Animal Man #5

Animal Man #5

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When we were all making our snap judgments on what New 52 books to buy last June, I’m willing to bet that few if any readers accurately guessed what they’d be in for with Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman‘s Animal Man. Though I predicted a quality read based off of Lemire’s previous Top Shelf publications, nothing about those books or this character would have led me to guess that Animal Man would become one of the premiere horror titles in DC’s lineup, if not its very best. Yet here we are five issues in and Animal Man still finds ways to shock me visually that no other mainstream comic pulls off. Though there are plenty of good books to come out of the New 52, I’m not sure any swing for the rafters as consistently as this one, and it makes reading this title a very rewarding experience.

The atmosphere and uniqueness of the book’s due in large part to artist Travel Foreman, who previously had done some work for Marvel and Dark Horse, but almost certainly nothing like this. Foreman’s art, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, is ugly, even hideous — at least when it needs to be. So far Animal Man has seen its title hero battling grotesque fleshy abominations and all manner of monstrous creatures, and Foreman’s demented pen — is it too easy to say it’s a bit Dada? — captures all of these visuals perfectly. Animal Man #5 sees Buddy throwing down with the Third Hunter (a creature with like four legs, two torsos and no arms) and then being given a terrible vision of his daughter’s future. It’s those few pages that comprise the latter, sitting right in the middle of the book, that creeped me out the most, especially when (spoiler alert) Maxine eats Buddy’s face off. Yikes. Foreman here creates visuals that are both psychologically and physically frightening, a rare and valuable combo.

But when it comes to the art, it’s not all grossness and deformity. In this issue I started to note some other, more subtle tricks Foreman employs to keep this book looking sharp. For instance, you’ll notice that Buddy’s never seen with anything like normal, human body language — he shifts his stance from panel to panel in keeping with whatever animal powers he’s channeling at the time. That’s both a cool visual representation of his abilities and a nice way to set the mood for a scene. I’m thinking in particular of the part in this issue where Buddy gets in Socks the Cat’s face by hunching over and snarling like another cat, a wonderful moment.

As for the writing, for anyone who’s followed Jeff Lemire’s indie work, I can’t imagine this book being a disappointment. In some respects it’s certainly the most “out-there” of Lemire’s work (although Sweet Tooth might give it a run for its money) but throughout all its dimension-hopping and world-shattering threats it manages to stay grounded in something Lemire always pulls off excellently: family relationships. The Baker clan lives at the heart of Animal Man, and every character in it gets a chance to shine — though really, it seems Maxine may be more the star of this series than Buddy (Animal Girl?), and she does some pretty remarkable stuff with her newfound powers towards the end of this issue. One of my favorite characters throughout has been Ellen, Buddy’s wife, who keeps a level head necessary to balance out all the fantastic action, and in this issue we get a chance to spend time with her mother, who’s just as entertaining. Without this family dynamic to power it, Animal Man wouldn’t be half the book it is, and as much as the extrinsic threat of the Rot propels this book forward, it’s really the intrinsic threat — that the nuclear Baker family might be torn apart — that really lends this book its drama.

Animal Man is a pretty big success sales-wise and a giant one critically. For a few months I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. I mean, there are self-evident reasons why this book is great, but I haven’t quite been able to determine why it’s topped so many year-end lists (like mine). If I had to venture a guess, I’d say it’s because Animal Man reads like an indie book but has the might of one of the Big Two publishers behind it. It’s really refreshing to see DC take such a chance on a book that on the surface doesn’t seem to have mass appeal. Costumes are few, flashy displays of power even fewer, and there aren’t really any supervillians to speak of. In their place we get shadowy supernatural threats set against typical family relationships. It would be hard to imagine an ongoing Superman book, say, where half the time was spent focused on a nuanced portrayal of Lois and Clark’s relationship (yes, I know it’s been undone) and the other half showed Clark fighting some undefinable threat you couldn’t make action figures out of, as good as that could be. Might that explain the appeal of Animal Man? Is this book our best example of superheroes grown up? Something to consider.

tags: animal man, Jeff Lemire, travel foreman

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