There’s a striking similarity between Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man Vol. 2: Animal Vs. Man and Scott Snyder’s first volume of Swamp Thing, Raise Them Bones. It’s in Animal Vs. Man that Lemire most directly revamps the Animal Man character, revising his origin and making him more specifically Lemire’s; Snyder did the same thing right away in Raise Them Bones, presenting a Swamp Thing significantly different than what had come before. The change, however, is easier to digest in Animal Vs. Man, given that Lemire gave us a volume of “traditional” Animal Man before he began to alter things.
While Animal Man Vol. 1: The Hunt largely introduced Animal Man Buddy Baker’s supporting cast and set up the direction of the series, Animal Vs. Man is much more Buddy’s book — Lemire hones and enhances Animal Man before the “Rotworld” crossover to come.
[Review contains spoilers]
“Let me tell you about the weirdest dream I ever had …” So begins the third chapter of Jeff Lemire’s Animal Vs. Man, the first part of the story “Extinction is Forever.” No slight against the first two chapters (which includes a great bit with Buddy’s daughter Maxine reminiscent of a similar scene in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing), but “Extinction” is where Animal Man really gets going. That “weird dream,” of course, is one of the best-known moments from Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Animal Man (now coming out in omnibus), in which Buddy actually meets Morrison and Morrison reveals to Buddy that he’s a comic book character. “As strange as that dream was,” Lemire’s Buddy continues, “it was nothing compared to this.”
Lemire throws down an ambitious gauntlet here, to suggest his Animal Man story might be more outrageous than Morrison’s fourth wall-breaking one. And Lemire’s story is not in Morrison’s league, ultimately, but it’s still exceptionally good, as Buddy begins a trek across an increasingly medieval Red, the source-dimension of his powers, seeking new life after Buddy is killed by the marauding Rot.
In this King Arthur/Heart of Darkness mash-up, Lemire sends Buddy on the classic hero’s quest and, as is usually the case, Buddy emerges with a healthy dose of self-actualization. Literally rebuilt from nothing, Buddy becomes a wilder, more horrific Animal Man — now Lemire’s own, and playing to the strengths of artists Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh, among others, as when Buddy sprouts a cheetah’s snout and wings. This is a new Animal Man for a new era, the New 52 Animal Man, and it feels right and natural for Lemire to introduce him at the end of his second year (as opposed to the new Swamp Thing that lead off that character’s series).
Lemire’s changes to Animal Man aren’t just cosmetic, however. Lemire also takes on the Morrison origin, recasting the multiversal yellow aliens who gave Buddy his powers now as the Red’s “tailors,” who both build Buddy a new body and, we see in the Zero Month issue, pretended to be aliens when they first gave him the Red’s powers because alien interference would be “something he can comprehend.”
Far from causing any offense, Lemire’s joint preservation and alteration of the Morrison origin is exactly what writers should do in revamping a character. The simplicity of Lemire’s origin story — Buddy gets his powers and immediately resolves to be a superhero — is no accident and instead echoes the Silver Age aesthetic of Buddy’s original appearances; I also liked that Lemire tied Buddy’s origins to the first appearance of Superman in the New 52 universe, reinforcing the momentousness of that event and how it reverberated throughout this new world.
It bears mentioning that however excellent Lemire’s characterization of Buddy and especially of Buddy’s son Cliff and daughter Maxine are, the new Animal Man series wouldn’t be half what it is without artists Travel Foreman and now Steve Pugh (who drew Animal Man the last time around, too), with Albert Ponticelli. The goat-men and Rot-beasts and half-deformed animals separate this book from the others on the stands around it; story and art come together in the final, nail-biting sequence in which I really wasn’t sure whether Buddy would be able to save his son from the Rot or not.
If there’s a hitch in Animal Vs. Man, it’s that Buddy’s wife Ellen’s growing upset over his superhero life begins to make her a one-note character. I grant that Buddy wasn’t Animal Man when he and Ellen married, and that having undead animals chase your children would be disconcerting, but Animal Man has long been a “family sitcom”-type book (with room for horror, gore, and metaphysics) in which Buddy and Ellen balanced raising kids and superheroics. That Ellen blames Buddy for the craziness in their lives is almost nonsensical — he neither gave himself his powers nor did he cause the Rot to target them. Lemire’s Ellen comes off as overwrought and shrewish; the reader knows Buddy has to go fight the Rot, so Ellen is constantly in the wrong, and this is a poor position for one of the few wives left in the New 52 DC Universe.
But that shouldn’t give anyone pause in picking up Animal Man: Animal Vs. Man, which in total is a great sequel to Animal Man: The Hunt and remains one of the top books of the New 52. Animal Vs. Man also nicely includes a surprisingly long — six pages! — preview of Animal Man Vol. 3: Rotworld: The Red Kingdom, which is a lovely treat — thanks, DC!
[Includes original covers; sketches by Pugh, Ponticelli, and Timothy Green; “Rotworld” preview]
Next week, Catwoman and Batman: City of Owls. Don’t touch that dial!