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Thursday, 9 December 2010

Animal Man: Animal Man, Origin of the Species, Deus Ex Machina

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Chas Truog (vol 1, 2, 3), Tom Grummett (vol 1, 2), Paris Cullens (vol 3)
Inker: Doug Hazelwood (vol 1, 2, 3), Mark McKenna (vol 2 ), Steve Montano (vol 2, 3), Mark Farmer (vol 3),
Letterer: John Constanza (vol 1, 2, 3), Janice Chiang (vol 2)
Colourist: Tatjana Wood, (vol 1, 2, 3), Helen Vesik (vol 2)
Covers: Brian Bolland
Publisher: DC Comics

What’s it about?
These 3 trades collect 26 monthly issuers of the 1980s Animal Man comic, written by Grant Morrison.  It concerns Buddy Baker, a man who gradually becomes aware of his existence as a fictional character within a comic book.

Morrison tends to write grand, complex meta-narratives and this book, produced early in his career, is no exception.  The interest in these volumes lies in seeing how Buddy comes to realise his fictionality, understanding the effect this has on him looking at our roles as consumers of his story.

(Click each picture to get a bigger version)

Buddy Baker was created in the 1960s and has the ability to channel animal traits (strength of an elephant, agility of a cat etc).  Morrison took this forgotten character, developed his relationship with the animal kingdom and used Baker’s story to explore animal abuse in the real world.

The first four issues of volume one deals with animal experimentation (for medical purposes).  This is followed by the Coyote Gospel, which is the first step to building up the meta-narrative.  It is about Wile E Coyote, the Warner Bros character, who has journeyed up to the second reality (from comics to cartoons) and begins to understand God (or the cartoonist).
What’s good about it?
Never have I read or come across something quite like this book.  It’s so layered, so fluid, so effortlessly put together.  The whole idea and the execution of the plot excited me so much I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after finishing it.

It’s something that really couldn’t have worked in any other medium.  Prose books, television, cinema and radio wouldn’t be able to harness the immediacy of the reader/subject relationship that is so central to the plot.  There is one page where Buddy Baker stares right out at the reader and recognises you as an observer of his universe.  I’ve read about this many times but I still got chills when I read it the first time.

The treatment of the other characters is very well thought through and very well developed.  Buddy and his wife, Ellen, have real husband/wife conversations.  Their children are portrayed as real siblings, fights and all.  No one is a one dimensional symbol.  Morrison has an excellent understanding of the nuances and complexities of family and neighbourly life, and his portrayal is likely to be familiar to anyone living in suburbia.

Have I mentioned the humour in this?  The books are great.  Funny. Heartfelt. Dramatic. Kind. Touching. Engaging.  I could go on and on. It’s fabulous.

The method of story telling may also appeal to some new readers as the series was originally published as 26 individual monthly issues.  Each issue was a story in its own right, but it also moved the overall plot forward and fed into the larger story arcs.  Each collected volume keeps this distinction by separating each issue with its original cover.  This means it is easy to read in separate segments and it heightens the emotional impact of each issue.

What’s bad about it?
The first volume has a South African character called B’wana Beast who is, I kid you not, the ‘White God of Kilimanjaro’ with power over the animals of Africa.  Another old and forgotten character, Morrison moved this ‘White God’ away from the racist origins and passed the B’wana Beast identity to a Black guy.  This man promptly renamed himself to Freedom Beast and vowed to use his abilities to fight apartheid.  This is a far more preferable use of the Beast identity and continues the books political themes.

The first volume also includes a rape attempt as a subplot.  Somehow, it manages to avoid being misogynistic or sexist and it does not leave the victim powerless. She keeps her autonomy and we see her coping with the attack.  This sort of approach is rarely seen in fiction and makes a refreshing change; nonetheless, a trigger warning should be issued.

A little bit of backstory is required.  This series started after an event called the ‘Crisis on Multiple Earths’.  This event was DC’s in story method of destroying all alternate realities, leaving just one earth and just one version of each character.  Previously there had been hundreds of earths and hundreds of versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern etc.  After this Crisis only one person in the DC Universe remembers what the alternate earths – his name is the Psycho Pirate.  Buddy’s’ story ties up with the Psycho Pirate’s and a lot of other heroes turn up over the three volumes.  This makes it rather spandex heavy.  However, even if this isn’t normally to your taste, I really do recommend you persevere with it as the pay off is well worth it.

What’s the art like?
It’s a bit of a strange one, this art.  It’s not particularly realistic – and I suppose there’s an argument there that will state it suits the themes of unreality within the book.  In particular some of the faces seem badly drawn, but, the anatomy is normally recognisable human and the body language is brilliant.  Throughout the three volumes there are a variety of people on pencilling and colouring duties, but thankfully there are no jarring changes of style.  The layouts are pretty special, especially in volume 3 when the characters try and break out of their panels
Some of it is violent, all of it is emotive.  You get a real sense of closeness within Buddy’s family and his shock and disbelief upon learning the truth of his life is excellently depicted,

Other information
Animal Man (book one)
ISBN – 1840234601, price: £14.99
Where to buy: Amazon or other book and comic shops

Animal Man: 1840234695 (book two)
ISBN – 1840234695, price: variable.
Where to buy: It seems to be out of print, or at least Amazon isn’t stocking new copies.  Try buying it second hand from Amazon or Ebay.  Don’t pay more than £15 and try and get it for under a tenner.

Animal Man: Deux Ex Machina (book three)
ISBN- 184023637X, price: variable
Where to buy: It seems to be out of print, or at least Amazon isn’t stocking new copies.  Try buying it second hand from Amazon or Ebay.  Don’t pay more than £15 and tray and get it for under a tenner.

I could go on and on about the gloriousness of these books.  The truth is they impressed me so much upon finishing my first read I went back and read them all again.  There’s so much to talk about in these books it’s difficult to know what to put into the review.  My advice is, try volume one, if you like the Coyote Gospel story, you are likely to like the remaining two volumes.

Given the political themes within the book and the violence of some of the panels (particularly when dealing with animal abuse), this book isn’t suitable for children, but could well appeal to teenagers, especially those concerned about animal rights.


  1. I'm still trying to get my hands on these fantastic book!
    Great recap^^


  2. God I love this series. I the art really grew on me, Chas Troug's version is the only one that looks right to me. He draws Buddy Baker as a really attractive man, too!

  3. Muy buena info. Me fascina mucho Animal Man ;)