Animal Man Vol. 3: Rotworld - The Red Kingdom is no exception. Not only does Lemire tell a surprising, scary, action-packed, and ultimately moving story, but he also carefully navigates that tightrope where so many writers before him have fallen: the dreaded comics crossover. There's great writing here by Lemire, great art by Steve Pugh, and Lemire and Scott Snyder have together constructed an impressive crossover that never feels slow nor padded and treats both the Animal Man and Swamp Thing series well.
[Review contains spoilers]
Rotworld is a good story on its own, but it bears mentioning again at the top the art of Steve Pugh (himself a veteran of Animal Man iterations past), which really makes this a must-check-out book. Pugh's work in this volume, which is somewhat heavily inked and dark, color-wise, wouldn't be right for a Superman or Teen Titans comics, but in Animal Man what I think we want is uniqueness, not necessarily clarity. But in Lemire's tale of a dystopian future ruled by the deadly Rot, Pugh delivers some of the most grotesque figures I've ever seen, misshapen humans with brains coming out of arms coming out of their heads. To some extent Rotworld even out-does Geoff Johns's zombie-fest Blackest Night, with Rot-ified versions of a cadre of DC heroes (his Cyborg struck me as especially unpleasant). Pugh's Rotworld is gory superhero horror at its finest.
But again, Lemire's story is no slouch, either. Rotworld is so readable because Lemire populates it with especially interesting characters. Were Animal Man Buddy Baker just to have met up with the Justice League in Rotworld, the story wouldn't be nearly so engaging, but instead Lemire teams him with Superman's Steel, Justice League Dark's Black Orchid, and then-Ravagers (and now Teen Titans)'s Beast Boy, three heroes deserving of spotlight and whom you'd never have expected to see together. (Lemire used much the same formula when he breathed new life into Justice League Dark.) Add to that Frankenstein, a character Lemire has written well in the past, and then book is off to a good start already.
As well, while many crossovers tend to fill pages just with action, Lemire sends the characters on a couple of "quests." This, too, is a form of page-filling, simply walking the characters from one location to another, but the "questing" atmosphere worked well with the almost swords-and-sorcery tone that the book takes in the quasi-medieval Rotworld. And Rotworld is filled with so many cool moments that utilize the entire DC Universe, from the various zombie heroes to unexpected villains like Blackbriar Thorn and Felix Faust (each late of Lemire's Justice League Dark), or the surprise appearance of Green Lantern Medphyll and then later, the crowning of Frankenstein as a Green Lantern(!).
As a continuity nut, I also appreciated that Lemire, even within the confines of the "alternate reality" Rotworld, still managed to add to plotlines spread across the DC Universe. He touches a bit on the yet-unexplained origins of Beast Boy, and I know from looking ahead that a foe of Beast Boy's from Ravagers will be troubling Buddy not too long from now. Lemire also hints at the origins of Black Orchid, whom he himself introduced in Justice League Dark, offering up the mysterious "Project Taproot." To some extent I thought this was just a throwaway tease for Dark, but then Taproot comes up again later in the book in a way that suggests Animal Man might have more to do with it.
Rotworld - Red Kingdom arrives where Animal Man has been hinting it would go for a while -- the death of Buddy's son Cliff. That it's a Swamp Thing character that does it, rather than an Animal Man character, fully realizes this as a "crossover" that works. I suspected it was coming, but then Buddy has a vision that says "the boy ... won't be dead yet," and I dared to think Cliff might make it out alive; only in retrospect did I realize the vision meant the young William Arcane, who kills Cliff, and not Cliff himself. This is a dire turn for the book, one that makes me wonder how Lemire can ever portray Buddy as a "happy" hero (which he generally has been) ever again. I tend to side with Buddy's daughter Maxine here that maybe indeed Cliff isn't dead, but I also recognize that, as a cat avatar points out in Lemire's emotional "The Funeral" issue (#19), as being perhaps a bit of denial. Then again, this will not be the first time members of Buddy's family have been killed and resurrected, so maybe Cliff's fate remains to be seen.
The book owns up to another bit of its foreshadowing in the end, when Buddy becomes essentially his character from the in-story movie Tights, a washed-up superhero and estranged from his wife and family. Lemire's Animal Man has been a story about family, and again, it's teased Tights from the start, so I trust Lemire knows what he's doing. I bristle slightly at the portrayal of Ellen Baker as "shrill wife who can't understand her husband's just trying to save the world," but again, I trust that Lemire has somewhere specific he's going with all of this.
In terms of the crossover aspects of Rotworld, I had read Animal Man Vols. 1 and 2 and also Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing Vols. 1-2 before I read Red Kingdom, and I was not at all confused about who was who or doing what. The structure is that Animal Man and Swamp Thing come together for their issue #12s (both of which are collected in both series' Rotworld volumes), then each series goes its own way for issues #13-16, and then they come back together for the issue #17s (again double-collected).
There was a little bit in Animal Man #17 where I didn't recognize some members of Swamp Thing's Rotworld team, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment. If you were going to read the Red and Green Rotworld books together, you might read Animal Man #12 and Swamp Thing #12, then issue #13-#16 of Animal Man and issue #13-16 of Swamp Thing, and then finish the two books off (issue #17 of each and then on from there) and you'd get the whole story with reasonable cohesiveness.
There's no better news than that Jeff Lemire keeps "ownership" of Animal Man, moving over to Justice League United. Animal Man Vol. 3: Rotworld - The Red Kingdom is a fine piece of work by Lemire and a worthy next chapter in the series. I'm happy to see Lemire writing about Animal Man for a long time to come.
[Includes original covers and "WTF" gatefold cover, sketchbook section]
Next week, more Animal Man and Legends of Red Sonja. Don't miss it!