Review: Animal Man Vol. 1: The Hunt trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 07, 2012

I admit that even though I enjoyed the DC Comics New 52's first collected offering, Justice League: Origin, it was not the kind of "instant classic" comic I was hoping for to launch the New 52. Animal Man: The Hunt is that comic.

Though The Hunt does not really take its impetus from the reborn DC Universe (aside from foreshadowing a crossover with another "Dark" title), it is nonetheless a fantastic take on the Animal Man character by writer Jeff Lemire with artist Travel Foreman, and a great start to DC's new line. Animal Man is witty and frightening, faithful to Grant Morrison's definitive portrayal but a smidge less meta, a little more pop horror. This is what the Vertigo imprint looks like meshed with the DC Universe, and it's just about perfect.

[Contains spoilers]

Jeff Lemire's Animal Man Buddy Baker is a good guy who doesn't quite fit in anywhere, a sense we got of the character in his recent appearances in the weekly 52 series and Countdown to Adventure, too. The initial text interview that Lemire conducts with Buddy (a nod, perhaps, to Grant Morrison's own talks with his character) points out that Buddy can never quite sit still -- stunt man, super-hero, activist, actor -- and yet he's had a stable marriage throughout his modern depiction. What would seem a credit to Buddy, however, is the source of most of the book's tension. Buddy is not an overly successful super-hero, but neither is he entirely present for his family; grasping at both, he succeeds at neither.

Lemire makes this worse in that Buddy learns he's an agent of the cosmic force The Red, meant solely to father and then protect his even-more powerful daughter Maxine. The reader detects a hint of jealousy on Buddy's part, and it's another complexity Lemire adds to the situation -- Buddy isn't who he thought he was nor who he wants to be. The Red wants Buddy to protect his daughter for the benefit of all humanity even if it means sacrificing son Cliff and wife Ellen, something Buddy's not prepared to do (yet).

Buddy therefore exists in this in between space, victim of a good life yet unable to please anyone, including himself. It makes for a fully-rounded character and wonderful reading, because we root for the inherit goodness of Buddy (even his name suggests someone you'd get along with) even as we can see the threads of that good life beginning to come unraveled at the seams.

One way in which Lemire demonstrates that life coming unraveled is in the book's final chapter, which shows in part Buddy's movie about a down-on-his-luck superhero, Tights. The movie finds former Red Thunder Chas Grant divorced, drunk, unable to see his son, and ultimately almost beaten to death when he puts on his costume again. The film is obviously a vision of there but what might otherwise be Buddy himself, being watched surreptitiously by Buddy's often-troubled son Cliff.

The movie underlines all that Buddy stands to lose as he takes his family on the run from the Red's opposite, the Rot. At the same time, mixed media and meta-interpretation has long been a facet of Animal Man series, and I wouldn't be surprised if we found Buddy living out Tights before too long, or if in an Alice in Wonderland twist we found out Buddy's life is the dream and Chas Grant is the dreamer, or the like.

The horror in this book evokes the early days of DC's mature Vertigo imprint and the series that lead up to Vertigo, of which Morrison's Animal Man was one. It is not gross-out horror here, but the fear of something hideous waiting for you when you turn the next page; I was reminded, for instance, of Neil Gaiman's first arc in Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. Lemire balances this with a lively amount of humor, both in superhero Animal Man's absurd family drama, the hilarious voice of precocious four-year-old Maxine, and the tropes of a family-horror flick -- Ellen and Cliff run over a Rot monster with the family car, for instance.

All of this is sold handily by artist Travel Foreman. In previews of Animal Man I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this series because Foreman's art is sketchy and distorted, but indeed it's just right for this series. He's got the facial expressions right for the family drama, but also depicts grotesquely distorted monsters -- akin to Doug Mahnke's work, perhaps, except Mahnke zigs toward science-fiction while Foreman zags to the supernatural. On occasion I had trouble telling members of the Red apart, but this is a small matter in the book as a whole.

It's only the beginning of the DC New 52, but I'm already eager for the second round of collections -- Swamp Thing gets name-checked quite a bit in Animal Man: The Hunt, and it ought be in the second collection that we see these two series come together. Lemire has already departed the other DC New 52 series that he started, Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE -- a shame but one I can't feel so worked up about, just as long as he'll be sticking around on Animal Man for a while.

I said Justice League was an accessible book? Animal Man is even more so. Don't let this one pass you by.

[Includes full covers, Travel Foreman sketchbook section]

We're going to dive back into the "old" DC Universe coming up, but I don't think you'll mind -- next is the Collected Editions review of Batman, Incorporated! See you then.
Collected Editions 2014 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

11 comments:

  1. I agree 100%, this is a fantastic series and Jeff Lemire was the perfect writer for the new Animal Man. I expect a lot more weirdness to come in Buddy Baker’s life and The Rot does not feel like an easily defeated foe, even with Swamp Thing’s help.

    My only worry is that this series could have difficulty maintaining that feeling of fear and dread once Buddy Baker overcomes his --I’m failure; I’m indecisiveness about what I want; can I protect my family?-- state of mind. Part of the reason Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run went into a very, very weird direction near the end (other than Morrison being… well you know Morrison) was that he was probably struggling to write something that was compelling and interesting.

    If anything, Animal Man will probably always be a contradiction in comics: It’s weird, abstract and wonderful -- but it’s a comic that doesn’t lend itself well to being an ongoing series by its very nature.

    Great review! I can’t wait for the next trade.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Disturbing imagery aside, Jeff Lemire's Animal Man is a delightful read. He managed to make it a simple, accessible and instantly engaging book without dumping all of the character's continuity, just like Snyder on Swamp Thing. If only more writers at DC took the same approach to the New 52.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read this #1 (as I did all the New 52 #1's) and it didn't "catch" me like Swamp Thing did (the latter being added to my digital "pull list"). I haven't read the rest of the Swamp Thing issues that I've purchased yet (as I'm still reading the digital issues together, like a collection), but considering these two series seem to intertwine, and based on your strong review, if I like Swamp Thing enough to continue onto the second story arc, which crosses over with Animal Man, I may have to go back and buy this series as well.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lemire's Animal Man has been the talk of the New 52 since release. And as interested as I have been, I have not picked up one issue (I have way too many other pick-ups for money purposes).

    So thankfully, I pre-ordered this on Amazon (which is less then $9 right now) and I should get my copy Thursday. I'll read it on my one-week vacation in Alaska. I'll watch the lovely weather at day...and read me some horrific stuff at night.

    Great review.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Animal Man is my favorite of the New 52!

    Jeff Lemire is doing great work w/ the character, the more the story unfolds I can see a lot of parallels w/ Jamie Delano's run on Animal Man. Very similar concepts w/ Maxine having powers, the regenerative abilities, not to mention Delano came up w/ the concept of the Red.

    Al that said Lemire is taking those concepts & running w/ them towards his own very different interpretations & reading Swamp Thing while not necessary does add a lot to the book.

    All in all I love this book! It continues to get even better after the issues from this trade.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is the book I've been waiting for so long! Even before it was announced and long before the New 52!
    A return to form for Animal Man!

    What's even better is that it so easily stands out even outside the whole New 52-movement.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I don't think anyone following just Swamp Thing would be disappointed by picking up Animal Man as well.

    I am not familiar with Jamie Delano's run at all, but if it's related to Lemire's, maybe DC will gift us with a collection before too long.

    Eyz, agreed that Animal Man stands out entirely apart from the DC New 52; that's not necessarily good for DC, I think. Maybe the forthcoming Swamp Thing crossover will pull the book more distinctly into the New 52 -- if Animal Man's popularity continues, I'd be surprised if DC didn't want him to join the Justice League Dark or something to help franchise.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Somehow, I didn't find this one as appealing as Grant's meta rantings passing for a comic. Maybe that's because Grant positioned his character as an everyman for the most part, while here Buddy is, for all practical purposes a "minor" agent of the red. Looks interesting though, and similar to the pre Vertigo Vertigo titles, and I will be following this one to see where Jeff takes us next.

    Also, somehow, this series seems too similar to the Doug Wheeler penned Swamp Thing series which followed Rick Veitch's run that was given the axe at the end. There it was the plant world against the fungus....the green against the gray. Maybe that's what I hate about the New 52 currently. It's more of ideas which were done before, but were heavily criticised at that time, while now they are cool, as top creators are doing them. Grant Morrison's Action Comics is another example.

    All issues of Animal Man post Morrison were excellent, and whether the writers were Peter Milligan, Tom Veitch or Jamie Delano, they definitely deserve a collection.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Aalok, I'm interested in hearing more about how Grant's Action Comics is covering ideas that were done before, but heavily criticized at the time. I hope that you bring them up when CE reviews Action Comics Vol 1. I'm not a big Supes fan, but I did decide to buy the first volume's worth (in digital format) of Grant Morrison's Action Comics. Haven't read it beyond the first issue yet though.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @CE. I absolutely 100 percent agree with your review on Animal Man. In the new 52, I tried every one of those titles, and this one was the one that surprised me the most.

    I read a lot of Jeff Lemire's work, but none of them (ie. Sweet Tooth) was as fantastic as Essex County, but Animal Man, I have high hopes it will match it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Mark:
    I will. Didn't want to tell what it was right now. Besides, I'm not sure many will see any sort of similarity, but I definitely saw some.

    ReplyDelete