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 #9: Animal Man (1980) 3 & 4
“The Nature of the Beast” and “When We All Lived in the Forest”
Grant Morrison / Chaz Truog / Doug Hazelwood / Tatjana Wood
To recap: Buddy Baker, Animal Man, has recommitted to super-heroics and come to the aid of S.T.A.R. Labs, where strange creatures that appear to be some kind of hybrid between man and beast have caused much destruction. One such creature almost killed Animal Man; were it not for Buddy’s absorption of the regenerative abilities of earthworms, he’d have bled to death in an alleyway from a violently amputated arm… not a very auspicious beginning to a super-hero career to say the least.
Before the pains have subsided from regenerating his arm (you know that hurts, right?), a S.T.A.R. van shows up and starts cleaning up the scene of the fight between Animal Man and the naked homeless man that was once a rat-man… including said combatants, as Animal Man finds himself escorted into the back of the van for what the S.T.A.R. folks assure him are precautionary purposes. Suspicious.
When they arrive back at S.T.A.R., they find chaos. We-need-super-hero-help kind of chaos. B’wana Beast has arrived and run amok, and here’s where our story really diverges from the standard good guy versus bad guy, super-hero versus super-villain plot line. But don’t worry, there’s still some evil going on. It’s just a less easily defined evil, and therefore more scary. You know… like real life.
B’wana Beast happens to be just about perfect to be pitted opposite Animal Man in this first story. Like Animal Man, Morrison pulls B’wana Beast out of obscurity and like Animal Man, he has powers that would turn Dr. Doolittle’s head. Whereas Animal Man adapts their powers, B’wana has the ability to combine two creatures into one being, hence the rat-man Buddy fought. Is B’wana Beast the “bad guy?”
But, first, who the hell is B’wana Beast?Well, for starters, he was even more obscure than Animal Man when Morrison dragged him out of DC’s back issues. He was created in the ’60s and only made a couple additional appearances prior to showing up during Crisis like Animal Man and nearly every other DC character. In addition to his odd ability to create chimeras, he can also communicate telepathically with animals which has resulted in companionship with an ape named Djuba. Odd… which means he has Grant Morrison written all over him.
Now, clearly I wouldn’t be making much ado about the questionable identity of the villain of this story if it were none other than B’wana Beast. In fact, if anything, he’s the victim, not the villain. And, to be honest, since this storyline involves animal rights, it’s no surprise who the true antagonists are: yup, scientists. How’d you know?
Animal Man, now certain there is something suspicious about S.T.A.R.’s original explanation of their problems, demands to be told the real deal before he’ll help contain the chaos threatening to destroy their precious laboratory. He discovers that S.T.A.R. has been contracted by the government to develop a strain of anthrax that will “destroy an enemy’s livestock and yet be harmless to an invading army,” therefore needing to be tailored to the “specific difference between the immune systems of the lower animals and the higher primates, like apes and men.” All this from the mouth of Dr. Myers at S.T.A.R., the project’s lead. He goes on to explain that a military team discovered an “evolved ape” in Africa that was transferred to S.T.A.R. and infected with the anthrax bacillus strain. Yup, they kidnapped B’wana’s buddy Djuba. At the end of issue three, a report comes in that B’wana and Djuba, both infected with a virus that Myers explains is, at this point, highly contagious and lethal, have been spotted at the San Diego Zoo. Not good.
Since we’re still talking super-heroes here, unusual though they may be, B’wana Beast refuses Buddy’s attempt to resolve things peacefully, and they fight for a while. B’wana, though human, has essentially become a beast due to years spent among them. It’s even heavily implied that his relationship with Djuba, a female ape, is more than platonic. He certainly loves her, regardless of the nature of that affection, and in a sense, this is another similarity with Animal Man. Buddy’s powers have made him more sympathetic to animals, B’wana’s have essentially caused him to revert. So, when Djuba dies of the infection, he has no restraint. He goes ape shit. No pun intended. Okay, pun intended.Eventually, the confusion gets sorted out. What could have been a little ho-hum — super-powered peeps fighting because of a misunderstanding being a regular excuse in comic books to fill the quota of fisticuffs — is made more interesting by the hybrid creatures B’wana creates to complicate things for our hero (and contribute to the mess that needs to be sorted out in the resolution). Buddy gains the upper hand by absorbing B’wana Man’s powers, abilities he also uses to fix up some of chaos caused by this whole debacle. The resolution of the conflict between Animal Man and B’wana certainly seems neat, but it does raise an issue regarding the nature of Buddy’s powers. Was he able to absorb B’wana’s powers because B’wana is truly a beast? Or because he is human and humans are mammals, therefore meaning Buddy can take on the abilities of any of his fellow super-folk? Morrison leaves this a little too ambiguous for my taste.
While one may find the tone a bit heavy with animal rights advocacy in places, the first Animal Man story, and Grant Morrison’s first story for DC satisfies. It has a particularly dark, creative ending, one that Morrison balances effectively with something positive arising out of the Ellen subplot. While today we can compare it to later works and see a little bit of Morrison’s inexperience, it certainly is no surprise that, at the time, it established him as a major talent for all those unfamiliar with his work published in the United Kingdom.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Animal Man continued beyond the four-issue limited series, but it seems to have been a bit of one for its writer. Coming up, I’ll take a look at a couple self-contained stories that Morrison admits were born out of quick brainstorming when he learned there would be more Animal Man after issue four. Did this result in something new and exciting or turn a book with a good start into a debacle?