Some superheroes are a hard sell. Hell, some people have a hard time “buying” a character as straightforward as Green Lantern (people who don’t understand things like bravery, heroism and color coordination). So a character like Animan Man, a once z-list DC Superhero who can draw upon the unique abilities of animals, is for a lot of people damn near impossible to take seriously. Which is fair, the guy is basically a white-bread Marshall Bravestar. Plus he’s married. Now think about that, really. How many superheroes are in a stable, happy marriage with a couple of kids? Especially in a medium dominated by adolescent male power fantasies, a happily married superhero is like a supermodel who smiles and likes to dress modestly. It goes against the norm a tad.
But as Grant Morrison recently showed us with “Happy” a little healthy dementia and a few late night peyote binges can give one the inspiration to make anything work. Morrison’s work in bringing the character a little more legitimacy than previously known can be chocked up to roughly three factors.
Taking over the character immediately in the wake of the first “Crisis” event, Morrison starts by turning the previously square-jawed slab of bland into a crusader for animal rights, a cause Morrison himself became deeply involved in during the writing of the series. Under some writers, this may have made the character even worse, leading to preachy message-mongering and “Captain Planet” style eco-heroics, but bear in mind that this is Grant Morrison people. Guy doesn’t do anything the way you’d expect. Morrison never shies away from showing exactly the kind of ugliness and animal abuse the animal rights movement is fighting against, including a graphic depiction of a dolphin slaughter in Norway. Rather than “save the little bunnies!”, Morrison’s depiction of the animal rights battle is closer to ‘The world is an awful, awful place and human beings are terrible” in tone, and while it does come close to being preachy, it never shies away from showing the ugly, honest truth of the matter.
Secondly, Morrison expands Animal Man’s powers from being able to use the powers of any animal within a certain range to basically anything living on the planet Earth (though this happens later in the series). This opens up a LOT of doors to the kind of things you can really do with a character like Animal Man, powers wise, because you may not know this, but NATURE IS TERRIFYING. Put on a BBC nature series and try and get through an entire episode without seeing at least one insane ability some animal out there possesses. Or just read this thing about the Mantis Shrimp.
Finally, and probably most important of all, Morrison got meta. Hella meta. Deepa Meta, even. Over the course of the series, Animal Man slowly becomes aware of his own nature as a fictional being and even wins a battle at one point by stepping between the panels of his own comic. The series even ends with *SPOILER ALERT* Animal Man meeting with Morrison himself. The whole last issue is really just them walking around chatting, and the whole thing’s one giant theological metaphor. And that’s not even the part where he gets blasted on peyote and screams “I CAN SEE YOU!” at the reader.
“Animal Man” is Grant Morrison doing what he’s best at: taking an obscure, kinda lame superhero and turning him into something new, weird and awesome. Readers looking for a starting point for Morrison’s work really need look no further.