Late last August, I wrote about the impending DC comics reboot, wherein I detailed a few of my hopes and concerns in the process. A full five months have passed and as of this writing a quarter of the “New 52” series have put out six issues each—the typical length for a completed storyarc, or at least enough to gleam where each series will be headed. I confess I haven’t read much of the new material, with most of what I know being cribbed from ComicsAlliance reviews or from flipping through individual issues at the Silver Snail; this doesn’t make me a very good critic, but my income doesn’t exactly support my habit, so to speak.
Created in 1965 by Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino, Animal Man—known to friends and family as Buddy Baker—has effectively been a C-list character for most of his existence, a fact that comes up at least once in nearly every major appearance he’s made. But rather than continually remaining the butt of the joke like Aquaman, Animal Man has taken his minimal fame in stride, eking out a living as a Hollywood stuntman and occasional actor while being superheroic on the side, occasionally lending a hand Justice League Europe. When not wearing his costume, he’s open about his superpowered identity and lives comfortably with his storyboard artist wife Ellen and their two children, Cliff and Maxine.
In his youth, Buddy stumbled across an alien spacecraft—in truth the laboratory of two metaconscious beings, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves—only for it to explode in his face, incinerating him. The beings, known as the Yellow Aliens, rebuilt Buddy’s physical form from scratch, in the process adding several “morphogenetic grafts” that allow him to temporarily access the ability of any animal on Earth. In essence, he’s every specific animal-themed superhero rolled into one, being able to fly like a bird, run as fast as a cheetah and ward off enemies with a dog’s bark simultaneously.
To date, Animal Man’s biggest outing was in Scottish writer Grant Morrison’s 26 issue run from 1988-90, which saw Buddy adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, becoming actively involved in the animal rights movement and even bringing attention to South African apartheid. Beneath all this Morrison artfully explored various “meta” storytelling concepts such as retroactive continuity, characters abandoned to the sands of obscurity and that pesky fourth wall, culminating with Buddy having a lengthy conversation comic book existence with Morrison in the final issue. It’s heavy, at times confusing stuff, but when viewed as a cohesive whole Morrison’s 26 issues constitute one of the best series in the history of the medium and certainly the most innovative.
In 2011, DC was wise enough to push Animal Man to the forefront once again, this time assigning Canadian Jeff Lemire (writer/artist of Vertigo’s Sweet Tooth and the critically acclaimed Essex County) and penciller Travel Foreman to the title. I picked up the first issue on a whim the day of its release, Foreman’s disturbing cover art (pictured at the top of the article) having caught my eye, and I’ve been addicted ever since.
Anyone put off by the complicated details of Animal Man’s back story need not worry. While Lemire maintains the status quo for continuity’s sake he also manages to start the series off in an accessible place, with Buddy having just come off a starring role as a washed up superhero in an indie film à la Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and now considering getting back in the tights-and-flights game. In the very first scene, Lemire establishes the Baker family dynamic and Buddy’s easygoing, everyman character. He’s not a highly trained billionaire like Bruce Wayne or a superpowered alien like Superman, but a caring dad and husband with a good head on his shoulders—and, yeah, a taste for excitement. The artwork also impresses the relative normalcy of his life, with Foreman’s pencils favouring realistic human anatomy and posture rather than the posing and puffed chests typical of most superhero comics.
Things take a turn for the strange (well, stranger, given the many superhuman denizens that occupy the DC universe) when Buddy discovers his daughter has been reanimating dead neighbourhood pets courtesy of powers no one knew she had, quickly learning that his precocious little tyke is somehow vastly important to the future of life on Earth. To top it all off, she’s inadvertently drawn the attention of the Hunters Three, a trio of absolutely fucked up-looking abominations who serve as representatives for the domain of organic corruption known as the Rot.
At this point, Lemire and Foreman veer away from the usual superhero narrative. Rather than donning his tights and slugging the baddies in the face with a superpowered fist, Buddy follows his daughter’s vague, dream-guided lead in trying to determine what the Hell is going on, with the two of them entering the “Red,” essentially the lifeweb connecting all animal life. It’s in these segments that Foreman truly runs wild, his character renderings and panel layouts taking on a Salvador Dalí-esque twist, the detail visceral enough to make one’s gorge rise.
Meanwhile, Ellen and Cliff are making tracks and searching for safe haven while being pursued by one of the Hunters, the creature at first inhabiting the body of a zookeeper, later that of a detective with whom the Baker family is on good terms with. The resulting moments of body horror are on par with a mid-’80s David Cronenberg film. Without spoiling too much, the human and superhuman halves of the family are eventually reunited in the fifth issue, albeit with the help of an animal totem god who’s taken the form of a housecat (long story), only to be set upon by an entire forest’s worth of corrupted animals.
Lemire and Foreman have taken a truly ingenious approach to the material, using the aesthetic trappings of the superhero genre to tell a genuinely fucked up horror story. What started as a fairly quirky series about a superhuman everyman (how’s that for an oxymoron) is now, in its sixth issue, about a family on the run from what’s basically John Carpenter’s The Thing. As mainstream comics go, it’s pretty far out there, but it features one of the best cast of characters currently on the shelf and a neat twist on the superhero formula that helps it to stand out from its ilk. There’s certainly a lot more to see from this series—next up is a crossover with the Scott Snyder-helmed Swamp Thing—and if Lemire and Foreman continue forward I have no reason to think it’s going to diminish in quality anytime soon.
Plus it produced the single greatest comics panel of 2011:
And God help me, I have no idea why I find this so awesome.