Animal Man was this month’s selection from the Goodreads group I Read Comic Books and because of it I was introduced to the kitschy awesomeness of Grant Morrison’s 1988 take on this B-level superhero. The graphic novel starts with a lengthy introduction by Morrison that explains how he and other Brits were contacted after Alan Moore’s success with Watchman and Swamp Thing, to give life to DC’s back catalogue of superheros. Morrison choose Animal Man and the rest is history.
The story establishes Buddy Baker as a married “everyman”, who as he nears thirty is having an identity crisis. In this world, heroes are common with Superman and Wonder Woman being the recognized top tier, with the other heroes scrambling to find a niche and a super-group. Buddy struggles to provide for his family, so he wishes to gain recognition, hoping to join a prestigious group and use his powers of temporarily picking up the abilities of animals nearby. Despite the campiness, the stories could be more nuanced than you would think. Animal cruelty, family responsibilities, societal commentary and humanizing villains are all tied into the story lines. However, these themes are inconsistently used, as sometimes they are pulled together in a witty way, but other times they are groan-worthy.
So let’s talk about The Coyote Gospel. OMG- I loved it. The jokes were so sly- starting with the trucker (who looked like Freddie Mercury) and hitchhiker singing the The Modern Lovers song Road Runner right before they accidentally struck the human like coyote in the desert. Animal Man is actually just a secondary character in this chapter as the coyote man and trucker duel it out. This homage to Will. E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, and comparing him to Jesus, was a trip. By coincidence I attended a small anime convention last week and as I was looking through the bins of posters of comic covers, I ran across the picture of Animal Man being painted on the road in an obvious crucifix symbolism. One week ago I would not have known who Animal Man was or the significance of the pose, but now I can claim more credibility as a comics fan!
I also picked up the recent Jeff Lemire version and absolutely hated it. The art was grotesque and I quickly put it down. Which goes to show that no matter how good the story is, art can torpedo a graphic novel. Luckily this first version has strong art with a Golden Age vibe and it elevates the stories. Artists Chas Truog, Doug Hazlewood and Tom Grummett, with some Brain Bolland covers, bring the Baker family to life along with the animal menagerie that Buddy encounters in every chapter. All in all, I enjoyed this graphic novel especially the deeper themes of animal rights activism that Animal Man advocated for.