It was on Blastoff Comics’ Scott Tipton’s recommendation that I pick up Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Animal Man. It’s a heavy undertaking, with 26 issues collected in three fat trade paperbacks, but with recommendations like Starman, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., and a whole lot more great comics under his belt, Scott’s suggestions have always been on point. Beyond that, some of the first comics that made me fall in love with the medium were from Vertigo – Sandman, Preacher, Y: The Last Man, and even Morrison’s Kill Your Boyfriend wooed me big time. So for this month’s Binge Reading piece, we’re diving into the first volume of Animal Man, written by Grant Morrison with pencils by Chas Truog and Tom Grummett, inks by Doug Hazelwood, colors by Tatjana Wood, and letters by John Costanza. I’ve actually read a fair amount of Morrison – more than you’d expect, perhaps, from someone who hasn’t yet tackled Animal Man – so knowing the unparalleled variety of his writing style, I honestly have no idea what to expect. Let’s find out.
First off, Animal Man feels a lot more like the classic superhero comics I’ve covered for Blastoff than it does the other Vertigo books I’ve read. It may have been edgy and left-of-center for its time, but I expected something a fair bit darker than this – but I’m not mad at it. Rather than copying what his peers were doing in their reinventions of other obscure DC heroes, Grant Morrison sought to make a lighter, funnier book that is strange not because of its darkness, but because of the way it explored being a superhero and a family man in a more realistic way. Because that focus on the super-heroics is much heavier than Sandman or Swamp Thing, this title interacts with the larger DC Universe a lot more than other Vertigo titles. Swamp Thing of course had notable guest appearances, but Animal Man feels very much like it’s playing ball with the other characters and titles in the DCU, even going so far as to have a tie-in to Invasion, an event series that was going on during the 7th, 8th, and 9th issues of Animal Man. That was interesting to me, making this read more like modern superhero comics, where important things happen outside of the book (Animal Man’s powers getting “scrambled” during Invasion, for instance, and having an impact on the last two chapters of this volume), but most of it is explained concisely in the narration.
After reading the full volume, it made sense that Grant Morrison wrote the first four issues as a miniseries. It became an ongoing as of the fifth issue, and that is when the quality began to greatly increase along with Morrison’s ability to take risks. The best chapter, by far, is the fifth, called The Coyote Gospel, in which a thinly veiled Wily Coyote is damned to live in the real world, dying over and over, attempting to pass off his story to Animal Man who, in a genuinely funny and sad bit, can’t read his writing. This, and the issues that follow, are a great deal more experimental than the fairly standard first four chapters. The beginnings of a mystery are being built here, and I’m a huge fan of the standalone, episodic nature of the chapters that, when seen as a whole, begin to build a larger picture. I don’t quite like Buddy Baker, the eponymous Animal Man, yet, though. He is flighty and inconsiderate of his wife, coming to huge decisions mostly off panel, and overall not really coming off as a hero that I want to root for yet. In the first chapter, when we meet him, he decides to become Animal Man again – kind of just because. His wife’s dialogue shows us that that’s the point, that he has done this over and over and kind of just changes his life based on whims, but because we aren’t given a thorough look into his thought process beyond his internal monologue while fighting his foes, there isn’t much to latch onto. The supporting cast, on the other hand, is stellar. Morrison builds great characters with very little page space – the trucker and the hitchhiker from #5 come to mind, as does the dying supervillain Red Mask from #7, who I was invested in after just a few panels.
While I enjoyed it and was genuinely surprised by Morrison’s execution, I did have a few problems with the book. If Swamp Thing is the definitive environmental rights comic, Animal Man is meant to be the definitive animal rights comic. Where Swamp Thing approaches its issues with subtlety and grace, Animal Man flounders a bit, particularly with the character B’Wana Beast. Now, B’Wana Beast is the threat in the first arc, and he is furious about the way that animals are being mistreated by humans. His crusade is actually what (partially) inspires Animal Man himself to focus on animal rights. However, what this book doesn’t at all address is that by far the most barbaric examples of animal cruelty in the pages of this comic are committed by B’Wana Beast himself. He tortures animals by physically fusing them together and using them as weapons… and this is the guy we are supposed to believe when he’s crying about how other people mistreat animals? It seemed bizarre not to address this, because it was the first thing I thought about when he made his position clear. So, the guy who turned a room full of monkeys into a melted, screaming monstrosity and then smacked a guy in the face with a living rat and forced them to fuse together, driving both insane in the process, is pissed about folks are doing to animals? All right, guy. I wish Animal Man had called him out, because then it would’ve made sense – as it, it seems like it’s a brutal bit of irony that the narrative didn’t spot. Also, just as a warning, for a book that is focused on animal rights, it shows a great deal of brutality against pets, including dogs and cats. I get it, and as a creator I understand why these scenes are shown, but the scene in the forest with the guys and the cats seemed like a cartoonishly, bizarrely cruel way for Animal Man and his family to end up adopting a kitten.
Overall, it’s definitely not what I expected from a Vertigo book by Grant Morrison. That’s good, in a way – I was a big fan of the tone and of the inventive writing of the later issues, but not so much of Animal Man himself or some elements of the first arc. That said, I’m getting the sense that the next two volumes are much more along the lines of The Coyote Gospel and subsequent issues, and that excited me. I feel like the first volume is just beginning to show Grant Morrison realizing the great things he can do when he takes big risks. To me, Morrison’s bibliography shows that he might be comics’ biggest risk taker, trying things that most wouldn’t dare. It may pay off to some readers, or not to others, but I admire the level of creativity and invention in his craft, and watching it blossom here in his early work feels a bit like traveling back in time…