Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man quickly came to intersect with the company’s linewide Invasion! crossover, which saw a bunch of aliens invading the Earth and triggering some mysterious effect that resulted in a cliffhanger splash of Animal Man in dramatic monochrome negative image and an injunction to read the third issue of Invasion!
It’s Doctor Destiny: claiming he dreamt the JLA into existence and threatening to ‘de-imagine Detroit’ if you can’t prove him wrong. —Grant Morrison, JLA
Readers who obeyed would discover that the black and white effect was the Dominators’ gene bomb, which sent anyone whose superpowers were a factor of the hazily defined “metagene” (which was, in a rather bald-faced pillaging of Marvel’s massively popular X-Men franchise, apparently responsible for most superpowers on planet Earth) into a deathly coma after their powers briefly exploded out of control. This was eventually reversed after a group of unaffected heroes (mostly those with purely technological powers or whose powers were either from or because they were aliens) successfully struck back, restoring the status quo at last. Animal Man’s role in the book was minimal—he was seen on a rooftop as his powers raged out of control and then simply became one of the many comatose heroes in the book—but the events of the book would have long-term implications for him on a number of fronts.
The first of these began to become clear in Animal Man #8, in which Morrison revamped the occasional Flash villain the Mirror Master as a Scottish mercenary and had him attack Animal Man in his house. The threat is repelled, in part because Mirror Master turns out to have been under explicit orders not to hurt anyone, but it’s notable that at no point in the fight does Animal Man use any of his powers. Although mostly an excuse for Morrison, an avowed Flash fan, to do a trippy romp with a beloved favorite, this also served to set up a plotline in which it would turn out that Animal Man’s powers had not fully recovered from the gene bomb, and that his attempts to reach out and grab a specific animal power were typically going awry. The second was also mentioned in Animal Man #8, but was in practice not primarily a concern for Morrison themself, since it was mostly going to play out in a book they didn’t write: the newly launched Justice League Europe.
The Justice League is a concept within DC that is, to say the least, historically complex. Its origins lie all the way back in All-Star Comics #3 in 1940, where Gardner Fox assembled various DC superheroes like Hawkman, Green Lantern, Flash, Sandman, and Hour-Man who were operating below the Batman/Superman tier of popularity into a team. (Wonder Woman eventually joined as, in one of the more cringeworthy moments of 1940s comics, the team’s secretary.) The structure of the comic was convoluted—the characters spent most of every issue on solo adventures drawn by their primary creative teams with only a frame story stitching it together into a team book. Nevertheless, it introduced the basic idea of lobbing all of DC’s most popular heroes into a single book.
In 1960, following the superhero resurgence of the late 1950s editor Julius Schwartz tapped Gardner Fox to repeat the trick with the new crop of heroes. This time calling it the Justice League of America (Fox reasoned that the popularity of baseball made this a more familiar term than society, a take that says more about 1960 than can readily be unpacked), the book took a modified approach. Where the Justice Society of America was explicitly only allowed to comprise heroes who did not have solo books (so Green Lantern and Flash both exited quickly), the Justice League of America was designed to be a marquee book combining the company’s top characters. The initial lineup was Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Wonder Woman, essentially the most popular lineup the company could muster at the time.
The book’s lineup changed over the ensuing decades, generally only expanding to include a wider band of heroes on top of the core group of all-stars. But in 1984 writer Gerry Conway refocused the group back away from heroes who had their own book, creating a more oddball group of heroes and basing them out of Detroit. This lineup lasted through Crisis on Infinite Earths, but in the wake of it DC decided that the Justice League should join Superman, Wonder Woman, and much of their line in being revamped for the post-Crisis era. And so the 1986 Legends event was used to wind down Conway’s league and provide a springboard for a new lineup to be written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis.
The problem was that the bulk of obvious characters to use for a big flashy reboot were unavailable. John Byrne was unwilling to allow Superman to be used outside of his titles, George Pérez’s complete revamp of Wonder Woman made including her difficult at first, and the Flash was busy being relaunched with Wally West in the role in place of Barry Allen, who had been one of the higher profile casualties of Crisis on Infinite Earths. And so Giffen and DeMatteis were forced to make do with a motley crew of second stringers headlined by Batman, who editor Denny O’Neil allegedly allowed them to use out of pity given the self-evidently impossible task of relaunching the Justice League without any actual major characters.
Giffen and DeMatteis’s approach to the task before them was to swim against the tide. In an era where almost everyone thought the future of superheroes was darker and more violent, they pivoted Justice League (renamed Justice League International a few issues in) into what was fundamentally a comedy book driven in no small part by the bickering of its members. The iconic moment came in the fifth issue when Guy Gardner, a lesser Green Lantern, challenged Batman to a fist fight for leadership of the group after several issues of feuding. Batman then proceeded to sucker punch him, knocking him out and resulting in Blue Beetle throwing his head back and cackling, “One punch! One punch!”
Pleasantly, the book was also a hit, serving as one of the major counternarratives to the idea that late 1980s superheroes were simply a wholesale slide towards “grim and gritty.” And so in 1988 Giffen and DeMatteis were given a spinoff book in the form of Justice League Europe, with Justice League International renaming itself once again to Justice League America. The resulting lineup was essentially lashed together from heroes culled from the parts of the b-list that Giffen and DeMatteis had not already scoured for Justice League International—Captain Atom, Elongated Man, Power Girl, Rocket Red, and Metamorpho—and a few of the a-list heroes that hadn’t been available to them a few years earlier, namely Flash and Wonder Woman. (The latter of these, however, quickly descended into farce as permission to use the character was withdrawn after one issue, leading to her simply vanishing from the team with no explanation.)
Within this context, Animal Man, who had after all just been elevated to the tier of characters who had solo books (Captain Atom, the team leader, having been the only other b-lister in the lineup to have one) was an obvious addition. But while Morrison, Giffen, and DeMatteis were united in their desire to push back against the prevailing dourness of superhero comics, their approaches were ultimately very different. Where Giffen and DeMatteis were going for a fairly straightforward superhero book only with more comedy beats, at the point where Animal Man was added to the Justice League Morrison was setting out on an elaborate metafictional arc addressing Animal Man’s status as a fictional character while wedding it to an absolutely vehement animal rights perspective. These were not particularly compatible approaches. And with so many other characters available, many of them well-suited to the sort of comedy, Animal Man quickly faded to the background of the ensemble, eventually being cycled out of the lineup after twelve issues owing to events in Morrison’s book.
In most regards, in fact, Morrison made more out of Animal Man’s membership in the Justice League than Giffen and DeMatteis did with him on the team, using the development to further their theme of Buddy as an everyman superhero who is slightly baffled and overwhelmed by the world in which he operates. This was the setup for the delightful Animal Man #9, in which the Martian Manhunter stops by Buddy’s house to apologize for the security lapse the Mirror Master’s attack represented and to have an elaborate security system installed to ensure something like this never happens again. In many ways, the issue is Morrison trying their hand at the Giffen/DeMatteis approach, writing a story with the sort of broad comedic beats and tone that Animal Man’s new book would be using. The story ends, for instance, with Martian Manhunter dealing with Cliff’s bully for him by using his shapeshifting powers to pretend to be Cliff and then transform into a snarling werewolf creature. (Cliff’s response is to tell his dad to “get yourself some real powers.”) The issue was a light but charming romp—a satisfying palate cleanser to bring the one-shots phase of Morrison’s run to a close as they embarked on bigger stories.
Before that, however, came an interlude as Morrison penned a nineteen page story for DC’s Secret Origins anthology. This book was launched in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths as, essentially, a means of clarifying the expansive mess that now stood as DC continuity. The title was initially under the supervision of Roy Thomas, who usually contributed one origin story while another was done by a creative team associated with the character such as, for instance, Paul Kupperberg doing a Doom Patrol origin a couple of months before launching a new Doom Patrol book. This meant that the book became a free-floating means of promoting books. So having launched a book with Animal Man, DC obligingly filled in his origin for anyone who might not have followed Strange Adventures in the 1960s, which is to say most of their readers. (Notably, Secret Origins was one of DC’s books to retain newsstand distribution, while Animal Man was exclusive to direct market shops, and so the issue really did serve to put Animal Man—and Morrison—in front of a new audience.)
Morrison’s take on this was a deft blend of efficiently penning an advertisement for their book and obligingly relating the character’s origin. They open with Animal Man and his family working on his newfound difficulties using his powers; he tries to draw abilities from their pet dog and then suddenly leaps high into the sky having accidentally taken on the power of his fleas instead. Having introduced the book’s status quo, Morrison pulls back to reveal two aliens watching Buddy on monitors. They discuss in puzzled terms the way in which Animal Man appears wrong—most obviously that he’s now younger than they recall him being, and discussing how “some recent event has undone our morphogenetic grafts and cut him loose from the avatar bestiary.”
This provides the occasion for recap of his origin, or more accurately his origin as the aliens remember it. This consists of a retelling of “I Was the Man with Animal Powers,” complete with a recreation of Carmine Infantino’s title page by Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood, with a word for word repetition of Buddy’s first-person narration. The subsequent story does not hew precisely to Wood and Infantino’s original beyond the title page—Morrison draws out the failed proposal for a full page instead of the two panels devoted to it in the original, and slows down Buddy’s encounter with the exploding spaceship to take up two pages instead of two panels. But it remains full of clear and deliberate homages to the original; the first-person narration continues, albeit with Morrison rewriting it in order to provide more sense of character instead of mere breathless incredulity, several bits of dialogue are recycled, and Morrison has letterer Janice Chiang consistently recreate the exact sound effects of the original, even as Grummett and Hazlewood make sensible changes like realizing that the panel in which Buddy throws a tiger at a gorilla is more interesting if the colliding jungle beasts are in the foreground than if Buddy is.
But what is most interesting about this sequence is not that Morrison is doing so many homages to the original comic as the fact that it is presented as a comic. The presence of Buddy’s narration and the title page make it clear that what we are seeing is not the aliens watching events on a monitor (even as that’s what the art of the aliens depicts), but an actual recreation of Strange Adventures #180—that the events are taking place as a comic book. The recap continues with a brief revisitation of “The Return of the Man With the Animal Powers,” which serves both to let the aliens comment explicitly on the changing expectations of comics narrative, noting how there was “no attempt made to question the motives or the origins of the ‘aliens.’ Things were simpler then. Our job was so much easier,” and to clearly depict the aliens from that issue so as to make clear that the aliens in this story, revealed in full on a final page splash in which they wonder whether he’ll remember them, are in fact the exact same ones from that story. [continued]