Some superheroes away to a "fortress of solitude," others spend their days in the tawny neighborhoods of Westchester County, New York. Buddy Baker a.k.a. Animal Man gets sardined into a Winnebago with his wife, their two kids, a talking cat (apologies, ancient avatar of the Red) and… his mother-in-law. Some guys have all the luck. After last issue's "road movie," the Baker bunch is no closer to getting anywhere; mobile devices have bricked (no Twitter!) and the tight quarters (not to mention near-death escapes from distended inside-out flesh monsters with grotesque ganglia galore) have everyone on tenterhooks. The familial setting of Animal Man offers stakes that few other cape and cowl titles can advance — superhero and supernatural tropes aside, Buddy et al. feel real. The moments inside the Baker's family circle appear lived-in, dull and domestic, precisely un-heroic and downright relatable. Animal Man maintains all the grittiness and grimness of the post-whatever superhero era and adds parental anxieties, the ennui of family life and monsters — a freak show to be sure.
Animal Man #7 begins a new story arc ("Animal vs. Man") which falls far short of the bar that writer Jeff Lemire and artist Travel Foreman set when the series debuted as part of the New 52. The imbroglio over Foreman's impending departure may account for the unevenness in the art in issue #7, but it doesn't excuse it. The editorial staff, at least, should have caught the visual inconsistencies — the main offenders being Ellen's headband and glasses — that appear when the art shifts from Foreman to Steve Pugh and back again. The objectivity of "art" aside, Pugh's character designs leave the reader wanting. At times, Pugh apes Foreman's moody, shadowy (eternally shirtless, but always in tights) Baker with a look that is more in the mold of a Ken doll. Perhaps when Pugh takes over full-time he will find his own style. Perhaps.
Lemire leavens the script with a degree of wackiness that couches this issue (almost) as a family sitcom with lines like "Hey, honey, we're home" and "What's your problem, squirt?". Why Buddy and Cliff's walk to the nearest clichéd "town a few miles back" — which recalls every afterschool special father-and-son bonding bit known to man — gets intercut with a scene of stampeding undead animals is poorly plotted and facile. In the issue's most on-the-nose scene, Cliff's hormones lead him and his mullet into the company of two ironic T-shirt wearing townies. The Betty of the two sports a Travel Foreman-penned "Evolve or Die" Animal Man T-shirt. Ironic, don't you think? Lemire pays off this moment in the spirit of its own design — fun, yes, but hackneyed and goofy enough to come off as dismissive.
The scenes of grand guinol are where Animal Man has made its bones as a cult favorite and critical darling. Pugh and Lemire are simpatico in this moment, mapping out a dreamscape for Buddy that is fretful and fraught with premonitions of the coming fight for the Red (and the Green) against the Rot. Lemire chooses this moment to introduce a new character which comes as a surprise to Buddy, ""Who are you? What is this?" Buddy is told, "This is the future… this is what happens because you didn't do your job." Introducing a new character (and apparently a somewhat important one) in this way is confusing. Random somewhat important characters notwithstanding, it's in this moment that Animal Man earns its stripes as a pertinent family drama; needling at the insecurities and guilt that blossom when one is responsible for the lives of others and the nagging sense of disappointment and fear of never being able to protect one's family and bar the door to the world outside — a world of mad dogs and creeping death.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can't use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words.He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.