NEW 52: Animal Man

When Tony Daniel included the removal of the Joker’s face in Detective Comics #1, a lot of people complained that it was a tasteless exercise done purely for shock value. I tend to agree, because Daniel’s writing on Battle for the Cowl was weak, and also because DC seemed desperate to assure audiences that the New 52 would be a game-changer in every respect. The issue carried a teen rating on its cover, which according to DC means the book “may contain mild violence, language, and/or suggestive themes.” Because apparently showing a character’s severed face pinned to a wall falls under the umbrella of “mild violence.”

Animal Man has a teen-plus rating (indicating “moderate violence”), though it should have a mature rating (indicating “anything goes”) because holy crap this is the stuff of nightmares:

I love this book. Animal Man is probably the best thing DC is publishing right now. It’s tremendously difficult to make a comic book that’s genuinely creepy. The only thing I can remember coming this close is that issue of The Sandman where Dr. Destiny forces everyone in a diner to confess their sins and then kill (eat?) each other.

The atmosphere of dread works because Animal Man is a book filled with characters you’re invested in and care about. Buddy Baker and his family, when they’re not screaming at each other, are pretty adorable human beings. Take the moment when son Cliff encounters two teenage girls who doubt his claims of superhero parentage:

I wasn’t crazy about Jeff Lemire’s work on The Atom or Superboy, but thankfully Animal Man hews more closely to his Vertigo title Sweet Tooth: familial conflict, a slowly-building sense of doom, and decrepit, unnatural creatures everywhere you look.

My only initial reservation about Animal Man was the art. Mostly because it started out looking like this:

Half a page devoted to Buddy Baker’s kitchen and little else, which is weird because the subsequent panel cuts off Buddy’s head and replaces it with a sink, and then a quarter of a page devoted to his wife Ellen’s extremely un-intricate pants design. Luckily, artist Travel Foreman goes full-hog on the dream sequences and the parts that take place in the Red and the Rot, two otherworldly domains necessary for maintaining life on Earth.

Another interesting twist to this latest interpretation of Animal Man is that he’s no longer the focus of his own story; it’s explained by the monsters in the Red that he was given his animal powers solely to protect his daughter Maxine, who’s the real hero. When you see her novel way of avoiding death via wolf attack, you’ll understand why.

Along for the ride is a cat named Socks, a demi-god willing to abandon the Red in order to assist Animal Man protect his daughter, reverting to his original form of a cat but retaining his ability to talk in creepy speeches:

The series switches gears when it gets to issue #6, which takes the form of a film about a washed-up superhero coming out of retirement. Entitled Red Thunder, the film stars Buddy Baker (it’s referenced in issue #1) and has some parallels to Baker’s real life. It’s sort of Animal Man through the filter of Watchmen and Kick-Ass. It’s also a compelling change of pace and a nice break from the non-stop action and horror of the previous issues:

There’s a couple of nods to Grant Morrison in this book. In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Morrison famously dusted off the Animal Man character for a late-’80s run famed for its deconstructionist/metatextual take on comic book characters and the constraints of their fictional lives.

I bought all 26 issues of Morrison’s run (and the Animal Man issue of Secret Origins that he penned) off eBay a couple years ago to see what all the fuss was about, and boy does Morrison take the self-referential shtick to dizzying new heights. It’s one thing to wink at the reader by having Nazi Supergirl die in the pages of Final Crisis, but it’s quite another to see Buddy Baker visit Morrison at his home and start asking questions about why his fictitious life is so unfair. Morrison’s experiment succeeds in its audacity and ambition, but story-wise it’s a bit of an eye roll at the best of times.

And now it’s canon, cleverly acknowledged and dismissed by Lemire as a bad dream:

There’s also the running gag of Buddy’s family asking why he doesn’t just call the Justice League for help, or join the Justice League. Animal Man’s post-Crisis origin story had Buddy’s decision to become a superhero hinge on his admiration/envy of Keith Giffen’s Justice League International.

Another nod to the Morrison era includes son Cliff’s frighteningly dated hairstyle, which is addressed in issue #10 by Swamp Thing‘s John Constantine:

In the New 52, Constantine and his compatriots Zatanna and Madame Xanadu are members of Justice League Dark, which means the Bakers more or less got their wish.

I’m still pretty iffy on most New 52 titles, but there’s no uncertainty in regards to Animal Man. It’s great and Lemire is the perfect writer to handle this material. Hopefully the book sticks around for a long time.

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