Review: Animal Man Vol. 4: Splinter Species trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Animal Man Vol. 4: Splinter Species is what we call around these parts a "cool down" trade, but that's not a negative; this volume might be my favorite of Jeff Lemire's run so far. After the intense chase scene that made up this series' first two volumes, and then the climactic Rotworld crossover in the third, the "Splinter Species" story is much quieter, a traditional Animal Man story (if such a thing exists) reminiscent of a good X-Files "monster of the week"-type episode.

That Splinter contains half as many issues as the previous volume but still emerges just as powerful is a testament to how well-plotted and controlled Lemire has this series, whether telling stories large or small. As Lemire's Animal Man run nears its close, many of the themes that Lemire has touched on now come to the forefront, delivering the kind of brainy story that Animal Man series have been known for.

[Review contains spoilers]

I felt Splinter Species did well what I thought Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin Vol. 4: Requiem for Damian did not -- authentically display the loss of a child through the guise of superheroics. The Batman and Robin relationship in that title, in my opinion, has never quite felt earned, but in Animal Man, Lemire has demonstrated many times the love between father and son (when Animal Man Buddy Baker helps his son Cliff impress a couple of girls is a hilarious favorite), and also where the two misunderstand one another or let each other down. Lemire hasn't relied on the audience's past knowledge of Buddy and Cliff, but instead has created his own emotional bonds within the book.

To that end, the reader mourns with Buddy throughout the book, from his attempt to recover his son's dreams to the odd interplay between Buddy's character in the movie Tights and his real life, to his attempt to bury his grief in superheroics. Buddy's moments of levity in the book -- as when he knocks on the "cat lady"'s window looking for clues -- and also his moments of rage each equally feel natural in the context of Buddy's process. It struck me most strange that in a time of sorrow, Batman pushes his family away; the tragedy of Buddy's story is that he wants to join his family in mourning and can't.

The structure of Splinter Species is especially noteworthy. The annual that begins the book is a sad and moving tale of Buddy thinking back to an Animal Man adventure he had with Cliff; the Tights issue offers a dark reflection of the book's event, positing in essence Buddy's death instead of Cliff's. As the three-part "Splinter Species" story begins, however, Lemire begins to subtly lighten the book, in Buddy's absurd moments of levity but also in the parallel adventures of Buddy's daughter Maxine, traveling like Little Nemo through the supernatural kingdom of the Red.

Animal Man has often been a horror title but Buddy himself hasn't been a "dark" hero, and I wondered how Lemire could still buoy the book in the wake of Cliff's death. By using Maxine's story -- itself peppered with dark moments but altogether a sense of optimism -- Lemire slowly and expertly brings the Animal Man title back to the light from the initial sad opening. The book ends on a specifically superheroic note, complete with costumed supervillain, and this over-the-top ending is a perfect counterpoint to the story's journey through this book.

From the outset, Lemire's Animal Man has been a book about the intersection of family and fame (see the first page of the first book). In Splinter Species, the pendulum swings wide as Buddy has no family, but now the fame he's always wanted (though not at this price). Lemire and company keep a running faux Twitter feed going through "Splinter," and Lemire captures very well the various "typical" social media voices -- the ones that think everything Animal Man does sucks, the ones who think everything he does is great, the disbelievers, the conspiracy theorists, and so on. Buddy's adventures unfold in "real time" alongside the internet feed, and so the audience sees how Buddy is built up and brought down almost simultaneously in public opinion, and how his actions are misconstrued.

Notably, one of the major questions of Lemire's next and final volume becomes not whether Animal Man will be able to defeat Brother Blood, but whether or not Buddy will attend the awards show where he's been nominated for his movie. On one hand, the audience is hard-wired to root for Buddy and therefore wants to see him win this award that we know he wants; on the other hand, we understand how crass Buddy's appearance would seem (we are complicit in understanding that there's no good way to "spin" it) and that his enjoyment of this success would also mean defeat. Lemire offers a fantastic example here of a dilemma that stems from character, not plot. I'm also eager to see how Lemire handles the "Cliff problem"; it would seem too easy for Lemire to allow Cliff to be resurrected in the end, but I don't quite see how he can avoid it either.

Animal Man Vol. 4: Splinter Species is the most self-contained of Jeff Lemire's Animal Man books so far, not dependent on Swamp Thing or events in the DC Universe at large. In Lemire's tale of "animal Frankensteins," we get some sense of what Lemire's Animal Man series might have looked like twenty or thirty issues down the road -- a good horror story rather than a "mythology episode," with suitably gory Steve Pugh art. We won't get more of these, sadly, with Lemire's Animal Man ending after the next book, though it remains the best of news that Lemire will write Animal Man again over in Justice League United.

[Includes original covers, more character designs of misshapen animals than you could possibly want.]

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