Animal Man began as one of the dark horses of the New 52. We just weren't really sure if it would be any good. Sure, the title had a fairly lengthy Vertigo run, after a formative revival by Grant Morrison, but no one ever thought of Buddy Baker as an A-list hero. Even now, DC Nation gets a lot of mileage out of just how silly his animal abilities can be in their clever cartoons.
But Morrison found ways of deepening his B-movie appeal, and the fact remains that Buddy has a few things going for him. There's always been a sense of unrealized potential, and he's one of the few DC heroes whose happiness depends on his stable nuclear family life. His wife and kids mean the world to Buddy, and that's the focal point Lemire has decided to run with.
He's also run with the more immediate success of Scott Snyder's parallel Swamp Thing revamp, participating fully in an immersion in DC's spiritual fields with a conception of avatars needed by three primal forces: the Red, the Green, and the Rot. We don't really have a Rot comic (I nominate Teen Titans or Deathstroke), but expanding the mythology of Swamp Thing and Animal Man simultaneously has paid dividends for both books.
While Alec Holland has refused to embrace the Green, and Abigail Arcane always flees the Rot, Buddy's problem is more that he's just pretty bad at utilizing the Red. Never that creative at using his powers, he's always been a bit behind the eight ball, and he's bought into one outlandish origin tale after another. That he and Ellen and Cliff and Maxine can have anything resembling normal lives is more a case of their active denial than of any real attempt to address how outlandish their existence can become. Since Buddy effectively has no secret identity, he's put his family in the firing line, and the only one potentially able to protect herself is Maxine (as she's all set to be the next Red avatar after Buddy inevitably fails, if she gets to grow up that is). She shows an adept's proclivity at the world Buddy seems so slow to understand.
So in "Animal vs. Man," as the disgusting agents of the Rot move in, we get a flash forward of Animal Woman, seeing Maxine in action and using their gifts more effectively than Buddy ever has. It's not enough, as most future-forwards are doomed to end in cataclysm, but it allows Lemire to really put his cards on the table concerning Buddy. Who dies.
In "Extinction is Forever," Buddy goes on a journey through the red, and it is here (in issue #10 mostly) that new artist Steve Pugh finally comes into his own. He did nearly thirty issues on the previous series, but that was some time ago. He needed to prove his legacy all over again. His first few issues were rocky, but with #10 he finds his footing, making Buddy's half-goat companion and especially a cadre of winged dog soldiers surreally believable allies in the bizarre Red dimension. The same goes for the Red Totems that Buddy visits, who are the flesh counterparts to those spooky old trees Swamp Thing is always arguing with.
Issue #11 features Alberto Ponticelli's quirkier art. He has a more exaggerated sort of Kevin O'Neill feeling to his creatures, but he doesn't lose completely Pugh's ability to ground the weirdness in a believable domestic reality. He at least fits in with that Vertigo-house style of this portion of the new 52. In #10 Lemire takes the opportunity to develop some synergy with his other title Justice League Dark, and Constantine, Zatanna and Madame Xanadu guest star. Jarringly, they look like Fetish Fair habitués in Ellen's motel room, and she's having none of it. But Pugh sells how weird is their normal, even if his versions don't much resemble those in their titular magazine. He makes the point of how exotic these bondage-gear mystics are in the face of Ellen's quest for normalcy. They just don't speak a language she wants to hear.
In #11 the "aliens" from one of Buddy's origins show up as the psychic version of Project Runway divas, conveniently designing a new body for their poor creation who lost his old one to the Rot. It's a nice callback to the Morrison run, wonderfully spooky as Buddy is transformed yet again by forces outside of his control. He winds up with a set of new powers that will be interesting if they last. We also get to see the talking kitty Socks reveal his kinship with Agatha Harkness' familiar, but most spooky of all are the Carpenter-esque Thing-like horrors that emerge when Buddy finally fights back effectively. Heads should not skitter away on spider-legs, but there you go when you're foregrounding the Red vs. the Rot.
Will Buddy ever behave more effectively, and how long they can drag out this "family on the run in a tiny van" thing? These are questions I can't answer, but I can tell you that Lemire is making the spooky side of the new DC his own territory, and living up to the freakiness that has always been the best part of Buddy Baker's world. Now if only he could get Ellen and Cliff on board.
The Annual takes a different approach, looking backwards to the 19th century avatars of the Red and the Green, fighting an earlier incursion of the Rot. It's a morality lesson in sacrifice, with lushly detailed art by Green that references Kaluta and P. Craig Russell at their most ornate. There seems to be no end in sight for Lemire's creative solutions to the eternal spiritual battles he's being tasked to depict.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at Cornekopia.net.