of the closure of the Morrison group, originally posted on 21 June 2009.  A look at the remaining four issues collected in the first trade paperback will followSome discussion on the first 5 issues followed in Jeff Carter's Morrison thread, here.]

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Animal Man #6 (part one)

 

My personal 'Morrison for Dummies' learning curve continues with this issue. Ostensibly it is a break in the forward-moving Animal Man narrative to service a tie-in with a huge crossover in the DCU that month: the Hawkworld led Invasion. As well as being a good issue of the ongoing series that shows where Buddy Baker was at this point, and also probably the most enjoyable tie-in to this particular crossover, Grant takes the opportunity to helpfully elucidate and illustrate some ideas concerning what will be a key concept in his future work: the idea of fractals. In maths, it is the idea of using a set formula to generate a pattern in which any part of the pattern will have complex elements, where each of these elements in turn will have complex patterns within them and so on to infinity. We even have the textbook pattern that is always used to illustrate the concept – the Mandelbrot set, called the Chirrica set on Hawkworld. My own first encounter with the concept was a tv program in the 80s explaining Lucasfilm’s use of fractals to generate landscapes for their computer games that revealed more complexity the closer you flew in to a particular area. In this story fractals apply in a couple of ways.

Most obviously, we're looking at a self-contained story which is a small part of the larger Invasion cross-over. Granted this means that all parts of every crossover have some of the nature of fractals about them (and thus Morrison isn't being so clever here). However, those issues don't have built in lessons on fractals as part of their make-up. I think it’s pertinent that Morrison chose this tie-in issue to expound on this particular concept. In addition, other tie-ins don't have such built-in completeness. We are given Hawkman Rokara Soh's complete life story from birth to death. Quite an achievement given the restrictions of a 22 page issue of an ongoing superhero series.


Another aspect of the fractal concept is the idea that the son in the story is a continuation of the father and a complex variation/reaction to his influence on him. We see that the father inspires the son, showing him the Mandelbrot diagram, but even though they grow apart due to his disapproval of his son’s decadent artistic pursuits, the son still measures himself against his father and is thinking about him at each stage of his final artistic accomplishment. I saw a similar dynamic in my reading of Final Crisis:Submit on the Final Crisis thread.  (That thread can now be viewed as a Word Doc attached to the opening post above.)


The most obvious example of a fractal structure in Morrison’s work is Seven Soldiers of Victory, where the single larger story breaks down into 7 shorter complete stories, which each in turn break down into 4 fairly self-contained issues. Morrison had varying levels of success in keeping the units self-contained, but this is what he was aiming for.


There is a complication to this simple fractal structure, however. In Animal Man #6, this issue is not a small component part of only 1 story (Invasion), but is very much a part of Buddy’s ongoing story. We see that he is coming to terms with his newfound vocation to be a real superhero. At first he thought it would be all hanging out with Superman, and getting write-ups in glossy magazines, but following on from the hard lessons he has learned so far, he is also learning that he is putting his life in real danger and sometimes being a hero means stepping up even when you know you are out-matched. We see that he is hesitant and scared as it looks like he will have to take on the Hawk-people, but his defeat of the Hawkwoman, making her fight him on his terms, not hers, is a milestone in his development as a hero.


So this issue is a component part of two grand narratives, not one, which complicates the fractal idea. Actually I think we are touching on something here which is probably another Morrison key-concept, but unfortunately my ‘Morrison for Dummies’ course through his early works hasn’t given me the vocabulary to discuss it yet.

In Seven Soldiers there is a similar thing going on, whereby, the Mister Miracle section is very much a part of the grand narrative of that story, but it is also a prequel to Final Crisis. I’ve seen loads of verbiage on the net complaining that this is obviously a flaw in Grant’s writing, but I think its deliberate and we are going to see more of this kind of ‘inter-locking’ of narratives as we go forward. If the Mandelbrot diagram was a 2-dimensional diagram, perhaps there is an idea of two plains intersecting at these points (to continue the fusion of maths and storytelling concepts). Hopefully Grant will explain it along the way, as he has been doing with his key concepts so far in the early issues of Doom Patrol and Animal Man.

So that’s a look at the fractals in this story. There is a bit more which I’d like to go into later concerning Morrison’s relationship to Rokara Soh, the artist despised by his peers for his pretentious and egotistical outpourings.

 

[Originally posted 7 July 2009]

Animal Man #6 (Part Two)

 

Rokara Soh is a fine creation, given only one brief flare of life in this issue. Like Animal Man himself, he is prepared to put his life on the line for his beliefs, but his only allegiance is to his art. It is everything to him and the artistic statement he makes in this story involves his 'art martyrdom', dying in a final performance. What he is doing is every bit as despicable as the attitudes of his Hawkwoman accomplice, but we have some sympathy for him, reliving his struggles with him as Buddy does. The Thanagarian culture we are shown here is satisfyingly alien to our own. War and Art and Mathematics seem to be all entwined with each other. It’s intriguing and the kind of thing not done often enough in sci-fi superhero comics. This is the real way to follow the legacy of someone like Alan Moore. Not by re-using their story elements a la the Blackest Night prophecy, but by bringing genuinely novel ideas to comics, as he did.

Rokara Soh has an interesting position in the greater scheme of the complete Animal Man run. Like the cartoonist god of the Coyote Gospel and Morrison later in the story, he is a creative artist. Like them he has the power of life and death which he exercises through his art. Like Buddy and the Coyote though, he is trapped in the fallen world. He, however, is trying to shape his world and work within its boundaries to transcend those boundaries. He doesn't have Buddy or Crafty's love of others which ultimately limits him and all his plans are undone. Rather than being commemorated for years to come, he will be laughed at as a failure, if he's remembered at all. His only drive is for the consciousness of his experiences to be known and experienced by all. This is the opposite drive to that of Buddy and Crafty, who face suffering and death because they empathise with the pain of others and act on it. There is the echo of Crafty in the end of his story though. As with Crafty’s efforts at communicating his big revelation, Rokara Soh’s attempts seem to come to naught.

It does beg the question of how much of Morrison the writer is in Rokara Soh. Both seem to live their art and both come from tough backgrounds where pursuing an artistic career would have been frowned upon. After Morrison revealed that King Mob in The Invisibles was his fictional alter ego, there has been a tendency for his fans to presume that all the bald guys in his stories are automatically avatars of Morrison.
In this interview, Morrison elaborates on his relationship with King Mob and how anything that happened to that character was weirdly reflected in his own life. Eventually he started writing great things happening to King Mob so that similarily super things would happen to him. When you think that Morrison had a full head of hair at the end of this series, then perhaps having a bald character channelling him so closely mightn’t have been such a good idea? Perhaps Morrison would have more hair today if Rokara Soh had been more hirsute?

More seriously, Rokara Soh’s project of making his audience relive his life-experiences does make me wonder to what extent Grant does the same thing. To keep the focus on Animal Man, I do wonder if the little cat referred to at the end of the series and his childhood communications with ‘Foxy’ are autobiographical or if they are just excellent elements of a great story. In any case Morrison has said that his Invisibles work is a fictional diary of sorts.

The wish to make others understand what it is like to be himself is one of the reasons George Orwell wrote of in his essay “Why I write”, though he admitted it wasn’t a lofty reason. Morrison too, seems dismissive of the Thanagarian's approach to his art. It is too egotistic; mathematic and coldly without empathy for the suffering of others. An understanding of suffering is one of the things that lifts Morrison’s work. Here, cruelty towards animals seems to be an equal plank with the metaphysics and superheroics in Animal Man.

The ending of this story is another familiar Morrison turn, being so anti-climactic. Just when Buddy realises he can’t stop the bomb, Hawkman appears from nowhere and saves the day. What are we to make of his advice – "just switch it off"? Perhaps it is Morrison’s practical working class Protestant background having the final say on these aesthetic-philosophical issues?
[Originally posted 7 July 2009]
Animal Man #7
The Death of the Red Mask.

Something of a filler episode again with the Invasion as a backdrop, but a memorable little story still. There's a repetition of the structure of the previous 2 issues as Buddy meets a new character who reveals his story to him before just before dying.  In this case, it's old super-villain the Red Mask that Buddy gets to empathise with. Buddy mentions that his inability to save anyone is getting him down.  The details and circumstances are so different and entertaining in each of these three issues that I hadn't recognised the similarities in basic story structure in these 3 issues, nor seen them as a problem on previous readings.

The Red Mask's life story allows Grant to present the Golden and Silver Ages in all their silliness and charm.* Such 'realism' as exists in the story is in the Red Mask's acceptance of his role as a villain once he realises that he has been cursed with a 'Death Touch'. Buddy is further fleshed out as a big-hearted likeable guy, seeing past the Red Mask’s powers, and skull insignia and refusing to pre-judge him.

Recurring Morrison motif #1: The Alan Moore tribute. Although the character has a great Poe-inspired name, the Red Mask’s costume doesn’t quite incorporate a mask as such. Instead he wears a red dome covering his whole head, a la The Killing Joke’s Red Hood. As I’ve mentioned before there is a close span of time separating the work of other major comic writers from their reinterpretation by Morrison. In this case The Killing Joke was published in March 1988, and this issue has a cover date of Jan 1989, so when you subtract the time it would have taken to produce this comic, there isn’t a long time-span between Moore’s original and Morrison’s alternative take on a small-time crook, who never did make it into the big leagues as the Joker did.

Recurring Morrison motif #2: The white surface stained. The opening panel is all white and the subsequent panels show red stains spreading over the white surface. Remember Red Jack’s supposed crime in Doom Patrol? ‘Staining the perfect purity of infinite nothingness with imperfect life.’ It’s not until page 2 that we see that it is the mortally ill Red Mask coughing blood into a sink. In the middle ages red was seen as one of the three important colours, equal to black and white in symbolical significance, standing for life and vitality between the absolutes of black and white. Here the colour of blood and life is also the indication of death. The two are inseperable. 
The affecting ‘Death of the Red Mask’ (nice twisting of Poe’s title btw!), just shows the cruelties we are all afflicted with. Old age and decrepitude sneaking up on us, the world becoming strange and inimicable around us: “That was a beautiful place. It’s a shopping mall now”. Our friends and loved ones passing away. Buddy eventually gets to rail against his creator for the incredible cruelties done to him in the course of Morrison’s run, but even those of us whose family aren't wiped out by shady government hitmen eventually have much sadness to deal with. Whether we will ever get to rail against anyone ‘responsible’, as Buddy does later, remains to be seen.
* As an aside, in this interview, Morrison claims that the ‘Silver Age’ wasn’t such a big influence on him.
[Originally posted 8 July 2009]
Animal Man #8
Mirror Moves

 

Another simple little done-in-one. A wonderfully Scottish Mirror Master attacks Buddy in his home and Buddy manages to get rid of him with a little help from his 'better half'.

Although it seems simple, I realised that this was the first issue that Grant throws all the balls he's going to be juggling up in the air. It seems that every theme and plot thread of the whole series is represented here.

Mirror Master has been sent to threaten him because a shady secret Government cabal disapproves of the stance he's taking against animal cruelty. We see the leather jacket wearing 'ghost' of Buddy for the first time. Buddy's membership of the JLI and his connection to the rest of the DCU is refferred to.

There is even a very sneaky swipe at Alan Moore's technique of juxtaposing text with pictures that reflect or comment ironically on it . Here we see Buddy going about his morning routine. As he takes a leak, he ponders "Is this where my superhero career is going to end up? In the toilet? HAH!"

The Native American physicist who will play a large role later is introduced. He's in the desert pondering his existence and wonders "Is it only some existential terror that makes me feel as though I have been newly brought into the world with a full set of memories and a purpose already prepared for me."

He is of course 100% correct and this is also the issue where his creator, Grant himself, becomes a character in the story. Here we only see the writer's monitor where he's typing out the words of Einstein's quote "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos" (Morrison's Oxford Book of Quotations got a lot of use in this part of his career!)

He then types the words "He doesn't. I do." I don't think I worked out the first time I read this who was writing the words. Its amazing how you can be blind to what's in front of your face. After all, who else could be writing them but Grant? I'm going to be paying attention to the letters pages going forward from this to see if the readers picked up on what was going on.

It's great to see how Morrison has every movement and beat of the whole run mapped out at this early stage. I'd imagine that it was around this issue that Morrison and DC realised that they had a book on their hands successful enough to carry a long ongoing story which wouldn't be resolved for almost another 20 issues.

 

 

[Originally posted 18 July 2009]

Animal Man #9
 “Home Improvements”

Another very enjoyable installment. A very simple follow up to the previous issue as the Martian Manhunter arrives at Buddy’s home to oversee the repairs after the fight with Mirror Master and the installation of security devices to prevent it happening again.

We’re seeing a very different way of structuring a long story here than what we’re currently used to. This is long before ‘writing for the trade’ and so far we’ve had an opening 4-issue arc followed by 5 more or less stand alone issues, during which the forward momentum of the story relaxes somewhat and takes a breather before the next important phase. Even less common today is that such references there are to upcoming plotlines won’t be resolved for maybe another 10 or 20 issues.

I’m enjoying this pace where the stories themselves dictate how many issues it takes to tell it. Buddy’s ongoing story feels like it has room to breath.

I also love that we are seeing a ‘snapshot’ of where the DCU was at this time. The Silver Age guest stars have a freshness about them as they haven’t been used since the Crisis, (and maybe not for years before that). S.T.A.R Labs are a nationwide institution – very 90s DC! The JLA are a friendly group overseen by the avuncular J’onn J’onnz. The idea that someone might come along and re-write everything after the last Crisis was very far from the readership’s mind, as it had after all been so recent. Nowadays it feels like reboots happen every few issues! We’ve had a single panel of the Silver Age Hawkman as he existed just between the Crisis and his ill-managed reboot. The Invasion Crossover feels different to modern crossovers. Yes, Animal Man did have to alter its trajectory for about 3 issues for it, but it doesn’t completely alter the context the stories are taking place in – unlike many crossover events since.

There’s a lot of heart in these stories - as typified by J’onn’s reasons for including Buddy in the Justice League International. Buddy is a family man with his own deeply felt ideas about his responsibilities. J’onn is impressed that Buddy fights for a noble cause like animal rights instead of just dressing up and punching other guys in tights.

Maybe I’m slow at this, but I’ve really enjoyed rereading these first 9 Animal Man issues. I do have a long affiliation with this run. I read the first few chapters about 20 years ago (gulp!). Then I read the whole run about 10 years ago. (Yes it took me that long to find out what became of Buddy and his San Diego suburban family! I’m never in a hurry…) This is my first time really getting into it since then and the first time I’ve reread the early parts with a view to how whole thing pans out. No doubt reading each chapter as a separate standalone issue has made for a different experience than reading it as a collection. I’m reading Aztek as a TPB at the moment and I seem to be jumping from each chapter to the next much more quickly.
[Originally posted 21 July 2009]

I recall being quite shocked by DC even publishing Animal Man since he was such a minor character and the stories were so atypical. Great stories but not mainstream. Buddy got some face time in the 80s with the Forgotten Heroes (along with Congorilla) in Action #552-553 (F-Ma' 84) and DC Comics Presents #77-78 (Ja-F'85) and was featured in the latter half of Crisis On Infinite Earths.

But growing up, he was one of those heroes that I heard of but never seen. In fact he wasn't really referred to as Animal Man, it was either the Man with the Animal Powers or more simply A-Man. I bought much later the 52 page Adventure Comics (#412, 414, 415 and 420) that reprinted his brief Strange Adventures run which were light-hearted and a bit oddball. A fainting Buddy, alien invaders Trano & Zaarn who would give him much angst in Morrison's issues, baby animal powers and of course The Mod Gorilla Boss! The limitations of Buddy's powers were very obvious. If you fought him in a zoo or game preserve, you were in big trouble! In the city, not so much! "They can't get away from my pigeon flying powers!"

Buddy made no new appearances in the 70s, finally coming out of retirement in Wonder Woman # 267-268 (My-Ju'80) to avenge the death of his friend against the Cartel and their army of one-shot villains. Diana even laughed at his powers, let alone tell the JLA about him. :-(

His entry in Who's Who #1 (Ma'85) was notably for a few reasons: he appeared on the front cover with a bird near him!, Gil Kane drew it, it was the only 2/3 of a page entry in the series (he had to share with WW baddie, the Angle Man) and it mentioned his children Cliff and Maxine (did they appear before?) and that they have not yet shown any latent power of their own. Foreshadowing?

As I said, I liked to have at least one comic with a particular character in it so it was quite surprising to see "Forgotten Hero" Buddy Baker to the stage and be so refreshing and different and memorable!

...with a bird near him!

 

So he can fly after villains so long as a passing Chaffinch happens to be going the same direction?

 

He's definitely the last hero you'd expect to be the hero of such an important, serious (in its way) and enjoyable book.  Morrison does love marginal figures though.  It's largely what he's about.

 

I'm amazed that his early adventures haven't been reprinted yet.  There must be a market for them.  When I get back to Buddy again, the first story in the second collection is a retelling of Buddy's origin and first adventures, from Secret Origins, but it's an odd one for the post-COIE period.  It deliberately leaves the early-60's look intact.  Thus it looks to me like it would have suited Morrison's purposes better to just reprint his early adventures.

 

Obscure as Animal Man was, the letters pages were chockablock with folks writing in saying that he had been their favourite hero!  Geeks have to like that which the plebs have never heard of!

 

BTW, Morrison is riffing on Moore's Swamp Thing 57-58 pretty closely in issue #6, his Hawkpeople issue.  As Adam Strange does there, Animal Man has a desperate airborne battle with a savage Hawkwoman and uses water to defeat her.  (I can't remember if Animal Man's foe is drowned at the end as Adam's was...)

 

I'm looking forward to reading more Animal Man.  The first 9 issues are pretty masterful for such a young writer, and the 'open-plan' artwork has a nice inviting Silver Age feel.  However, I can't say right now when I'll get back to him. 

I'm not sure if you know this, Figs but the Silver Age Animal Man could only access the abilties of animals that were near him. I mean really close range. I know this changed in his series with an Animal version of the Green, another Morrison take on Moore?

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