Shelby: There is a certain aesthetic that I find really appealing, I like to call it “scary pretty.” I love Mexican sugar skulls, Tim Burton movies, and photographing abandoned factories. There’s can be such beauty in twisted, frightening, ugly things. Obviously, Animal Man falls completely into the scary pretty category, both story-wise and art-wise. Lemire, Foreman, and Pugh have crafted something twisted and scary and beautiful and I cannot get enough of it.
Issue 8 opens exactly where we left off with 7; the Bakers’ RV is surrounded by Rot-imals, and more are on the way. Buddy tells everyone to stay put while he goes out to deal with them, but Maxine says she can handle it. Before anyone can stop her, she jumps out of the RV to confront the horde. Buddy and Ellen look on in horror as the Rot-imals tear Maxine apart. Buddy freaks out and destroys the horde himself. As the Bakers reel from what has happened, they suddenly hear Maxine’s voice coming from the woods, and a horrifying sort of creature appears, and turns itself into Maxine. She left her body and grew another one. The creatures were killing her, so she jumped to the Red, found a fox to help out, and grew herself a new Maxinebody. The family kind of loses it, understandably so because what, and then they all see helicopters heading back to town. Buddy decides he has to go to town and help the people and tells Ellen to take everyone, especially Maxine, and get the hell out of Dodge, try to find Alec Holland. So Buddy flies off in a do-or-die (or both) sort of mood; he’s determined to end this darkness, this evil, from chasing his family if it’s the last thing he does. He fights the Rot-imals, exchanging words with one of the Hunters Three who is possessing various undead creatures, until a kettle of undead hawks knocks him out of the sky into the horde. Our last view is of Buddy’s ravaged body speaking in the voice of the Hunter.
Oh man. I want to talk about everything in this issue, but really I want to talk about two things. First off, Maxine. She just grew herself another body! I mean, I’m speechless! And when she just decomposed her old body because it wasn’t her anymore? It’s a beautifully innocent and childlike way of approaching death and completely twisted and wrong at the same time.
Lemire has crafted something wonderful with this. The interplay of the whole family is just perfect. Maxine is super stoked; she had a good time, she’s still alive, and the whole situation was completely natural to her. She reacted the same way as I would if I tripped on something and caught myself before I fell. Grandma, on the other hand, is confused and horrified. For her, this is just an unholy and terrifying abomination. Even Cliff has an appropriately teen-aged reaction of “that’s disgusting.” The art of this whole event is astounding. If could just show every panel here, I would; I mean, the pain and anguish on Ellen and Buddy’s faces as they look out of the RV is tangible, visceral, heartbreaking.
The image I really want to talk about, though, is the second thing I want to talk about, which is the death of Buddy Baker. This is another example of Foreman and Pugh creating an image that shows something tangible, and that thing is pain. Have you ever seen a clearer image of pain before?
This issue blew me away. Not only do we have these huge deaths, culminating in a cliff-hanger moment, but Lemire still manages to show us regular family moments. The Bakers are a family dealing with a stressful and traumatic event. That event happens to be a supernatural and horrifying, they are still just a family trying to cope. Everything about this title is gripping and beautiful; story, art, the whole she-bang. I can’t believe I have to wait a whole month for the next issue. I picked up Swamp Thing 8 today as well, even though I haven’t read any of the issues yet. I can tell you right now, I’m not going to bed until I finish them. I won’t be satisfied unless I have green and red dreams, tinged with rot. Patrick, were you as thrilled as I with this?
Patrick: Oh, I absolutely adore the war against The Rot. And both of the insane plot developments in this issue got me really excited about this series: even if one of them kind of cancels out the other. Think about it – if Maxine can tap into the red to find herself a new body, what is there to suggest that Buddy is incapable of the same act? And, come on, Animal Man can’t be dead – then in what sense would we be reading Animal Man?
I get it – comic book characters die and they come back. It’s not just in comics; one of the stops of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is death. Usually, the death is figurative, but if the medium allows for it, the death becomes literal. That’s why Neo dies and comes back, that’s why Gandalf dies and comes back, that’s why superheroes die and come back. Naturally, I have every confidence that Buddy Baker will follow suit and (say it with me now) die and come back.
But there’s also a fair amount to suggest that I’m wrong. Buddy certainly takes his own death seriously. Look at the way he says goodbye to his family before throwing himself headlong into a battle he can’t win. He hits a nice, sincere beat with each one of them before mustering up the courage to face his doom. The moment he lies to himself to assert his invincibility is particularly poignant – faced with an impossible task, the only thing he can do is assure his family that everything will be okay.
It’s heartbreaking that in this moment, he is feared by his wife and mother-in-law. The title of this issue is “Animal vs. Man” and Buddy, despite channeling the power of animals, chooses his life as a man over his life as an animal. More simply, he is a family man primarily and is only a superhero insofar as it protects his family. His adventure to fight the Rot-imals is the first time since issue #1 that we’ve seen him do any heroics without some family member in-tow. And I love this about Animal Man: the people in his life are important to him because they are his family. It’s so simple and yet so regularly ignored in other series. Families develop in Batman and Superman and Green Lantern, but these are families born out of utility. Animal Man’s family hinges on love, not functionality. Which is what makes his devotion to these four people all the more compelling.
I talked a little bit in the Swamp Thing write-up about how the eighth issue in that series manages to tell an epic story while keeping the focus personal. I want to point out that Animal Man inverts this, telling a personal story that is also epic. The difference is one of priorities. Buddy’s main goal is help his family, help Maxine: if that just so happens to also save all of life on earth, then so be it. This is some of the clearest motivation you’ll see for a character in comics right now. There’s a certain pathology behind all the other costumed crime-fighting we’re reading, but not Animal Man.
Oh and Buddy also does a kickin’ job of smashing undead animals. It’s still a comic book right? Animal Man may fall in this issue, but he goes down swinging. His blaze of glory is everything it should be – you note the physically-represented pain in the bird-attack. There’s also this great little bit of gallows humor where he kicks the head of a Rot-imal clean off.
He even gets a bad-ass hero moment as he descends from the sky and tells the army dudes on the scene to back off. We don’t get a lot of this sort of thing from Buddy – the character is flawed, he’s uncertain, he is frequently out of his league. But it’s good to have a reminder of just how capable he is as a hero.
I really love what this series has become. It struck a unique tone very early in its run and it maintains that amazing tone, even heading into a crossover with Swamp Thing. How cool is that?
I might be wrong, but I think this is the last issue Travel Foreman provided artwork for. His grotesque virtuosity will always be laid over the Animal Man in my mind. On the wide-outside chance you read this, Travel, thank you so much for grafting this sensibility onto the character. It’s been a defining series for the Baker clan, and I’m just glad we were fortunate enough to have your visionary artwork cast that mold.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?