Animal Man 5-6

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Animal Man 5-6, originally released January 4th, 2012, and February 1st, 2012.
Patrick: Animal Man 5 and 6 serve absolutely opposite-end-of the-spectrum purposes for Animal Man, so the fact that we’re discussing them together is unfortunate. But hey, schedules get busy, bloggers get lazy and we’re not exactly clairvoyant. So, the fact of the matter is that we are looking at one issue that carries on in the very strict serialization of the four issues that came previously and then one issue that nests a story within a story to deliver keen character insights, but essentially ignores the on-going war against The Rot. As we’ve been writing a lot about Swamp Thing and his travails with The Rot, I’m gonna breeze through issue 5. Drew, if you want to spend more time with it, be my guest.  

Issue 5 opens with Buddy, his daughter and Socks, the magical cat, flying to Ellen’s mother’s house in the woods. Maxine senses that Cliff and her mother are in danger, but the magical totem cat keeps trying to remind Buddy that his family doesn’t matter anymore: the only thing that matters is Maxine. Ignoring these instructions, he engages one of the Hunters Three in battle, with disastrous  results.  The Hunter Three (yes, I do have to use that phrase every time), jams some rot-goo into Buddy’s face and makes him hallucinate an arachnid version of his own daughter chewing his face off. No other series consistently grosses me out like this one does. That was a compliment.

Maxine summons the woodland animals to assist in the battle. And things look to be going pretty well for a second, but then it becomes clear that the animals are eating the flesh of the Hunter Three. Which – it turns out – makes them servants of The Rot. The whole Baker clan (with totem-cat and Grandma included) pile into an RV and drive away. As they speed off into the sunset, Socks announces that they are out-matched and must seek out the Swamp Thing. The cross-over, it would seem, is neigh.

But then issue 6 throws a curve-ball: the majority of the issue is the movie Tights, directed by Ryan Daranovsky and staring Buddy Baker. I don’t know about you, Drew, but in all the kerfuffle surrounding THE FATE OF ALL LIFE ON EARTH, I had sort of forgotten that I was dealing with intensely relateable, human characters. Characters that have hobbies, careers, ambitions, fears, insecurities and then have to save the world, even with all that baggage. Taking the time out to show us a few scenes from Buddy’s movie reminds us that we’re dealing with a real dude who has values and abilities totally separate from crime fighting. It’s a bold move, and I’m sure there are some people asking when they’re going to get to the fireworks factory, but I loved this little detour.

Tights benefits from the obvious comparisons to The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky’s name is barely disguised; casting a “real” wrestler/hero in the lead role; themes of estrangement from one’s children; getting one’s ass kicked. None of it too obviously applies to Buddy’s family life – the Bakers seemed pretty happy together at their home in San Francisco before all this crazy stuff went down. The kicker is that Cliff, Buddy’s son with horrible hair – is watching this movie on his phone as they make their escape from the Rot Army. The phone has a little bit of difficulty streaming the movie – we see it pause to buffer before we have any context of how we’re watching it. Cliff doesn’t get resolution on it and neither do we.

I love that there are no direct parallels between the life of the character Buddy plays and the life he’s actually leading – that would be too obvious. When he’s asked what he’s watching, Cliff replies that it was just “some movie.” I don’t really have a read on whether he’s watching Tights because he likes seeing his father punished or if it’s because he admires him. Probably, Cliff just misses is old life, and that’s a powerful enough theme in and of itself.

But perhaps even more notably, I was sucked in by Tights. We are following so many tightly serialized stories that it was nice to pick up a the totally insular, and emotionally satisfying, story of the Red Thunder. Series regular, Travel Foreman, sits most of the issue out, allowing the cleaner art of John Paul Leon to tell Red Thunder’s tale. The layouts during the Tights portion are very straightforward and easy to follow, making them feel more like a film’s story board than a comic book. The sequence does a really thorough job of convincing you that you’re not reading Animal Man this month.

I think I’d actually recommend Animal Man 6 for anyone interested in exploring what kind of emotional depths comics are capable. An interest in Animal Man, or this series in particular, is not necessary. The scene where he tries to win his son over with one of his own Red Thunder action figures is particularly devastating, and comes from a totally honest, understated place. Chas is giving something to his son that he sincerely thinks will excite him, but the gift lands with a deafening thud. When we’re reading stories about Aquamen falling out of airplanes and Swamp Things being stabbed through the back with chainsaws, it’s nice to be reminded that comics can excel at little moments too.

We like to hold these things up to pretty close scrutiny, often applying overly academic analysis.  And usually, we can disguise our enthusiasms in sarcastic comments and copious movie references.  But it’s nice to encounter an issue like this one (or like Batman 5) that are just as deep and as nuanced as we want them all to be.  It makes me wonder what else I’m missing out there.  I mean,why did we start reading Animal Man in the first place?

Drew: It’s interesting; as I was reading issue 6, I largely found myself wondering why we were spending a whole issue watching this movie. As you pointed out, there are no direct parallels to Buddy Baker’s life; his character is a washed-up boozer, while Buddy is a family man who can still hold his own against run-of-the-mill street toughs. While the first issue painted Buddy as someone whose heroing days were largely behind him, the rest of the run has demonstrated just how important he and his family are to the fate of life on earth. That’s pretty different from some low-level masked avenger that the lady in HR hasn’t even heard of.

I couldn’t see what the point was, and was wondering if this movie thing was just a gimmicky diversion from the story. Then I got to the scene where Buddy’s character re-dons his costume disastrously. As he was getting the snot beat out of him by a few kids, I finally started to feel the parallel. Sure, Buddy’s chips were down right now, but just like in a redemption movie, he’s going to come back better and stronger in the end.

Then I remembered what a Darren Aronofsky movie is like.

Characters in Aronofsky films aren’t redeemed, their lives simply get worse until they die or the movie ends (whichever comes first). Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Wrestler, where the most obvious parallels are being drawn, but between Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan, I think I have a solid bead on the typical character arc for an Aronofsky movie. At any rate, I kind of doubt we’re supposed to think of this as a redemption story as much of a story of self-destruction that just keeps getting worse. The fact that Cliff’s phone cuts out at the crucial moment where that might be determined makes the whole proceeding about as ambiguous as can be.

Comics (and heck, most narratives) tend toward happy endings, throwing obstacles and low points in along the way to make things interesting. It’s hard to not be aware of that when you’re reading a comic book, so I often complain that stories are predictable. Bringing in a Aronofsky surrogate as a parallel story really throws off these assumptions; will things get better in the end, or are these characters going to be ruined by this story? I’m still pretty sure the good guys are going to win, but Lemire has done a superb job calling this into question.

I found Leon’s art here to be a wonderful evocation of Aronofsky’s visual style. I’ll quibble a bit with your description of his work here as “cleaner” than Foreman and Huet’s art; I found the brushed, almost painterly inks to be a very effective shorthand for the gritty visuals I associate with Aronofsky’s work. Colorist Lovern Kindzierski uses a much more muted palate for the film sequences, and colors almost everything matte, distinctively different from his work elsewhere in this series, which can at times look almost airbrushed. These elements work together to create the kind of drab, dreary universe that Aronofsky films seem to inhabit.

In the end, I think issue 6 effectively established a note of ambiguity to the proceedings, but I’m not sure it can work to do more than that. Moving forward, I can’t see another opportunity to stop the action for the conclusion of the movie, so I don’t know if we’ll ever find out what happens to Chas Grant. Not that we need to; this was an effective, affecting diversion, and I’m happy to leave it at that. Color me ready to jump back in with the rot vs. the red next month.

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?

4 comments on “Animal Man 5-6

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