Sunday, September 11, 2011

Animal man #1-4

In 1987, inspired by the success of Alan ("Swamp thing", "Watchmen") Moore, DC's talent division scouted United Kingdom for similar comics writers, hoping they would help rejuvinate their line of secondary titles. Looking for a smart and edgy take, they were drawn towards "Zenith", Grant Morrison's post modern superhero and asked the writer to pitch them a revival of one of their many moribund properties. The "2000 AD" magazine writer, inspired by Moore's work, submitted an outline for four issues, centered on finding a new take involving Buddy Baker, the Animal man.

The seldom seen character's profile has previously been boosted by Marv ("New Teen Titans") Wolfman's including him in his work on "Action comics" and "DC comics presents". The key DC writer of the early eighties gave Buddy a cameo in DC's first and most ambitious cross over event "Crisis on infinite Earths", and Morrison followed up with his revamp just as the company was starting to branch out to more risky Direct market exclusive material.

Thus, in 1988 the first of the original planned four issues debuted, pencilled by Chas ("Coyote") Truog and inked by Doug Hazlewood. For a start, the artistic team was standard for DC's lesser selling titles of the time, and brings to mind the Mike Grell written "Green arrow". Getting an indie penciller clearly uncomfortable with superheroes on a book with the stylized covers of one Brian Bolland seemed an industry practice, but certainly provided a jarring juxtaposition. Truog was certainly a strong storyteller even then, providing clear layouts, easily distinguished characters and a lot of energy to his pages, but was given neither the time nor the adequate compensation to proceed with a layered detailed approach allowed to Bolland and rare few talents of his caliber. From the start, it's easy to see that the initial four issues were designed with the goal of spotlighting the writer and, as such, relegated Truog to the role of a collaborator whose contribution is not to easy to discern.

Where Grant Morrison, the writer of the revamp started of with was by providing a look at a late eighties superhero trying to make a come back while still thinking of ways to provide for his family. As depicted, Buddy is a naivee, but well meaning common man, who loves his wife and their two children, determined to try and make a real break as a superhero. In doing this he seeks support of his illustrator wife, and proceeds to test out his animal mimicking abilities, mimicking Alan Moore's early "Marvelman" issues. Morrison is careful to realize the suburban neighborhood Buddy and Ellen live in, realizing that the neighboring forest, and the adjacent wild life, will play a larger role later on. Buddy is portrayed as a fan of punk and indie rock music, which the writer uses to justify the inclusion of a leather jacket on his original A-man costume.

Interestingly, this is about as much as Morrison ventures with Buddy's character. Beyond the character's empathy towards animals, the writer is pleased with leaving him a blank slate, deliberately steering clear of the retelling of Buddy's original Silver age origin, where "the man with animal powers" was treated as little more than a leading story novelty in a mystery anthology. Once DC comics decided to extend the mini series towards an ongoing run with the character, both him and Truog would get a chance for a post modern revision of Animal Man's first appearances in "Strange adventures" magazine, but interestingly Morrison decided on exploiting the back story of another failed 1960s try out superhero as a way of delineating Buddy in opposition to another similar character.

Thus, somewhat unexpectedly, the Bob Haney and Mike Sekowsky's original "Showcase presents" two part story starring B'wana Beast ends up impacting the plot of original proposed "Animal man" mini series much more than any of the title character's initial appearances. The Beast was recently featured in a "Swamp Thing" story, but Morrison was still mindful that at this point he was dealing with introducing the new audience to two long forgotten characters, and as such, provides the pertinent information in a way that was much more in touch with the then modern sensibilities. In a time when the image aware writer routinely had the characters tossing "Rolling stone" magazine with the Justice League as the cover feature, and a reference to an Ann Rice article inside, Morrison was intent to present a very polarizing post Cold war landscape. On the one hand, the reader was treated to Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood's version of suburban LA paradise, with the downtown San Diego being presented as an urban nightmare where Animal man has to work in.

That the writer is very aware of his character's status as a one note joke superhero is directly referenced in the introductory issue, with Morrison reassuring the reader that he is very clear on the direction he's taking the character in. Even Buddy's ambition of rising to the status of regular working superheroes such as Blue Beetle, falls to the wayside in a scene where the writer plays up Buddy's relative similarity to the orange clad Aquaman, another blond character, and likewise a long standing foil for the audience disinterested in the underwater exploits of the unlikely ocean based superhero. Likewise, most of the popularity Blue Beetle had in what was until recently modern DCU stemmed from the Justice League writers essentially transforming him into a parody of a generic superhero, but Animal man of course isn't aware of any of this. To him, these are perfectly legitimate superhuman characters that he hopes will recognize him as a peer, while shunning the company of Element man (another Bob Haney creation), another oddball concept that never caught on as much as the company wanted to.

Most significant though, is Buddy's relationship to the original superhero, Superman, who Morrison smartly includes in these pages as an objective point of comparison. Thus, a TV sketch lampooning Animal Man's ability as a sort of pet detective gets him an S.T.A.R. labs call, with the scientist freely admitting that the only reason they proceeded with dialing the LA-based superhero was that Superman wasn't able to answer the emergency in time. This is not just a cynical aside but a crucial point Morrison makes, given that the case as depicted would seem completely ill suited to the DC's flagship books, whether by the logistics or the style of the story. Simply put, Animal man was entirely the right person to call when it comes to dealing with a science fictional/horror mash up, centered around another, long forgotten DC animal based superhero.

That Superman himself briefly shows up to introduce himself and promptly flies away to deal with an airplane emergency further drives home Morrison's point that there is more to the distinction between "Animal Man" and "Action comics" than the popularity of the characters involved. And seeing how Morrison's initial approach to Buddy Baker leans much more heavily on the Clive Barker and Steven King horror revisionism rather than the typical superhero inspirations, there is no doubt that the writer was right to call attention to the need for a separate approach, and a different kind of hero.

In a lot of ways, what Alan Moore did on "Swamp Thing" was simply to take the ideas in a more mature direction. The underlying template of a EC-style monster comic was still providing the structure behind the revision, but the advent of the Direct Market enabled the writers to approach the themes from a more informed stance, educated by the prevaling horror literature of the time, and the non-fiction work that supported the ideas. When it comes to "Animal man", Morrison was simply a vegetarian who elaborated on his contempt for the cruelty toward animals, and tried to present his informed opinion in the context of a superhero comic book.

That he took the stance seriously, and presented his case in these initial four issues reassures the readers that the writer-centered comic they are reading at least represents an intelligent and well thought out slice of pop culture. The layered approach, filled with foreshadowing, tight characterization and poetic narration certainly reminds of Moore's work, but the burgeoning sub genre of similar offerings, including Neil Gaiman's "the Sandman" quickly found a lot of fans sympathetic to it. Basically, the intelligent, well written superhero book quickly came to mean a revision of a  little seen superhero, illustrated by a capable yet undistinguished up and coming artist, aiming at fan in late teens, and adamant on keeping his interest by sliding the envelope, virtuoso storytelling.

The obvious benefits of this approach were the high profile typically given by the superhero fandom to the riskier Marvel and DC material, a steady publication, and adequate financial reward, eventually including the royalties when it comes to the republication of the same material. In such a system, ignorant to the material outside the superhero genre and foreign publications, it's easy to understand the sudden and meteoric rise of the careers of Moore, Gaiman and Morrison. The talented scribes simply introduced intelligent, detailed scripts coming from the inspirations outside traditional pulp stories, and realized in technique that often had more in common with the work of post modern prose writers than Robert Kanigher, Stan Lee and Bob Haney.

Specifically, at this early point in his career, Morrison was still introducing himself to the audience, and just seeing the scene transitions the Scottish scribe utilizes is enough to brings to mind the technique behind Moore's "Swamp thing". The tightly plotted, allusion heavy work in a real way felt like the growth of the medium, and certainly makes sense when it comes to Bwana Beast's narration, as the trench coated psychic gets introduced in a creepy and detached manner, befitting a modern day vampire. Chad Truog is careful to concentrate on the silhouette of the Beast's helmet, certain that most of the readers wouldn't be able to recognize it, but at the same time helping convey that this is no ordinary stalker inflicting violence in San Diego's back streets.

Morrison is likewise careful to allude to the character's identity in broad terms, waiting patiently for the full reveal, while utilizing the chance to elaborate on the feral character's impressions of the big city. That these passages read similar to Frank Miller's "Daredevil" captions, describing a blind man's augmented perception of a busy streets of a polluted metropolis goes without saying, but Morrison is still very cognizant of his stated aim with this storyline. Compared to the lovable, easy going naivety of Buddy Baker, B'wana beast is simply delusional, driven to the point of madness in his grief over the cruelty perpetrated to his animal friend. By proceeding with the deconstruction of a superhuman Tarzan with a strange power to fuse animals, Morrison seems to imply why one character works in for the modern audiences, and the other doesn't.

Grant Morrison could be said to have basically reinvented Buddy from the ground up, but he still keeps his friends from the character's initial appearance in "Strange adventures". Both Ellen and Roger are still depicted as Buddy's friends and confidantes, with the writer adding two children to further cement Animal Man as a unique family oriented superhero. Buddy certainly likes animals, but he still lives a life of an ordinary person, and this seems to be how he manages to balance the two halves of his personality. On the other hand, by having the Beast's best friend murdered in the civil coup introduced in the pages of "Swamp Thing", and his strange gorilla confidante abducted and experimented upon, the Africa based superhero seems certainly to be the victim of a writer forcing his hand on a more innocent property from another age.

To be charitable to Morrison, B'wana beast is such an overblown Silver age cliche that it's difficult to imagine how the character could possibly appeal to the modern readers. When a property needs both a name change, a complete redesign and a rethink when it comes to the character's base of operations (nothing less than the mountain of Kilimanjaro in the original story), as well as his methods and powers, it's easy to see why the character could see life solely as a guest star, the like of Marvel's "Ka-Zar", a perpetual retro-flavored diversion. And while both Marvel and DC have certainly braved relaunching the characters whole cloth before (while retaining the trademarks), Morrison was certainly thinking that using the Beast as an antagonist in a well told experimental story would at least provide what might have been his last appearance some semblance of dignity, even when it comes to the destruction of the character. That Truog struggles with his original Silver age character design comes as no surprise, an leaves the reader without any real desire to see such a generic impossibly muscled, caricature again.

Again, the writer takes no easy routes, as B'wana beast lives to both have his revenge and hopefully somewhere down the line reappears as a better adjusted and realized character. In this case, this means returning in a later Morrison-written issue of the ongoing series to help an actual African character stylize himself alongside similar ideas. That the company failed to exploit the Freedom beast to it's full potential is a point that has little bearings on the way Morrison approached his initial four "Animal Man" issues. Suffice to say that the writer had more in mind when tackling B'wana beast then simply turning him into a delusional maniac and ending the story with his death, conveniently not at the hands of the protagonist.

Obviously, the whole point of replacing the arbitrary Silver age logic of the stories with an approach that was less instinctive but more topical, meant that the climax of the story takes the place at the San Diego ZOO, but the writer goes well and beyond merely choosing the appropriate setting for the long delayed confrontation between the two characters. First, in order to provide some of the foils for the title character, Morrison peppers the story with overgrown human animal hybrids, but even their presence goes beyond merely showing Animal Man's abilities. Namely, by giving Buddy a chance to rediscover the extent of his powers, the writer starts to elaborate on his protagonist, and truly begin him on the road to recognizing his true calling.

From the start, Buddy is shown things that go well beyond his knowledge and expertise, but Morrison portrays him as willing to learn and quick to react without making any major mistakes in the process. Buddy is certainly naivee but his good nature continually helps him with understanding his foes, even if his inherent pacifism gives them an immediate upper hand in the fight. Most importantly, the character takes his time to check up on the vanquished foe and sticks around to see how well off are the animals he has helped save from the Beast's fusion.

This is why the writer begins the fourth issue by having Buddy narrate the events following the previous episode's conclusion from the perspective of tucking in his young daughter after he has dealt with the hostilities. Morrison wants the reader to know that Buddy survives the tale, but at the same time that his family has shared their burden of horror in an unrelated incident. That he does not punish the protagonist for not being there to partake in their subplot, involving attempted rape, and again, cruelty towards animals, shows that Morrison understands that for the audience to take a liking to the superhero he's revamping means that first he has to genuinely like the character, and avoid using him as a target for the writer's neuroses.

Basically, the care that the writer went into fleshing out Ellen Baker and her neighborhood meant that he allotted Buddy's wife a co-starring role beyond serving as the Animal Man's voice of reason. The sitcom-like heaping upon stock character types populating the suburbia near forest grove gets thrown in a reversal, when a band of rednecks heads there specifically for animal hunting. That these broad caricatures quickly devolve into homicidal maniacs is nothing new, but seeing Ellen and her daughter Maxine, at the center of their rage works purposefully to drive the reader in a much more likelier scenario than Buddy and B'wana Beast's tussle among the San Diego's laboratories and back allies. These cruel drunks are shown to be hostile towards animals first, and then proceed to affect Buddy's family, in firm view with the writer's liberal agenda that animal cruelty leads to abhorrent behavior towards fellow humans.

This ties into directly into B'wana Beast's rampage, as the Africa's protector quickly loses sight of the emotions of his fellow man, as he heads to help his animal friend. The lack of attention he gives to human life is precisely what conveys to the readers that he has gone to far, and that his intentions, no matter how noble, never excuse the rampage that he leaves in his wake, which is also underlined by Morrison's updated origin of the character, showing the character's revenge on the soldiers that killed his one human friend in the local civil war.

Never settling for easy answers, Morrison again employs the reversal that feeds into the twists inherent in the genre, by having both one of Ellen's pursuers, and a previously docile cartoon neighbor show heroism and humanity when entrusted with the inhuman savagery of a psychotic redneck. Despite the depravity and perversion surrounding the modern day world, the writer seems to reaffirm his belief in the better side of the human nature. And while there are casualties on both fronts of the conflicts Buddy and Ellen partake in, Morrison finishes Animal Man's narration (a somewhat dubious concept in itself, given the character's expressive nature) with "There must be some hope. Just some".

Yet, the story goes for several more pages bringing the main, more elaborate plot to it's conclusion, which is much more fierce and controversial. Basically, Morrison ends up following the standard plot of two heroes fighting one another until they realize that they are basically on the same side and unite against the common villain, with having dr. Myers, the face of animal testing in the storyline, as the main antagonist ultimately responsible for both the abduction of the Beast's gorilla friend, and the new strain of Anthrax that the animal is dying of.

Thus, the main plot strand ends up bearing the brunt of Morrison's philosophical stance. And just as the disease was foreshadowed by a child wearing a T-shirt of the band of the same name (at the time seemingly important solely for establishing a realistic atmosphere), so does the chief theme of the difference between the treatment of humans and animals come to a head with dr. Myers developing a strain of Anthrax seeking to target animals without directly harming the citizens of the invaded country. Morrison shows us that the animal human hybrids B'wana beast creates are ultimately short lived, delusional creations, as well as the Beast himself as ultimately wrong in taking only the stance of endangered animals without regard for his fellow humans, with likewise dr. Myers experiments in military application of the disease with the goal of wiping out animals in order to starve the enemy's population during the hostilities, as misguided on a number of levels.

That Myers was hiding the true goals of the S.T.A.R. labs experiments with a cover story about working on an AIDS vaccine was both topical and benevolent without any side effects. The real story that ends up taking the life of B'wana beast's companion is much more ambiguous, scary and all too human. Every step of the way, Morrison implies that humans and animals should and must coexist together, with the civilized people using their elevated stance not to the detriment of the biosphere, but, like Animal Man, to take inspiration from it, and work for a better and healthier life for everyone.

Utilizing the intelligent gorilla Djuba as a theoretical missing link between higher primates and humankind, Morrison isn't merely deconstructing B'wana Beast's initial "Showcase presents" two-parter, but spotlighting the connection between humans and animals. The Beast's mental link keeps him in contact with all of the gorilla's pain as it's tortured by Myers' scientists, and it's eventual passing the strain of Anthrax on the African superhero further drives home that what affects one species affects the other. Eventually, with Animal Man using his powers to heal B'wana by affecting his white blood cells, Morrison is pretty much extending the borders of the Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino created superhero's powers to mirror Swamp Thing's eventual infinite powers, but what strikes the reader as much more jarring is a previous sequence where the two proceed with a battle of wills.

Despite the rapid cuts and zoom ins, the whole of the telepathic fight feels sap of the dynamic and misreading the genre strengths. Yet, by having the Beast survive his friend's death in this way, the reader is enabled to both feel it's impact, and see the troubled superman on the path of foregoing his madness for a clear cut revenge that finishes the story, and leaves the character to proceed in a saner direction. Having used his powers to fuse the dead gorilla with the still living Myers, enabling the scientists fittingly dressed in inhuman white mask to proceed with the research, Morrison is cruelly letting the tormentor finally feel the agony of his victims, finishing his four original issues as a cautionary tale of nature's ferocity getting back to it's oppressors by reintegrating them into the circle of life.

Interestingly, having said his piece on the need for human and animal cohabitation, Morrison was tasked to continue the "Animal Man" series. In turn, this lead to stories where the writer embraced his narrative voice much more, abandoning the Moore's "Swamp Thing" inspirations, as he embraced the original Silver age aspect of the character, and clashed it with then current sensibilities until reaching it's famous post modern conclusion. Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood were in tow to provide visual consistency, but aside from spotlighting several different animal powered DC characters, Morrison's never allowed the series to extensively cover the issues presented in these initial four installments.

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