Comics You Should Be Reading: Jeff Lemire's Animal Man
"I realized I could make more of a difference educating people on animal rights than I could by punching out a super villain, you know? It was kind of a natural progression, an evolution."
Out of all the recently-relaunched titles making up DC Comics' so-called "New 52," Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man has been the biggest critical success. Unlike almost any other comic, sales for this title actually went up between its first and second issues, and by a whopping 16% (typically comics are expected to lose around 15-20% of their readers after the first issue), due almost totally to positive word-of-mouth. Though the book still sits more or less in the middle of DC's sales charts, it consistently racks up adoration from reviewers and passionate readers who can't get enough of Buddy Baker, a San Diego family man who can channel the power of animals around him. Animal Man is definitely a Comic You Should Be Reading.
Our titular hero has been around since 1965, when he first appeared in a weird sci-fi book appropriately named Strange Adventures #180. However, this funny-costumed dude with a strange power set wasn't exactly an in-demand character… that was until Scottish comic genius Grant Morrison reinvented him in the late 1980s and early '90s as a guy who learns that he's living in a comic book. This amazing story is one we'll talk about another day; suffice to say, it paved the way for a generation of fans to expect something a little more out of this character. Unfortunately, not too much brought attention to Buddy after Morrison left his series in the early '90s… until Grant himself brought the character back again in a more traditional superhero capacity in the 2006 miniseries 52, which some of you may be familiar with.
But, listen. None of that really matters now. DC's giant September reboot means that we can start fresh with all these characters, and start fresh we have. Writer Jeff Lemire, an indie vet behind great books like The Essex County Trilogy and Sweet Tooth, has taken the experimental spirit of Morrison but ditched all the baggage. His Animal Man #1 begins, brilliantly, with a one-page excerpt from a news magazine interview with Buddy Baker. In these new comics, Buddy has decided that he's less effective as a superhero and more interested in being a voice for animal rights. He's also an up-and-coming actor with a starring role in the not-yet-released Tights, a film about a washed-up superhero trying to put his life back together. He's also also a devoted husband and father, and it's there that the true strength of Lemire's Animal Man lies. At its core, this is a book about a family—besides Buddy there's his wife Ellen (who always provides a grounded perspective), Cliff (his rebellious teenage son) and Maxine (his 4-year-old daughter who, it turns out, has inherited some powers of her own). The whole Baker clan, not just Buddy himself, makes up the core of this book, and that's good, because they're all about to be tested.
As Animal Man #1 opens, Buddy decides to go out for a night of hero patrol, a very rare occurrence these days. While out, his animal-based powers start acting up; this coincides with nightmares about his daughter turning into some kind of murderous monster. From this, Buddy learns that Maxine has a connection to all animal life (called the Red) that's even stronger than his own, and it turns out that a group of ancient guardians called the Parliament of Flesh need Maxine—but not Buddy—to help fight off an oncoming plague of Rot. Of course Maxine's just four, and Buddy's none too happy to bring her into his world, but when agents of the Rot show up at his doorstep, he may not have much choice.
Animal Man's art, typically provided by Travel Foreman, is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. To be sure, it takes a little getting used to. Once you let it sink in, though, you'll probably enjoy it. No other mainstream monthly comic book looks like this one. Certainly Foreman's work can be a little sketchy at times, but his loose style lends itself perfectly to the different grotesque visuals that a comic with a group of characters called the "Parliament of Flesh" requires. Probably the most surprising thing about Animal Man, actually, is how much of a horror comic it is; every once in awhile these issues will surprise you with a really disturbing vision or fight sequence that, with Foreman's pencils, kind of makes your skin crawl. Consider issue #5, for instance, where Buddy imagines that his 4-year-old has turned into a spider-like monster who wants to eat his brains. Geez.
Animal Man is an indie comic in superhero clothing. It divides its time pretty evenly between relationships and horror; there hasn't been a single supervillain or other hero who's shown up yet, and usually Buddy just wears civilian clothes. Lemire knows how to work a family dynamic so, for instance, he can make Ellen Baker be a loving wife/mother that still has other dimensions. It's because all these characters seem so real and fleshed-out that we want to keep following this series. Besides that, it's incredibly daring. You couldn't imagine Travel Foreman's artwork working in, say, a Superman book (nor would he want it there, probably). In this week's issue, we even take a break from the main story to watch (read) the actual movie that Buddy acted in, Tights. How many superhero comics would do something like that with their main characters for a whole issue? How many could? That's why Animal Man stands above the rest. And it's only on issue six! That means it's super easy to catch up, especially since the first issue is on like its fourth printing by now, so there's no excuse for shops not having it in stock. Give this book a try; it truly deserves all the critical attention it's getting.
Will you give Animal Man a try?