By: Jeff Lemire (story), Steve Pugh (art), Lovern Kindzierski (colors)

The Story: They may be shady people in a podunk motel, but it’s not what you think!

The Review: Ten, fifteen, or maybe twenty years in the future, I predict Lemire will be a renowned writer, famous for his revitalization of Animal Man, just as Grant Morrison is now for the same thing.  Just like Morrison, Lemire is pushing the boundaries of where our star character can go, only instead of driving Buddy Baker out to the furthest reaches of space, Lemire dives deeper inward into Buddy’s inner mythology.

The Green has always had a fairly rich lore, with its Parliament of Trees and avatars and prophecies, and Lemire has made it his goal to give the same kind of richness to the Red, which now not only has its own venerable council in the Totems, but also a whole landscape of “geographical” features, a warrior class of agents patrolling it all as a national guard against the Rot, and even a castle headquarters, the literal heart of the Red.

And while Lemire may be responsible for conceiving all these ideas, we learn that it’s Maxine who brought them all into being within the story, apparently even without her knowledge.  Over in Swamp Thing, a lot has been made of Alec Holland as the Green’s ultimate warrior, but here, a lot has been done to make it clear how powerful Maxine is.  Yet while changing the nature and shape of the Red is nothing to write off, these are only superficial demonstrations of power; it has no bearing on Maxine’s ability to fend for herself in a brutal war against merciless enemies.

Which is why Ellen’s refusal to accept the Justice League Dark’s help or even to listen to their warnings seems, to put it frankly, incredibly stupid.  True, we have the luxury of dramatic irony on our side to recognize what use the JLD could be to the Baker family right now, but Ellen’s acting as if she can just ignore everything that’s happening around her is shortsighted to the extreme.  It sure makes good on Xanadu saying, “I looked further into this terrible world that should not be, and I saw who was responsible…I saw you, Mrs. Baker.”

After she turns her back on the JLD, things go downhill so quickly it’s almost comical.  This series has long foreshadowed Cliff as the character in most danger: a kid without any powers to speak of, and also without much apparent intellect, skill, or anything that might help him survive a violent threat.  In short, he’s a typical kid in the ever-risky comics world, easily misled and easily tempted, and thus a perfect pawn for the Hunter disguised as his dad.

This Hunter is what prevents the Totems from sending Buddy back to make things right, and for a moment it all seems hopeless.  But remember when Maxine abandoned her ravaged body in #8 to make a new one from scratch?  It seems the Totems as a group can do the same, and perhaps add a few new features in the process, leading to a whole slew of possibilities for Buddy.  Will he finally move on from the animal-channeling powers (which, let’s face it, have done nothing for him during this whole ride), and will he become totally altered, like his Green counterpart?

Pugh has definitely made this series his own by this issue.  His approach to character still feels a bit overdone, going a little too big with the drama in certain scenes (bulging eyes, gawping mouths, and radiating “shock lines” abound), but his approach to the supernatural is organic, primal in its appeal.  The imagery of humanoid canines with wings and skeletal armor shouldn’t look so awesome, and yet it does.

Conclusion: There’s a lot happening here, but it’s mostly world-building and groundwork for the next major showdown.  Still more than substantial enough for your money, though.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – You got to love that Constantine won’t let even a kid get the last word on him.  Cliff: “That trench coat went out of style in the eighties, by the way.”  John: “Yeah?  So did that mullet.”