Back in the late ‘80s, DC Comics was have a bit of a renaissance in regard to some of their smaller properties: the “British Invasion” was in full swing, with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman on Sandman, Peter Milligan on Shade the Changing Man, and Grant Morrison on Animal Man and Doom Patrol. They wouldn’t shift all of those over to the new Vertigo Comics until 1993, so back then, issues of Superman and Batman fully shared their universe with weird fringe comics like Doom Patrol’s “The Painting That Ate Paris.”
As I look back on them now, I realize that it was these stories that brought be back into comics, even though I read them a decade after they had been published. They were stories that were so surreal, they defied explanation...and yet, they were grounded as well. The characters all felt real. And none felt as real as the characters in Animal Man — Buddy Baker and his family, wife Eileen, son Cliff, and daughter Maxine. They seemed quite like my family (aside from the fact that my father wasn’t a superhero): they squabbled over petty things and worried about money and so forth.
So it’s no surprise that when I read Animal Man #20, “The Last Enemy” (written by Morrison, with art by Chaz Truog, inks by Doug Hazlewood, and colors by Tatjana Wood), I was completely and utterly wrecked. It’s the things you love that hurt you the most, I know, but I’ve prided myself on not crying during any tearjerking movie or special television show (the one exception being the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body,” which, much like this issue, takes a stark look at the aftermath of death and if you don’t cry while watching, you are a monster).
You see, Animal Man wasn’t a super weird book like Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Sure, there were super weird aspects, like Buddy Baker (the eponymous superhero who could gain the powers of any animal nearby) going on an acid trip and breaking the fourth wall by looking at the reader or the issue that was about Crafty the Coyote, a Wile E. Coyote-character who sacrificed himself to stop the endless violence of his home. But while these were weird, they were all grounded in the reality of Buddy Baker’s home life and his family.
So it was hard to read the ending of issue #19 where Buddy finds them all dead.
It’s a brutally shocking image that sticks in your mind, especially if you are reading the trade paperback and eagerly turning the pages and wondering what’s going to happen now. What happened?
A stark confrontation with death and depression. It starts with Buddy’s neighbors trying to help him cope. Not his fellow heroes of Justice League Europe (which Buddy was a member at the time), but his regular neighbors, who have jobs and lives outside of the comic.
The issue turns to the assassin (named only “Lennox”) who killed is family as a warning and then to the Psycho-Pirate, who is in Arkham spouting about everyone “coming back” (foreshadowing a future storyline). And then we return to Buddy trying to cope and his neighbors trying to help.
Even the other superheroes try to help.
One of the brilliant moves of this issue is that each page where someone tries talking to Buddy starts with stark blackness and then gradually shifts into an image, like Buddy is waking up and then going back to sleep again. Like he is only awake for short periods, as if he can only withstand the horrors of life by returning to the darkness.
But it still gets too much for him.
Before he can kill himself, however, he gets a call that tells him they know who killed his family.
You might think you know what’s going to happen: that Buddy will get revenge for his family. And yes, that does happen, but that’s not where the comic ends. Because revenge doesn’t bring back those who died.
This issue is part of the Animal Man volume Deus Ex Machina, which collects the ending to Morrison’s run and I completely and utterly recommend reading it all. Just be prepared for some crying, alright?