Scott: Nothing is more universal than a parent wanting to provide a safe place for his or her children. And I’m sure nothing is more frightening to a parent than the prospect of failing to provide that safety. For many species- let’s say, spiders, for example- that safety comes at a premium, and many who are born fail to make it to adulthood. That fear has become a reality for Buddy Baker, as he has seen his son Cliff die and been forced to wonder how he could have better protected his child. Animal Man Annual 2 thrusts Buddy’s grieving to the forefront, as writer Jeff Lemire explores a particularly touching and incredibly frightening experience Buddy and Cliff once shared.
A week after Cliff’s death, Buddy sees his son’s image in the tabloids, which sends him into a fit of rage and, then, deep into his memory bank. Four years earlier, while Ellen was pregnant with Maxine, Buddy was still discovering his Animal Man powers. After defeating Biowulf, Buddy picks up Cliff from school, but they are sidetracked by another emergency: giant spiders, who take everyone, including Cliff, into the sewers. Buddy follows and finds the Spider Queen, Anansa, who has mindreading powers and intends to harvest the humans’ bodies- and dreams- to feed her young. Buddy negotiates with her, allowing her to keep their dreams if she lets them live. With Cliff finally free, Buddy heads to the hospital- Ellen is in labor! Buddy realizes that all parents just want a safe place to raise their children, and so he finds Anansa again and helps her find a place to live. Now, in the present, Buddy visits Anansa, and she returns the favor by allowing Buddy to see Cliff’s dream.
This Annual couldn’t have come at a better time for Animal Man. The reverberations of Cliff’s death have been felt in each of the recent issues of Animal Man, but this is by far the most beautiful eulogy Lemire has given him. The Annual issue format offers an extended look back at the most significant event in the Baker family’s lives over the past year, while simultaneously delivering a sense of closure for Buddy. In letting Buddy experience Cliff’s childhood dream, Lemire has created a device so tear-jerking it’s almost unfair. Just look at the image above. Cliff’s dream was just to spend more time with his dad. Come on, man! My eyes are sweating.
This issue exemplifies one of the things Lemire’s Animal Man does best: striking a balance between beautiful and disgusting. Leave it to Lemire to turn a story about giant spiders into an appeal to the heart. The central theme of the issue is one everyone can sympathize with- humans or spiders, we all just want a safe place for our families. And in the Spider Queen, Lemire seems to have found the perfect embodiment of the beautiful/gross duality.
Maybe it’s cheating to make the plight of the spiders relatable by using a beautiful humanoid woman as the Spider Queen, but damn is it effective. Lemire draws a great parallel between the pregnant belly of Anansa and the pregnant Ellen. It isn’t hard to see how Anansa would want what’s best for her young spiderlings just as Buddy and Ellen would want what’s best for Cliff and Maxine. The fact that Anansa wants to feed her childrens’ minds as much as their bodies will momentarily make the fact that she gives birth to giant spiders seem unimportant. She’s just like us! (Stop thinking about the whole spider thing. I know it’s hard.)
As sweet as the message of this issue is, it also features elements of true horror. Artist Travel Foreman delivers some absolutely terrifying images. I can’t remember wanting to flip past a page as quickly as when I saw Buddy morphing into a horrible spider-monster.
I apologize for making you look at that again. An abdomen bursting open with spiders crawling out of the intestines? In one image, Foreman manages to combine the two worst fears I never knew I had. As much as enjoy Steve Pugh’s work on this title, it’s fun to get a look into another demented artist’s mind once in awhile.
Animal Man Annual 2 is about as complete a comic as you could ask for. In addition to the beautiful, gross and scary moments, Lemire sprinkles in humor (the hilariously named “Biowulf”) and heartbreak (Buddy’s confession to Anansa that he failed to protect Cliff). It is a contained story that fits into the ongoing narrative of the series and could very well serve as a remarkably beautiful cap to the major storyline of Cliff’s death. I can’t imagine the impact of Cliff’s death will be forgotten in the coming issues of Animal Man, but I would have no problem with this issue serving as Buddy’s ‘coming to terms’, so to speak, with the loss of his son.
So Shelby, what did you think? I guess if someone really really really hates spiders, I could see how they wouldn’t like this issue. Otherwise, I can’t think of anything. Can you prove me wrong, or do you feel the same way?
Shelby: Honestly, I thought I was done being heartbreakingly sad about Cliff’s death, but Lemire’s just got to go and prove me wrong. He perfectly captures Buddy’s grief in his rage over Cliff’s photo in the tabloids, but he adds to it bittersweet memories of happier times and the soul-crushing confession that Buddy failed his son.
Scott, I’m glad you pointed out the comparison between preggers Ellen and constantly birthing live spiders Anansa. I was thinking about the connection of parenthood that Buddy and Anansa share; would the fight have gone differently if Buddy weren’t a father? Instead of sympathizing with Anansa, who only wanted to provide for and protect her children, would he have just seen her as yet another conveniently animal-themed monster for him to smash into? Because he’s a father, Buddy can recognize the situation for what it is, just like Anansa understands his pain when he comes to her for Cliff’s dream.
That’s such a beautiful image, not of hero and monster but of one parent comforting another. Not only do we have a completely unexpected protagonist/antagonist relationship, I think this is the only time we’ve seen Buddy comforted after Cliff’s death. Feel free to call me a liar, but Ellen has always blamed Buddy too much for what happened to Cliff to be able to offer him any sort of comfort. She’s got her mom duties to help distract her, and her own mother to go to when it’s too much, but all Buddy has is a spider queen abomination.
Speaking of “beautiful images,” it’s great seeing Foreman on this title again. I love Pugh’s fleshy grossness, but Foreman has had a special place in my heart since his nightmarish “Maxine Eating Buddy’s Face” issue 5 cover. His style is sketchy and stylized, dark and gritty. And gross: let us not forget the Buddy to spider transformation. Like Pugh, Foreman can capture the disgusting and horrifying nature of this title without sacrificing beautiful, intimate character moments. I mean, who would have ever thought an image of a spider woman amalgamation comforting a man in her web would be so moving? Poor Buddy, curled up in a ball, in so much pain and yet thanking Anansa for giving him his son’s dream…Excuse me, I have something in my eye.
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?