Sunday, September 11, 2011

Animal Man #1 - A Review

Confession Time – I’ve never read any Animal Man comics.

Of course I’m familiar with the character, thanks to his starring role in 52 and his cameo in Grant Morrison’s JLA. I know he’s a devoted family man and father of two – one boy, one girl. I know he draws his power off of a connection to the primeval force of animal life (a.k.a. The Red), allowing him to replicate the natural abilities of any living creature.

Thankfully, even that small bit of knowledge was more than I needed going into this book. Writer Jeff Lemire masterfully explains all of these details and more throughout the issue. We learn about Buddy Baker’s work as a stuntman and animal-rights activist and how he recently made a bid to become a real actor. We learn that his wife Ellen is supportive but worried about his life as a superhero. We learn that his son Cliff loves having a superhero father and is perhaps a little too enthused about the danger involved. And we learn that his daughter Maxine doesn’t understand why her dad’s job makes it impossible for her to have a real pet dog like all of her friends.

Most of the issue is devoted to establishing this status quo, as one might expect in a first issue. What really makes these scenes work is how relatable Lemire makes all of the characters. The children speak like real children, with Maxine telling her dad what she wants using her stuffed dog as a proxy (“Mr. Woofers and I have a great idea.”) and Ellen and Buddy talk to each other like a real married couple. At a time when superhero marriages are being dissolved right and left in the name of making characters more accessible, it is nice to see a title that runs with the idea of a superhero/family man.

The typical superheroic action is limited to one scene in which the family meal is interrupted by a news report of a hostage situation at the children’s ward of the local hospital. It is here that Animal Man is made into a unique figure among superheroes. Buddy prefers to use compassion rather than his fists and tries to reason with a man driven to desperation by the love of his daughter (a motivation Buddy Baker can respect), only using his powers to protect himself and only using them when all other avenues are closed.

At first Travel Foreman and Dan Green seemed like an odd choice for an art team on this book. Foreman’s sense of perspective is a bit odd at some points, with some panels depicting the characters as oddly thin and angular, almost like the old Aeon Flux cartoon. Green’s inks, for the most part, are unusually thin, with most of the book having a sketch-like quality. This isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination – just different from what one usually expects from a superhero book.

But then again, Animal Man is not your typical superhero book and has never lent itself to expectations. This point is driven home in a nightmare sequence near the end of the book, where Foreman and Green’s style is eerie and appropriate. All of this builds up to one of the most shocking final pages in recent memory.

I think fans of the original Animal Man comics will be well-pleased with this issue. New readers, expecting a more traditional superhero story, may be put off by the artwork and the idea of a hero who prefers talk to fisticuffs. That is a true shame and their loss. For not only do I plan to keep reading this title, I plan to finally track down some of those Grant Morrison Animal Man comics everyone’s been saying I should read.

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