by Philip-Todd Franklin and Doc Quantum
“So, what became of old man Wilkerson and his son, not to mention those two kids, Dad?” Maxine Baker asked her father.
Maxine had been peppering Buddy Baker with several questions ever since she and her father had left Rip Hunter’s California headquarters shortly before. But Buddy had already been consumed with worry over the fate of his best friend, Roger Denning. Roger’s divorce from Tricia years earlier had triggered a series of tragic events that had ultimately led him to play with fire, as the Phantom Stranger had put it, and pay the price for doing so. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Brave and the Bold: Animal Man and Rip Hunter: Didn’t I See You Die?]
Buddy did have more than a few questions for his thirteen-year-old daughter, though, beginning with why she was dressed in a black and orange costume resembling his own, and how many people had seen her use her powers. Having decided to see just how much control Maxine really had over her powers, Buddy and his daughter had flown toward home using the abilities of a passing eagle instead of taking a taxicab.
“Well, pumpkin, your mom and I went to visit Mr. Wilkerson at least half a dozen times that week we stayed in Pigeon Forge,” replied Buddy, “and I’m happy to say that he made a good recovery. As a matter of fact, hon, that little diamond ring and the gold necklace that you and your brother Cliff got about five Christmases ago came from Mr. Wilkerson and his son. I think Chief Wilkerson has retired by now, too. But those two young men both ended up going to prison and aren’t due to be paroled for some time.” As he spoke, he thought about all the great people they had met during that trip, and how they hadn’t kept in touch with them as much as they should have.
Buddy also thought about what had happened in the years since. In 1974, when Cliff was four years old, Buddy and Ellen Baker welcomed little Maxine into the world, and their little family felt complete. Despite all their worries that she might be just as difficult a child as Cliff was, their little girl was the kind of well-behaved, good-natured child that every parent dreamed of having.
As for Buddy’s second career, he did finally overcome his nerves to become Animal Man again, but it took a tragedy to do so. In 1983, his best friend Roger Denning had been feuding with a Hollywood director named Haskell over the director’s butchering of Roger’s scripts. Because Roger had angrily threatened Haskell a moment before the director was killed in an explosion triggered when he started his car, the police assumed Roger was to blame and arrested him. But Buddy knew that his friend, though miserable after his divorce, was no killer, and Buddy vowed to prove Roger’s innocence.
Donning his Animal Man costume for the first time in over a decade, Buddy spent the next several weeks investigating the murder, putting his career as a freelance stuntman temporarily on hold. It took a while, since Animal Man was no trained detective, but he finally learned about a sinister criminal organization called the Cartel and its assassins for hire. With this information he discovered that one of the Cartel assassins had been hired by Haskell’s current producer, a man named Stymie Sloan.
Confronting Sloan at his office, Animal Man threatened him into revealing where he could find the Cartel. And that, in turn, led to a team-up with none other than Wonder Woman herself that took them all the way from a fake African veldt in California to Marseilles, France. Soon Animal Man found himself taking on trained assassins at the side of the amazing Amazon, and wondering why he had ever given up the life of a super-hero. After the two shut down the Cartel, Animal Man was able to clear Roger from the Haskell murder, and he decided to keep on wearing the costume whenever he was needed.
Circumstances later led to Animal Man joining up a year later in 1984 with several other old adventurers as the Forgotten Heroes, teaming up with Superman to stop the plans of Vandal Savage. (*) The Forgotten Heroes were a rather informal group that didn’t hold regular meetings, and whose adventures were sporadic. Their next big case took place in 1985, just before the Crisis on Infinite Earths, when they fought a group of old villains nicknamed the Forgotten Villains. After that case Buddy even managed to get back home in time to leave Maxine, then eleven years old, with a babysitter and catch a show at the theater. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Another Time, Another Death,” Action Comics #552 (February, 1984), “The World at Time’s End,” Action Comics #553 (March, 1984), “Triad of Terror,” DC Comics Presents #77 (January, 1985) and “The Triad,” DC Comics Presents #78 (February, 1985).]
During the Crisis, Animal Man teamed up only once more with a few of his fellow Forgotten Heroes, along with Captain Comet, Adam Strange, and the Atomic Knight. They were instrumental in helping to defeat the Anti-Monitor, though no one else would ever know it except for two other big-time villains, Brainiac and Darkseid.
With the end of the Crisis, the Forgotten Heroes simply dissolved as each went their separate ways, and Buddy Baker found himself missing the kind of camaraderie he’d only had when a member of a super-team. Unfortunately, his eagerness to relive the experience made Animal Man easy pickings for Maxwell Lord IV when he was assembling his new super-hero team the Conglomerate by the end of that year.
At first the Conglomerate seemed to be on the up and up, and Animal Man found himself enjoying the kinds of hijinks that the Beetle and Guy Gardner got up to in their off-hours. Being a family man in his early forties, Buddy Baker tried his best to be the responsible one in the team, and for the most part he succeeded. But the death of the Beetle, Max’s underhandedness, and Guy’s incessant bad attitude began to sour Animal Man on the team. By the end of 1986, Buddy had said goodbye to the Conglomerate, with the promise to return if they ever really needed him. It wasn’t meant to be a hollow-sounding promise, but Buddy couldn’t picture another disaster like the Crisis happening again anytime soon.
Animal Man had been briefly tempted to join Captain Comet’s new Forgotten Heroes team, but decided against it, since he knew it wouldn’t be like his old team. Besides, Buddy rather liked being an independent super-hero once again, even if that meant inadvertently inspiring his super-powered thirteen-year-old daughter to follow in his footsteps with a costumed identity of her own. If Maxine is so determined to become an “Animal Girl,” maybe I should spend some time properly training her with her powers, Animal Man mused as he landed.
Approaching their suburban neighborhood, Buddy pointed over at a nest of woodpeckers in the small forest of trees behind their house. Maxine nodded with a smile to let him know that she’d also seen them, and they both began descending into the forest.
“Dad, why are there police at our house?” Maxine asked after they touched ground. Looking worried, she began to run toward the house, still wearing her makeshift costume.
Running after her and placing one hand on her shoulder, Buddy quickly stopped his teenage daughter before she could pick up much speed. “Whoa, young lady! We don’t need anyone seeing you dressed like that. My identity isn’t much of a secret anymore, but yours should stay that way.” Buddy slipped the mask off his daughter’s face and said, “You get into the house from the back door and change into some ordinary clothes, and I’ll go around the side of the house to talk to the police. I’m sure everything’s just fine.”
Nodding her head, Maxine waited for her father to leave the forest before she, too, headed toward the house.
Nonchalantly, Buddy walked out from behind his home some moments later and stepped right up to the group of police officers on his driveway. “How can I help you, officers?”
A lieutenant with short blond hair and gray eyes spoke up as Buddy approached. “Is your name Buddy Baker, sir?”
Nodding in response, Buddy said, “Yes, that’s me.”
With those words, the other four officers slowly begin to take up positions around him as the lieutenant continued to speak. “Then, sir, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take you down to the station.”
Looks of shock and fear crossed Buddy’s face as he heard those words, and he worried that something very bad may have happened to his wife or son. “W-why…?” he replied with a stutter. “Why? What’s happened now?”
“All I know, sir, is that you’re needed for questioning,” the lieutenant said, and the two other officers each took hold of an arm. In one quick motion, Buddy’s arms were cuffed behind him, and he was slowly led to one of the waiting police cars. It was an all-too familiar feeling after so recently recalling the events in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in October of 1972.
“Questioning for what?” Buddy asked as his hands chafed against the cuffs.
At that moment, Maxine ran out the front door as she saw her father being led toward a police car. “Daddy, what’s happening?” she nearly screamed, but remained on the front porch of the house. She had already changed into jeans and a sweater.
Before Buddy could reply, one of the other officers spoke up. He had dark black hair and blue eyes, with deeply tanned skin. “There’s been a murder, and we need to know what your father knows about it.”
Maxine’s mouth dropped open, and a single tear slowly trickled down her face as she silently watched her father being placed in a police car. A moment later, the police car pulled out of the driveway and drove off, followed by the other squad car as they made their way out of the neighborhood.
Having watched them go, Maxine ran back into the house, leaving the front door wide open, and grabbed a phone, quickly calling her mom. “Mom, there’s a major problem! Can you come home now?”
“Not at the moment, hon,” Ellen said, trying to sound calm but sounding exasperated. “I’m stuck in a meeting, but I’ll be right there shortly. I promise to call back and leave right after it.”
“OK, Mom,” was all Maxine could think of saying before hanging up the phone.
To Be Continued