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.