Today, Drew and Scott are discussing Animal Man 14, originally released November 7th, 2012. This issue is part of the RotWorld crossover event. Click here for complete RotWorld coverage.
Drew: Last month, I couldn’t get over how openly writer Jeff Lemire was playing to our expectations in Animal Man. More specifically, he was setting up expectations with the express purpose of implying he was going to meet them at face value — all with an unblinking swagger that was kind of thrilling. Animal Man 14 finds him switching gears to the kinds of thwarted expectations we expect from (good) superhero comics, but that change actually makes the surprises even more surprising.
As in the previous issue, this month finds Lemire splitting time between the heartbreaking Rotworld action with Buddy and the few remaining defenders of the Red, and the even-more-heartbreaking “before Rotworld” action with Buddy’s family. In the pre-Rotworld story, the Hunters three have infected Buddy, Ellen, and Mary, and are chasing Maxine and Socks…right into the hands of one William Arcane (big surprise #1). In Rotworld, Buddy helps Constantine et al hold off an attack from the forces of the rot. Only it isn’t an attack, it’s a message: “we have Maxine” (big surprise #2) Incensed, Buddy wants to rush off into what everyone agrees is a trap, but Black Orchid is able to convince him to first seek Swamp Thing, in hopes that their combined powers might be able to defeat Arcane. They set out at once, but are ambushed in Central City. But it isn’t the Rot; it’s Gorilla Grodd and his monkey horde (big surprise #3).
Those surprise reveals are all pretty thrilling for me, but I suspect mileage will vary heavily based on immersion into the DC universe. Scott, I know you’re new to this title (and Swamp Thing, for that matter), so I suspect the presence of William Arcane didn’t garner more recognition than what his surname suggests (though I’m not sure much more recognition is really required…). This kind of casual name-dropping is becoming more common with these Rotworld titles, as Lemire and Snyder borrow characters heavily, and it isn’t always welcoming; we were completely unfamiliar with Jason Woodrue when he was name-dropped in the Swamp Thing Annual. These are rewarding — and exciting — tidbits for those in the know, but I worry if the effect is totally lost on everyone else.
As if the simple recognition game weren’t complicated enough, Lemire throws in a heavy dollop of meta-text. I joked last month about how the appearance of the Rot-ified Hawkman was a sly dig at Rob Liefeld’s run with the character, which I thought was pretty clever. Turns out, that’s exactly what Lemire was doing.
That’s Hawk, Deathstroke, and Grifter. Dove appears elsewhere in this issue, and we’ve already seen Hawkman, which means we’ve seen every character Liefeld was writing appear as a soulless, hulked-up monster. It’s funny — if not exactly subtle — meta-text, but to understand it, one must be familiar with these characters, the creative staff on their recent runs, and Liefeld’s reputation. Again: rewarding to those who recognize it, but essentially meaningless for those who don’t.
But enough about what others may or may not get — this was an exhilarating issue. Steve Pugh continues to bring the creepy crawler character designs for the Rotworld sequences, including a hilariously mobile head, straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The sequence that really kills me, though, is Socks’ pep-talk to Maxine, drawn by Timothy Greene II.
This is WAY more emotionally wrenching than any scene where a four-year-old talks to her kitty has any right to be. A LOT of zombie fiction finds characters contemplating killing their zombified loved ones, but the characters making those decisions are rarely small children. It’s a great twist on what could be a tired trope, refocusing us on what it really means for a four-year-old to be in this situation.
The reveal that Maxine is still alive may feel a bit like back-pedaling after Constantine’s declaration last month that everyone is dead AND he really means it, but it gives an added urgency to both stories. I think we already know how Maxine becomes a prisoner of the Rot, but now that we know she’s alive, Buddy has something to fight for.
So what did you think, Scott? Did the events of this issue make sense, or did you ever feel like you were being left out of something important? It’s hard for me to tell how much of my enjoyment came from simple “hey, that guy” recognition. Was there enough other stuff going on to make this a worthwhile read for you?
Scott: To be honest, I didn’t realize how much stuff had gone over my head until you pointed it out just now. I don’t recognize William Arcane, so the implications of Maxine running into him are lost on me, but the mere fact that she encountered an Arcane seemed significant enough that it felt like a natural point at which to pause that storyline for the month. It didn’t feel at all like the Woodrue namedrop in Swamp Thing, where I felt like I was missing out on something by not knowing the character’s bio. In fact, I get the sense that enough will be revealed about William Arcane in the next issue that I’d almost rather not spoil it by looking him up now.
As for the inclusion of all of Liefeld’s recent characters as Rot-infected monsters, that’s something I never would have figured out. I think it’s pretty darn cool that they would do that, but it’s totally just meant as a little wink at the more attentive regular readers. It’s a neat hidden reward for those who picked up on it like you, Drew, but I don’t think not noticing detracted from my enjoyment or understanding of that part of the story.
The reveal that Maxine is alive made me feel especially relieved, and not just because it means a four-year-old girl was not mutilated by horrifying zombies, which is generally a plus. The Rotworld storyline has become so bleak for our heroes that it’s nice to hear that someone who Animal Man cares about is still out there, just so he has a reason to keep fighting. You can tell how desperate he is to believe he might see a member of his family again — he recognizes that it’s a ploy to lure him into the rot and he doesn’t even care.
The fact that the other heroes agree to accompany Animal Man on what seems like a suicide mission, based on the glimmer of hope that someone he knows is alive, really illustrates how dire things have gotten. For a while, it looked like it was heading to a point where everyone would start fighting because they had nothing left to lose, which never felt like great motivation. But I can at least get behind the idea of fighting because your friend has something to lose. Animal Man can now serve as a source of passion for the others to draw from.
To answer your question, Drew, even with many of the references going right over my head, there was enough going on to make this a worthwhile read. The issue was structured well enough that I was drawn into the two timelines and the big reveals hit for me just based on the beats of the story, without necessarily absorbing the full impact of what they might mean. I’m curious to hear what other readers who aren’t all that familiar with Animal Man thought about this one. And to those who are regular readers, what do I need to know to put this issue into context? Am I better off just starting with Animal Man 1 and working my way through the whole series?
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?