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

The Story: And this is why you never teach your children to be heroes.

The Review: I’ve always seen Swamp Thing and Animal Man as two loving but competitive brothers.  While their bond with each other is undeniable, you can always tell each secretly wants to be seen as the better, cooler, smarter brother to the rest of the world.  The friendly rivalry between the two series has ebbed and flowed in terms of who comes out the superior.  One will win your favor for a few months, then the other will overtake for the next few months.

Lately, however, Lemire’s title has fallen behind its sibling in a way that makes me wonder if it’ll catch up again.  Though it and Swamp Thing have shared an arc and told similar stories of heroism, somehow Animal Man just feels weaker across the board, even when neither title is particularly strong.  Scott Snyder has simply made wiser writing choices and executed them with more integrity than Lemire has.

This issue immediately starts on the wrong foot by using up the opening page to regurgitate verbatim the final scene of Swamp Thing #17.  We then get a two-page monologue of Buddy’s haunting experience as he travels through the Rot; three pages for Buddy to land, pointlessly injure himself, recover, reorient, and take off; a page and a half that repeats the flashback of Maxine giving herself over to the Hunters Three in Animal Man #16; then finally Buddy arrives where he needs to be.  Compare to Swamp Thing #18, where Alec gets into the action within the first three pages, and you understand exactly why this series has felt so inferior as of late.

But the problems with this issue aren’t solely structural. Spoiler alert—Cliff’s death has been foreshadowed multiple times on this title and unfortunately, it comes to pass.  What’s truly upsetting about the moment is how undeserved it feels.  The focus has always been on Cliff’s dad or his sister, while he has always been more of a catalyst for them to take action than an active character in his own right.  The fact that Lemire throws in Buddy’s last-minute, sudden recollection of Cliff’s childhood is a glaring sign that even he knows he hasn’t done as much work developing Cliff as he should.  Tragic as the scene is, it also feels a little cheap.*

Cliff’s death also caps the one development you’ve always hoped against, which is the break-up of the Baker family.  Even before Cliff dies, Ellen clearly expresses defeat in the face of all the horror her husband’s life has gotten them into: “You never mean anything bad to happen, Buddy.  But it does.  Again and again.”  I can only imagine the issue’s final events will send her over the edge, meaning Buddy’s troubles, incredibly enough, have only just started.

Not all is lost.  Lemire does manage to insert a fairly big twist when all discover the true forms of the Hunters Three: men in yellow spacesuits, dazed and confused, asking, “Are you with Taproot? Wh-where’s the Ascension Chamber?”  Even Buddy has to call out this bizarre turn of events, demanding why the Hunters aren’t actually corrupted avatars of the Red as previously claimed.  I don’t know where this will lead nor if it’s worth staying on to find out.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, has been the fact that Buddy often feels like a sideshow in his own title.  While his love for his family has been a constant, he hasn’t really shown much personality you can latch on to otherwise, and his powers—even after the Totems tinkered with them—still seem a little weak.  Once again, he serves as cannon fodder while his daughter does all the work, and if this is the pattern we can expect from the series in the future, then calling it Animal Man is just a bit misleading, no?

I must also say that ever since Travel Foreman left this title, Animal Man lost a bit of the edgy, modern look that made it such a standout among DC’s New 52.  Pugh is obviously a very practiced, conventional sort of artist, but there’s something dated about his art, especially in the clunky style of action.  Characters just sort of bump and flop around more than actually move, if you know what I mean.  Kindzierski’s soft palette of colors still gives the series a distinctive finish, but otherwise, this is a fairly plain sort of book.

Conclusion: It’s truly amazing how low this title has sunk in the last few months.  It makes you wonder if it’s special enough to keep the faith in anymore.

Grade: C

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * If you look at Animal Man #15, Cliff warned Buddy in a vision, “Don’t turn your back on the boy.  He won’t be dead yet.”  This could be a clear reference to the events of this issue, or, less plausibly, it may be a hint of hope that Cliff could come back someday.  what do you think?

– So I guess William was just evil to the core.  No redemption for that poor kid after all.