“Just because I wear a costume doesn’t mean I like fighting.”
Buddy Baker, AKA Animal Man, doesn’t have the powers or the prestige to join the Justice League. As he has to explain on a regular basis, a spaceship exploded in his face. It gave him animal powers. He can summon the running speed of a cheetah or the ability to swim like a fish. But his powers have a tendency to crap out at inopportune moments, and he doesn’t really like fighting. Beating up criminals isn’t going to pay the bills, and he has a wife and kids to support.
Currently collected in three graphic novels, Grant Morrison’s 26-issue run is famous for two things– reframing Christ’s crucifixion as a horror story starring Wile E. Coyote and confronting Animal Man with the fact that he’s a comic book character. But it’s also surprisingly charming. Morrison displays a light touch here that’s uncharacteristic of his later convoluted work. And unlike the many winking, satirical, and meta comic books that came after it, the ending, which finds Animal Man in Morrison’s home begging for his wife and family back, isn’t trying to prove a point or tell a story about stories. It’s just one of the many fun, weird, and incredibly earnest stories Morrison wanted to tell at the time.
In one issue, Animal Man is trying to stop Hawkmen from the planet Thanagar from blowing up the Earth in an act of performance art. In another, he has his origin story rewritten over and over again by aliens. He fights against animal testing and aids South Africans suffering under apartheid. He becomes a hero to animal rights groups and converts to vegetarianism. (In one of my favorite over-dramatic moments, Buddy catches his son eating a hamburger and tells him, “Every time you eat a burger, you’re helping to kill the world.”) He has a high-tech security system installed in his house that terrorizes his family with wacky results. He flirts with joining Justice League Europe and helps counsel aging super villains suffering from depression and irrelevance
In any given chapter, Morrison’s Animal Man can be serious, touching, or just unabashedly fun. Over the course of his adventures, Buddy Baker’s powers are remarkably inconsistent– one moment he can only take on the traits of animals in the nearby zoo, the next he can mimic the replicating processes of his own cells to create multiple versions of himself– but his personal character stays true throughout. These three books chronicle his growth as he tries to find ways to make a living, find causes that are worth fighting for, and balance them with being a husband and a father. In some ways, sure, it’s incredibly campy, but it’s also very adult in the way it allows a superhero to seek change, make mistakes, and mature.
Morrison’s take on Animal Man is more than just a memorable storytelling stunt. What’s impressive is that it’s both a very adult comic and yet still preserves space for pockets of childlike wonder. At a time when superhero comics were facing pressure to become increasingly “realistic” (in the nineties, we’d settle on calling it “dark”), he undermined the argument by demonstrating they could be both meaningful and fun at the same time. It’s a remarkable feat for any superhero comic, but especially one about a guy who has animal powers.