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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "A" PAGE 2

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Animal Man 1991 (SC TPB) 240 pages

Written by Grant Morrison. Pencils Chas Truog, with Tom Grummett. Inks by Doug Hazlewood.
Colours: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

cover by Brian BollandReprinting: Animal Man #1-9 (1988-1989)

Additional notes: intro by Grant Morrison; covers

Suggested for Mature Readers

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Animal Man was an obscure 1960s character, briefly dusted off in the 1980s in Action Comics, before being selected by Grant Morrison to headline a series. Morrison was one of the wave of U.K. writers DC Comics scooped up in the wake of Alan Moore's successes, in the hope they'd bring a similar critically acclaimed edginess to erstwhile quaint American properties. Morrison attempted to do just that with this super hero who could absorb the powers of any animal in his immediate vicinity.

The first four issues form a self-contained story as Buddy Baker, one-time super hero, now married with two young kids, considers re-starting his super hero career. Postulating the idea that super heroes are like other celebrities, Morrison deconstructs how a hero becomes a hero -- he trains, practices, gets an agent, puts the word out that he's willing to fight crime, does talk shows, and hopes for the best. Soon he gets called in to investigate a break in at a research lab. Buddy has some qualms about the assignment, particularly when he realizes his animal powers make him especially empathetic to the suffering of the lab animals. But things go from bad to worse when Buddy quickly realizes he's out of his league, and that the super powered "bad guy" he's trying to track down (another obscure 1960s character) is more powerful -- and dangerous -- than he is.

For all the edgy trappings, for all the grittiness, Morrison's initial spin on Animal Man reminded me of a 1980s version of Stan Lee's early Spider-Man, where the super heroics are given a revisionist spin, contrasted with the real world and life's mundanities. Buddy's a good guy, but can get whipped in a fight, and things don't always come easy to him, including fandom as a super hero autograph hound rebuffs him on realizing the orange-suited Animal Man isn't Aquaman. His first fight with his foe, when he realizes just how truly dangerous is this glib life he's chosen, is particularly effective. And, like Lee's Spider-Man, there's a lot of humour and humanity to the proceedings.

There's also a lot of nastiness and brutality, too. A sub-plot evoking "Deliverance" is particularly raw and, to some extent, not entirely justified -- or, at least, integrated -- into this story. Though it serves a theme of man's inhumanity. As mentioned, this was part of the post-Alan Moore U.K. invasion of American comics, bringing with it a darker, grittier sensibility. The early Animal Man comics were published as part of DC's "New Format", which was basically a bridge between regular, Comics Code approved comics and those out-right labelled as for "Mature Readers" -- in other words, it was basically skirting mature readers territory. (Eventually is was moved to the Vertigo imprint).

The first four issues balance the needs of telling an exciting adventure story, one that unfolds intriguingly as you try to figure out who this mysterious figure is, or where things are headed, with Morrison's quirky sensibility and deconstructionism. There's even an effective -- if very dark -- ironic ending.

In his introduction, Morrison admits he wanted to do a mini-series, reviving Animal Man, and introducing a political sub-text involving animal rights (a cause Morrison himself was becoming involved in), then he intended to hand the thing over for others to run with. Instead, DC persuaded him to stick around. And, at least initially, Morrison seems unsure of what to do with his series, or his hero -- even the absorbing animal powers aspect is largely forgotten (Buddy just consistently seems to have generic powers like flight and strength, as opposed to absorbing unusual abilities in each situation). To varying extents, some of the next few issues even reduce Animal Man to a supporting part in his own comic, as Morrison tells stories in which the focus is on guest star characters.

"Coyote Gospel" (#5) has been much heralded as a great story, and maybe it was because of that very hype, but I wasn't as smitten with it. It's interesting, but not too much more. Later stories tie-in to DC's Invasion story, which isn't too confusing for the first couple of issues, though maybe gets a little more so in the post-Invasion issues, when Animal Man is dealing with an ill-explained problem with his super power (though Morrison's introduction helps clarify things like that). But by then Morrison has begun introducing sub-plots, and the final story ends with Buddy still suffering from haywire super powers. In other words, the TPB doesn't really resolve or conclude.

The animal rights aspect (after the first four issue arc) is handled with soft fingers, with Buddy talking about his views, rather than acting on them. At one point it's mentioned that he's been helping some militant animal rights groups...but it's not depicted, nor even explained how they knew of his sympathies in order to contact him. Morrison writes a little like there's stuff happening off the page...stuff that might be more interesting than what's happening on it, sometimes. Maybe DC Comics felt -- perhaps rightly -- that a comic book wasn't the place to proselytize, and that Buddy stating his beliefs was as far as they wanted to go. But even Morrison himself seems less interested in pursuing the political aspect, in his introduction even remarking he had "no desire to produce yet another grittily realistic" super hero comic (though I guess some issues in the next TPB return more explicitly to animal rights theme).

Actually, Morrison sidesteps a potentially interesting aspect to such actions. Over the course of these issues, Animal Man is accepted into a branch of the Justice League (Morrison having fun exploring the more mundane side of a super hero organization) with the Martian Manhunter even saying he wanted Buddy because of his environmental concerns. But if he's actively working with militant groups, acting outside the law...wouldn't that raise issues for the team? I mean, Buddy being more political than simply sticking to enforcing A-political existing laws as most super heroes do?

Anyway, for a nine issue collection, you find yourself wishing there was a little more Animal Man in Animal Man, that Morrison should've waited till he'd more firmly established Buddy and his friends and family before embarking on his more "off-beat" stories. I had once thought it would be a fairly unusual idea -- in a medium catering to teens and young adults -- to do a series about a super hero who was married with kids (and not just babies or toddlers). Lots of heroes have been teens, dealing with parents, so why not the other what around? As such, I appreciated what Morrison was trying to do, though even here, his Buddy slides a little too readily into the "overgrown kid" mode DC Comics seemed to use as its template for many of its post-Crisis heroes, leaving it to Buddy's wife to play the real parent.

It's ironic that Morrison's decision to imbue Animal Man with a real world political sensibility (animal rights) seems to have impressed some fans considerably less that the metaphysical direction in which Morrison later took the series...in which Buddy eventually learns he's a comic book character! Although such a story idea is not uninteresting, it says something about readers who feel that was somehow more sophisticated, more "important" than tackling a real world issue like animal rights. Uh, deconstructing a comic is more important than talking about real life? Indeed, in the review book, The Slings & Arrows Comic Guide, the reviewer even sindely remarks "which is more radical, and which a case of seen it all before?" And I'd argue, sure, it might be more radical...but that doesn't mean it's as meaningful.

The stories in the second half of this collection smack a bit of a writer looking too hard to be creative, to play around with conventions and avoid the usual pitfalls. Which, in theory, is great, reminding me a bit of what Will Eisner used to do with The Spirit, where the hero was oten peripheral, and the stories quirky and varied in tone. But, of course, The Spirit was telling seven page stories...not 23 page stories, and though I didn't dislike Chas Truog's art (more in a moment) he's not quite the master of the craft the way Eisner was at his best. But as well, there's a feeling form takes precedence over content. I've often remarked that Alan Moore and many of those he inspired tend to be too cerebral, writing comics that are abstract exercises, rather than human dramas, and often seeming too obsessed with the literal comic book form, as opposed to seeing it as simply a medium to tell a story. "The Coyote Gospel", for instance, presents the idea of a world where cartoon characters are real (ala the earlier novel, "Who Killed Roger Rabbit?"), which allows Morrison to indulge in gritty violence as he explores what would it be like for a creature that could be constantly blown up and brutalized, only to heal again. But despite the obvious religious iconism in the title and story (including visuals where a highway intersection forms a cross shape) it left me completely unsure what the point was -- the meaning, the metaphor. While in "The Death of the Red Mask", which essentially seems like a vignette stretched out to 23 pages, Animal Man encounters an aging, forgotten super-villain -- it's supposed to be poignant and bittersweet in its mix of whimsy and melancholy, but again seems like that's what it's supposed to be, more than what it actually is, in the sense that Morrison doesn't really create a character we care about. Then there's the "Invasion" tie-in where Animal Man takes on some alien hawk-soldiers, including a kind of warrior artist whose bomb is also his work of art -- again, an interesting concept even as, again, it kind of leaves you going "huh?" Don't get me wrong, if I had read these when I was fourteen, I'd probably love them, caught up in the aura of sophistication and deep meaning, but not able to step back and actually ask myself if the meaning is truly there. Nor do I mean that as quite the snide remark it might sound. Rather, I sometimes find myself struggling with the question of whether an increasingly middle-aged guy like myself, jaded and grumpy, really has a right to review comics that, after all, see their target audience as being probably half my age. There are comics I loved as a kid and which I regarded as profound, that I re-read as an adult and go, "ho hum" -- but, really, which is the truer reaction? Answer: maybe both.

Anyway...

The art by Chas Truog has been knocked by some, particularly in contrast to Brian Bolland's covers, but I kind of liked it, at least well enough. There's a kind of Bronze Age unsplashiness to it all, as Truog sets out to tell the story, rather than indulging in bizarre musculature exaggerations and extraneous splash pages. For a series that's going for a kind of quirky revisionism and deconstructionism, where a sense of mundanity is meant to intrude upon the four-colour heroics, the art serves quite nicely.

This collection doesn't come to a clean resolution -- though maybe it was intended just to act as a primer on the character, establishing all the key points for people reading his then-on going comic (the TPB first published in 1991). But it seems like it was meant to be the first of a series of TPBs, collecting the series. Yet there was, initially, no follow up...perhaps indicating sales weren't what DC had hoped for. It would be a decade and some later before DC would finally release two follow up TPBs collecting the whole of Morrison's run up to issue #26.

When rating a TPB collection, the question is, do the strengths balance the weaknesses? I certainly didn't dislike the stories from #5-9 -- I enjoyed their quirkiness, their (as I say) Will Eisner-esque experimentation. But none quite worked for me as a satisfying, oh-I-want-to-read-that-again-tonight sort of tale. Yet re-reading the first four issue arc -- I still liked it quite a bit (gritty brutality accepted). I initially gave this TPB 3 stars, but really, I'd give the opening four issue arc 4 stars, and the rest 3, so the average should be, at least, 3 and 1/2 stars. Despite my ambivalence, I always kind of figured I'd eventually pick up the next two TPBs, finishing Morrison's saga...but after re-reading this TPB now (after first reading n' reviewing it maybe a decade ago) I remain...ambivalent. I just haven't been buying as many comics lately (money, and enthusiasm, both on a -- hopefully temporary -- wane) and I'd probably buy the next Animal Man TPBs more out of curiosity, for review purposes (which I've done often enough with other TPBs), or to complete my so-called "collection", rather than out of genuine enthusiasm. I suppose it's partly because, knowing where Morrison is headed (with the Buddy-learns-he's-a-comic-book) it's a plot which doesn't really excite me especially. And, as mentioned, the issue-by-issue stories are of mixed successes, with Buddy a likeable hero...but not quite a gripping one. Though, ironically, I quite enjoyed Gerry Conway's less (stylistically) pretentious but more character focused Last Days of Animal Man series (reviewed below).

Ultimately, this first collection of Morrison's Animal Man run is a decent read, bubbling with interesting if not wholly well formed ideas...but a tad unsatisfying.

Original cover price: $32.95 CDN. / $19.95 USA


The Last Days of Animal Man 2010 (SC TPB) 146 pages

cover by Brian BollandWritten by Gerry Conway. Pencils by Chris Batista. Inks by Dave Meikis, Wayne Faucher.
Colours: Mike Atiyeh. Letters: Clem Robbins. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: The Last Days of Animal Man #1-6 (2009) - with covers

Rating: * * * * 1/2(out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed March 5, 2010

"Last" stories about comic book heroes constitutes almost an entire sub-genre in comics. DC has done more than a few such "imaginary" stories over the years and Marvel has released a slew of apocryphal "The End" one shots and mini-series.

The fact that Animal Man is basically a second string character means he might seem an odd choice for such a focus. But whether DC was soliciting ideas for a "last" Animal Man project, or whether Gerry Conway pitched it out of the blue, I don't know.

Conway was part of the first wave of new blood to come into comics in the late 1960s/early 1970s (the early Silver Age being initiated by hold overs from the Golden Age), and he worked on practically every significant character at both Marvel and DC -- from Spider-Man to Superman, Batman to Daredevil. Although his most successful self-created character is probably Firestorm, he also gave comics Power Girl and a few other characters as well. Conway was such a ubiquitous part of the comics I grew up with that I was a bit surprised recently when I read (in the creator bios of some TPB collection or other) that he hadn't actually written a comic in fifteen years! (having left to write for Hollywood).

But now he's back...penning a "what if...?" final adventure for Animal Man. A curious property to herald his return to the four-colour medium, since he had no previous connection to the character. Though that very lack of connection may be an advantage. Conway's portrayal of Buddy Baker, with virtues and flaws, feet of clay, and an ability to be trounced in a fight, is certainly in keeping with the earlier take on the character -- at least, as Grant Morrison depictedd him in the first TPB collection (reviewed above), and evocative of comicdoms ultimate hard luck hero, Spider-Man. Yet the plot isn't tied up in incomprehensible minutia of Animal Man lore, or relying on too many oblique references to past issues.

You don't really need to know much about Animal Man to appreciate this final adventure.

Conway's old comics writing I'll freely admit could be up and down, but I'm not sure he received the recognition I'd argue he deserves. He wrote one of my all time favourite eras of Batman comics, and many would argue his early '70s run on Spider-Man was one of that character's peak periods. And reading this...you're seeing an old pro at work. One who hasn't succumbed to hubris, who recognizes that pretension must take back seat to Old School storytelling.

The premise here is that Buddy Baker a.k.a. Animal Man is getting older -- not even old, particularly, just older. And his powers are becoming more uncertain and erratic, forcing him to realize that he's losing his powers. He's not dying of cancer or anything...he's just losing his ability to be a super hero. It's a mundane concept...that very mundanity making it quite audacious, as Conway sets out to tell an allegory about coming to terms with aging in the context of people in tights with super powers.

While Buddy must contend with a couple of new super villains, he's also forced to take stock of his life -- the chapter titles themselves taken from the stages of grief: Denial, Bargaining, etc. He seeks help from his fellow super heroes to reverse the process, even as he learns being a super hero caused him to miss out on being there for his kids as they grew up. At one point Buddy muses how not only is he no longer the man he was...he's not even the man he thought he was. Yet again, Conway cleverly avoids melodrama. It's not that Buddy is estranged from his family, merely that he realizes he's not as close with them as he would've liked.

Yet if all this sounds pretentious and heavy -- it isn't. That's what I meant about Conway being a storyteller. The scenes flow as smoothly as water on glass. The dialogue can be clever and amusing, as well as heartfelt and introspective, but you rarely find yourself pausing to think how "clever" it is, or how "smart" Conway is for writing it. Because it flows so naturally, it's just part of the scenes, part of the character interaction. And his Buddy comes across very much as a three dimensional human being...not just a super hero.

The villains themselves, a bruiser named Bloodrage, and a second generation villainess, Prismatik, are fairly bland. But even that's what I mean by "Old School" storytelling. Conway deftly balances the thoughtful sub-text and character introspection...with glib super heroing and bad guys who are comfortably archetypal (though given just enough interesting dialogue and interaction to give them some dimension). They're enough of a menace to convincingly seem like a threat, not only to the waning Animal Man, but to the League of Titans (the near future JLA, which mix familiar faces like Superman and Starfire, with some newer heroes), without being some earth shattering menace that would take the focus from what, after all, is a story about Buddy Baker.

Super hero comics over the years have made greater and greater claim to sophistication, to art, but it's still rare to read a super hero comic that feels like a writer put himself into the work. With many of them -- from Alan Moore to Geoff Johns -- you believe they're calling upon their passion and interest in comic books. But not that they are drawing upon their life the way you would expect a playwright or novelist to do.

I'm not saying we should read too much of this as auto-biographical. But middle aged Conway writes about a middle aged Animal Man with a perception that feels like he's employing that old adage writers are always told (but don't seem to utilize in comics too much) -- write what you know. Buddy's taking stock of his life, reflecting on his relationship with his wife and kids, recalling memories of his dead dad, are all the stuff you'd write...even if your lead wasn't a guy in orange spandex. Even the fact that Buddy is a Hollywood stunt man, and Conway has been working in Hollywood for the last few years, makes you wonder if Conway is drawing upon his insider knowledge.

The series is illustrated by Chris Batista, an artist with a clean, realist style that is eminently effective, capturing the realism that suits the realist themes of this story about a real guy facing the real prospect of his own fragility...with the heroic dynamism of a fun super hero romp. Batista also shows surprising restraint with his female characters, with both Power Girl and Starfire featured prominently. Too many modern artists have let their libidos run wild in depicting female heroes, and these two inparticular. But Batista resists the urge. Sure, they're pretty and in revealing costumes, but not to the point where it becomes embarrassing.

Batista (or his inkers) could learn to make use of shadows, to add more texture and depth to the figures, but in general it's nice, attractive work. And to old time Animal Man fans, it's a bit of a dream come true. Because Animal Man is often associated with the Brian Bolland covers from his old series (Bolland also provided the covers for this series). But to many a fans' disappointment, Bolland didn't draw any interiors. Batista's style is certainly playing in the same school yard as Bolland, giving a certain familiarity to the visuals, as if at long last fans are getting to see the Animal Man they always imagined.

The series straddles the needs of being a fun romp, and of being melancholy and introspective. And by the end, it's more up-lifting than down beat. It is presented as the last days of "Animal Man"...not necessarily of Buddy Baker. And, of course, the story is deliberately apocryphal. Not only is it set in the future, with Conway having fun with the possibilities -- including depicting an unusual Greenn Lantern -- but in the final panel there's an image that further winks at us and suggests this is, after all, not adhering to mainstream continuity.

A lot of modern comics fans will talk about "sophisticated" comics...and then cite stories of crossover mega-events, of metahuman legalese, or meta-textual self-reflective stories analyzing what it means to be a comic book super hero -- Animal Man himself is famous for a critically regarded run of earlier stories in which he became aware that he was just a comic book character. But honestly, though I can enjoy such stories...they're just comic stories about comic book dilemmas. Here, Conway's using a comic book character...to muse upon real fears, real doubts, real regrets.

Based on some reviews I read of this, I got the impression critics generally liked it...without gushing over much. And I can sort of see that. As I say, the villains and the threat they represent are fairly generic, and the overall story isn't some cosmos shaking apocalypse. But that's actually why it kind of settles into your bones so well.

Conway writes a story that reads almost effortlessly. From the fun quip or humorous bits, to the fist fights and action, to the introspection and character exploration. No, it's not about some cosmic "Crisis", or a crossover event. It doesn't ask us to examine the conventions of the medium. It doesn't set out to shock us with graphic violence or racy innuendo. Nonetheless, it's a grown up story about a guy realizing he's not getting any younger.

Put it on your shelf and a few years from now, when the latest "Final Ultimate Mega Crisis" epic no longer floats your boat, and the next meta-textual redefinition of super heroes that critics tell you is must reading seems kind of quaint, take it down off the shelf for another go round.

And you just might find yourself going: Now that's a good read.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $17.99 USA



 

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