In 1988, Scottish writer Grant Morrison revived a forgotten Sixties superhero for DC Comics with the help of artists Chas Truog and Doug Hazlewood. After a bizarre encounter in the woods (while hunting, ironically), former movie stunt man Buddy Baker found himself able to duplicate the abilities of any animal species through a psychic link with the “morphogenetic field” that serves as a template for all life on Earth. Working under the absurd sounding professional name, Animal Man, as his comeback series opened, the intimate rapport he shared with other creatures lead him to make a radical departure from accepted codes of superheroic conduct: he became an outspoken animal rights activist. In addition to going vegetarian, when not clashing with the occasional supervillain, Animal Man also took direct and illegal action to defend his fellow beings from human greed and cruelty.
While it deals with all sorts of unpleasant issues, what kept this series grounded was Morrison’s characterization of Buddy Baker. He was always portrayed as a human being first and a superhero second. Animal Man’s constant struggle to find a balance between his convictions and his responsibilities to the world as a “metahuman” provided the sense of emotional involvement that compelled readers to follow his every adventure.
Swooping out of the sky like an eagle, he snatched a cornered fox from a pack of trained hounds, spoiling the bloodsport of a band of British hunters. Swimming like a fish, he saved dolphins from being hacked to death by local villagers on the shores of the Faroe Islands (in reality, the victims of this annual slaughter are hundreds of pilot whales). Bursting through a laboratory wall like a rampaging elephant, he freed monkeys whose eyes had been sewn shut as part of a sensory deprivation experiment (back in the real world, an identically mutilated monkey named Britches was rescued by the Animal Liberation Front).
Unfortunately, these dissident feats of daring finally came to an end when Grant Morrison departed from the series with issue 26, taking Animal Man’s commitment to social change with him.
Demonstrating the power to convey information inherent in the comics art form, Morrison’s treatment of subjects like vivisection, hunting and vegetarianism was both intelligent and thought-provoking. Judging from the sometimes heated discussions that took place in the series’ letter column, his work did a great deal to show readers that the belief in humankind’s “superiority” over the rest of the animal kingdom is both dangerous and illogical. Most importantly, he offered solutions to show concerned people that you don’t have to be a superhero to make a difference.
Morrison’s entire run on the series has been collected in three trade paperback. Animal Man collects issues 1-9, Animal Man: Origin of the Species contains issues 10-17, and Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina, collects issues 18-26.