Animal Man

When I was 12, I was just starting to get into American comics, and the garage around the corner from my dad’s work did something rather odd – on its magazine rack it got in just one month’s worth of DC Comics – February ’91. It never got any others in, and as far as I could tell I was the only person who ever bought any, but I bought all of them over a period of several months.

It was actually a really good month for DC comics if you were, as I was, a bright 12-year-old boy, but crucially a 12-year-old boy. I remember Commissioner Gordon’s heart attack (“Wow! Major changes to an established character!”), the last issue of the first Lobo miniseries (“Wow! Swearing *AND* Violence! Truly comics aren’t just for kids any more!”) and an early issue of The Demon v2. All of these were written by Alan Grant, who became my idol for the next three years.

But the one that really captivated me was one of the most surreal, complex things I’d read to that point – Animal Man 32. Yes, 32.

Peter Milligan’s short (six issue) run on Animal Man is one of the best runs on a comic series I’ve ever read, and when I discovered years after reading that single issue, Schrodinger’s Pizza, that it was the follow-on to Grant Morrison’s famous run, I was quite astonished. While Morrison’s run is a near-perfect work of art on its own terms, Milligan’s run is its own unique and very strange thing, and to be honest reads as more ‘Morrisonesque’ than Morrison’s own run on the title.

The thing everyone remembers about this story is its very Doom Patrol collection of characters – The Front Page, a being made entirely of newspapers, who doesn’t speak but whose headlines change all the time in a running commentary on the action, Nowhere Man, who is molecularly dissociated and who can only keep himself together by speaking in Burroughs-style cut-ups, and most spectacularly the Notional Man.

The Notional Man is the product of a phantom pregnancy in a woman who was so determined to have a baby she gave birth *anyway*, and you can only see him out of the corner of his eye. You don’t want to let his forceps get you. In one spectacularly creepy scene, he’s kidnapped Animal Man’s daughter and forces him to start torturing himself to death using surgical implements normally used in pregnancy. He’s a genuinely chilling creation.

And Milligan wraps this all in the kind of SF story i love – travellers from the future have accidentally placed one of Animal Man’s distant proto-human ancestors into some kind of quantum superposed state, and as a result Animal Man himself is being sent through several different realities and has to get back to the real one. He even explains the difference between the Copenhagen and Everett-Wheeler interpretations of quantum physics, using a pizza in place of Schrodinger’s Cat.

(Of course Morrison’s run rather depended on Bohmian mechanics being the ‘true’ interpretation of quantum physics, but as both stories in their own ways show the futility of trying to find a single unified ‘truth’, having two different interpretations of quantum physics both be true makes sense on a meta-metaphorical level).

All that would, of course, be enough for me to love Milligan’s run on the title. But what impresses me most is how he uses this to tell a human story about mental illness and familial breakup. Buddy Baker wakes up in a world where his marriage is disintegrating and his daughter no longer recognises him, and his powers are backfiring, causing him to violently attack his wife’s lover, urinate on the street to mark his territory, and in a key scene to rip out a horse’s jugular with his teeth, at an animal rights rally. He ends up kidnapping his children after his wife applies for a protection order.

And meanwhile he’s in a world where everything seems slightly wrong – the wrong man is president, pop stars he thought dead are alive… it’s a horribly accurate portrayal of the way people’s lives fall apart when afflicted with mental illness.

There’s far more to these six issues than I’m giving them credit for, but I don’t want to go into too much detail about a work which is inaccessible to the vast majority of my readers. I’ve had to obtain the story as .cbz files, as it’s never been reprinted, and it looks like it never will, but anyone who enjoyed Morrison’s work on the title, or who likes Milligan at his best, needs this. It’s the only example I can think of of someone taking over from Morrison on a work-for-hire title and building and expanding on his work and managing to take it to interesting places.

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4 Responses to Animal Man

  1. Mike McLarty says:

    Milligan’s SHADE will always have a special place in my heart. It was the 1st ‘mature’ title I collected. Of course I knew about Morrison’s run on ANIMAL MAN, but for some reason, Milligan’s involvement was never on my radar.

    I need to check this out, obviously.

  2. pillock says:

    Bah for Milligan’s Shade. Sorry, did I say that out loud? Clever writing, intriguing art. Wonderful stuff. But making something rather Vertigo, that never had been before.

    But his Animal Man stint, that was amazing. I didn’t think someone could follow Morrison’s Animal Man, much less make its foundations shaky. Today I was lying out on the pavement asking a friend “do you remember which direction your eyes go up-and-away in that’s the LYING direction, and which is the REMEMBERING direction?”

    She said: “well when I look up and away to X direction, I feel like I’m remembering…when I look up and away in Y direction I feel like I’m making stuff up.” And:

    HOW ODD! I thought. Because it’s the great mystery of the qualia, isn’t it? No matter what this is, it feels like something. Everything feels like something, whether it’s real or false, but the feeling’s always real. Artificial post-Crisis origins, and yet we belong to our artificial origins too…or at any rate they belong to us…shades of the MAX HTD series.

    Milligan I think incorporates Physics Stuff better than Morrison, his Animal Man wasn’t “wouldn’t it be cool if this“, but rather “alternative explanations can be a real fucker, eh buddy?” Everything’s genuinely destabilized, knowledge genuinely has limits: it’s an open universe without any easy answers. This run’s destructive art, it’s brilliant. This run puts the boots to Hypertime. What’s an “origin”, what’s “time-travel”? What’s a “character history”? Or any sort of history for that matter. It gets pretty radically possibilized in Milligan’s run: this isn’t “fixing stuff”. Fixing stuff isn’t even on the table.

    Sweet and gorgeous, is what it is. Maybe more later, I dunno; I love Morrison’s Animal Man so much, but Milligan out-Morrisons Morrison here. Don’t you think?

  3. pillock says:

    All who know me know that I think Ditko’s SHADE is an uncontinuable comic, it’s a distillation of Ditko, like a Ditko reduction sauce. I love Milligan’s SHADE and see lots of potential in it, but it can never be “real” SHADE.

    Just in case someone thought I was being nerdishly judgemental. Well, I kind of am, but not in a bad way I hope.

  4. colin smith says:

    It’s a splendid run and well worth the praise you’ve given it.

    But if I may mention a single moment: the farewell between Animal Man and Nowhere Man is so very touching, and their friendship so gently established and so tenderly closed, that I always wanted to see NM again. (Anyway, Buddy has always been short of a best friend, and, for a character straight out of a Fifties small-town sit-com, I suspect that he’s often suffered because of that.)

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