Buddy Baker, Animal Man, is often referred to as DC’s “everyman.” In Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman, Steve Pugh, Rafael Abluquerque and John Paul Leon’s 30 plus issue Animal Man run under New 52’s first wave, Baker was given his most recognizable roles as a faulted (but familiar) father, a friend, an activist, and even as a struggling actor. Lacking both the power set and emotional capacity to emulate Clark Kent, Buddy Baker is no Superman. No, Buddy Baker is a man, and a man is little different than an animal.
But Buddy is also the inauspicious figurehead for something much larger than himself. He’s the eyes and ears of the animal world, beautifully sharing and communing with it — the Red — in a way few can, as a citizen and a family member. He’s also their avatar, their immune system, and their mantle for responsibility, a superhero. More often a victim than not, his life with all of its individualized traumas expresses the global trauma and rot begetting the New 52 world.
Buddy is complex, and his story takes place firmly at the crossroads between superhero comic tropes and introspective spiritual biopic. His story is messy, beautiful, brutal, and occasionally cathartic. Most importantly, however, it’s rarely dull. It’s a truly unique (though indebted to Morrison’s run before it) take on the DC universe and its ground level citizens, the likes of which the publisher has moved away from since the book’s conclusion in 2014, and it also foreshadows a compelling career for Lemire in particular.
Still the most recent solo Animal Man title to date, Lemire’s run tells us much about the joyous heart of the New 52, and about what, in many ways, went wrong.
Animal Man is, both figuratively and literally, beautifully complex. The opening salvo from Lemire and regular series artist Travel Foreman paints a simple picture of the Bakers’ quiet suburban life and the darkness at its edges. Animal Man shows not only the darkness of Buddy’s daughter Maxine summoning Pet Semetary-esque undead animals to their front yard, but also the more mundane darkness of Buddy’s struggle for identity. At the opening of a story that will eventually take us through his blood, guts, heart, and soul, Buddy is a burnout but trying actor, a faulty and easily frustrated father, and a sometimes superhero. Lemire writes him as the embodiment of a midlife crisis, and the narrative refuses to shy away from the dark mundanity of the suburban life sapping him away. This mundanity is disconnected from The Red until the appearance of The Rot demands Buddy’s attention and reinvention.
Narratively, it is the prodigal promise of the New 52 to revisit and reinvent characters and to renegotiate what is important to them and about them in the larger picture of the DC Multiverse and among its contemporaries. Few other titles found as good a through line to explore that promise as Lemire did with Buddy struggling to find his own identity.
It’s direct but inspired, and even in its slightly circuitous storytelling (there’s a lot of driving in circles in the family RV here) and a cumbersome crossover with Snyder’s Swamp Thing and other titles for the central “Rotworld” event, it finds a lot of ways to feel dynamic with deserved stakes, from the horror-tinged storyline, to the family trauma and eventual reconciliation, and the introduction of characters like the goat ferryman Shepherd and the Red’s totems.
The book’s abrupt shift in format for its sixth issue, depicting the storyline of the award-winning movie Buddy starred in and the idealized life of his hero Red Thunder as a cipher for Buddy’s strained relationship with Cliff, Buddy’s endearing but distanced son, is emblematic of this narrative and moralistic complexity. Here’s Cliff peeking into the perfect family life, the perfect father-son life, through the feeble function and frame of his cellphone while in reality, his family is on the run in the back of their rickety RV from the end of the world (his dad and sister uniting to stop it), leaving Cliff on the sentimental sidelines. It’s subtly heartbreaking, and yet still not the only angle, as Buddy later goes out of his way to support his son’s struggle to seem cool to teen girls, the most hostile audience in the world. Derided as filler or formality in its initial run, issues like this subvert the expectations in such a way that they act as a meticulously crafted map for the book and for the New 52 in general – experimentation in form and function.
There’s a experimental, messy and weblike connection from the suffering of The Red under the rise of The Rot and its avatar Arcane (who is making a gambit to overtake both The Green and the Red, subverting the peace of balance set by the Parliament of Trees and Totems of Red), to the strife in the Baker family’s lives that is about keeping a balanced life, especially in the wake of Cliff’s death for the final third of the book’s run (and the emotional fallout therein) – a return to the Red Thunder film in its final act, reconciling the real with the ideal that leaves a deeper impression than other titles of the time.
Artistically, too, the book’s regular artists, Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh (and Rafael Albuquerque for a final arc) rise to meet the challenge of making the New 52 feel different. Animal Man for all its family heart, is a gross, gory, and unforgiving book. It doesn’t shy away from the very literal viscera that animal and people’s bodies are made of, and the cross sections of Buddy’s brain, skeleton, and even the overwhelmingly red backgrounds and settings drive home emotional beats about direness and mortality with a tinge of Lynchian existentialism for appropriate heady measure.
The world and the body are dissected in equal measure, Buddy’s distorted body acts very much like a threshold, warping and distorting in alarming ways that really explore the extent and inherent weirdness of his powers more deeply than most superhero books — the deeply memorable gross distorted cross section in issue 3 set against a sterile white background the purest example of this. The underlined interconnectedness of everything, especially in the non-crossover issues, like cracks in the cement, hair, wires, and tress and veins (Buddy gets reduced to just his bones and veins more than once) matching that of The Red on Buddy’s very body aren’t subtle, but they do forward that idea of synchronicity in a considered way.
Foreman’s art is the best here at setting an unsettling tone that the book and later artists take in stride – simplicity undercut by surprising but enthralling two-page spreads of gore and violence. Especially in experimental panels, pages, gutter designs and in pure technical prowess, the weird but considered geometry of the Red (a garden of organs, seas of blood, towers of bones) and its denizens (winged pug soldiers) add a lot to a book that might otherwise feel garish or gross, but instead feel appropriately weighty and nuanced and occasionally, winkingly, silly. Animal Man’s unfamiliarity and spectacle in equal measure with gore goes well beyond the means of most Big 2 books.
That’s the success here, the concept. Animal Man succeeds at creating something emotionally complex with the superhero world bleeding into the mundane (both in Lemire’s narrative and in the weird, arresting ways the art elevates it), but also making that outcome feel pure and real when it comes to Buddy and Maxine’s journey in particular. The final issue, “Goodnight, Animal Man,” a small, sad, conceptually lofty and self-serving story about a father and daughter trying yet again to connect and overcome tragedy, serves as a tear-jerking reminder that the whole thing has just been a journey to find the self and the Bakers’ place in the world.
In its best moments, and as an artistic expose about Buddy Baker trying as much as the creators are to find themselves, it’s inherently emotionally deep and revealing both in concept and execution.
For all its lofty, conceptual ambitions (ones that the rest of the New 52 might’ve done well to emulate, still) Animal Man still has its technical problems and misfires. Notably, throughout the central “Rotworld” arc which follows Snyder’s Swamp Thing and Lemire’s Animal Man uniting to take down the growing rot and its avatar Arcane.
The entire gimmick here is a flash forward against flashback narrative structure that is intriguing initially, but also notably repetitive. Multiple issues follow Buddy trying to make sense of the Rotworld and what led to it, while also flashing back to Maxine’s temptation at the hands(?) of the Rot’s “Hunters Two” without much actual momentum. The crossover leads to a narratively important but artistically ineffective standstill. The initial confusion and discovery is exciting, but because the Hunters themselves are underdeveloped characters, and because most of the actual Rotworld action happens in Swamp Thing, Buddy ends up feeling like a bystander to otherwise cool events such as the Green Lanterns Medphyll and Frankenstein in his own book.
This is also endemic to the larger issue with the New 52’s editorial practices. Too many important moments end up feeling like they’re happening elsewhere (the news end caps later in the run are just a further confirmation of this). Conceptually, the idea of Swamp Thing and Animal Man being companion books is interesting, but “Rotworld” is indicative of their inability to fully reconcile the promise (Lemire clearly treasures Moore’s Swamp Thing, but fails to write an effective Alec), both individually important and yet too reliant on each other to tell a coherent story outside of arresting visual moments and narrative beats. Especially when nearly 20 issues of Animal Man were centered around the same premise – admirable narrative cohesion, but also fraught — leaving Buddy’s story obviously lost in the lurch afterwards. It’s also the kind of narrative weight and dilution that Lemire would later move away from in both Black Hammer and Gideon Falls, while DC would continue to reboot and revise runs for nearly a decade to come.
This is further underlined by the constantly shifting artist presence throughout the book. Lemire’s narrative is a straightforward one, but the art keeps changing at an untenable pace both across different issues and within them individually. Steve Pugh’s art is good, as is Albuquerque’s, but their visual styles are notably different from Travel Foreman’s, which sets the tone as more existential than their straightforward superheroics. The attempt at a more thorough showcase of Animal Man’s powers in the latter half of the book, red phantoms of rhinos and apes shadowing him, is admirable and welcome for a story that too often ignores Baker’s actual power, but its strangeness is undercut by more boring and standard pages and layouts in those pivotal moments..
Had the New 52 or Big 2 comics in general provided a better way to maintain consistency and cohesion throughout the series, these problems would not exist, or they would at least be less noticeable than they are in even the book’s most important or tangibly cool and cathartic moments.
Understandable editorial misfires aside, however, Animal Man’s biggest failing is in its inability to focus on much beyond the titular character. Even in its big moments and revelations about Maxine Baker, the next Avatar of the Red, the story seemingly cannot help itself from being informed by its narrow male-centric view and Buddy’s own protests against their position and role as agents of the Red.
Buddy’s wife, Ellen, and mother-in-law are the most immediate examples of this. Lemire frequently paints them as being shrill, unreasonable and callous despite their entirely normal reaction to non-normal events. They are narrowly defined, repetitive characters that act like hurdles to Buddy and Maxine’s noble efforts. They are baggage. The story rarely, if ever, tries to rectify this until the final arc taking place after the death of Cliff – another male-driven tragedy – where Ellen is suddenly more present, more rounded, and eventually more willing to be at Buddy’s side eventually. This is a far-too-late attempt at fleshing out the book’s supporting cast that has already been undermined by tens of issues to the contrary, and one that points directly to its poorer pacing and ability to carry forward successfully following “Rotworld”. Had Ellen been more dynamic, unique, and important than Lemire allows her to be, Cliff’s death and the emotional fallout would’ve hit harder.
This is a problem repeated throughout Lemire’s other work to varying degrees, but here it’s near inexcusable, and the one true detraction from an otherwise conceptually and intellectually intriguing exploration of superhero and family. The lack of legitimate character exploration outside of Buddy and, at best, Maxine, also points directly to why the title and character have been unable to carry a solo title without a new Post-52 reinvention. These deep narrative flaws make it an obvious target for DC’s already shifting New 52 fixations.
In the end, Animal Man is a beautiful, brutal exploration of the disconnect between ideal and real. And much in the way its story and character beats are complex, so too are its success and failures. It’s impossible to read this series without being aware of the weight and baggage of the New 52 and its, at best, convoluted editorial structure and homages to Morrison’s run and Moore’s Swamp Thing. But in its best moments, it also encompasses what the New 52 was good at, or what it promised to be: it’s exploratory, radical, different and demanding.
It’s hard to look away from Animal Man both literally and figuratively because it implies a much deeper story and message about family and its function than what actually makes it to the page alongside that dreadful, damaged imagery that forwards its points about blood and body and the sinews and veins and threads connecting everything big and small.
There were — and still are as DC pushes further away from explorations like this — few stories like it to be found in Big 2 books. Instead you’ll find the superheroic pastiche in Black Hammer, the familial trauma and existential in Gideon Falls, the rest of it elsewhere. That’s the most important takeaway here, that DC no longer, or rarely, houses work like this. It’s kind of had to find a home away from what the New 52 promised but failed to deliver on wholly. It exists in opposition to and in absence of itself, and that’s almost more interesting than the story.