“Let me tell you about the weirdest dream I ever had… This was a few years ago, When I’d only been Animal Man for a little while… I met my maker, literally. He was this skinny intense, Scottish guy who claimed I was just a character that he wrote in a comic book.”
These are some of the opening lines from the number 9 issue of Animal Man (July 2012), written by Jeff Lemire. How fun is that? A semi-breaking of the fourth wall. The “skinny intense Scottish guy” in question being the author of the successful 80s run of the comic book Animal Man, Grant Morrison, who was notorious for breaking the fourth wall. Animal Man is one of DC Universe’s New 52 relaunch titles and despite what you may think of the New 52, storyline alone, Animal Man is well worth the read. I have been trying to convince numerous people of why they need to readAnimal Man, and what they are missing out on. (I’m looking at you B.J.) More often than not I am met with the usual arguments of him being “campy” or just a hidden agenda for animal rights.
Unfortunately, they are right much of the time. But it is so hard to convince people that that is where a lot of this comic’s charm comes from. That is when I realized, it’s not that I enjoy PETA-loving sentiment coming from a tights-wearing minor league superhero. I enjoy his family’s reaction to him being a superhero, to the fact he wears tights to rescue cats from trees and stop bank robbers. You see, Animal Man is not just about the superhero secret identity of ex-stuntman, Buddy Baker. It’s also about Ellen Baker, his wife, and his children, Cliff and Maxine. Remarkably, against all odds, Animal Man is not just a hero, he is a successful husband and father.
Notice the keyword there? Successful!
As a father (my son is 19 months old as of this writing), this speaks to me. No. It doesn’t just speak to me, it screams as loud as it can in both of my ears. THAT is why I can’t convince people to read this comic. It’s because I am interested as a parent and none of them are parents (yet). There is a secret little switch in the back of your brain that flips the instant you consider yourself a parent of another human life. It begins this whole series of realizations you never thought of before. It opens the floodgates to all these emotions you didn’t think were possible regarding another person. Somehow, Jeff Lemire is able to stimulate every single neuron mapped to this switch with Animal Man.
As an example, one of my favorite scenes comes from issue number 6 (May 2012). The Baker family is on the run in a Winnebago. They stop off at a little convenience store to get some quick food, while Buddy (Animal Man) has to make a phone call to a local sheriff’s office. While at the store, Cliff, Buddy’s 13 year old son, sees an older teenage girl wearing an Animal Man t-shirt. See, Buddy starred in an indie film, as well, became a B-list pop icon during his animal activist days. Cliff walks up to this girl and very nervously states that Animal Man is his father. Of course this does nothing but cause the girl to laugh at the poor boy for such a ridiculous attempt at hitting on her. Enter dear old dad. Buddy puts his hand on Cliff’s shoulder and says, “There you are! Cliff, we gotta go… That was the Justice League. They need us!” He then grabs Cliff around the waist and uses his powers to absorb flight from birds and they zoom off. Cliff, with a huge grin on his face says, “Thanks dad, that was awesome.”
Of course any of us can appreciate how cool it would be to have a father that could wisp us away and make us look awesome in the eyes of the opposite sex. But that is not where my mind went when I read that scene. My first thought was, “I want to be able to do that for my son.” Proverbially of course. Not literally. It appealed to me as a parent, more than as a child.
What exactly does this mean?
Well for me, it means a couple of things. First, Batman needs to quit whining that being a hero means it is too dangerous to have a stable relationship and go get him some lovin’. And second, it is OK to be a responsible adult and enjoy comic books. Beyond that, it is OK to be a responsible parent, and enjoy comic books.
Don’t get me wrong, just because a medium makes a piece of entertainment directed at a certain demographic, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily acceptable. Porn, for example. It is directed at young male adults most of the time, but if you see a guy sitting on the subway openly reading an issue of Big Deluxe Booties, you aren’t going to think that is very acceptable.
Since there is such a large series of factors that would go in to us studying what makes something acceptable, it would be easier for us to look at what makes it unacceptable. For our porn-freak, the problem is mostly going to be that he is exposing unwanting parties (children) to the material since he is in public with it and it is considered such adult material. This is mostly due to the objectification of women while showing their naughty bits.
Comic books, on the other hand, suffer from a different stigmata. It’s almost in the opposite direction of porn. Comics are too childish. Granted seeing an adult male in public with porn may not please you, but you can’t say you are surprised by the demographic he represents having the material. Imagine if it were a teenage boy, or even younger. Now the abhorrence really comes out.
A comic book, though, has the opposite affect. If you see a kid reading a comic book, no big deal, right? Now imagine a grown man, or “worse,” a grown man with a child, and *gasp* he’s reading a comic book.
Come on! Grow up pal! You have kids!
So why does this instigate such a negative reaction? Well, comics promote a fictional world of adults in tights, that do irrational acts of strength or bravery to thwart evil and let good triumph yet again. Kiddie stuff. So what happens when the comic book is about a father, and his drive to protect and provide for his family? How he grows his relationship with his wife, and how he cares for his children?
The fact that he is a superhero almost becomes trivial.
Now, we have a paradigm shift.
It’s no secret there are adult-themed comics. Blood, gore, violence, advanced social issues, etc… Believe me, I’ve read Watchmen as many times as any self-respecting comic fan should. But with Animal Man, it’s not adult-themed. Because it is still, at its core, a hero trying to save the day. But it is adult-relatable, and even more importantly, it is parent-relatable. As a child, we all wanted to be Superman. We wanted to save the day and be invincible. This related to our childish naivety that good always beats evil, and the lack of need in accepting our own mortality. Then as an adolescent, we might gravitate more toward Batman, because at this point in our lives we understand that bad things happen to good people and we want to rise from that.
Or if you are a young woman, you might relate to Wonder Woman, who has been a long standing symbol of feminine power in a male world. Or maybe you feel the weight of responsibility piling up on you as you grow into your teenage years and relate more to Spiderman.
Rarely, if ever, do we have a story in the comic book medium that relates to the responsible parent crowd. At least not one that is still considered a major title. Walking Dead comes to mind, with Rick and his son Carl, but that story is more a look at society as a whole. The parent dynamic is just a small part. Regardless, I assure you Animal Man is worth a look whether you are a parent or not. Just check any review of this new series by Jeff Lemire, and I promise you will find nothing but high praise. The main characters are fleshed out. The plot is suspenseful and original. And beyond all else, as cliché as it sounds, it can be enjoyed by children and parents alike.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, there are always going to be those people that stick to their hard-nosed and old fashioned ideals that only children are allowed to enjoy “childish” things. For them, I like to quote author C. S. Lewis, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”