Lifetime reader of comics and fan of Planet of the Apes. When the two combine I can barely contain myself. Image, Boom and Titan comics fight for shelf space with Doctor Who DVDs.
Due to a cut back in new comic book reading, our contributor Darryll Robson has taken to re-reading chunks of his collection. In this Revisited series he looks back at a selected run of a particular comic to see if they are still worth reading and, for newbies, if they are worth seeking out.
After an initial delve into an Marvel event story and all that came with it, this month sees the attention turned to a DC relaunch title from 2011.
Animal Man Revisited
Animal Man has had a number of incarnations throughout his history, most notably Grant Morrison’s infamous rebirth run for DC-Vertigo. So, just to be clear, I’m revisiting the New 52 version written by Jeff Lemire and I’m only looking at issues up to #18, for reasons that will become clear. This will also tie in with my next ‘revisited’ post where I will look at the New 52 Swamp Thing, again for those who don’t know these runs, this will all become clear.
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“It was some sort of…of monster. I know that’s crazy, and I know that I should be used to that kind of stuff at this point, but it was…it was horrifying.” Ellen Baker from issue 4 written by Jeff Lemire.
Issue 1 starts off by introducing us to Buddy Baker and his family. Buddy is a semi-retired superhero with powers that derive from animal characteristics; he can call forth the power of an elephant or the speed of a cheater. His family is a seemingly normal, average two point four deal with Maxine and Cliff as the pestering children and Ellen the strong but long suffering wife.
From the very beginning Lemire makes this superhero comic stand out from the majority of the New 52. The old Vertigo characters have been brought into the greater DC Universe for the New 52 relaunch and Lemire makes reference to the likes of the Justice League but at the same time he creates a homely, suburban setting where our hero has to question if any of his costumes are clean before venturing out on a rescue mission. It is a contrast to the ‘norm’ and the comfortable superhero comic where everything is safely set in a world obviously different to ours. Travel Foreman also produces a different aesthetic to the usual DC fare; it’s definitely not ‘house style’. Exaggerated physical features and obscure viewpoints lay the ground work for the horror elements which are to come. There is an awkwardness to the art which forewarns the reader that this isn’t going to be a straight forward superhero tale.
The first issue isn’t slow in getting to the horror. The first superhero ‘adventure’ sees a hospital ward of children threatened by an emotional gun man and ends with Buddy inexplicably bleeding from his eyes. Foreman’s thin, scratchy pencil lines heighten the disturbing nature of these events.
Towards the end of issue one, Buddy’s unnerving dream hammers home the fact that his family are going to feature heavily in the story that is to come. And the threats that are depicted are gruesome and cruel. Nothing can prepare you for Cliff’s disembowelment or Maxine wadding into a river of blood. Issue one screams that this is a horror comic masquerading as a superhero comic. Try to be prepared for what’s to come.
The next four issues introduce most of the elements that are to make up Lemire’s run on Animal Man. The Red, the source of Buddy’s powers, features as the driving force behind the narrative while the Hunters Three provide the antagonists for the first arc. The Hunters Three are gruesome feeders who are servants of The Rot; the Big Bad of the piece. While two take the fight to Buddy and Maxine within the Red itself, the third hunts down Cliff and Ellen allowing Lemire to develop the entire Baker family.
The end of the first arc is followed up by a clever one off story that relates to a conversation between Buddy and Ellen in the first issue. ‘Tights’ features for the most part a movie that Cliff is watching on his phone. The movie in question, also called ‘Tights’, is Buddy’s first break into the movie world and his attempt to move away from the superhero world towards a normal life. The Movie is about a failed superhero whose life is falling apart. Of course the whole thing is an extended metaphor for the larger narrative within Animal Man. Buddy feels as though his life is slipping away the more involved he becomes with his powers and he attempts to gain control over the overwhelming power. But just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather part 3, Buddy just keeps getting pulled back in.
Of Rot and Red
With the characters firmly entrenched into their roles, Lemire begins to expand the story and the world around our heroes. In Animal vs Man the Rot spreads throughout the animal kingdom and their attention is firmly on devouring Maxine. Most notable about this two parter is the staggered switch in artists. Travel Foreman works on a number of pages in each issue but Steve Pugh is brought in for the majority of the pages. His art work is similar in style to Foreman but it’s cleaner with much smoother surfaces. The heavy use of ink on Foreman’s pencils, provided by Jeff Huet, is toned down with Pugh. This takes some of the edge off of the imagery.
However, what Pugh lacks in the violent depiction of characters he more than makes up for in the pulsating hideousness of his landscapes. When the family are separated and Buddy, via an unfortunate date with death, is transferred to the Red, the horror takes on a new form. It becomes a cancer eating away at the flesh.
Just to add to all the craziness, Lemire throws a host of ‘special guests’ into the mix. The Justice League Dark turn up to warn Ellen that her actions will lead to the end of everything and the first Animal Man annual introduces the Swamp Thing, sort of, into the comic. This section of Lemire’s narrative is about the journey that each character takes. This includes Swamp Thing who has a much larger part to play further down the line. His introduction isn’t simply an attempt to draw in readers from elsewhere.
Unfortunately Rot World
As the narrative comes to a head and the first year of comics ushers in the final battle between Animal Man and the Rot something unfortunate happens. Everything that made Animal Man interesting and exciting to read seems to go out of the window and is replaced by a Swamp Thing crossover that reads like a write-by-numbers end of the world cop-out.
In Prelude to Rot World the Baker family meet up with Swamp Thing and realise that they are facing the same threats. Via a portal created to send Buddy and Swampy directly to the source of the Rot, the heroes become trapped in a nightmare world that ultimately has them returning to the real world one year later. And by then everything is Rot.
The main problem with the Rot World story line is that it spends most of its time showing off the characters of the DC universe and how the writers/artists imagine that they would be altered by the cancer that is the Rot. This in turn makes each narrative step seem nothing more than a way to introduce another recognisable face and what has happened to them. This goes on for issue after issue with very little to redeem it. Lemire’s beautifully crafted horror comic becomes nothing more than a character name dropping, look what could happen, story that has lost all of its tension. At no point do you as a reader believe that this is going to be the new status que. If you start killing off recognisable characters all the reader does is wait for the big red undo button to appear and set everything back to how it was. And of course this is exactly what happens.
The smartest part of Rot World is Maxine’s story. It is with these pages that Lemire shows how the world fell to the Rot but when it reaches tipping point, Buddy reappears to ‘put things right’. Through this part of the plot, Lemire continues to tell the Animal Man story in a style full of tension and grotesque horror. This is because the ending is not easily foreseeable; the reader doesn’t know where this will end.
And it ends in tragedy. The final part of Rot World sees the death of Cliff in a truly awful piece of clichéd scripting. But whereas the death itself is terrible, the final issue (of my reading at least) is a moving, heart stopping comic that almost, but not quite, makes up for the whole Rot World disaster.
Rot World killed my enjoyment of New 52’s Animal Man and I never read any further. I still enjoy Lemire’s work but the same cannot be said for the other main writer behind Rot World but more of that in my next post; New 52 Swamp Thing revisited.
If there was a way to remove the Rot World arc from the greater narrative I would but unfortunately it’s the final act of the story and without it Buddy and his family would be left hanging, their journey unfinished. This is a shame because it puts me off rereading the run. I pick up issue one but the stench of Rot World hangs over it so I move on to another comic.
Did you read the New 52 Animal Man? What did you think of Rot World? Are you as jaded towards the comic as me because of it?
Let us know in the comments below.
Darryll Robson is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Occasionally he might use his Twitter account: @DarryllRobson
Source: DC Comics