Review | Animal Man #1

Stuntman, superhero, animal-rights activist, actor: Buddy Baker has done it all in his exciting but sometimes aimless life. The one constant behind everything is his family. Married to the lovely Ellen and father of two kids—ten(ish)-year-old Cliff and his younger sister Maxine—Buddy’s home life is the rock that keeps him grounded on all his other adventures. Which makes him the perfect character for a relaunch in DC’s New 52.
If you’re a DC exec looking to lure back old comics readers (even as you create new ones with the digital downloading), reviving Animal Man, a cult-classic series from the late '80s, is a no-brainer. Lapsed readers are in their thirties or forties now, and many (if not most) have families of their own. Why not appeal to them by bringing back your one hero known for having a wife and kids? (Well, DC could’ve kept Wally West as the Flash, but that’s another topic entirely.) In this thrilling first issue that promises to be much more horror- than superhero-based, Buddy seems to be embarking on a new career as indie actor, but what happens when his home life spins out of control? (I’ll say no more, because spoilers suck.)
A C-list nobody from the '60s, Animal Man rocketed to cult-classic stardom in the late '80s under the pen of a then-little-known Grant Morrison. (That boundary-breaking 26-issue run, collected in three trades, is well worth seeking out.) Today the character lives on in the nimble mind of Jeff Lemire, a Canadian cartoonist with plenty of indie bona fides: His Essex County trilogy, published by Top Shelf, was named one of Canada’s top five novels of last decade—that’s novels, period, not just “graphic novels.” For readers who know the backstory of Buddy Baker, this first issue provides plenty of subtle nods to the past (including some meta touches, like the introductory text page featuring a Q&A with Lemire, as a journalist, interviewing Buddy).
None of that past history gets in the way of this new introduction for first timers—I even checked in with a self-proclaimed “Marvel zombie” who loved this comic, never having read an issue of Animal Man before. Still, it’s worth noting that the concepts Lemire is playing with owe as much to Jamie Delano as to Morrison. With some savvy world-building in the '90s, Delano introduced “The Red,” the metaphysical network linking all animal beings, analogous to “The Green” that binds all plant life in Swamp Thing. (These two books will be natural partners in their little horror corner of the new DCU.) Delano also elevated young Maxine into a major player in Buddy’s adventures; both of those innovations heavily influence Lemire’s smart take.
Taking the reins on the art is Travel Foreman, a little-known quantity who looks ready to make a big splash. At first blush, the visuals seem hit-or-miss; the comic starts out with an incredibly sterile feel, a look abetted by colorist Lovern Kindzierski’s initially flat palette. (Also, what home with two young kids look that neat and tidy?) But Foreman is just setting up a powerful contrast before the nightmare half of Buddy’s story kicks in. And I mean that literally: The mostly black-and-white pages of Buddy’s sleep-induced prophecy of doom are full of depth, nuance and dread. This book doesn’t look like any other right now, which is exactly what DC needs if it’s going to keep itself, and monthly comics, vital in the 21st century.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)