Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at DC’s Animal Man By Grant Morrison Book One, out now in trade…
Animal Man By Grant Morrison Book One
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Chas Truog And Doug Hazlewood
Black Label/DC Comics
Grant Morrison’s refitting of Buddy Baker is often overlooked in the history of the medium – Moore’s Swamp Thing and Gaiman’s Sandman are widely considered to be the key series in the 80s British invasion, when dated DC characters were iconoclastically reimagined by the new hip kids on the block. However Morrison’s 26 issue run, half of which is reprinted in this weighty tome, is every bit as seismic as those two hallowed titles. Turning a typically one-dimensional late 60s character with silly powers into an everyman at the heart of some deeply existential tales seemed not just par for the course but effortless for the young Scot – and the series, initially meant to be a four parter, was an immediate hit.
What Morrison brought to the table, along with some protean otherliness (soon to take flight in far more skewed works such as Doom Patrol) was the humanism – protagonist Buddy Baker was a regular, slightly flaky character who may have lacked intensity but more than made up for it with heart. His wife Ellen and kids were well-delineated figures in a title that somehow managed to blend banal domesticity with surreal, metaphysical tropes and complex science fiction. There’s also a ribbon of subtle polemic throughout, as vegetarian Baker battles corporate experiments on animals, with plenty of the narrative taken from the animal’s perspective.
Perhaps Morrison’s best feature as a writer at this early stage in his career across the pond was his ability to seamlessly switch from humour, to bathos to tragedy, all while providing a postmodern take on super-heroes, animation and indeed the mechanics of the medium itself. With Chas Truog’s fluid, slightly off-kilter pencils, Morrison weaved excellent, multifaceted stories that are alternatively cinematic and cartoony. In issue 3 Baker battles Bwana Beast (another ancient character from Strange Adventures) in a tale that combines bathos, horror and tragedy, as his antagonist attempts to save his gorilla friend Djuba from vivisectionists, while interpolating an even more visceral subplot which sees Ellen attacked by stereotypically bloodthirsty hunters. The story jumps from ludicrous Grand Guignol to domestic terror and despair in a heartbeat, and none of it seems all that contrived.
From there, Morrison gets all Meta on the reader, noticeably in issue 5’s The Coyote Gospel, which interprets Wile E Coyote’s indestructability as a covenant between the benighted creature and a vengeful god. It certainly stays with you but it doesn’t quite work, although it shows just how quickly Morrison had learned to adapt, rearrange and alter the form for his own amusement, as if he was trying to outdo his peers. Which he no doubt was.
After that particularly left-field entry, Morrison continued with Baker battling some rather unpleasant Thanagarians who wanted to create an art installation by destroying the planet. Issue 7’s confrontation with a washed up, terminally ill super-villain is a masterclass in pathos which cleverly parodies Watchmen, and issue 8’s run in with a thoroughly Glaswegian Mirror Master is a tour de force of vivid insanity and wigged out violence. The remaining chapters, featuring a retooling of the character’s origin, move into even weirder, remote territory, as Baker faces nonentity villain Hamed Ali and his interstellar benefactors. It does get wearingly trippy (and arbitrary) in places, especially when his alien saviours turn up, but it still plays.
In the end this series was every bit as influential and important as its contemporaries. Yet it managed to sidestep portentous solemnity, even in the final story’s focus on apartheid era South Africa, replete as it was with racial oppression and suffocating evil. Perhaps the most deft and archetypal moment of the run is when Buddy Baker fleetingly meets Superman, his awe tempered by his inferiority complex. The Man of Steel is his idealized, supercilious and iconic self, and completely exclusive not just from Animal Man but the entire series. It’s marvellously done and leaves you wanting more, but then entertainment leavened with what was then cutting edge storytelling usually has that effect.
A near masterwork that really should be on everyone’s reading list, even if you’ve read it before, and let’s face it, now is the time to revisit old classics from another era.
Animal Man by Grant Morrison Book One is out now from DC