Animal Man
Grant Morrison, writer;
Chas Truog &
Tom Grummett, artists
(DC Comics, 1988-89;
collected, 1991)

I really liked Animal Man back when Grant Morrison took a third-rung hero out of the DC basement, brushed him off and made him someone worth reading about. I stuck with the series, even as it became progressively weirder and weirder, until its eventual cancellation. I'll be honest -- by the end, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I had been at the beginning.

The Animal Man book, which collects issues 1-9 of the Morrison series, reminds me why I enjoyed the title so much. It also provides a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.

Animal Man is Buddy Baker, a suburban husband and father of two who gained "animal powers" when an alien spaceship blew up in his face. That means he can temporarily absorb the natural abilities of anything in his immediate vicinity, from the tracking nose of a bloodhound to the proportionate strength of a spider. That could make him a formidable character under the right circumstances, and with the right writer at the helm.

Morrison did a lot that was right with this series. Instead of giving us a hero who was a strange visitor from another planet, a billionaire playboy with endless resources at his disposal or a figure from mythology, he gives us a regular guy down the street. His wife is a sweetheart but can be a bit of a nag. His kids can be annoying. He has trouble paying the bills. So he decides to brush off his old costume and go back into heroing in a big way, hoping to be accepted into the Justice League and be a success. And to some extent, he achieves that goal, if only for a short time.

His first case involves the B'wana Beast, an African superhuman who can fuse animals together (sometimes resulting in a powerful ally, other times creating a real big mess). Buddy also confronts a wily, seemingly immortal coyote, a Thanagarian warrior, a suicidal supervillain and a Scottish superpowered hitman.

The tales are fresh and funny in the way Morrison blends Buddy's superheroing with his home life and the way he portrays Buddy's first awkward steps at trying to be a hero. Sometimes I think he overestimates Buddy's powers, however -- I'm not sure the rudimentary regenerative abilities of an earthworm would allow him to regrow the complex musculature and nerve structure of a human arm.

Also, far too much of the action takes place off of the page. When Buddy goes off to join the other DC heroes to fight a large-scale alien invastion, the action occurs in a crossover book. When Buddy is given membership in Justice League Europe, that happens in a crossover book. When a strange phenomenon mixes up Buddy's powers, it happens in a crossover book. Likewise, this volume is peppered with panels foreshadowing things to come in Morrison's series, but which occur long after the nine issues collected here. So readers of this book, who don't have access to the rest of the unreprinted series, will be left wanting.

It's also true that Buddy is an avid animal rights activist, a posture which reflects, to some extent, Morrison's own. While it is a believeable trait for someone with animal powers, some readers may find his preaching to be a little heavy-handed. Some of the scenes of animal abuse, primarily in research laboratories, may be a little strong for some people.

Still, I can't help but enjoy the Buddy Baker story that Morrison has crafted. There's a lot of potential here for good storytelling, and the later series did fulfill some of that potential.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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