REVIEW: Lost Dogs

As anyone familiar with my ramblings will probably know, I am a huge fan of Jeff Lemire.  I first became aware of the Canadian cartoonist with the launch of his Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, which continues to be one of the best titles on the shelves each month.  Animal Man is one of the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.  Underwater Welder is perhaps my most anticipated upcoming book of this year.  And Essex County, Lemire’s masterpiece, stands as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So I was very excited to hear the news that Top Shelf would also be re-releasing Lost Dogs, Jeff Lemire’s earliest published work, originally circulated through a small press run and then discontinued, never to be seen again for years.  I had heard of this graphic novel, but never thought I’d have the chance to read it.  But here it is, repackaged with a snazzy new cover and relettered by Chris Ross, all for a bargain price.  If, like me, you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, this is surely an essential purchase.

Reading Lost Dogs, I was put in mind of Following, Christopher Nolan’s first film.  Not because the narrative is remotely similar, but both are an example of a beginner’s effort, rough around the edges and nowhere near as polished and refined as their creator’s later work, but with flashes of the brilliance and that unique authorial vision that would flourish in later projects with the benefit of greater experience.  Arguably the most fascinating part of the whole book is Lemire’s foreword, which eloquently explains how Lost Dogs stands as a document of Lemire’s life at that particular moment in time.

As far as the graphic novel itself goes, it’s very raw.  The art, while still recognisable as Lemire’s style, is not so refined.  It appears as if Lemire eschewed pencils altogether in favour of thick inks, and the result is a muddy, messy aesthetic.  But that perhaps works out nicely, as this is a muddy, messy story.  It does play out a bit like a fable, and the abstract style gives everything a dreamlike quality, albeit a terrifying fever dream.

But the visuals here are very much a crude work-in-progress, and Lemire does stumble in places while trying to find his artistic voice.  For example, there are some points where the 12-16 panel grids often employed in the story work very well, such as when our nameless protagonist’s memories torment him in a bombardment of snapshots of happier times, interlaced with a bleaker present.  But there are other moments – such as during a fight scene – where they just leave the page feeling cramped and unclear.  But even amidst these early growing pains, there are some splash pages where Lemire crafts images of haunting, ethereal beauty, the kind of moments Lemire’s art now has a reputation for capturing masterfully.

The story, what there is, revolves around a hulking giant of a man whose life is racked with tragedy, who finds himself forced to reinvent himself as a bare-kuckle boxer to help a desperate old man.  It’s a simple story and a quick read, but it’s packed with raw emotion.  Though he says very little, with most of his dialogue saved for the end of the story, the gentle giant at the heart of the story could be one of Lemire’s finest creations, challenging our expectations of what a character like him is going to be, and giving the narrative heart.  This is a bleak, tragic tale, and not in the bittersweet sense of Essex County.  It takes some doing to make one of the most beautifully melancholy comics ever feel upbeat by comparison, but the unrelenting nastiness and misery depicted here just about does it.  It’s not an easy read, but get to the end and you’ll find that the story will stick with you long after you’ve closed the book.

I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire.  But I’ve also become a big fan of creator-owned comics, and discovering some of the emerging talent of tomorrow.  It was a fascinating experience getting to go back and read Lost Dogs, and see one of the best in the industry right now at a stage when he was still learning his craft.  It made me think that right now, the likes of Mark Bertolini, Paul Allor, Magnus Aspli, Gordon McLean, Iain Laurie, Fabian Rangel Jr et al are creating their Lost Dogs, finding their voice, and in the not so distant future we could see them break out.  There’s something exciting about seeing a creator’s first steps to greatness.  And so I’m very grateful that I finally got the opporunity to read Lost Dogs.

Lost Dogs is available now in all good comic book shops.

My Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s been another great year for comics, and if there’s been a dominant theme of the year, it would be change.  Most notably, we had the big change of DC relaunching its universe in September.  In terms of my comic reading, there are some changes as well.  Marvel has been all but entirely cut from my pull list, while the aforementioned relaunch has seen me now juggling more DC titles monthly than ever.  A lot of titles that featured in my top ten last year, such as American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Morning Glories and even The Walking Dead, failed to make the cut this year, though with the exception of Morning Glories, I still read and enjoy all of them.  Other honourable mentions include high-octane Western The Sixth Gun, stylish fantasy romp Demon Knights, and The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which might very well have made the top ten if more issues had been released this year.   And that’s not to mention the comics of this year that I’m still meaning on getting round to: I finally read Daytipper this April, and if I’d read it in 2010 it would have had a good chance at topping the list.  But enough about what’s not on the list, scroll down and take a look at what did make the cut!

10. AXE COP: BAD GUY EARTH

In terms of boundless creativity, there was no comic this year to match Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider it was written by a 6 year old.  Many comics have tried to match that sense of spontaneous, zany joy so effortlessly created by Malachai Nicolle and his artist brother Ethan, but none quite managed to pull it off.  Axe-wielding, psychotic cops, flying, fire-breathing dinosaurs, using the power of prayer to make everyone in the world simultaneously poop their pants, the ideas and high concepts are fired out at a dizzying rate.  It’s also absolutely hilarious, with a new laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page.  This might not pack the depth and nuance of the other entries on this list, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any other comic that has as much pure fun.

9. SECRET SIX

Overall, DC’s New 52 initiative this year has most definitely been a huge success.  Sales are through the roof, and I’m buying more quality DC comics each month than I have in a long time.  But there have been bad points about it too, and there is perhaps no greater casualty of this relaunch than the loss of Secret Six: not just in terms of the title being cancelled, but in terms of the events contained within it apparently being erased from continuity to make room for the unfortunate Suicide Squad relaunch.  I had said repeatedly that Gail Simone’s offbeat supervillain team book was perhaps the most consistently great title on DC’s publishing schedule.  But while the plots were solid, more than anything it was the characterisation of this oddball roster of psychos and outcasts that made this series soar, with them becoming less like a team than a family.  In this final year of this 36-issue run (not including the two mini-series’ that came before), the knowledge of the impending end gave Secret Six added poignancy, and the emotional weight of saying goodbye to old friends.  And it is goodbye.  I’m sure these characters will all show up elsewhere in the DCU (many already have), but they won’t be like they were here.

8. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY

 

How embarrassing for Marvel that, with all the hype that went into The Mighty Thor – the relaunched series from the powerhouse pairing of Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel that began just in time to tie in with this year’s Thor movie – it ended up getting totally upstaged in the quality department by Journey into Mystery.  Sure, Journey into Mystery might not have the sales to match, but discerning readers quickly figured out where to get their best monthly dose of Asgard.  Indeed, this series from writer Kieron Gillen and a variety of artists (most prolifically Doug Braithwaite) could very well be the best comic in the Marvel Universe.  The surprising thing about this series as it has developed is that it’s truly an ensemble piece, with characters quietly building up complex, interconnected histories.  But the star of the show is undoubtedly Loki, here reborn as a child.  He still has the witty, manipulative nature of his older self, but has not yet been corrupted by a lifetime of disdain, so to a degree his innocence is intact.  It’s a compelling look at nature VS nurture, and makes Loki one of the most intriguing protagonists in comics right now.  Journey into Mystery spent much of 2011 making lemons out of lemonade with a Fear Itself tie-in that was better than the actual event.  In 2012, Kieron Gillen gets to tell his own story, and I’m fascinated to see where that story goes.

7. SEVERED

It was a good year for horror, with Severed being the first of several entries in the genre to make it into my top ten.  This Depression-era period piece by co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and artist Atilla Futaki stands distinct from much of the rest of the horror output of the comics world by actually being scary.  While too many creators mistake making a reader recoil from the page in disgust and say, “Eeeew,” for frightening them, Snyder and Tuft know how to turn the screws and leave us as readers with a knotted feeling of dread in our stomach, waiting for something terrible to happen.  The whole bear-trap sequence in issue #3 in particular was a masterclass in simmering dread.  The pace is slow, and over 5 issues Severed has taken its time on having the paths of our youthful hero Jack and the monstrous, cannibalistic child-killer known only as The Salesman cross and intertwine.  But this has worked wonders, as the meandering plot has allowed us time to grow truly attached to the characters, making the horrific things that happen to them genuinely upsetting.  There are 2 issues left, and though I know it’s unlikely to end well for poor Jack, I can’t look away.

6.  ECHOES

 

While we’re on the subject of horror, this miniseries by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal operated with a deep understanding of what makes the genre work so well.  Like some of the best horror movies – The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind – Echoes retains for as long as possible a sense of ambiguity over whether our protagonist is plagued by external horrors or simply their own hysteria.  I won’t spoil whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I will say that the nightmare loving husband and diagnosed schizophrenic Brian Cohn finds himself in is utterly compelling, not least because Cohn himself is so well developed by Fialkov that we grow to care about him and, in spite of the genre, invest in his well-being.  But a big part of Echoes’ success is the artwork of Ekedal, perfectly measured to maximise tension and make the horror feel tangible and real.  I can see this being a very successful, very scary movie in the future, but this is more than just source material ripe for the picking: Echoes is a quintessential horror comic, as its creators skilfully use the tools of the medium to draw its frights.

5.  CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT

Before I read this latest volume of the acclaimed crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the only exposure I’d had to Criminal was through the first volume, Coward.  I read that, and thought it was a good heist story, cleverly plotted and slickly drawn, but never felt desperate to try other volumes.  Perhaps because I read it around the same time I picked up the first volume of Scalped, which got a lot more of my attention.  But I don’t know what it was – perhaps my interest in the upcoming Fatale by Brubaker/Phillips, or perhaps the eye-catching cover of the graphic novel that drew me in when I was browsing for a graphic novel to try – but I decided to give The Last of the Innocent a go, picking it up as a last-minute Christmas present to myself.  I’m glad I did.  The Last of the Innocent is much better than Coward (which was good in its own right), not just in terms of the depth of the storytelling, but in the ambition of the visuals.  The two combine to give us a powerful tale of the cruelty of nostalgia, and the hell a man can create for himself while in search of something better.  At last, I’ve bought into the Criminal hype.

4. ANIMAL MAN

When reading about the various titles in DC’s New 52 relaunch, I expected Animal Man to be good.  I liked the work Grant Morrison did with the character, and reading books like Sweet Tooth and Essex County had already ensured that seeing the name Jeff Lemire on anything was like a watermark of quality.  But still, I was taken aback by just how good Animal Man was, standing out as one of the very best titles of the relaunch.  Perhaps it’s because, while Jeff Lemire’s storytelling is just as great as I’ve come to expect, with the family dynamic of everyman hero Buddy Baker and his wife and children acting as the heart of the book, the art of Travel Foreman took me completely by surprise.  It’s not been to everyone’s tastes, but I love it, his ethereal style adding an undertone of weirdness to even the more conventional scenes, but truly coming to life with the sequences of Lovecraftian monster horror.  When combined, the end result is one of the most distinctive titles of the Big Two.  I may have been taken by surprise after the first issue, but now Animal Man is a title I thoroughly expect to blow me away each month.  It hasn’t let me down yet.

3.  SWAMP THING

The other crown jewel of DC’s New 52, this one from the powerhouse pairing of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette.  While Animal Man was an unexpected pleasure, I had high hopes for Swamp Thing from the moment it was announced.  I hold the classic Alan Moore run in very high regard, ranking it as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So it is no small praise to say that Snyder not only lives up to the legacy of that landmark run, but expands on and enriches the mythology it established, finding new wrinkles and dark avenues that fit in so organically to the tapestry that it’s almost as if Alan Moore put them there.  But it’s not just Moore Snyder pays homage to, revisiting in new ways some of the original themes explored by Len Wein in the first ever Swamp Thing stories, restoring Alec Holland to the mix and examining who he is and what drives him when you take the big green plant monster out of the mix.  Paquette, meanwhile, continues the grand tradition of visual innovation explored by artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Stephen Bissette, giving us rich montages that, in spite of the gruesome subject matter they are often depicting, must still be referred to as “beautiful.”  Along with Animal Man, Swamp Thing is crafting an immersive mythology that stands as one of the most interesting corners of the whole DCU.

2. DETECTIVE COMICS

2011 was a vintage year for Batman comics.  Though delays hurt its momentum slightly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has continued to impress, with a couple of great one-shot issues proving particularly memorable.  Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin has been one of my surprise highlights of the relaunch.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, meanwhile, could very well be my favourite of all the New 52, and if it keeps on going the way it is, I’d say it’s already a strong contender to rank highly in 2012’s year-end list.  But if I had to just pick one Batman comic to place in the list for 2011, it would have to be Snyder’s previous work on Detective Comics.  Bruce Wayne was completely absent, with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon instead taking centre stage in a dark, twisted powerfully drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  The idea that Gotham City itself is a kind of antagonist for our heroes is not a new one, but the execution of the idea was as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  The Black Mirror, the graphic novel collecting this 11-issue run, is already poised to enter the canon of all-time great Batman stories.

1. SCALPED

Yes, I know, I’m very dull and predictable.  It topped the list in 2010, and Scalped breezes to the top spot once again in 2011.  But the crime saga from Jason Aaron and (among others) R.M. Guera has earned its placing by being the most consistently excellent comic on the shelves, month after month.  The year got off to a powerful start with You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, a character-driven 5-part tale exploring how various members of our cast would respond when faced with life-altering decisions.  Some of those choices were surprising, others were crushingly inevitable, but all made for fascinating reading.  Then, Scalped got to celebrate a landmark 50th issue in memorable fashion, taking a break from the ongoing narrative to give us a standalone tale that nevertheless managed to concisely encapsulate the themes of the entire series.  And now we’re in the midst of Knuckle Up, where the agonising tension and the deaths of long-standing characters puts me in mind of The Gnawing, the gut-wrenching arc that helped seal Scalped’s spot at the top last year.  But perhaps the drama has even more potency this time round, tempered with the knowledge that the end is nigh, that after issue #60 the story of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation and its residents will be over.  Savour it while you can, comic fans: one of the all-time great overlooked classics of the comic medium is reaching is coming to a close.  We’ll see if its final chapter can top next year’s list and make it a hat trick.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #3

Anyone who follows my reviews/talks to me for more than five minutes will know that I absolutely love Swamp Thing, and that I’d mark it out as the single best title of DC’s relaunch.  Issues #1 and #2 were 10/10 comics, and the best new releases of their respective months.  After issue #1 set the stage and provided a startling debut that was laced with menace, issue #2 took things to another level with a dense narrative that added a whole new layer of complexity to the Swamp Thing mythos.  The standard has been set dizzyingly high, and with that my expectations.  Would Swamp Thing #3 continue the escalation, and would the series somehow manage to top itself again?

The way it works out, the narrative here is a little more subdued.  After the revelations came thick and fast in the previous chapter, here we don’t actually spend that much panel time with Alec Holland and Abigail Arcane, now reinvented as star-crossed lovers destined to be enemies.  I’ll admit, with the cover to this issue (and the thematically loaded image of Abby blasting Swamp Thing’s heart out of his chest) I was expecting an in-depth exploration of the pair’s storied history – in my opinion one of the all-time great romances of comics – with Scott Snyder once again skewing it and presenting it in a whole new light, in turn adding more depth and scope to another aspect of the mythos.  And we do get a bit of that here, but at this stage it’s mostly through allusion and foreshadowing of further revelations down the line.  I do like the tougher, battle-worn Abigail we get here, though.  If the Abby we knew in the earlier stories was Sarah Connor in The Terminator, this is her in her badass Terminator 2: Judgement Day phase.

Alec Holland himself has a couple of interesting beats, as he learns a couple of surprising things about himself.  But while I commended Swamp Thing #2 for keeping us so enthralled that we didn’t feel antsy about getting to Alec’s inevitable return to the role of Swamp Thing, three issues in I’m starting to feel that way now.  When the title character of your comic only appears on the front cover and in a one-panel flashback, the desire to get things moving starts to niggle at the back of your mind.

With the Abby/Alec relationship is placed on the backburner in this issue, what becomes the central focus of this chapter is the story of William, a boy with an extreme aversion to chlorophyll who must spend his life locked in a protective bubble.  Through him, we discover that just as Alec Holland has been chosen as the champion of The Green, The Black (also known as The Rot, or The Other) is also seeking a champion, someone with the same connection to the forces of death and decay that Holland has to life and growth.  The way William shifts from victim to terrifying threat is gruesome to behold, but also darkly compelling.

I love how Swamp Thing is currently complimenting Animal Man, where each title works as a story in its own, but if you’re reading both at once you get a tangible sense that this is the same war being fought on two fronts.  People seem to be tired of events and crossovers, but this is an example of crossover done well, when it legitimately feels like a story too big for a single book to contain.  It also helps that it’s the two best comics in DC’s lineup that are the sister titles.

A big part of the success of the first two issues was the incredible, boundary-pushing artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Such was his massive contribution to the unique atmosphere of Swamp Thing that I was initially concerned upon seeing a co-artist solicited for the issue.  I’ve seen enough examples of fill-in artists helping with pages leading to a comic that feels more like a patchwork than a coherent narrative to be wary.  Thankfully, this is not the case with Victor Ibanez.  The art style is so consistent throughout that, especially with Ibanez’s name being absent from the cover, I initially thought that Paquette had drawn the whole issue after all.  Ibanez works hard to draw in a style highly reminiscent of Paquette’s figure work, and the slick colors of Nathan Fairbairn do a great job in making the transition between artists feel largely seamless.

The one area where Ibanez doesn’t quite match Paquette is in his layouts.  Ibanez is a very talented artist, and if he’d been drawing Swamp Thing since issue #1, I’m sure it would still be getting praised as a very good-looking comic book.  But while Paquette certainly brings good-looking work to the table, what has really set his work on Swamp Thing so apart from the crowd is the innovation on display, the mind-blowing construction of panels into immersive, envelope-pushing montages that evoke the landmark work of Steve Bissette.  And as such, it’s the handful of pages Paquette does here that really stand out.  Just take a look at this image:

In the context of the narrative, the image is pretty abstract, its significance not yet clear.  But it’s haunting, and beautiful, and so jarring in its stillness – amidst a comic that up until this point has been dialogue-heavy and kinetic and flowing in its imagery – that it can’t help but make a powerful impression.

Paquette also excels in a double-page spread touching on the troubled history of Abigail and the Arcane family.  The central focal point recalls an image that will pack particular punch with those familiar with Moore’s run, and I got a kick seeing Paquette’s take on the infamous Anton Arcane.  The visual cameo of the Patchwork Man was also a real blast from the past.  Speaking of references to Swamp Thing history, did anyone spot that William’s doctor was called Dr. Durock, after Dick Durock, the actor who played Swamp Thing in the films and the short-lived TV series?

If Swamp Thing #3 might has lost a step from the first two issues, it’s only a step.  This is still superior comics storytelling, steadily setting the stage for an epic drama.  Once again, Swamp Thing and Animal Man are the best comics of their week, and stand proudly as the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.

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.

REVIEW: Animal Man #1

In his groundbreaking run on Animal Man, Grant Morrison famously ended his tenure on the book with a meeting between the writer and the title character.  20 years later, with Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man relaunch as part of DC’s New 52, we begin with one.  Donning what Morrison would call a “fiction suit”, Lemire enters the world of the story in the form of a correspondent for The Believer, a magazine conducting an interview with Buddy Baker that forms the opening page of Animal Man #1.  A first page that’s entirely prose is an unusual, eye-catching way to launch a comic series, one which might have backfired, but Lemire pulls it off well.  Through the interview, we get an organic info dump/catch-up session for those unfamiliar with the character, establishing his history as a part-time superhero, animal rights activist and family man, and now an actor.  So far, so good.  But it’s with the pages that follow that Animal Man #1 becomes great.

Jeff Lemire is best known and loved for Sweet Tooth and Essex County, comics that deal with issues of family and community.  As such, Animal Man feels like the perfect DC hero for him to tackle.  Some people were against the idea of a new Animal Man series, saying that it was Grant Morrison’s metatextual approach that made his run great and therefore made it a waste of time trying to say anything else with the character.  I disagree.  As fascinating a storyline as the breaking of the 4th wall made, what what really makes Animal Man great (and I believe this is the conclusion Morrison also came to) is his family.  DC might have been able to make Clark Kent and Barry Allen single in the new DCU, but never in a million years could they get away with doing that to Buddy Baker.  His family is a big part of who he is, and crucial to the character’s Everyman appeal.

Lemire’s handling of this family dynamic is a joy to read.  From the nagging from his kids to the semi-playful bickering with his wife, the Bakers feel like a convincing, relatable family, in all its warmth and mundanity.  Even the superheroics are grounded in the fact that Buddy has to dig out his costume from the laundry room, and before he leaves his wife Ellen warns him to take off his boots when he gets back so he doesn’t trail mud all through the house.

These aforementioned superheroics take up a relatively smal portion of the comic, but in this sequence we do get an effective showcase of Buddy’s animal powers: how they work, and how they can be pretty cool when put to use.  Having him bark like a dog to scare his attacker is a nice touch.  But of course, the truly compelling threat that emerges by the issue’s end is one that endangers not his Animal Man alter ego, but Buddy Baker himself and his family unit.  This shady menace – one which may be linked to the emerging monster of Snyder and Paquette’s Swamp Thing #1 – culminates in a truly macabre final page.  It’s a magnificently structured comic, grabbing your attention right away, then holding it and further immersing you until we reach a climax that left me gasping for the next instalment.  This is certainly the best comic Jeff Lemire has written that he didn’t also draw himself.

In Lemire’s stead, the art duties for Animal Man fall to Travel Foreman.  Now, I can tell that with his loose anatomy and sharp, angular style, Foreman’s art isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  Even I was unsure what to make of it based on the previews DC released.  But in the context of the comic as a whole, I think Foreman’s art worked beautifully.  It has an ethereal quality to it that makes it look unlike anything else in DC’s New 52.  Between this and Paquette’s stunning tableaus in Swamp Thing, it would appear the DCU Dark titles are going to have their own distinct visual style that sets them apart from their more mainstream counterparts.

Foreman’s art style is reminiscent of Garry McLaughlin, a Glasgow-based artist I’ve been fortunate enough to work with, and who I’m sure you’ll be hearing more of in the future.  It’s also reminiscent, in a less direct way, of Jeff Lemire himself.  While the actual style looks quite different to Lemire’s artwork, it shares with Lemire that appealing oddness that makes Foreman feel like an ideal collaborator for Lemire.  In his other DC projects, Lemire has certainly worked with good artists, but they’ve been good artists who work in a traditional superhero style, and so to a degree I feel Lemire’s distinct voice has been somewhat muted at times.  But with an artist like Foreman, who seems more in tune with Lemire’s style, this feels more like a quintissential “Jeff Lemire comic” than any of his other DCU output thus far.

As much as I enjoyed Foreman’s art throughout, the part where he really excels is in the horrifying nightmare sequence that occurs near the end of the comic.  Here, Foreman cuts loose with some psychadelic page layouts, and goes wild with his monster designs – I found the “reimagining” of Maxine’s soft toy Mr. Woofers to be particularly delightful.  Really, this is the standout sequence of the issue for the whole creative team.  Lemire gets to flex his horror muscles with an ordeal entrenched in dream logic – note how ojects and characters appear and disappear out of nowhere – and I got a wee shudder as an innocent child sweetly chirped, “It’s them.  Too late.  We’re all gonna die now.”  Co-inker Dan Green helps enhance the moody grayscale of the scene with swirling ink blot effects and varying textures of black and gray.  Colorist Lovern Kindzierski injects gruesome life into this colorless landscape with gruesome reds: the red of blood, but also invocative of The Red, the animal-based counterpart to The Green of Swamp Thing.  Even letterer Jared K. Fletcher gets to have some fun and experimentation, giving each of the Hunters Three – the new Big Bads lurking in the shadows, “the bad things that dress as men,” as Maxine puts it – their own distinct style of font and speech bubble, each of which compliments the design given to the respective Hunter by Travel Foreman.  More than anything else, this dream sequence shows us what this creative team is capable of.

Of all the New 52 comics I read this week, Animal Man #1 was perhaps the biggest surprise.  Sure, as soon as I heard Lemire was onboard back in June, I added it to my list of comics to buy, but after that I largely forgot about this comic.  Amidst my hype for other books, I might have taken this one for granted.  It ended up being the fourth comic I got round to reading yesterday, after Action Comics, Swamp Thing and Stormwatch.  But it topped Stormwatch.  It even topped Action Comics.  In fact, I’d rank Animal Man #1 as one of the best comics to come out of DC’s relaunch yet, second only to the astounding Swamp Thing #1.  It would seem that the Dark is the place to be in the new DCU.

The #New52Review Project

We are now less than a week away from DC Comics’ much hyped linewide relaunch.  This radical – and controversial in some circles – plan involves bringing the current ongoing publishing line of the DCU to a close, and launching with 52 new #1s, and in many cases altered or even rebooted continuity, in an effort to make the comics more accessible to newcomers and jaded fans alike.  Whether you’re in favor of this move or not, you can’t deny that it’s got people talking.  In spite of Marvel’s best efforts, DC has dominated the news sites since June, and the retailer order numbers are reportedly very high, with Justice League #1 apparently topping 200,000 buys.  But the big test will be next week and onwards.  You might be able to get people’s attention, but can you keep it?

I have had some reservations, but overall I’m very excited about the DC relaunch.  I’ve been trying to think what I can do to participate, beyond buying the books that take my fancy and recommending books to others.  One thing I can contribute is reviews of the comics I read, which gave me an idea.  Everyone who has a blog, or who writes reviews for a comic site, why not let DC know what you think?

I’m gonna set up a #New52Review hashtag on Twitter, which I’m going to use to link to my reviews of the new titles here.  But I don’t want to be the only one.  Anyone out there who has a blog, or who writes reviews for comic sites, write about the titles you buy.  DC have reached out to us, so we should try reaching out to them in return.  Let them know what books we like and why, or even what books we don’t like so much and how they can improve.  It could be a good way of showing  the creators our appreciation, as well as promoting the comics that are worth reading.

I don’t expect to be picking up this many titles come October, but for this first month  at least, I’ll be trying 18 #1s from the New 52:

  • Justice League #1
  • Action Comics #1
  • Batman #1
  • Batgirl #1
  • Batwoman #1
  • Catwoman #1
  • Wonder Woman #1
  • Green Lantern #1
  • The Flash #1
  • Aquaman #1
  • The Fury of Firestorm #1
  • Stormwatch #1
  • Justice League Dark #1
  • Swamp Thing #1
  • Animal Man #1
  • Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
  • Demon Knights #1
  • I, Vampire #1

I’ll be posting up reviews of as many of these books as I can each week.  The reviews might not be quite as in-depth as my reviews usually are, since I’ll be trying to write so many reviews, but I’ll be offering up something.  And I’ll be linking to the reviews using #New52Review.  I hope you guys will do the same.  Here’s to exciting times ahead in the comics world!