Is the Emperor really wearing any clothes? That's the question that I can't help but ask myself when I read the third issue of Animal Man, which has been one of the best-received titles of the DC relaunch from a critical perspective, but which I'm still finding myself unable to fully connect with.
The basic story is enjoyable enough: Buddy Baker's daughter, Maxine, has manifested disturbing new powers at the same time as Buddy is experiencing glitches with his own animal-imitating abilities, and the two characters journey into the mysterious world of "The Red" together to try and discover more about their condition. However, despite some well-handled plot twists and some vague teases as to what the story might ultimately be building towards, it doesn't really feel like there's much for readers to get their teeth into, even after three issues.
A large part of the book's appeal comes from the artwork of Travel Foreman. I first encountered his art in Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist, where his highly exaggerated and slightly surreal style didn't always mesh well with the stories being told. Here, however, it's a smoother fit for a book that seems intent on exploring weird, psychedelic mindscapes and pushing its hero to extremes of bodily contortion and biological unpleasantness.
Along with the twisting, elongated human characters, Foreman does well in populating the issue with weird and wonderful animal creatures, whether it's the freaky enemies that pursue Buddy's wife and son in his absence, or the odd, god-like totemistic beings that Buddy and Maxine encounter in "The Red."
At the same time, however, Foreman manages to ground the book's real-world scenes in a reality that feels believable and relatable. This is partly due to Jeff Lemire writing some natural-feeling exchanges between the various Baker family members, but it's also down to Foreman's ability to capture the mundane realities of suburban life. Settings like a motel forecourt or diner don't ever feel unnecessarily stylised or over-rendered, and neither do interior scenes set in the Baker residence (despite the fantastical elements that sometimes populate them).
Unfortunately, the lightness of Lemire's characterisation makes it difficult to really care about what's going on in the book, despite some interesting concepts (including a neat twist in this issue about Buddy's relationship with Maxine and her true significane) and some well-realized visuals. If there was any real reason to care about Maxine other than her stated significance and the fact that she's Buddy's daughter, she might be a more interesting character. But as it is, she's a fairly bland personality — and frankly, the same could be said of Lemire's Buddy Baker, too.
So, I find myself on the fence as to whether to continue following this book. Clearly, many readers are seeing something in it that I don't — aside from the admittedly great artwork of Travel Foreman. But after three issues, I'm not sure I can continue to give it the benefit of the doubt when it feels like there's so little substance to really hold onto.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could — occasionally — be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it's something he really likes. Maybe one day he'll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.