AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS: "ANIMAL MAN" #27
You probably know how this works by now, but if you don't, here's the deal: I used to sometimes write about comics that came out right before a famous run, and now I sometimes write about comics that came out right after a famous run. For example: the first issue right after Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" or something.
I like looking at these out-of-the-limelight comics because they usually provide an interesting contrast to their more famous brothers and sisters. Usually the comics I look at have a difficult time measuring up to the stuff that is more well-known and/or critically-acclaimed. Readers know -- and have often read -- the stuff that's supposed to be "good" and "great" and "legendary." It's usually good and great and legendary for a reason. But I'm fascinated by what came right before and right after. Because... what makes those comics not as good? That's what I try to find out, while treating the comic with the respect it deserves. Which means I'm sometimes completely dismissive. Take that how you will.
This week, I look at a comic that follows up one of my all-time favorite runs on any series ever: "Animal Man" #27, the first post-Grant Morrison issue.
Morrison's work on "Animal Man" is so good that isn't being collected into an omnibus this summer, even though the art by Chas Truog has long been considered to be some of the worst superhero art ever committed to paper. I recently read an old issue of "Amazing Heroes" from 1991, doing some research for another project, and I came across this line from Mark Farmer, one of the inkers on "Animal Man": "I was a little bit arrogant and vain in thinking I could make Chas Truog's artwork look better than it had before. I failed, I now admit."
But I always enjoyed ol' Chas's art, probably because the wide-eyed innocence (and sometimes terror) in his characters, and the absurd haircuts and clothes he'd put on his characters, against a humble and simplistic backdrop. It worked for "Animal Man," I always thought, in a way that a grittier or more showy style would not have.
I have never heard anyone else defend Truog's work, though, so I think I might be alone on this one.
Truog continued to draw the series after Morrison left. So he's here in "Animal Man" #27, alongside brand new writer... drumroll... and anticipatory applause because you see him coming... it's... Peter Milligan!
Milligan, who had already co-created the likes of Paradax and Johnny Nemo and had revamped "Bad Company" for "2000 AD" and "Shade the Changing Man" for DC, seemed like the perfect choice to follow Morrison on "Animal Man." Particularly 1990-vintage Milligan. Who else would possibly be able to take the trippy, expansively metafictional groundwork laid by Morrison and build something new out of it? Milligan was the man for the job. Right?
And not only did DC bring in Milligan to work his provocative magic, but draftsman extraordinaire Brian Bolland stayed on the covers, and his image-making helped to ease the transition. Or, at least the look of the transition.
If you go take a look at Bolland's covers for the first four years of "Animal Man," even if you've never read a single issue on display, I suspect you'd think, "this looks like a series worth checking out! Robots and monkeys and clocks and birds and monsters and superheroes. What a weird and wonderful blend!" It's the kind of feeling DC would probably like to remind you about with Bolland's "Dial H" covers, which also truck in the weird and discordant. But what's missing from "Dial H" is the brightness of the colors. "Animal Man" had these stunning Bolland images, but they also mostly looked like super-sweet candy-store extravaganzas. The vibrant hues and the Bolland linework and the crazy concoctions of images built upon each other to delirious effect.
And I mentioned that Truog still did his thing on the interiors, with Mark Farmer admittedly trying and failing to make it look good.
But let's get back to Milligan. He's the new piece of the puzzle here. How does he follow Morrison's run, which created a full family life for Buddy Baker before breaking down the former-Silver-Age Z-list hero and deconstructing the entirety of DC comics and the nature of our very own reality and culminated in a meeting between Animal Man and Grant Morrison himself?
Well, mostly Milligan ignores all that.
"Animal Man" #27 reads more like the start of a six-issue miniseries about the character, which is what it basically ended up being. Milligan only stuck around for this one story arc, ending in "Animal Man" #32 with a story called "Schrodinger's Pizza." And his brief run on the series seems like something that would have followed a year or two after the end of Morrison's series. As if DC cancelled "Animal Man" when Morrison left and dusted the property off a little while later and gave it a trial run with a slightly new approach under new management.
Comic book companies do that kind of thing all the time. With "Animal Man," they didn't approach it that way, though. It just reads like they did.
But "Animal Man" #27 followed right after Morrison's departure, and the publisher even previewed some pages from Milligan's issue in the final pages of Morrison's last hurrah. They wanted readers to stick around. They wanted to show that "Animal Man," the series, did not equal Grant Morrison.
But all these years later, everyone surely admits that, yeah, "Animal Man" did kind of equal Grant Morrison for a long, long time. Maybe even to this day. We could pretend otherwise, but any further adventures of Buddy Baker and his family never felt true the way they were in the first 26 issues under Morrison's guidance.
So that's the problem Milligan faces in issue #27. It didn't feel like Morrison then, and it doesn't feel like Morrison now.
But "Animal Man" #27, by any other standard, is a pretty good way to open up a new story arc. Milligan does a few things well, and gives us a hook to drag us back for more.
The story's called "The Coma Kid," and the narration lays it on thick: "There is the hot hum of life. There is the hot smell of death." Buddy Baker is in a coma, imaging himself to be in the wilderness. Nature is red in tooth and claw and all that vicious, poetic, but mostly vicious stuff.
That opening scene is where most of the post-Morrison Animal Man comics have gone, honestly. Amping up the animalistic nature of the character. Morrison did it too, but not to this extent, but this frenzied, feral quality has been part of the character's stories more prominently since Milligan and beyond. But that's not what makes issue #27 so interesting. What makes it unusual, and inspired, is that Milligan disorients the reader (and Buddy Baker) throughout the comic.
Loyal wife Ellen shows up to the hospital, but she's different, and Buddy Baker points it out. She's smoking, covered with too-thick make-up, and dressed like she's going to a job interview. She's not the earthy housewife of the earlier stories, and it's disturbing to see her so changed without any known reason.
Reality has rewritten itself, we can only assume -- given the previous "Animal Man" issues -- but Milligan refuses to go in that direction. We don't get the yellow aliens with their morphogenic field or any notion of the comic panels as a kind of prison for the characters. Milligan plays up the paranoia and the uncertainty, but doesn't veer toward metafiction. Morrison already did that. It's a dead end. But Milligan teases it, and that's an impressive high-wire act for him to perform, surely knowing what the audience might expect.
Other things are wrong after Buddy wakes up from his coma. His daughter, so loving in the past, won't talk to him. Cliff still has his mullet though, so all is right and just in the universe. But then Buddy pees on the front walk at his house. That's weird enough when it happens to your occasionally-drunken neighbor, but it's really unusual for a superhero in a DC comic.
Oh, and then Buddy sniffs a family friend's butt.
Milligan really goes for the animalistic angle, to comedic and horrifying effect.
The issue ends with a couple of is-it-a-dream-or-is-it-real sequences with Animal Man hopping around like a jungle animal and apparently stabbing some security guards to death (he did that in his tighty-whiteys, although they glow blue in the moonlight), and then, in full superhero garb, chasing a horse and then tearing into its neck with his teeth (he does this at an animal rights rally). The final page shows Animal Man drenched in blood, the dead-eyed horse with its throat torn open on his lap, and a caption: "The crowd has stopped cheering."
Milligan savages Buddy Baker and his world in this opening issue of his run. He doesn't provide any sense that anything will ever be okay again. And that's pretty exciting to read, even a couple of decades later. Milligan deconstructs the already-deconstructed comic not by going further into the fields of narrative theory and self-awareness but by destroying the notion that Animal Man is a superhero. This is no superhero comic under Milligan. It doesn't even pretend to be. It's a nightmare, but it's one that's incredibly compelling.
By the end of his arc, there is an explanation for what's going on. It's a corporate character, and we know Animal Man still exists in the DCU. He obviously wasn't tearing everyone's necks out for the past 23 years.
But Milligan doesn't tip his hand too early. He makes the nightmare linger for a while, until we're inside of it, clamoring to get out and make sense out of it all. Morrison may still be the guy when it comes to "Animal Man," but Milligan's follow-up shouldn't be ignored. It's good comics. No matter what came before.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.