Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Animal Man: Buddy to the beasts

Jungle boogie: Animal Man #1, in which Grant Morrison takes a B-list DC superhero and turns him into his own personal plaything.

Jungle boogie: Animal Man #1, in which Grant Morrison takes a B-list DC superhero and turns him into his own personal plaything.

Jeff Lemire recently wrapped up his highly-rated run on Animal Man. We look back at some of Buddy Baker’s best moments.

FOR a superhero who started out as a simple guy who develops animal powers, Animal Man sure as heck didn’t stay simple for long.

Buddy Baker made his debut in 1965’s Strange Adventures #180, the brainchild of writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino. Gaining his powers after being exposed to an exploding alien ship, he discovers that he can absorb the “powers” of any nearby animal (flight of a bird, strength of an elephant, that sort of thing).

Still, it wasn’t until issue #190 of the comic that he began wearing a costume, calling himself A-Man.

Sadly, Animal Man (I refuse to call him A-Man. That’s like calling Superman “S-Man”) never really became popular enough to warrant his own title (until later), and made his final Strange Adventures appearance in issue #201.

Though he did make a few other appearances in other parts of the DC Universe (he was in Crisis On Infinite Earths as part of the “Forgotten Heroes” team of B-list DC characters such as Dolphin, Adam Strange and Captain Comet; and was also part of Justice League Europe at one point), it wasn’t until 1988 that he finally got his big break, courtesy of a little-known writer named Grant Morrison.

Meta Morrison

Grant Morrison’s three-year, 26-issue run on Animal Man was nothing short of legendary.

With help from artists Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood, and iconic covers from Brian Bolland, Morrison not only made Animal Man relevant again, he turned him into a superhero you could relate to. Morrison’s Buddy Baker was more of a family man than a superman, with the comic focusing on his relationship with his wife Ellen, his son Cliff, and daughter Maxine. In fact, Buddy was more often seen out of his costume than in it, and was more likely to be breaking up petty fights between his children rather than battling supervillains.

Morrison’s run is also well known for the way he played around with comic book conventions. In Animal Man #5 for instance, Morrison lampoons Looney Tunes’ Wile E. Coyote by introducing Crafty, a coyote who is cursed to die over and over again in order to save the alternate world he comes from.

It wouldn’t be the last time Morrison tried something different in Animal Man – by the end of his run, he had gone one step further, writing HIMSELF into the comic book as Buddy quite literally “meets his maker”. In what is probably one of the most surreal scenes in comic history, Morrison tells Buddy that he is the “evil mastermind behind the scenes”, that he is vegetarian because “I’M a vegetarian”, and after deciding it is “time for a fight scene”, gives Animal Man some enemies to fight while he addresses the reader to thank all the people involved during his time on the book.

With that issue, Morrison not only broke the fourth wall, he smashed it down in with a wrecking ball and created a reading experience that was so meta and mind-warping that by the end of it, you wondered if his successor could live up to the expectations.

Milligan’s methods

With Buddy Baker’s family restored and his memory wiped of all Morrison’s meta mish-mash at the end of Animal Man #26, the series’ next writer, Peter Milligan, had a clean slate to work with, and promptly used it to make Buddy’s life even weirder and more miserable than before.

Instead of the happy ending Morrison gave him, Buddy wakes up from a coma to a very different reality, and finds that he can’t control his powers properly.

Though Milligan’s run only lasted six issues, it ended on an arguably stranger note than Morrison – with Buddy committing suicide, and returning to his original DC reality!

Veitch’s vision

Tom Veitch’s two-year run on the series (starting from Animal Man #33) was where Animal Man’s continuity started to become more cohesive and in line with what he is like today.

Veitch introduced the idea of Buddy being an “Animal Master”, a shaman-like guardian of nature who taps into a field of power to gain his animal powers, just like how Swamp Thing taps into The Green for his.

He also gave Buddy Baker a proper arch-enemy to fight – Antagon, a force of nature that opposes the Animal Masters.

After Animal Man defeats Antigon in Animal Man #50 (Veitch’s final issue), he then learns that Maxine is also an Animal Master, and is developing animal powers as well.

Delano’s deeds

It was Jamie Delano who first came up with the name for the “morphogenetic field” that connects and pervades all animal life in the universe – The Red, which has since been expanded to cover all DC superheroes that have animal powers, including Beast Boy, Horsewoman (last seen in the now-cancelled Demon Knights), and Vixen.

Best known for being the first writer to pen the John Constantine: Hellblazer comic, Delano’s run on Animal Man also coincided with the title’s move from DC Comics to the more mature Vertigo. Adjusting to the switch accordingly, Delano got rid of all the superhero elements in the character (no more cheesy costume, no more “Animal Man”, no more fighting crime). He accomplished this by killing Buddy off and having him reborn as the “avatar” of the Red (much like how Swamp Thing is the avatar of the plant equivalent, The Green).

In a run that was more of a horror title than a superhero comic, Delano managed to give Animal Man a place in the DC Universe (even though the title was published by Vertigo at the time), and even managed to draw a link between Animal Man, avatar of the Red, and Swamp Thing, avatar of the Green. It was a link that would prove important when the title was relaunched via the DC New 52.

Delano’s run lasted 29 issues before the reins were handed over to Jerry Prosser, who unfortunately only lasted 10 issues before the title was cancelled owing to declining sales.

Lemire’s legacy

When DC launched the New 52, it pulled all the Vertigo characters that originated from DC back into the fold, including John Constantine, Swamp Thing and, of course, Animal Man.

Hiring Vertigo alumnus Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Trillium) and artist Travel Foreman (The Immortal Iron Fist) to work on the title was a masterstroke, as the duo turned in one of the New 52’s best titles in its two-and-a-half-year existence.

Getting rid of all the pseudo-religious themes and putting the focus back on Buddy Baker and his family, Lemire’s Animal Man was intelligent and refreshingly original.

The cover of Animal Man #26, where Morrison puts his actual boot on poor Buddy Baker.

Together with Swamp Thing (initially written by Scott Snyder, who has since left the title), Animal Man helped build a small, Vertigo-esque niche in the New 52 that was merrily out of place with the rest of the bam-boom-kapow nature of most of the other New 52 titles.

The Rotworld crossover event Animal Man shared with Swamp Thing was one of the highlights of DC’s New 52 so far, and helped a great deal to ease the character back into the main DC universe.

Arguably the most controversial part of Lemire’s run was his decision to kill off Buddy’s son, Cliff. For a character who has always been defined by his family, this was arguably the biggest blow to Buddy in the history of the character. In fact, it affects him so much that in Lemire’s poignant final issue (Animal Man #29), Buddy vows to keep the family away from all the superhero stuff.

That’s not the end of Animal Man’s story in the New 52, though. Lemire will be penning the upcoming new title Justice League United, which will feature Buddy in a team setting.

As Lemire himself said in an interview with “(Now) he can go and hang out with the Justice League and go into space and stuff, but as soon as that starts coming home, he has to quit. The family’s more important.

“I really do feel that Justice League United is really the next step for the character, right now.

“So if you don’t want to stop reading, I really do recommend that you keep reading Justice League United.

“And that’s not just a cheesy sales pitch on my part. It really is me continuing and trying to explore the character in new ways.”

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Animal Man , DC Comics , Grant Morrison , book news , Vertigo Comics , comics , Worlds of Wonder


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