REVIEW: Animal Man #2

Last month, Animal Man #1 was one of the surprise hits of the New 52.  Amidst some other high-profile titles released on the same week, I had somewhat overlooked it going in, only for it to emerge as one of my favorites.  And many others agreed, with Animal Man #1 becoming one of the biggest critical darlings of DC’s September relaunch, and in turn becoming a sell-out smash hit.  Now, Animal Man #2 isn’t taking anyone by surprise.  It arrives with the weight of expectation following the stellar debut issue.  A lot of people are expecting the second issue to deliver on the promise of the first.  Thankfully, Animal Man #2 not only lives up to the first issue, it surpasses it!

Writer Jeff Lemire carefully crafted the narrative of Animal Man #1 to make it an exercise in steady transition.  We began with conventional superheroics, but as the issue unfolded, things for progressively stranger, and by the climax Lemire was dipping his toes into the murky waters of Lynchian dream horror.  This issue, however, we dive headlong into this realm of dark psychadelia, and the comic is all the better for it.  There are bleeding meat trees, hippos giving birth to massive, cancerous growths (as someone who’s been to see the hippos at San Diego Zoo, this particular beat was all the more creepy for me), and people’s hands being transformed into chicken feet.  This is a weird comic, brimming with ghoulish invention.

But amidst all this weirdness, Lemire gives us an anchor that keeps the story relatable, and more about heart and emotion than just big ideas.  That anchor comes in the form of the characterisation of Buddy Baker and his family.  As was the case last issue, the family dynamic is the best thing about the comic, but while last time we got to see a regular family meeting around the kitchen table, here we see the Bakers in crisis mode.  Faced with the shocking revelation of Maxine’s newfound powers, how each character reacts helps to further establish their distinct personalities.

Buddy remains a relatable, highly likeable protagonist, and here we see him much more as a family man than as a superhero.  His actions here are driven by a need to protect his family.  We see these protective instincts manifest themselves in his response to an obnoxious neighbour laying his hands on Cliff, and it’s what pushes him to instantly roll with the crazy things happening to him and fly off with Maxine to find the central hub of The Red.  He doesn’t understand the scope of the threat against the world, or even the full extent of his connection to what he calls “the life web”: all that matters to him is ensuring his loved ones are safe.  Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was one of the great Everyman heroes, and Jeff Lemire has really captured that aspect of the character.

His wife Ellen, however, is just as heroic in her own  way.  She doesn’t like it when Buddy’s other life interrupts his home life, and she has long feared that Maxine would be drawn into her father’s world.  “I didn’t sign up for this… craziness when I married you,” she says at one point in the issue.  But while the easy, stereotypical bit of manufactured conflict to enact in this situation is to have the wife threaten to leave the hero (“It’s me or the job!”), Lemire thankfully doesn’t go that route.  As angry as she is, she still supports her husband, because she knows he’s right.  And she doesn’t show her fears to her children: with the way she packs a backpack for Maxine and wraps her up warmly, saying, “Bye, sweetie… be careful!” as she flies off with her dad, you’d think she was sending her daughter off on a school trip rather than a potentially life-threatening mission.  With the controversy DC has attracted for some of its depictions of women with some of its #1s, Ellen Baker is a good example of a well-developed, nuanced female character who keeps her clothes on.

Ostensibly, son Cliff is the comic relief.  When confronted with the nightmarish happenings that open the issue, his first response is to run and grab his phone to film it, while shouting, “This is so badass!”  But more subtly, Lemire gives us hints that there may be more serious development waiting for Cliff down the line.  While Buddy and Maxine go off to find The Red, Cliff is forced to stay behind with Ellen, with Maxine reminding him that this is because he doesn’t have any powers like her and their dad.  This could be the beginnings of a rift between father and son, so this should be one plot strand it will be interesting to see develop.

Possibly stealing the show this time round is Maxine, Buddy’s young daughter.  After the shock revelation that ended last issue, we see more of the disturbing powers she is manifesting, and get the sense that she could be more powerful – and dangerous – than her father.  The best thing about the fondness she shows for her new collection of “pets” or the matter-of-fact way she explains the terrifying knowledge that seems to have popped into her brain (note how seamlessly she seems to have turned into the Maxine from Buddy’s dream last issue) is her childish innocence.  It makes the dark nature of what she knows and what she can do all the more jarring.

While praise for Jeff Lemire’s writing on Animal Man #1 has been pretty much universal, the reception to Travel Foreman’s stylised art has been a lot more mixed.  I said in my review for the first issue that the style wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and sure enough, a lot of people have said it’s too rough and odd-looking, that they’d like the book more if someone else was drawing.  I utterly disagree.  I was very much in the pro-Foreman camp with the first issue, and in the second issue Foreman makes such an impression that I already don’t see how anyone else could draw the title.  I mean, just look at the cover,  that beautiful, horrific cover.  Insane images like that are what make Foreman a perfect fit for this gig.

As I said before, the fact that the characters look so unusual and the setting are quite sparse works in the comic’s favor.  This doesn’t look like any of the straightforward superhero titles in DC’s lineup.  This has its own distinct visual branding, Foreman’s style marking it out as its own entity.  His light linework give even the “normal” scenes at the Baker household a haunting, ethereal quality, and when we delve into The Red, Foreman really gets to cut loose.  In a one-page montage depicting Buddy and Maxine’s journey to find the old tree, Foreman’s layout takes a turn for the abstract, as he depicts the pair walking through a metaphorical network of red veins like the “map” tattooed on Animal Man’s chest.  And the presentation of villains the Hunters Three at the end is wonderfully disturbing, with Foreman very quickly portraying people who look like Something That Shouldn’t Be There is lurking underneath their skin.

But the standout image of  the whole comic comes when Buddy and Maxine enter The Red.  In a lavish, trippy double-page spread, we see the pair spiralling around, Buddy’s body gruesomely warping, as the pair find themselves in a bizarre world with rivers of blood and sculpture-like mountains of bones and animal flesh.  The image is a stunner, and one I find myself still going back to just to stare at.

For the second month running, Swamp Thing and Animal Man stand head and shoulders above a strong offering of new DC titles on the week of their release.  In fact, when I got to my local comic shop on Wednesday afternoon, I picked up one of the last two remaining copies of Animal Man on the shelf, and had to get the display copy of Swamp Thing: if anything proves to me that DC’s relaunch has thus far been a success, it’s that quality titles such as Swamp Thing and Animal Man that are selling out.  If I got nothing else from the New 52, these two sister titles would have made the whole relaunch worthwhile.  In terms of Animal Man #2 in particular, the pacing of this comic is relentless, with narrative and visuals coming together to create an utterly immersive experience for the reader.  Both Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman are on top form, and Animal Man has already established itself as one of the very best titles available on the shelf from any publisher.

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