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SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Animal Man #1

A comic review article by: The Firing Squad
Buddy Baker is a Hollywood stuntman turned family man superhero Animal Man turned indie cinema sensation. But what happens when he starts bleeding out of his eyes?

Brandon Billups:
Nick Hanover:
Chris Kiser:




Brandon Billups: FIVE TRANQUILIZER DARTS (NOT BULLETS) USED TO SEDATE AND RELOCATE ANIMALS TO MORE SUITABLE HABITATS


If you read target="new">my other Slugfest review this week, you probably got the impression that I'm a Grant Morrison stan of the highest order. With the exception of Sebastian O (can someone please explain to me what this comic is about?) I've loved every work of his I read. So when I found out Animal Man was to be one of the relaunched titles for the New 52, I was excited but apprehensive. Thankfully, Jeff Lemire is writing it, and seems to have a great grasp on the character.



First thing's first: the opening page of this comic is easily the best thing about it, and something more of the new #1s should have attempted. It's Buddy Baker (the titular Animal Man) being meta-interviewed by Lemire himself for an issue of The Believer magazine. It lays out who Buddy is, what his past has been like, what's in store for his future, and does it without any of the nonsensical "So, what can you do?"-type stuff we had to suffer through in Justice League #1. Animal Man is basically a C-list character, and for a new reader this introduction is a godsend. For an experienced reader, this is a primer for Buddy's new status quo.

It doesn't hurt that after the first page, Lemire and Foreman continue to nail down the "show, don't tell" concept so many writers and artists of #1 issues seem to either forget about or intentionally neglect. We get to see the Baker family, drawn very ordinarily (but certainly not skillfully), go through the motions of family life before Animal Man takes off to get his whole super hero thang on.

And like Superman in Action Comics #1, Buddy seems to have fun being a superhero. In fact, Lemire has him outright saying so. It's such a refreshment to see that the dark, brooding heroes borne out of the '90s and the grim, "we do what we do because we have to" heroes of the '00s replaced by happy characters who love what they do. Comics should be fun. People like fun. Fun attracts readers, keeps them entertained, and keeps them coming back.



Foreman's art is, while by no means inadequate, fairly par for the course for the first half of the book, until we see Buddy make a rapid-fire decision about which animal ability to use. From here on, Foreman flexes some of the most versatile artistic muscles I've seen in a good long while. I admit to having never seen his art before, but he's someone I'm going to be on the lookout for in the future. The page of Animal Man tapping into the "life web" is stunning. The cross-hatching on Buddy's face a few pages later conveys a deep, unnameable disturbance, one the reader, and likely the character himself, can feel but only guess at the consequences of. The four black and white pages (with minimal but highly effective color from Lovern Kindzierski) towards the end of the book speak for themselves, but to even try to describe them would ruin them. Let's just say I put this book down in a much more paranoid mood than when I picked it up.

On top of all this, the book ends on a fantastic cliffhanger. Not the kind that frustrates due to a lack of payoff, but the good kind, the kind that excites at story possibilities to come. Lemire and Foreman had big, big shoes to fill on this one, but they seem to fit just about perfectly.



Brandon Billups wrote a few comic reviews for Comics Bulletin a while ago, but then he was bitten by a radioactive sloth and didn’t for a long time. He has recently overcome his super-hurdles and is diving headfirst back into the world of comics to bring you the very best, and with a little luck poke fun at the very worst along the way. He has a bunch of blogs all over the internet that he can’t remember the login info for anymore. He tweets as @linguish, mostly about things that make him sound insane, but occasionally about comics too.



Nick Hanover:

Over in my Swamp Thing review, I made the claim that Swamp Thing and Animal Man "may have cornered the market on the kind of suburban horror that hasn't been seen since Poltergeist" and that might be the best way for me to sell you on this comic. Anyone who reads Jeff Lemire's work already knows that he excels at depicting the ways families can be simultaneously too close and too far apart, and in Animal Man that paradox comes from the divide between Buddy Baker the caring father and Buddy Baker as the superhero activist celebrity Animal Man. But what really makes this series stand out is how Lemire twists that juxtaposition into an engine for horror.



Lemire uses the suburban setting as a way to frame the real fear that plagues Buddy, that of threats to his family. Unlike heroes who claim the city as their territory, Buddy operates in the suburbs and, somewhat like Alec Holland in the pages of Swamp Thing, has minimized much of his superheroics. Except unlike Holland, Buddy has put his energies to different kinds of heroic efforts, specifically animal rights activism. Buddy has also turned towards acting, with a starring role in The Wrestler-referencing Tights. As the first issue kicks off, the initial threat we see Buddy facing is from that world, fretting over a The Believer interview and what impact it may have on the way the world perceives him.

Like Poltergeist, Lemire's Animal Man lulls us into a false sense of complacency in its opening. Travel Foreman's art here is purposefully flat and domestic, two dimensional in its scope and given a further level of tranquility in Lovern Kindzierski's pastel coloring. There's eight pages of family discussion and introspection before Lemire kicks off more standard superhero "action," as Buddy decides to shake the cobwebs off his costume and help resolve a situation at the local children's cancer ward, where a father driven crazy after the loss of his daughter is holding the kids patient. And even when the action starts, it remains relatively subdued, as Buddy handles the situation and does his Animal Man thing, saving the day by utilizing a cocktail of animal abilities. It's after the conflict, when Buddy is forced to think of what he'd do to protect his kids, or how he'd react if he lost them, that the horror film really starts.

Foreman's range as an artist truly makes itself known as Lemire guides the book firmly into supernatural territory, from that image of Buddy bleeding uncontrollably from his eyes and ears to the gorgeous yet deeply unsettling trip into the realm of The Red that Buddy takes as he drifts asleep, fittingly depicted mostly in black and white. Dan Green's inks help bring an extra dimension to The Red, allowing that section of the issue to have more visual depth than the suburban scenes. The art has that dream effect of seeming more real than real life, with a kind of logic that makes sense only as long as you don't think about it too much.



And yet it's by no means the most horrifying or unsettling aspect of the book, as that award goes to the issue's ending and the reveal of Buddy's daughter Maxine's abilities. Desperate for a pet to care for, Maxine instead raises all the nearby dead pets, reanimating them like they were part of some macabre petting zoo (and perhaps hinting that she and the rest of the Baker family could be popping up in Swamp Thing soon). It's a perfect ending for the issue, bringing together the more surreal aspects of Animal Man with Lemire's own interest in the meaning of family. Lemire's dialogue is still developing and it can be clunky at times, but given how perfectly he manages to balance the universal motifs of death and family, not to mention how perfectly he's paired with his art team, that's an extremely minor squabble. There's a strong possibility that this is DC's bravest new title, especially if it can remain so focused on family and the horrors that come from only wanting the best for those you loved. Still, the scariest threat of all is the specter of cancellation that hangs over this book if it gets lost amongst all the super titles.



When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.



Chris Kiser:

Amongst all the innovative concepts that have been applied to Animal Man throughout the years -- his utilization as an animal rights figurehead, the mystical spiritualization of his powers, and, of course, Grant Morrison's wielding of him as a tool to famously break through the fourth wall -- the character's rather unique position as a superhero family man has often gone criminally under-discussed. Sure, there are plenty of mainstream comics that place family at the forefront, Fantastic Four being the prime example, but most of those thrust their entire casts into the midst of the capes-and-tights action. Buddy Baker stands largely alone as head of an absolutely normal household, while still finding time on the side to dip into the "morphogenetic field" of faunal powers that make him Animal Man.



Jeff Lemire's highly promising debut on Animal Man #1 starts with presenting Buddy as husband and father, and everything else that happens in the book relates back to that premise in some way. Much of the issue focuses on Buddy, whose identity as costumed crusader is publicly known, discussing his exploits and abilities openly with his wife and kids, who integrate it seamlessly with their otherwise ordinary home life. Lemire's portrayal of these scenes is natural and convincing, creating an instant relatability to the hero. This sense remains intact even when the book transitions to more conventional superhero fare, as Animal Man's attempt to defuse a child hostage situation has him thinking reflectively about his own daughter.

Lemire's family-centric approach, however, should not be confused for one that is especially family-friendly. This series opener comprises a dark tale with a strong horror comic vibe, featuring the requisite blood and scary creatures to match. In that regard, Travel Foreman is a wonderful selection to provide the book's art, his detailed drawings locating a perfect balance between realism and the macabre. A simple glance at the issue's cover highlights both of those elements, with the accurately rendered parade of animals depicted at the hero's feet contrasting starkly with the tangled network of blood vessels protruding from his body above.

Foreman has skirted along the periphery of the comics spotlight for some time now, moonlighting mostly on mid-level Marvel books such as The Immortal Iron Fist. After seeing his work on Animal Man, it seems likely that his days in relative anonymity are soon to end. Awash in a sea of mostly old names and less than thrilling creative efforts, the New 52 has found its first breakout star.



Believe me, it's quite a relief to write those words. Though it's really only a week old, the DC relaunch has quickly served to confirm initial concerns over the impressiveness and genuine newness of its lineup, rarely ascending beyond the level of mere "okayness". Thankfully, Animal Man has burst onto the scene with undeniable proof that the superhero genre can still be revitalized and made interesting in exciting and innovative ways. All it takes is the right concept paired with the right creative team, such as the one found here in Lemire and Foreman.



Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found as @Chris_Kiser!

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