And the best part of all was that one day… when they were all real old and had lived happily for a long, long time, they would die, too…
Scott: This statement, made by a four year old finally processing the meaning of her brother’s death, underlines the tragic nature of the final issue of Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man. It’s both the realization her father, Buddy Baker, needed her to make, and the promise he knows he can’t keep. Not every family gets to live happily ever after, especially not when the patriarch has as many responsibilities as Animal Man. This issue shows Buddy doing whatever he can to make sure everyone around him gets the happiest ending possible, even if it’s not the fairly tale ending they desire. In the face of uncertainty, maybe that’s the best you can do.
With the Brother Blood threat eliminated, this issue is devoted to wrapping up storylines and making sure everything is in it’s right place. Lemire first focuses on Shepherd and Socks, who agree to become the new Totems of the Red, transforming instantly into their new roles.
This is the perfect ending for these characters. Firstly, they look aweslarious — that’s half-awesome, half-hilarious. Shepherd looks basically the same, just bigger and horn-ier (there has to be a better way to say that), while Socks somehow seems more dignified and also mangier than ever before. Secondly, throughout the series, Shepherd and Socks have exhibited wisdom, loyalty and perseverance — they’re exactly who you would want to lead the Red into a new era. Socks says he wants them to be different from the past Totems, and the deal they make with Buddy proves how much better they will be. Buddy will remain the Avatar, so long as it frees Maxine from any future responsibilities to the Red. Unlike the past Totems, Shepherd and Socks recognize the inanity of asking a young girl to devote her entire life to the Red, a concept she can’t even fully comprehend. They will guide the Red not only with strength and intelligence, but with a conscience — which is something it sorely needs.
Buddy, somewhat conveniently, fails to mention to the new Totems that he might be whisked away at any moment to the Seed Planet, to take over as the new Bridgewalker. This isn’t all that surprising, as Buddy knows they might not have taken his deal if they thought he wouldn’t be their Avatar for long. What is surprising is that Buddy is keeping the same secret from his family.
As Buddy promises to tell Ellen everything, the Bridgewalker pops into his mind. He chooses not to say anything. Buddy has fought so hard to put his family back together, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife that it may soon be torn apart again, for good. Obviously, that’s a hard thing to do, but what makes his silence so shocking is the fact that he might not get another chance to tell her. According to the deal Buddy made with the Bridgewalker, now that his family is safe, he could be called back to the Seed Planet at any time. In fact, it might have happened at the end of this issue. Buddy walks outside to let out a spider, then looks to the sky. The next panel shows a wider shot, and Buddy is gone. He could have gone back inside the house. Or, he could have been summoned to the Seed Planet. Considering that Animal Man is set to appear in Lemire’s upcoming Justice League United, it’s hard to believe he’s already become the Bridgewalker. In the scope of this series alone, however, I think the ambiguity is intentional. Buddy saved his family; his work is done. It’s possible Ellen will wake up and find he’s already gone, with no explanation.
It’s only fitting that original Animal Man artist Travel Foreman rejoins the series for the final issue, giving the sense that the series has come full-circle. Foreman’s style is quite a departure from Rafael Albuqurque’s, but it fits the tone of this issue nicely, foregoing the familiar sense of dread and instead imbuing the pages with a peacefulness — like maybe the Baker family really doesn’t have anything to worry about anymore. But the real treat of this issue is the passage drawn by Lemire himself, illustrating the story Maxine tells to Buddy.
Maxine’s fairy tale is about as thinly veiled a metaphor as you’ll ever see. It’s the story of her family, essentially a recap of the entire Animal Man series. To be fair to Maxine, it would be tough to make her young life sound any more whimsical than it has actually been. Lemire’s art is a perfect compliment. There’s something so innocent and childlike about his character designs — the way he draws it, this horrifying story almost feels appropriate as a children’s book. Plus, just look how cute that giraffe is! The style is actually very similar to Lemire’s art in other titles, so it’s hard to say if he was going for the childlike tone or just drawing the way he draws. Either way, I’m glad to finally see this world in his vision.
Maxine’s story summarizes the series quite well, but its true purpose is to show she’s finally come to terms with losing her brother Cliff. Maxine’s quest to bring Cliff back from the dead has long been the most agonizing aspect of the series. She’s likely too young to retain most of her memories of Rotworld or her time in the Red, but she will take away an important, universal lesson: how to cope with loss. Whenever Buddy does disappear, she’ll handle it in a healthy way.
Drew, this wasn’t a perfect happy ending. Buddy makes a lot of promises he can’t keep. He can’t give everyone exactly what they want, but he’s doing his best to make sure they have what then need to get by without him. Does that make him a hero in your book?
Drew: Buddy has a lot of heroic qualities — not the least of which are his noble intentions — but unfortunately, his deceit comes up shy of heroism. Ellen presents him with the perfect opportunity to come clean about the Bridgewalker, but he chooses to stay silent, avoiding what he knows will be a hard conversation that will only stress her out. In that way, Buddy’s actions here remind me a great deal of Walt’s decision to keep his cancer secret in Breaking Bad (Spoiler alert: that choice didn’t presage the world’s best decision making) — it aims to spare them of some immediate heartache, but will only blow up when they do eventually find out.
It’s a strange little thread that Lemire pointedly leaves dangling, which sticks out all the more in light of how neatly everything else wraps up here. This kind of storybook retrospective that also points the way forward for the characters reminds me a great deal of Lemire’s conclusion to Sweet Tooth. Both finales pick up after the conclusion of the series’ main struggle, and paint a nuanced picture of the new normal that will live on beyond the scope of the narrative itself. It’s a beautiful way to end a story — kicking it off gracefully into the imaginations of its readers — even if it’s ultimately more than we can hope for in the issue-a-month grind of superhero comics publishing.
That is, I’d like to think of this as a “happily ever after” kind of conclusion, but we know we’ll be seeing Buddy in Justice League United. In that light, I think the unresolved Bridgewalker thread offers a compelling reason to revisit Buddy’s story — it isn’t over, after all, no matter how much this issue suggests otherwise.
A lot of that sense of closure is courtesy of Maxine’s youthful perspective. Her resilience is able to turn even death into a happy ending. Of course, she’s seen a lot more than the average four-year-old, and Lemire seems to suggest that her perspective here is one borne of wisdom, not naïveté. Take a look at the giraffe here, at the conclusion of her story, versus the one Scott included above. It’s markedly less cutesy, which tells me that the childishness of those early panels is very intentional on Lemire’s part, and may reflect Maxine’s subjectivity in important ways. Is she just more grown up now, or does this reflect some kind of projection about how she imagine’s she’ll feel when she dies? Or maybe the childishness is the affect, which she puts on at the beginning because she knows how naïve she was at that time?
Whether it’s acknowledging or anticipating a change, Maxine’s perspective allows Lemire to wrap things up with a storybook ending without making the actual conclusion of the story overly saccharine — essentially having his cake and eating it, too. It’s a brilliant move, and one that I think is cemented by the return of Foreman in the “real life” sections of this issue. His style is decidedly less cartoony than Lemire’s (or even Albuquerque’s), but it’s just as stylized. That is, the non-storybook version of this story is just as fantastical, it’s just of a different flavor. I’m particularly enamored of Foreman’s treatment of backgrounds — only enough detail to establish the setting, keeping us firmly focused on his characters. This allows him to get a little more abstract once the setting has been established, dropping out all of the background elements in Maxine’s room, reflecting Buddy’s assurances that his family is the thing he cares most about in this world.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe how breathlessly this series ran from arc to arc, all dead-focused on Buddy’s relationship with his family. That Buddy has a family has always been the point of this series, and I think this finale illustrates that beautifully. In essence, this is exactly what the final issue of a superhero title should look like: it ties up the series’ story while still leaving the main character with stories left to tell. Buddy may need to be back in perpetuity, but at least for now, his family is at the end of an important chapter in their lives. I think we can all agree they’ve earned a little rest.
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?