Originally Published December 9, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Animal Man, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Action Comics.
Drew: I do not envy the writers of the New 52. They’ve been tasked with condensing and summarizing (and in some cases, excising large chunks of) impossibly dense and convoluted superhero history in order to appeal to a new audience. DC has incorporated so many universe-wide crossovers over the years that it’s impossible to fully understand any one character’s history without understanding the entire universe, which many prospective fans rightfully daunting. The degree to which the relaunch has hit the reset button varies from title to title, but all of the New 52 share the fact that the knowledge needed to understand what the heck is going on has been slimmed down considerably. This is great for giving newcomers like me and Patrick an entryway into the universe, but ignoring the history too much risks alienating DCs core fan-base, the loyal readers who have followed these titles for years, and who were invested in the story-lines leading up to the relaunch (these are also largely the people who review and sell comics, so it’s doubly important that DC not forget their needs). It’s a very fine line the writers walk here, hoping to reward long-term readers without losing the newbies, and hoping to familiarize the uninitiated without boring the die-hards.
In many ways, Animal Man is an exemplar of what has become my favorite method for pleasing both old and new fans: launching a mythology that is new to everybody. Almost all of the titles we’ve read so far feature a new villain, but some of them go a step further, introducing a whole new world we never new existed (like Aquaman), or one that existed under our noses all along, folding into the characters mythology seamlessly (like Batman). Animal Man falls firmly into the latter category, launching an ambitious mythology that expands our understanding of Buddy Baker’s powers wile simultaneously revealing how little we truly know about them. These developments are intriguing in both their potential and their execution, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Issue one opens with a faux magazine page featuring an interview with Buddy Baker. The interview outlines that Buddy has somewhat retreated from superheroics in recent years, and in fact recently starred in an indie film about “a washed-up superhero determined to go down fighting,” a la The Wrestler (the film is directed by “Ryan Daranovsky,” a detail I found a little too cute). This is a very effective device for introducing the character, but it comes off as more than just “Animal Man 101,” mostly because we get some finer details on Buddy’s motivation, and because the characters refer to the interview throughout the first issue.
Buddy is feeling a little directionless at home, so when he gets wind of a hostage situation at a local hospital, he springs into action, leaving his game but put-upon wife, Ellen, to manage their two kids. Buddy makes short work of the hostage-taker, though he is shaken by his story — the man snapped after his young daughter died of cancer. Buddy mysteriously begins to bleed from his eyes after this incident, but it clears up just as mysteriously moments later. Buddy returns home only to have a terrible nightmare that all of his family is in danger from a group of monsters who refer to themselves at the Hunters Three. Buddy awakes from this nightmare to find that his four year old daughter, Maxine, has somehow willed all of the dead pets buried throughout the neighborhood back to life. Buddy once again begins to bleed inexplicably, the condition this time leaves his body covered in strange tattoos. Maxine explains that these markings are a map to “the red place,” and insisting that they find it “before they do.” “They,” of course, are the Hunters Three, who manage to manifest themselves at the local zoo, grotesquely occupying the skin of three zookeepers a la Edgar from Men In Black. The monsters are coming for Maxine, the avatar of the source of all life in the universe. Meanwhile, Buddy and Maxine head to the red place, where they encounter the former avatars, who start to explain Maxine’s role as embodiment of the web of life. Their time is cut short when two of the Hunters Three arrive to take Maxine. Buddy defends her, but ultimately Maxine is the one that sends them packing. The third Hunter, meanwhile, has used his shape-shifting skills to gain the confidence of Ellen and their son, Cliff, taking them all the way to Ellen and Buddy’s designated meeting spot before revealing himself to be a monster.
That synopsis is dense, and in places can sound like a random sequence of events, but told over the course of four issues, the pace is unhurried. Indeed, the scenes with Ellen, Cliff, and the disguised monster build some excellent tension. When the clerk at my comic book shop declared Animal Man as his favorite of the New 52, I wasn’t sure what to make of his assertion that it was a “straight horror title,” but he’s absolutely right; Buddy’s mysterious bleeding and tattoos recall Cronenberg, the undead pets recall all sorts of zombie literature (not the least of which would be Pet Sematary), and the shape-shifting monsters recall John Carpenter’s The Thing. What I’m seeing the strongest connections with, though, is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. “The Red” reminds me of Dream’s kingdom, Maxine’s central role reminds me of both Dream and Rose, and the Hunters Three remind me of the rogue nightmares and demons Dream deals with. The very idea of a world that touches and connects all of us, but that we are not consciously aware of strikes me as very Sandman-esque, something that I intend as the highest complement to the mythology Jeff Lemire has only begun to sculpt.
The art here is equally praiseworthy, and also reminds me a great deal of The Sandman. Travel Foreman’s creature designs are by turns both grotesque and beautiful, but always thoughtfully detailed and well-crafted. He riffs virtuosically on animal anatomy, pulling in lipless teeth and exposed muscles and talons and insect limbs to create beasts that are at once familiar and alien. His art truly is horrifying, and reminds me distinctly of some of the demons Sam Kieth designed for issue four of The Sandman. I hate to hit The Sandman comparisons too hard, but between the intriguing openness of the mythology and the inventiveness of the art, there aren’t many things I’ve read that I could compare it too (perhaps the character’s history being printed under Vertigo helps).
One of the other things my trusted comic book clerk liked about Animal Man was that it was so self-contained — while our familiar East-Coast heroes are traipsing into each other’s stories and generally participating in the same universe, Animal Man is kind of doing his own thing. I didn’t expect to pick up on such a California-ness in this title, but between Buddy’s slimmer, surfer-type body and his general relaxed nature, this really doesn’t feel like the darker titles we’re reading (even though, in many ways, this series is much, much darker). I had never read an Animal Man before I picked up #1 here, but I imagine that the type of crime-busting we see in the first issue was typical for him; light and action-packed. I’m perceiving this new series as a drastic change of direction for the character, but one that’s promising to tell some incredible stories. This really isn’t like anything else we’re reading, but I’m really digging it. How about you, Patrick? (Also, I can’t believe I made it all the way through without mentioning Cliff’s mullet. Isn’t it awful?)
Patrick: You sir, are not lying about that mullet. Yikes.
Reading Animal Man has been a singular experience for me. I’ve never read a horror title before, let alone one that mascarades so thoroughly as a super hero comic. In reading about the New 52, I always sorta noticed the ‘horror’ titles sitting in that column DC has labeled “dark.” I figured that if I was going to be reading motherfucking DC Comics, I would be reading their superhero stories, goddammit. Animal Man has reshaped the assumption that they can only do heroes right.
It is interesting that we end up reading Action and Animal in the same week. The pencilers on both series really like to load up their characters (and their faces) with a lot of extra lines. But while Morales’ extra lines make his characters appear off-model, Travel Foreman’s extra lines add a chaotic darkness to the characters that drives much of the Animal Man series. Some of the images in this thing are really striking. Muscles and veins and flesh stretch and distort in totally grotesque but fascinating ways. It is exactly what a comic book needs to elicit the kind of gut reactions I would get from a successful horror flick. I’m going to see many of these panels when I close my eyes and try to sleep tonight.
I gotta say, I’m starting to feel bad about not having a proper frame of reference for this sort of storytelling. I’m picking up shades of Pet Sematary and The Thing, as you noted. I also get a little bit of a non-science fiction Alien/Aliens vibe from the series. Buddy and his daughter spend almost half of the series in a space that is fleshy, living and creepy and there’s that bit about the Hunters Three (we must always refer to them as such) being born of the bellies of distressed hippos. Like Alien, simple aspects of life and reproduction are twisted and amplified until they’re absolutely horrifying. I really cannot emphasize how effective I find the disturbing images herein.
Honestly, I’m so transfixed by the art and the themes, that I don’t know if I can even conjure up any analysis of the story or characterization. I know there was a lot of weird exposition put in the mouths of a) a mystic child (which I usually hate) and b) supernatural guardians with all the answers (as a Green Lantern fan, I guess I can’t criticize this), but any convoluted mythology was surrounded by art that does such a compelling job of convincing me that I’m experiencing something special.
You mention the lack of crossover potential in Animal Man as a positive, and I generally agree that it’s rad to see such a self-contained story. However, the former avatars mention Alec Holland a.k.a. Swamp Thing as another piece in the bigger drama about to play out. Swamp Thing also falls under that “dark” umbrella. So… I don’t know… part of me wants to explore more series like this, but the purist in me wants to keep my horror experience insular.
GUSHGUSHGUSH. I think this is a great one. I’m not having a lot of fun, necessarily, and that’s how I’ve been gauging most of my experience with the New 52. I mean, we’re reading comics, right? Animal Man is making me reassess that rubric.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing