Monday, September 12, 2011

DC New 52 Review: Animal Man #1

I'll admit to not being very familiar with Animal Man. I've read some, but not all, of the Grant Morrison trades (of course, in this New 52 reboot, that shouldn't matter. You should be able to come in cold to any one of DC's new #1s and understand them), and while I enjoyed them, the character never stuck with me. It was Morrison's treatment of Animal Man that I found most interesting. In truth, I tend not to follow characters so much as creators. Animal Man himself has simply never been compelling enough for me to collect his title(s). He's a guy who can channel and harness the physical abilities of animals, right? OK, now tell me an interesting story about him. Make me care.

In a single issue, writer Jeff Lemire did just that.

Animal Man #1 opens with a brief "interview" between Lemire and his titular character, ostensibly as a way to introduce Animal Man's place in the DC New 52 status quo. Buddy Baker is a former Hollywood stuntman who, for the last three years DCST (DC Standard Time), has been moonlighting as the superhero, Animal Man. His bond with the animal kingdom, however, has opened his eyes to the way animals have been treated by mankind. Because of this insight, Baker has taken a step back from superheroics and instead has been focusing his energies on being an animal rights activist. He is also a family man, married for 10 years with two young children. How does a superhero juggle all these responsibilities? Work, family, superpowers. It's a great concept for someone of Lemire's talents and aesthetic to play around with.

I've read some of Lemire's Essex County Trilogy stories, as well as his post-apocalyptic Vertigo series, Sweet Tooth, which feels like an indie hipster take on the genre, not that there's anything wrong with that. Lemire, whose work is sometimes quirky and oftentimes dark and angsty, puts a unique, humanist spin on his otherwise fantastical stories, and when I read that he was going to be writing the new Animal Man series, I became curious. What would he do with a superhero character set in this newly rebooted DC Universe? (Yes, I know Lemire wrote some "Brightest Day" and "Flashpoint" stories, but I couldn't bring myself to care about any of that stuff, the lone exception being 100 Bullets co-creators' Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's brilliant Batman: Knight of Vengeance, which I simply thought of as an old-school "Elseworlds" story. But I digress.)

The first half of Animal Man #1 is for the most part straightforward superheroing, albeit well-done superheroing. There are some nice scenes between Buddy and his family (his daughter wants a puppy and his wife wants him to return to being a superhero because "[he] just seemed happier then." Then Buddy's son rushes in and tells his father about a hostage situation at a local hospital and we're off!

Animal Man of course averts disaster at the hospital (which is a melancholy, almost poignant sequence that really illustrates why Lemire is a great fit for this book) and then things start to get ... weird. But in a good way.

Buddy returns home from the hospital and, after nabbing "the napping ability of a cat," quickly falls asleep. We're then treated to a beautifully-illustrated, mostly black-and-white dream sequence, in which Buddy is confronted by creepy, nightmarish visions of his son and daughter, and of three "bad things that dress as hunters," twisted, mutated creatures that would appear right at home in an H.R. Giger exhibit. I was already hooked on this book after the hospital scene, but the dream and the chilling last page cliffhanger are what reeled me in. The last few pages are great setup for the larger, overarching story that Lemire is telling and he has me for the long haul. As long as Lemire's writing this book, I'm reading it.

Accompanying Lemire on this journey is artist Travel Foreman, whose work has always been hit-or-miss with me. His art always either seems to be too sketchy, too heavily inked, too blotchy. His pacing is solid and the action sequences flow well, but I'm not entirely sold on him just yet. He draws animals really nicely, though, which is a definite plus in a book called Animal Man. But it's telling, I think, that the surreal black-and-white dream sequence is the best-looking part of the book.

That being said, one week into DC's New 52 initiative, Animal Man is hands down the best title so far. It has humor, heart (almost literally) and humanity, and a big dose of creepiness. It's like Vertigo invaded the DCU, and, I hasten to add, the DCU is better for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment