Animal Man Retrospective: Part 1

"I think the jacket looks pretty neat and it gives me somewhere to keep my money and stuff."- Animal Man #1

In the first part of my Animal Man retrospective, we will consider how Grant Morrison handles Animal Man’s reboot in the first four issues of his run, the original commission for the series.

As Morrison describes at the end of Animal Man 2, he was picked up in DCs third search for UK talent. The revival of old characters were in vogue; Morrison wanted to do Animal Man. And Animal Man in premise is a pretty typical reboot: a hero from a simpler an idyllic time is thrust into our brutal real world. How will Animal Man deal with the gritty, in-your-face, unforgiving late 20th century? What will his stances on animal testing, vegetarianism, and animal activism be? In a costume like his, where will he put his change? How will his hero-ing adversely affect his family? How will Animal Man be updated – how will he be debased, made cynical, made “real”?

To recap: Buddy Baker, who used to go superheroing around under the alias Animal Man, has the power to absorb the abilities of up to three different animals in his vicinity. He’s been out of the game for a while and has spent the last few years living in the country with his wife and two kids. He decides to give being a hero another shot, dust off the old costume, and to try joining Justice League International. He gets an agent, goes on a sleazy talk show, and gets his first gig, from Star Labs, no less: one of their labs in San Diego has been attacked by B’wana Beast, who, it turns out, has just been trying to rescue his ape side-kick, Djuba.

The thing is, in the first four issues, Buddy Baker, Animal Man, floats pretty blithely through all of this. For the moment, he is nearly entirely spared that brutality, and it is inflicted on others. ¬†While Buddy is off adventuring, in the woods, his wife and daughter encounter degenerate rednecks – out hunting for sport, of course – and watch in terror as the hunters first throw a cat who has just given birth to their hunting dogs and then move to rape Buddy’s wife. Those rednecks were introduced as a sinister force advancing towards Buddy’s town near the end of the first issue; Buddy’s neighbor was introduced as a curmudgeonly wastrel on the fourth page of the same. But it’s that good-for-nothing neighbor who experiences this brutishness, deals with this danger, and saves Buddy’s family. Buddy, our super-hero, manages to avoid being confronted with this grotesque and personal threat. He’s not the guy who deals with rapists. He deals with animals and beasts.

The antagonist of this arc suffers the worst, B’wana Beast, a ridiculous character now caught up in far too cruel a world. B’wana Beast, The White God of Kilimanjaro, is dismantled in a way that Morrison resists dismantling Buddy: this is what Morrison could do but doesn’t (at least for the moment). And yet because B’wana Beast is rather more absurd and fantastic than Animal Man, it seems all the more brutal: B’wana Beast’s friend, Ken, is shot execution style by an general in a civil war in an unnamed African country. While The White God exacts his grotesque revenge, his loyal ape side-kick, Djuba, is abducted by scientists so that he can be a test-subject for biological weapons research. B’wana Beast comes to the city, looking for Djuba, and is dazed and broken by the grotesqueness of the concrete jungle. Nor do his powers prove much help, which should surprise no one, but they, too, are debased: he is reduced to melding a rat and a hobo together in one instance, and a bunch of apes into a pile of monkeys in another.

In issue 3, once B’wana Beast finds Djuba, he can only cradle her in his arms as she dies from the anthrax virus the doctors gave her, snot and blood and tears dripping down her face, grunting incoherently.

Someone must be cutting onions. . .

Actually, issue 3 is particularly brutal. It also features the cat being mauled by the dogs; indeed, page 19 features dogs picking over the remains of the cat, Buddy’s wife being nearly raped, and the assailant getting a bullet through his head.

Even when Animal Man and The White God finally fight, it is ultimately the anthrax that B’wana Beast has contracted from Djuba, and not entirely Buddy’s own machinations, that defeat him.

So Buddy gets away pretty unscathed without having to do much (the key move that he makes that Saves Everybody is curing the anthrax virus at the very end). Well, he loses an arm at one point, but he makes it grow back. His family is threatened while he off adventuring, but, unlike B’wana Beast’s family, someone saves them. The world is full of cruel stories, but Buddy’s doesn’t have to be. It can be serious without being cruel, sometimes fun and uplifting without being an utter parody. When the story does, in the end, turn cruel it is particularly affecting and particularly makes us reconsider what we want out of comics.

Burning Questions: A minor plot point I just don’t get. In issue 4, Buddy figures out that the pile of monkeys was a failed attempt by The White God to fuse more than two monkeys together. But when did The White God go into the lab and fuse them together in the first place? Until issue 3, it seems that he was only acting through proxies. Also, if he had never fused together more than two to begin with – why would his first attempt to fuse together more use, by my count, seven monkeys?!

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