Today, Drew and Scott are discussing Animal Man 27, originally released January 22nd, 2014.
But as a Go game progresses, the possibilities become smaller and smaller. The board does take on order. Soon, all moves are predictable.
Maximillian Cohen, Pi
Drew: Do you ever find yourself wondering exactly how apt an analogy is? Or that it might be more apt than we realize. One of my favorite moments from Darren Aronofsky’s Pi finds Sol positing that the unlimited possibilities of a game of Go reflects the chaos of life, and Max not quite refuting his point with the quote above. Maybe life simply becomes more predictable as we move through it. That’s certainly true of narratives — what starts as a completely open field often falls into a well-worn pattern as it winds to a close. Take Animal Man: as a series, it has been as original and unpredictable as they come, but as Jeff Lemire sets up his endgame in issue 27, some of the beats feel a bit more familiar. In fact, this issue seems to employ just about every tension-goosing tool in the box, building to what promises to be a pretty spectacular two-part finale.
The issue breaks down into four separate threads: Buddy’s boss fight, the Shepherd’s last stand against Brother Blood’s invading forces, Ellen’s imprisonment for punching a smart-ass reporter, and Maxine’s last chance of escape (which unfortunately puts her right back in Brother Blood’s clutches as the issue closes). Honestly, I couldn’t think of more stereotyped climactic scenes — it’s like Lemire took a survey of the most common climactic scenarios and decided to do all of the top four.
That’s a lot of familiarity, but the issue never veers into predictability — I truly believe that anything could happen in the next two issues: Cliff could come back, Ellen or Maxine could die, Buddy could be called back to the seed planet. Lemire has made it clear throughout this series that nothing is sacred: not Buddy’s family, not his history, not even the New 52 mythology that Lemire spent the first 20-odd issues establishing. That sense that anything could happen is on full display in this issue, as Lemire (maybe) kills off one of this series most beloved characters: Shepherd.
It’s a brutal moment made all the more devastating by the fact that we see it through Maxine’s eyes. This is one of the most effective uses of a shot/reverse shot I think I’ve ever seen, as artist Rafael Albuquerque maximizes our connection to Maxine. The first shot gives us her whole face, cuing us into her fear an confusion. The reverse shot shows us in no uncertain terms what it is that she’s seeing. It’s really the final shot that makes this sequence so brilliant: Albuquerque has focused in on her eyes, emphasizing that we just took her perspective AND her tearful reaction to what just happened. It’s a simulated “Spielberg Face” (probably the closest to the War of the Worlds example in that linked video), effectively bridging the gap between sympathy and empathy.
My only gripe with this issue is that it’s a little overstuffed. Buddy has all of these new powers, but he only gets five pages to show them off. Actually, I’m not sure if spreading his climactic battle over multiple issues actually does all that much. It’s a straightforward fist-fight (albeit with Red-powered giant muscles and morphing abilities), which means we could have gotten the same out of one page that we get out of these five — even if that one page didn’t land until the next issue. I’m similarly perplexed by the inclusion of Ellen’s story. It’s a pretty transparent move to get her into a jail cell for some reason, but again, couldn’t that have been handled in fewer pages? I’m not sure stacking all of these cliffhangers actually ups the tension at all, and I think I would have enjoyed more time with the Battle of the Mountains of Muscle.
What did you think, Scott? I think Lemire did a lot to make this issue more substantial than the standard place-setting pre-climax chapter, but some of that scaffolding is definitely still showing. Does that distract you at all, or are you more willing to accept setup as a necessity? OR: do you think my pigeonholing this as set-up is a reflection of the general dismissal of the mundane and predictable in life?
Scott: I accept that setup is necessary, sure, but it is distracting when the effort to end on a dramatic cliffhanger takes precedence over the build up of actual tension. Drew, you’re right about the Buddy and Ellen stories getting more page space than they deserve. There are no significant developments in either plotline- Buddy remains deadlocked with same evil Parliament guy throughout the issue, and while Ellen gets locked up, that doesn’t actually make her any more helpless to save Maxine or Buddy, since she can’t access the Red anyway. The final image of the issue (the first one Drew posted above) looks super suspenseful, but Buddy and Ellen’s stories had to majorly stall so Maxine’s could catch up, making that suspense fall flat.
This issue seems somewhat formulaic, perhaps even mundane in places, but that just goes to show how difficult ending a series run can be, even for a terrific writer like Lemire. The nature of storytelling is to expand and expand, constantly creating a more layered world, each thread of the story constantly giving way to another. Ending a story is different, unnatural. Each thread is systematically tied off, and conclusions that once would have opened up new possibilities now lead to a brick wall of finality.
Lemire is clearly showing us what threads he’s still working on, and what’s keeping the story interesting is that he hasn’t really ended any storylines. Like Drew said, it feels like almost anything could still happen. Brother Blood appears to kill Shepherd, but in the last panel it looks like Shep’s still holding on. Socks bluntly tells Maxine that Cliff can’t come back, but whatever is about to go down in the Red is sure to be unlike anything Socks has ever seen. Even with just two issues left, and with every character currently in some form of cliched peril, I can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Lemire has taken Animal Man through many twists and turns recently, from Cliff’s death to Buddy’s Oscar nomination to the Seed Planet. I hope to see the consequences of all these events culminate in an unanticipated final flourish. Whether that’s the case or not, they’ve made for a unique and fascinating journey.
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