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.