Animal Man was an early US success for Grant Morrison, who transformed an obscure superhero embodying the combination of innocence, scientific trickery and lack of logic characterising the anodyne DC heroes of the 1950s and 1960s. Film stuntman Buddy Baker acquired the ability to tap into the traits of animals in his vicinity because he was near an alien spaceship when it exploded.

To be fair, it’s just as well this collection moves beyond the four chapters of what was originally intended as a standalone miniseries, which haven’t aged well. There’s a spark as Morrison details Animal Man’s family life, but it’s overwritten and there’s too great a clash between a suburban reality and attempts to reconfigure the even more ridiculous B’wana Beast alongside Animal Man. Nice ending, though.

Nothing is very well served by Chas Truog’s art, another aspect that hasn’t aged well. People are recognisable as such, if surprisingly flat or bendy at times, and there are no problems following the story, which will become an under-appreciated aspect as the series continues. However, the art is basic, drawn with little flair or imagination, and page after page just sucks the energy from the stories. Tom Grummett, then just starting out draws the final chapter, which slightly raises the artistic quality.

So, with the art below par and Morrison’s opening shot unsatisfying, why is this work recommendable? The first evidence is ‘The Coyote Gospel’ in which Morrison presents the violence of Coyote’s encounters with Road Runner in the Warner Brothers cartoons as if real world suffering. Animal Man is basically a passive observer of continuing horror as Morrison surprises again and again, eventually introducing the defining theme of his time on Animal Man. Just what constitutes reality? It’s exhilarating, horrific, sad and still a tremendous read, while Truog copes with the needed switch of styles.

Beyond the opening four-parter Morrison constructs most of the series to present a complete story in every issue with connecting threads. There’s no subtlety about Animal Man’s espousing animal rights, Morrison’s own views remorselessly hammered home even if you’re broadly sympathetic, but the plots are imaginative. Morrison supplies performance art as perceived by the warlike Thanagarians, the tragicomic death throes of a third rate villain riffing on a famous Will Eisner story, a foul-mouthed Glaswegian as the new Mirror Master, and the benefits of joining the Justice League. Animal Man himself lacks the usual superheroic certainty and stumbles to victory, and the domestic scenes of how his being a superhero and not maintaining a secret identity impacts on his family are well conceived, and still uncommon. Wonky powers in the final chapter are explained in passing, but occur during a crossover titled Invasion!

After that shaky opening these are creative and surprising stories that hold their entertainment value. If only the art were better. Animal Man becomes even stranger in Origin of the Species, or there’s the Animal Man Omnibus gathering Morrison’s entire run. More recently these stories have been reprinted in hardcover as the first volume of the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, and then in paperback as in Book One of Animal Man by Grant Morrison.