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.
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.