Visions of Vertigo – Animal Man

For decades after the debut of Superman, comic books were all about men and women in tights fighting to save the world or the universe from the forces of evil. When DC Comics debuted its VERTIGO imprint in 1993, it completely changed the shape of the comic book industry.

The imprint was a place for more mature stories, content that would never be approved by the Comics Code Authority or would seem out of place in the capes-filled main DC Universe. The imprint began with a focus on horror and fantasy stories, but over the years it expanded its scope to include other genres.

On my shelf of graphic novels and collected editions, Vertigo takes up a good chunk of the comic books I own. Many of the amazing stories that have come out of the imprint have proven to be iconic and eminently re-readable. The art is frequently groundbreaking and the words on the page are nothing short of extraordinary. With Halloween on the horizon, I’ll be spending the next few days looking at some of my favorite series from Vertigo.

For the first edition of our look at Vertigo, let’s start with a book that was retroactively placed in the Vertigo imprint, Grant Morrison’s 26-issue run on ANIMAL MAN.

Buddy Baker – Animal Man – was created in 1965 by Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino, a hero who could borrow the abilities of animals as the result of an alien spaceship exploding near him. In the 20 years between his creation and the universe-altering CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, Animal Man made only a handful of appearances, so he was the perfect candidate for a complete revamp in 1988. DC Comics handed the reins of the character over to an upcoming British writer named Grant Morrison for a planned four-issue miniseries that was turned into an ongoing series after strong sales.

Under Morrison’s pen, Buddy Baker was less a hero and more of an everyman who dealt with issues on a smaller scale than most of the costumed characters in the universe. Many of the stories Morrison wrote in his 26 issues on the book focused on Baker’s family life – his wife, Ellen, and his kids Cliff and Maxine. Baker fought for animal rights and vegetarianism, causes Morrison felt strongly about. Morrison planned out long-running arcs and mysteries that wouldn’t pay off for a year or more, rewarding loyal readers who kept with the series.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a book written by Grant Morrison if things didn’t get a little weird. And Morrison showed off the weird pretty early. In the fifth issue – the first beyond the initial miniseries order – Buddy Baker encountered a cartoon coyote named “Crafty,” a very obvious analogue of Loony Toons’ Wile E. Coyote, who was tired of the constant violence he and his cartoon companions had to experience. The coyote is given the opportunity to leave his world and is instead placed in the comic book world of Buddy Baker. The issue ends with the reveal of a comic book artist drawing Crafty’s bleeding body.

The religious implications of the issue are made pretty clear right from the issue’s cover. More importantly, this wouldn’t be the last time Morrison broke the fourth wall with the series. One of the central story points of the final arc of the series was Baker discovering that he and his entire world are nothing but characters in a comic book. He even has a conversation with his “creator,” obviously patterned after Morrison himself.

Morrison’s reputation for playing with conventional storytelling tropes and turning them around in an unexpected manner comes primarily from his work on Animal Man. His penchant for writing metaphysical or existential stories that challenged norms were fully on display as he took Buddy Baker from being an obscure, nearly forgotten relic of the comic book industry’s silver age into a celebrated fixture of a new movement for a new era.

During the issue where Baker talks to his creator, Baker asks if Morrison could bring back his recently-deceased family. Morrison tells him no. “Sorry. It wouldn’t be realistic,” he tells Baker. “Pointless death and violence is ‘realistic.’ Comic books are ‘realistic’ now.” He also explains to Baker why the hero has been so tortured under his new creator’s pen.

As I mentioned earlier, ANIMAL MAN wasn’t actually a part of the Vertigo imprint when Grant Morrison was writing the book. The imprint wasn’t even created until about three years after Morrison penned his final issue. After Morrison left the series, he was followed by Peter Milligan and Tom Veitch before Jamie Delano settled in for 29 issues starting with issue 51. Two months later, with issue 53, the book was officially adopted into the new Vertigo imprint. All of the collected editions of the series since then have been published under the Vertigo umbrella.

What are your memories of Animal Man? Which Vertigo properties did you enjoy? Let me know in the comics and join us for our next installment.