Retro Reviews: Animal Man #80-86 By Prosser, Harper, Temujin For DC Comics

Animal Man #80-86 (February 1995 – August 1995)

Written by Jerry Prosser (#80-86)

Pencils by Fred Harper (#80-86)

Inks by Jason Temujin (#80-86)

Coloured by Tatjana Wood (#80-86)

Spoilers (from twenty-three years ago)

Jamie Delano and Steve Pugh took this title to great heights, making it one of my favourite comics of the early 90s, and perhaps of all time.  Their use of character and unique vision of Animal Man’s potential made the book very memorable and special, and also helped raise my own personal awareness of environmental challenges.  When they left, I was disappointed, but was also happy to see that the title was continuing (today it would be relaunched, probably for the fourth time).

And then I started reading the new creative team’s work.  I knew writer Jerry Prosser from the Skin Graft miniseries, also at Vertigo, but didn’t remember liking it.  The new artist, Fred Harper, had drawn part of an issue of AM during Delano’s run, and was fine. Together though, they failed to impress very much.  I don’t remember anything about this run, aside from the fact that I didn’t like it, and decided to drop it. Three issues after that, the book was canceled.  

I’m going to see how far I make it this time, and learn if age (both my own and the comic’s) have improved things at all.  Maybe I’ll end up hunting down those last three issues. Maybe I’ll give up before I get close. We’ll find out together…

Let’s look at who turned up in the title:

Villains

  • Priest from Humanity First (#81-82)
  • Anansa the Spider Queen (#81, 84, 86)

Supporting Characters

  • Mr. Cow (Buddy’s childhood dog; #80)
  • Buddy’s mother (not Buddy’s mother; #80)
  • Maxine Baker (Buddy’s daughter; #81-86)
  • Dick Keel (Life-Power Church’s TV station manager; #81-82)
  • Ellen Baker (Buddy’s wife; #81-84)
  • Dr. Ananda Varma (#81-82, 85-86)
  • Cliff Baker (Buddy’s son; #81-82)
  • Lucy Cassidy (#81-82)
  • Sarah Wise (lawyer, Sisters Without Mercy; #81, 83)
  • Annie Cassidy (#81, 84)
  • Selene (Sisters Without Mercy; #81)
  • Ted (guy who hangs out at the gate a lot; #81-82, 85)
  • Bear Paw (Year Zero; #81)
  • Uncle Phester (#85)
  • The Man (#85-86)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • Buddy wakes up from a bad dream in his childhood home, wearing the pajamas he had when he was eight.  His childhood dog, Mr. Cow, comes into the room and starts to talk to him. His mother, looking as she did when he was young, except with gigantic eyes, comes in and tells him to come downstairs for breakfast (which looks disgusting, whatever it is).  His mother starts to explain that he’s never learned what he’s supposed to when he’s left and then returned to his body. She offers him the choice of staying there with her or returning to his family, and he chooses Ellen and the kids. She sends him to the basement, where he feels connected to The Red again, or at least his memories of it, and also feels like he’s being squeezed.  He wakes again, back in his childhood home and pjs again, and rushes to the toilet to throw up. This time, he’s returned to the moment of his father’s wake, but it’s all more terrible than he remembers. He hides under his bed, and again feels the pain of going through birth, this time seeing the yellow aliens from Morrison’s run, and connects with The Red, reliving various moments of his life and deaths, as well as seeing other visions.  He feels another presence of a sharp, glassy spider-creature thing, which he feels follows him. Things get weird, and then he finds himself back at the same house. He chats and plays with the dog, and later gets tucked in by his mother. When he asks her who she really is, she tells him he’ll find out the next day.
  • At an exotic animal preserve in Northern California, a baboon wakes up to see a strange light in the sky shine on a giraffe.  A spider-creature thing cuts the giraffe into bits, and then the light goes away. In Montana, Maxine records a message for the Life-Power Church’s nightly TV broadcast, in which she reassures people that the Red Dreams are nothing to be afraid of.  The station manager, Mr. Keel, praises her, and then chats with Ellen. Maxine hangs out with Dr. Ananda Varma, a scientist in a wheelchair, who also has a new show on the station. They all watch the pre-recorded broadcast, in which Varma talks about Red Dreaming, where in the body consciousness resides, how animals have been behaving since Buddy’s transformation, the growth of the Neo-Aboriginal lifestyle (which probably felt progressive in the 90s but sounds condescendingly racist today), and the growth of cattle mutilations and UFO sightings.  After the show, Ellen takes Maxine home to the trailer where they live with Cliff, Sarah, and maybe Lucy. Ellen and Sarah head to a town meeting and talk about how things have been tough since Buddy died. At the meeting, Annie chairs things and Selene brings up the fact that so many of the community’s resources are going to keeping the TV station working. She suggests restructuring the society, but they are interrupted by a conflict outside. A priest from a group called Humanity First is trying to enter the Promised Land, and the guy at the main entrance starts a fight with him.  Annie defuses things by firing a shot into the air, and then suggests to Bear Paw that they might need armed guards. Cliff is babysitting Maxine, and sends her to bed early so he can watch TV with Lucy. For some reason, they watch a political show that rants about the Red Dreaming. In bed, Maxine tries to reach out to Buddy through The Red, but with no luck. As she sleeps, she dreams that she finds Buddy and watches as animals rip him apart again. She collects his parts in a bag, as he instructs her, and takes them to the world tree, and lays them all out. A bunch of toothy creatures come and eat him up again, which upsets her.  A large spider approaches, and turns into a large pregnant spidery woman. She is Anansa the Spider Queen, and she wraps up Buddy’s remains in a silken cocoon. She hands Maxine a thread, saying it will connect her to Buddy and to herself; she asks Maxine to find homes for her babies in exchange for bringing Buddy back. Maxine isn’t given time to think about the deal. Somewhere on the Promised Land, a light shines from a spaceship or the sky, and a body falls through the light. People begin to pull the cocoon from the body, and we are left to believe that this is Buddy.
  • Buddy is Red Dreaming, and finds himself hanging out under a tree with a scar faced baboon.  He thinks about the Lifeweb in terms of the spider that spins it, and then is called back to his body.  Ellen is giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and he finds himself back in his old body, with long white hair.  He immediately falls asleep, and wakes later with Ellen, Maxine, Cliff, and Lucy around him. Later again, they take him around the Promised Land, and he learns about the TV studio, and the scientists researching Red Dreaming.  More later, Ellen and Buddy reconnect, as the book earns it’s “mature readers” label. The next day, Maxine tells Buddy that the animals have mostly left the Promised Land, and takes him to meet Dick Keel, the TV guy. Keel in turn takes Buddy around, and talks about his background in research into psychedelics and UFOs.  A woman almost knocks him over, and we are kind of left wondering if she is Ray Dillinger. Keel introduces Buddy into Dr. Varma, and that leads to two pages with so much text you’d think they were written by Kevin Smith. My eyes glazed over, but it has a lot to do with Varma explaining a Shamanistic view of the world, and how Shamanism might be connected to UFOs (god, I sometimes do not miss the 90s).  Their boring discussion is interrupted by something thrown through the window of Sharma’s trailer. The Humanity First people are back at the gate, and the priest that leads them is going on about a young girl who hurt herself when she Red Dreamed that she could fly and fell out a window while sleepwalking. Buddy touches the girl, and they do some kind of astral Red Dreaming together, and he somehow heals her.  This makes the priest mad, and he throws a rock at Buddy’s head (very priestly, this one). Buddy ends up back with the baboon from the beginning of the issue, who is watching hunters gut a zebra. The baboon throws its excrement at them, and then runs up into the tree from the beginning of the issue. When the hunters approach, a bunch of baboons start ripping them to shreds. Buddy wakes up in a bed, and tells Ellen he has to go to the baboons (they are at the ranch in California from the last issue).  He flies there very quickly, and finds the baboons feasting on the hunters. He and the scar-faced baboon recognize one another, and Buddy feels like an accomplice to the murder.
  • Gordon Wolfe, the TV guy that Cliff was watching before, devotes another of his conservative TV talk shows to Red Dreams and the animal threat.  He shows the footage of the hunters getting attacked by the baboons, and then throws to a correspondent who is in Whiskey Lake, the town closest to the Safari Gardens park where the attack happened.  The sheriff holds a press conference, accompanied by Buddy, explaining that the baboons responsible for the murder walked into town and turned themselves in. The baboons have been charged and are being held without bail.  Buddy declines to answer questions posed to him. At a bar in Whiskey Lake, two guys are drinking. One talks about how his friend, the other guy, worked at the park as a warden before the murder, but then was fired. He also admits that they leaked the murder footage to the press.  When they leave the bar, the loudmouth decides they should go to the place where the baboons are being held, and kill them. He’s about to shoot Scarface, the alpha male, but Buddy sees this through the baboon’s eyes and rushes to protect them. He taps into the baboon’s taste for human flesh and attacks the guy until the sheriff pulls him off, and back into his right mind.  Later, Ellen, Maxine, and Sarah arrive; the baboons are being put on trial the next day (none of this makes sense to me), so Sarah is there to defend them. Buddy takes her to meet her clients. The next day, the trial begins, with comparisons to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The judge is clear that this trial is without precedence, due to the evolutionary shift in animal behaviour, and even acknowledges that Sarah is not licensed to practice law in California.  Opening cases are made, with Sarah choosing to compare the baboons to people with mental illness who are declared unable to stand trial, without using the more favourable and equally powerful comparison between the baboons and children. Anyway, Buddy decides to shift the proceedings to The Red, where all the living beings in the court appear naked. Buddy talks about how the baboons are not subject to human laws (which makes sense), and the judge adjourns. Outside, people think they see a spaceship over the courthouse.  The two men from before are showing drinking again, while Buddy and Ellen lie in bed. As Buddy falls asleep, he connects to the baboons again through The Red, and sees the men kill the baboons in his dreams. The next day, Buddy decides to fly home on his own, while his family take a jet. As he flies, he can’t really connect to the birds.
  • Buddy reads to Maxine from her favourite book – The Mask of the Third Kingdom – as she lies in bed.  The story is about a princess who wants to grow up, and is given a “mask of adulthood” by the Imaginatrix, the Queen of the Third Kingdom.  I glazed over reading most of Prosser’s prose here. Maxine looks to be asleep, so Buddy stops reading; Ellen comes to tell him that Annie is there to see him, and that she’s going to Sarah’s.  Maxine is actually awake, and she listens to Buddy and Annie talk about the fact that Buddy never went to see her when he came back, and her belief that there is something strange about their baby.  Maxine dreams about a spaceship hanging over the Promised Land, but it’s possibly not a dream. Some grey aliens turn up in her bedroom, and take her to their ship (the same one we saw Buddy descend from).  They take her to a room full of tables, have her lie down, strip her, and explore her with their snake-like fingers. They implant something in her nostril, and then a larger grey alien comes to look at her.  She dreams again, and we see her as the princess in the story from before. The larger alien takes her to a strange room full of tanks of human babies and odd grey humans. The Spider-Queen Anansa shows up, surprised to see Maxine. She kills the larger alien, and then she examines Maxine, seeing that she has an implant.  Now we are back in the story, and the Imaginatrix (who is obviously a parallel to Anansa) forces the mask of adulthood on the princess, and then locks her away in a castle before taking on her face for herself. Ellen wakes Maxine up at home, and it’s suggested that Anansa has swapped places with her, or taken over her body.  I think it was probably with this issue that I decided to drop this title…
  • Okay, had I not decided to drop this title with the last issue, I’m pretty sure it was this one that was the final straw.  Buddy, Dr. Varma, and Maxine are hanging out among some sheep when Maxine notices an ant on the top of a blade of grass and shows concern for it.  Varma launches into an explanation of a sheep parasite that infects ants, and then tells an even longer story (illustrated as a picture book for three lengthy pages) about an ant that receives a message from god, finds followers, gets exiled from the colony, and eventually gets eaten by a sheep, all while preaching about the Soul of the World.  As they head back to the Promised Land, Buddy confides in Varma that he thinks Maxine has changed, before they have a boring conversation about Shamanism. There’s a brightly painted hippie bus at the gate, and a guy with piercings and tattoos looking to meet Buddy. Buddy brings him inside, and he introduces himself as Uncle Phester. He knows Varma’s work on fields of consciousness, and shows Buddy a black box.  The box projects a hologram of someone called “The Man”. A strange staticy vehicle shows up at the gate, and three staticy G-Men types get out, while Buddy listens to The Man talk about how the Soul of the World is about to be born. Buddy is called to the gate to talk to the G-Men, who inform him they are looking for The Man, and that they are going to Greece (I have no idea why this is here). Buddy returns to Varma’s spot, and we figure out that The Man’s image is not a recording, and that he wants Buddy to go to him.  Buddy and Varma go with Phester in his bus for a long drive to California, where we learn that Phester lives in an abandoned military base, as part of a hippie commune. Buddy’s TV station did a piece about it, and now it’s full of new recruits. As Phester shows them around, he talks a lot about transpersonal consciousness and some other nonsense about virtual reality and his new system, called VITRIOL, which Varma recognizes as a reference to alchemy. Varma asks for a chance to rest and use a phone. Once alone, he attaches a device to the phone and calls the woman that I thought might be Ray Dillinger a couple of issues back.  She reports that more people have been moving into the Promised Land since he left with Buddy, and that Keel thinks these new people are “encounter-prone”. It’s clear that this woman is running whatever Varma is doing, and she wants him to keep Buddy out of the public eye. Buddy and Varma get hooked up to the VITRIOL VR system and given a psychoactive drug. Things get weird, and then Buddy finds himself in front of The Man and a grey being who looks a little like the aliens we’ve seen before. He shows Buddy that they are in the “Center of the Earth.”
  • The Man shows Buddy and Varma around, and Buddy notices that he can’t tap into the M-Field, which makes sense since they are in a VR system.  The guy I thought looked like the aliens before is actually a blue creature native to this land, and thousands of them are engaged in what looks like an orgy.  The Man calls this land Pandemonium, and we learn that their population doubles every year. There’s a lot of talk, and we learn that this world is a storehouse for haunting ideas, such as LaPlace’s demon, and Maxwell’s Demon, both of whom hang out there.  Something happens and the little blue guys all start screaming. Anansa shows up (in the VITRIOL system?), touches one blue guy, turning him white, and setting off a chain reaction among the whole swarm. She claims that she intends to rule three kingdoms, and then control the World Soul, which hasn’t been born yet.  She calls Buddy “Shaman”, and then turns into a spider, and then turns into something that looks like Maxine, claiming that she is inhabiting her body, back on Earth. She tells Buddy a story about a Meme (back when that referred to the notion that ideas can go viral, and didn’t just refer to a funny picture on the Internet), which is depicted as a storybook again.  She talks a lot more, about Global Brains, and how she is going to plant her children in the “special dreamers”, who I assume, are the people showing up in the Promised Land. Things get weirder, as she tells Buddy he has to die again, and starts skinning him (somewhere she put Varma and The Man to sleep, perhaps through her wordy dialogue). We see a skinned Buddy, who is walking around without pain, as Anansa continues to talk.  Her spiderlings eat Buddy’s discarded skin, while she keeps talking. She tells Buddy that she will allow him to see Maxine. The narrative switches back to that of Maxine’s storybook, and the skinned Buddy finds himself in fantasy world. He sees Maxine, still wearing the Mask of Adulthood, high up in a castle’s tower, and flies to her. There’s someone called the Black Queen there.

Truthfully, I’m done.  I was going to pick up the last three issues on Comixology so I could see how this run ends, but reading these last three issues has become such a slog, I just can’t be bothered.  I love meaty comics with big ideas, but when I take nap breaks to get through one, it says a lot more about how dull that comic is than about the amount of rest I’ve been getting lately.

In the mid-90s, I was reading Mondo 2000 and Wired, listening to Trip-Hop and a lot of rave music, and was as excited about the potential of the Internet as anyone.  I wasn’t taking designer drugs and dancing all night, but I did have wide-legged jeans and colourful sneakers. I recognized that mainstream comics sucked, and was fully on-board with almost every Vertigo title.  All that said, Jerry Prosser’s attempts to distill just about everything that made up the 90s counter-culture into this comic was an absolute failure. Seriously, what the hell was this book?

Prosser came in after Jamie Delano’s incredible run, wherein he developed the cast of this book to the point of them feeling almost real, and left Prosser with rich ground to explore.  Ellen was considering her feelings for both Buddy and another woman, Cliff was growing into a man who looked after his community, Maxine was coming to terms with her abilities, Annie was leading the Life-Power Church and pregnant with Buddy’s child, Buddy was dead, and Mary was growing into an all-time favourite comics character.  Also, there were hundreds of people joining the Life-Power Church, and trying to live in harmony with animals and nature, in a big commune in Montana. In many ways, a year or two of stories were just waiting to picked up right there.

So what does Prosser do?  First, he more or less jettisons Cliff and Lucy, gets rid of Mary and Evelyn all together, along with most of the Sisters Without Mercy, and decides to ignore just about every aspect of Buddy’s personal life.  He also got rid of the animals, and Buddy’s animal powers, as a focus of a comic called Animal Man. Instead, we get a TV station with shows about UFOs, levels of consciousness, and some other crap. We get long discussions of Shamanism and layers of reality, and virtual reality systems that can take you to the centre of the Earth, at a time when VR looked like a game of Tetris.  We get tons of pseudoscience, a vaguely explained threat, and characters who are complete ciphers.

Really the only thing that interested me in this run is the suggestion that Dr. Varma is working for someone else, possibly Ray Dillinger.  

The strength of the Animal Man series, from Grant Morrison’s run through Jamie Delano’s, was always the relationship between Buddy and his family.  Morrison tore it apart when he had the family killed, and showed Buddy losing his mind to get them back. In Tom Veitch’s run, Buddy’s lack of connection with his abilities led to him almost losing his family, while Delano’s run was as much about him rebuilding his sense of belonging with his kids and humanity as it was about starting a church.  Even Peter Milligan’s unfortunate run was built around Buddy trying to fix his relationship with Ellen and the kids (they were from an alternate world). In Prosser’s run, that connection, except to Maxine, is severed, not for story reasons, but because Prosser had no place for them. Really, the main character of this book didn’t really need to be Buddy anymore, as there was nothing left of the character we got to know for almost eighty issues before Prosser got there.

Prosser’s writing is exceptionally wordy, like a Kevin Smith comic.  He doesn’t do dialogue well, and even worse, his scientific (or is that pseudo-scientific?) explanations make next to no sense throughout.  He definitely struggled to present an ongoing story that built up suspense or reader interest.  His frequent use of alternate methods of storytelling (I’m thinking of Maxine’s storybook, and the legends of the ant and of the idea) is interesting, except that it often just becomes an excuse for information dumps and lengthier chunks of prose.

The art, by Fred Harper and Jason Temujin, is fine, if a little nondescript.  All the faces look exactly the same, and we have to look at other signifiers such as hair and skin colour, to figure out who people are.  Beyond that, there are some well-drawn scenes.  I think it’s very cool that Tatjana Wood remained as the colourist for the entire run of this series.

The covers are resoundingly terrible.  The work, by Rick Berry, is as muddied and obscure as the writing, and couldn’t have done much to help sales (despite the fact that Berry was the cover artist for William Gibson’s novels, like Neuromancer).  

This brings me to the end of my look at the Animal Man.  This book was groundbreaking in many ways, as it helped build the “weird superhero” era at DC, which in turn led to the creation of the Vertigo imprint.  It helped my younger self to think about the environment and man’s place in it, and had me thinking of my own relationship to the animal kingdom (disclosure – I haven’t eaten beef or pork since ‘91, but wouldn’t give Buddy any credit for that except perhaps on a deeply subconscious level).  It’s too bad that his story ended in such a flop, but it’s not like a lot of other comics were doing any better in the mid-90s. It was a terrible time for the medium.

Buddy did return with the New 52 era (there was also a miniseries by Gerry Conway just before that that I never read), and Jeff Lemire made great use of some of the groundwork laid by Morrison, Veitch, and Delano, while tying Buddy closer to the continuity of Swamp Thing and the rest of the DCU.  It was a good run, but doesn’t qualify as “retro” just yet, so I’m going to end here.

Next time around, I’m going to be looking at a Marvel series that kind of combines the ideology of this series with the setting of another DC title I re-read back in the spring.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read the stories I talk about here (I can’t imagine why), you’re going to have to do some longbox digging, as it was never collected.  You can follow this link to the first issue:
Animal Man (1988-1995) 80

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