Animal Man #17 is entitled “Consequences” and ultimately marks the beginning of the end for Buddy Baker.
It starts off well enough, with Buddy taking a more active role in fighting against animal testing, to the point of breaking the law. He finds himself on a slippery slope and goes on TV to defend himself. But since he’s already unraveling, it doesn’t go well.
The A plot is fairly simple, although a good indication of how torn Buddy is between doing what’s right and what’s legal; he’s questioning why he has these powers if he doesn’t take a stand for what he believes is right. To a certain extent, we can see that Buddy is already on the edge. He’s looking for answers.
The B plot involves James Highwater’s journey to Buddy’s house. On the way there, his arm turns into a sketch of an arm, what would be the preliminary drawing done by an artist. It reverts back, but the change would happen again when Hightower finally makes it to Buddy’s house. The issue ends with Highwater on the floor of Buddy’s living room, the lower half of his body now reduced to a sketch.
While issue #17 ends with a man being physically reduced, #18 opens with a man being emotionally, mentally, even spiritually destroyed. The issue opens through Buddy’s eyes. He sees his friends Tricia and Roger trying to comfort him. Tricia has clearly been crying. They fade away as Buddy’s vision goes black again, although he still sees a shape: what appears to be a tower, but with both ends looking like the top. We finally pull away to a full page where we see white words on a black screen – text on a computer monitor. We see the title of this issue, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” with that shape directly after it; it’s a cursor.
We flashback to two days earlier and the narration box, which had previous belonged to Buddy’s inner dialogue, is now a description of the scene, as if pulled from a script. Buddy’s daughter Maxine, who has always been hyper aware, tells her mother that she doesn’t like Hightower. She tells her brother that if their dad leaves with Hightower, they’re never going to see him again.
Hightower tells Buddy he thought he’d be older, a nod to the fact that, in Buddy’s original origin, he was. He explains how he came to look for Buddy, pulling out the comic book pages he got at Arkham Asylum. But the pages have changed; now they’re a map of Arizona, “on the border between Hopi and Navajo country.” There’s a mesa circled on the map.
What’s interesting about this is that, as Highwater himself points out, he’s been following a trail of notes, but there’s no indication of who has left them. They exist because Morrison put them in the script and Truog drew them, but there’s no internal logic to these clues, no point of origin, which is the point. For as organic as storytelling can seem, it’s ultimately still a creation that is molded by its creator and dependent upon his or her whims. Morrison and Truog are under no obligations to explain these notes; they’re an act of god.
Highwater and Animal Man finally connecting is what this entire series has been building towards.
Buddy leaves his family and it’s all very ominous. He and Highwater go to the mesa on the map and, since this is a Grant Morrison comic, they do drugs. I’ll be honest, I’ve never done peyote. I’ll be honest again, I’ve always wanted to. At 40 and married with a kid, I don’t see that happening, so I’ll have to live through Animal Man and Highwater.
There’s the usual Morrison tripiness, although this is before there was a “usual” Morrison anything, but ultimately Buddy gets insight into how his powers work, how he’s part of a system, and the fact that the system was recently drastically altered. Animal Man knows that Crisis happened. He sees it in cave paintings. He also knows a second crisis is coming.
And then some Native American visions tell him to live a balanced life and mention the atomic bomb and that purification is coming and we have clearly moved into Morrison’s head here. If you’ve read anything about Morrison’s life, you know that the atomic bomb was a looming specter over his childhood. His parents were activists trying to fight nuclear proliferation. As a child, the scariest thing in the world to Morrison was the atomic bomb. He seemingly equates it to a second crisis, connecting it to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths.
It’s no coincidence, then, that when the talking fox that’s leading them on this trip tells them it’s time to learn the truth about why the skies above are red.
Meanwhile, the assassin named Lennox arrives at the Baker residence…
And he murders Ellen, Cliff, and Maxine.
The first time I read this, I was in my 20s, I think just out of a long term relationship, but certainly not married and I had no kids. It was intense even then. Re-reading it now, with a family of my own, it’s devastating.
You would be right in thinking that this is where Animal Man “goes dark,” so to speak, ala most superheroes in the post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight era. But not just yet. His family has been murdered, but Buddy has no idea. He’s still on the mesa with Highwater and things are getting weird…er.
Ultimately, Buddy steps outside of his reality. He sees what would be the current version of his “Who’s Who in the DCU” entry. He then meets the original version of himself, the one whose origin has been changed for this new version. He then looks through the comic and right at us, telling us that he sees us. Animal Man has finally managed to see beyond the page.
But the spirit fox informs Buddy that this new information, this truth, comes with a price. Buddy yells Ellen’s name, but still has no idea what’s happened.
When the drugs finally wear off, we get what is perhaps the most crucial moment in this entire series, at least as far as Morrison’s body of DC work is concerned. As Buddy and Highwater are discussing what has just happened to them and how they’ve changed, Highwater says this:
“I saw the first steps on the path to a new theory of unification.”
In other words, everything that happened still happened. The entire history of the DCU still exists and always will. This is Morrison’s multiversity being born.
Animal Man #20 and #21 are what you would expect them to be. Buddy goes off the rails, cuts his hair, gets a new costume, teams up with Mirror Master, and systematically hunts down and kills the men responsible for the death of his family. There are three businessmen at the top of the organization, men who have a problem with Animal Man’s environmental stance. And then there’s Lennox, who Animal Man kills in what we’re led to believe is a horrible, detailed manner. Mirror Master is our newest stand in for Morrison, although he’s at least given a motive here: he never got paid. MM is after money, Animal Man is after revenge. They both get what they want.
The issue ends with Buddy saying he’ll find a time machine.
Oh, and perhaps more importantly, the Psycho Pirate starts ranting about how “they’re coming, they’re all coming back!”
Buddy first visits the Time Commander for the secrets of time travel, but the Commander is no longer in the time travel business. He then goes to Rip Hunter and explains that the Time Commander and the Lord of Time have formed an alliance against the Justice League, which is why he (and the League) need a time machine. Hunter gives him one. This is a bit problematic in that Rip Hunter’s main focus is time travel, so you’d think a team-up of two time based villains would be something he’d be on top of, or at least something he’d want to be involved with, yet he just hands Buddy a time machine. But at this point, the story is moving along briskly, so you just go with it.
Meanwhile, the Psycho Pirate’s head unleashes some crazy energy, which in turn leaves him with a comic book in his padded cell. It is, of course, “The Flash of Two Worlds.”
If you’ve been paying attention, you know how Buddy’s time travels turn out. He is the mysterious man from Animal Man #14 and he fails to warn either himself or his family about what’s to come. He jumps further back in time where he sees his younger self learning to ride a bike. He’s unable to communicate to either that version of himself or his father. He collapses in the street as he watches them walk away.
Buddy sits down on a bench as time goes by. He sits there for two days until someone stops by with an offer to help him.
It’s the Phantom Stranger.
Back in our time, Highwater is visited by the aliens who gave Buddy his powers. And back at Arkham Asylum, the energies in the Psycho Pirates head finally coming bursting out…