Mythmaking ETC is a weekly column about comics books and related pop culture, primarily focused on comics published during the 1980s and ’90s. Check out the column index for past installments, subscribe via RSS, send an e-mail and follow Mythmaking ETC on Twitter!
Mythmaking ETC #6: Animal Man (1988) – Issues 2 & 3
“Life in the Concrete Jungle”
Grant Morrison / Chaz Truog / Doug Hazelwood / Tatjana Wood
Halfway through Animal Man issue two, Superman shows up. The big guy. This might have been an editorial mandate — throw in a cameo to bolster sales — but the sharp contrast he provides with Buddy Baker suggests his appearance was Morrison’s idea. Animal Man, newly recommitted to being a super-hero, has taken on his first task. He pauses on a rooftop to catch his breath and contemplate recent incidents at S.T.A.R. Labs. Is a super-villain behind them? Can he handle this, if so? After all, he’s sort of still new to the gig, not like… Superman?!?
“I saw you with my telescopic vision and thought I’d say hello,” Superman explains. Before Buddy can respond, he continues: “Excuse me one moment. You hear that? Sorry. Of course you don’t. Light aircraft in trouble over Port Townsend. Have a nice day.”
“Uh… sure…” is all Animal Man can manage in response.
What a thing to happen to a guy when he’s doubting himself, ya know?
Now a seminal work, Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns was only two-years young when this issue of Animal Man was published in 1988. Miller paints Superman in a somewhat unflattering light. In a world where super-heroes have been outlawed, Superman remains active because he has agreed to be a lackey of the U.S. government. He justifies his existence by believing he has no other options to use his powers to do good, but as a result he lives a life of compromise.
Morrison’s portrayal of Superman shows a small bit of Miller’s influence. He’s a nice alien, but an alien nonetheless and a little too distracted to notice when he’s unintentionally flaunting his enormous power in front of a more minor super-hero, and, in the first place, his gesture of hospitality toward Animal Man probably serves double purpose as an tabs-keeping exercise of super-hero community policing.
The encounter between Superman and Animal Man is brief — it takes up only one page — but it forms the centerpiece of the issue. Ever the optomist, Buddy takes inspiration from Superman’s visit, even as he complains of the arm soreness the Kryptonian’s handshake induced. It also provides the reader with a contrast to Animal Man’s more mundane power level; there are super-heroes and then there’s Superman. While one has a hard time imagining Superman being harmed (without Kryptonite around, of course), a guy like Buddy Baker, well, he could maybe get hurt…
…and get hurt he does. His phone call home to inform his wife of his encounter with super-human royalty gets interrupted by the sudden attack of an unusual rat-man. The ensuing battle leaves Animal Man lying in an alleyway, bleeding out from the spot where his arm used to be attached to his torso.
Of course, in issue number three he recovers, but Morrison and Truog handle the moment nicely. The violence comes suddenly and too fast for Buddy to realize until he attempts to punch the rat-man with an arm that is no longer attached to his body. Good thing there is the regenerative ability of earthworms available in the earth beneath him…
Once recovered, Animal Man discovers why the rat-man never finished him off: he’s now a naked homeless man lying nearby covered in Buddy’s blood. “I can’t handle all this. I’m way out of my depth,” he muses. Basically, he’s saying: I’m not Superman.
As what would of been the penultimate issue of a four-issue limited series (as Animal Man was initially intended to be), “The Nature of the Beast” sees the A and B plots both climaxing. While the mysteries (yes, plural) behind the incidents at S.T.A.R. Labs are revealed, so too do the reprehensible hunters — only briefly a part of the previous two issues — become a real threat.
Morrison mentions in the introduction to the first Animal Man trade paperback that he supports animal rights to the extent that around the time he began writing the book he became a vegetarian and a member of the Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group, admitting that he saw Animal Man as a rare chance to explore these convictions in a super-hero setting. Such staunch advocacy can be troublesome in a lesser writer, but Morrison manages to explore animal rights issues without the comic turning into a treatise against eating meat and experimenting on animals.
“The Nature of the Beast” also has our hero coming into his own. Not letting a little amputation get him down, Buddy takes on the threat at S.T.A.R. Labs, finding that the situation cannot be explained by something so simple as a super-villain working autonomously (more on this next time).
Meanwhile, another fellow has an opportunity at heroism. Not super-heroism, but heroism, nonetheless. Mr. Weidemeir, husband of Violet, the woman with the cat in issue one, has not budged from his lawn recliner since we’ve met him, making clear that he will not be bothered for anyone or anything. However, when Maxine Baker, Buddy’s toddler-age daughter shows up, tears streaming down her face, to explain that “mommy’s up in the woods and she’s crying and the men have got guns and they’re going to make the dogs eat the little kittens,” well, Mr. Weidemeir lifts his hat.
Mr. Weidemeir’s uncharacteristic bit of bravery acts to support the theme of heroism with limited means being explored on a greater scale in the A-plot. His arrival changes a tense situation in a manner that ultimately saves Ellen; and Animal Man may not be Superman, may not be the first super-hero S.T.A.R. Labs thought to call, but he can still get the job done, maybe even exceed expectations.