Buddy Baker is a Hollywood stuntman turned family man superhero Animal Man turned indie cinema sensation. But what happens when he starts bleeding out of his eyes?
If you read target=”new”>my other Slugfest review this week, you probably got the impression that I’m a Grant Morrison stan of the highest order. With the exception of Sebastian O (can someone please explain to me what this comic is about?) I’ve loved every work of his I read. So when I found out Animal Man was to be one of the relaunched titles for the New 52, I was excited but apprehensive. Thankfully, Jeff Lemire is writing it, and seems to have a great grasp on the character.
It doesn’t hurt that after the first page, Lemire and Foreman continue to nail down the “show, don’t tell” concept so many writers and artists of #1 issues seem to either forget about or intentionally neglect. We get to see the Baker family, drawn very ordinarily (but certainly not skillfully), go through the motions of family life before Animal Man takes off to get his whole super hero thang on.
And like Superman in Action Comics #1, Buddy seems to have fun being a superhero. In fact, Lemire has him outright saying so. It’s such a refreshment to see that the dark, brooding heroes borne out of the ’90s and the grim, “we do what we do because we have to” heroes of the ’00s replaced by happy characters who love what they do. Comics should be fun. People like fun. Fun attracts readers, keeps them entertained, and keeps them coming back.
On top of all this, the book ends on a fantastic cliffhanger. Not the kind that frustrates due to a lack of payoff, but the good kind, the kind that excites at story possibilities to come. Lemire and Foreman had big, big shoes to fill on this one, but they seem to fit just about perfectly.
Brandon Billups wrote a few comic reviews for Comics Bulletin a while ago, but then he was bitten by a radioactive sloth and didn’t for a long time. He has recently overcome his super-hurdles and is diving headfirst back into the world of comics to bring you the very best, and with a little luck poke fun at the very worst along the way. He has a bunch of blogs all over the internet that he can’t remember the login info for anymore. He tweets as @linguish, mostly about things that make him sound insane, but occasionally about comics too.
Over in my Swamp Thing review, I made the claim that Swamp Thing and Animal Man “may have cornered the market on the kind of suburban horror that hasn’t been seen since Poltergeist” and that might be the best way for me to sell you on this comic. Anyone who reads Jeff Lemire’s work already knows that he excels at depicting the ways families can be simultaneously too close and too far apart, and in Animal Man that paradox comes from the divide between Buddy Baker the caring father and Buddy Baker as the superhero activist celebrity Animal Man. But what really makes this series stand out is how Lemire twists that juxtaposition into an engine for horror.
Like Poltergeist, Lemire’s Animal Man lulls us into a false sense of complacency in its opening. Travel Foreman’s art here is purposefully flat and domestic, two dimensional in its scope and given a further level of tranquility in Lovern Kindzierski’s pastel coloring. There’s eight pages of family discussion and introspection before Lemire kicks off more standard superhero “action,” as Buddy decides to shake the cobwebs off his costume and help resolve a situation at the local children’s cancer ward, where a father driven crazy after the loss of his daughter is holding the kids patient. And even when the action starts, it remains relatively subdued, as Buddy handles the situation and does his Animal Man thing, saving the day by utilizing a cocktail of animal abilities. It’s after the conflict, when Buddy is forced to think of what he’d do to protect his kids, or how
he’d react if he lost them, that the horror film really starts.
Foreman’s range as an artist truly makes itself known as Lemire guides the book firmly into supernatural territory, from that image of Buddy bleeding uncontrollably from his eyes and ears to the gorgeous yet deeply unsettling trip into the realm of The Red that Buddy takes as he drifts asleep, fittingly depicted mostly in black and white. Dan Green’s inks help bring an extra dimension to The Red, allowing that section of the issue to have more visual depth than the suburban scenes. The art has that dream effect of seeming more real than real life, with a kind of logic that makes sense only as long as you don’t think about it too much.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash’s Panel Panopticon.
Amongst all the innovative concepts that have been applied to Animal Man throughout the years — his utilization as an animal rights figurehead, the mystical spiritualization of his powers, and, of course, Grant Morrison’s wielding of him as a tool to famously break through the fourth wall — the character’s rather unique position as a superhero family man has often gone criminally under-discussed. Sure, there are plenty of mainstream comics that place family at the forefront, Fantastic Four being the prime example, but most of those thrust their entire casts into the midst of the capes-and-tights action. Buddy Baker stands largely alone as head of an absolutely normal household, while still finding time on the side to dip into the “morphogenetic field” of faunal powers that make him Animal Man.
Lemire’s family-centric approach, however, should not be confused for one that is especially family-friendly. This series opener comprises a dark tale with a strong horror comic vibe, featuring the requisite blood and scary creatures to match. In that regard, Travel Foreman is a wonderful selection to provide the book’s art, his detailed drawings locating a perfect balance between realism and the macabre. A simple glance at the issue’s cover highlights both of those elements, with the accurately rendered parade of animals depicted at the hero’s feet contrasting starkly with the tangled network of blood vessels protruding from his body above.
Foreman has skirted along the periphery of the comics spotlight for some time now, moonlighting mostly on mid-level Marvel books such as The Immortal Iron Fist. After seeing his work on Animal Man, it seems likely that his days in relative anonymity are soon to end. Awash in a sea of mostly old names and less than thrilling creative efforts, the New 52 has found its first breakout star.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found as @Chris_Kiser!