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

The Story: Buddy pisses off the higher-ups and loses guest access to the Red.

The Review: While both Lemire and Scott Snyder transitioned from their Vertigo projects to mainstream ones at around the same time, it’s increasingly clear that Snyder has become one of the major architects of the DCU, while Lemire has been relegated to the position of a respected demigod within the publisher’s creative pantheon.  Even that position has grown shaky as of late, with declining quality in both Justice League Dark and even his pet title, Animal Man.

After the dismaying downhill spiral on Rotworld, it’s time for both Lemire and his hero to regroup and find their way back to what made this series so compelling in the first place.  Sadly, one of those things seems to have gotten wrecked for a while to come: the Baker family dynamic.  The death of Cliff has clearly driven a wedge between Ellen and Buddy that feels impossible to dislodge, yet this also introduces a new, compelling conflict of its own.

Relationship problems are no stranger to superhero comics, but when they happen, they usually involve two singletons in their twenties and are usually the result of some silly, narrative contrivance keeping an otherwise destined couple apart (see Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris).  Marriage problems are a different beast altogether.  There’s a special bond, intimacy, and history between married couples that makes gives their break-up an extra degree of tragedy.  When Ellen rebuffs Buddy’s attempt to get closer to her after the funeral, there’s an anguish in the moment that you’d never feel when Carol or Hal dump each other for the umpteenth time.

As bad as you might feel for Buddy, you ultimately empathize with Ellen’s grief and anger more than his good intentions.  It was, after all, Cliff’s aspirations to be a hero like his dad that got him killed, and for Buddy to suggest using the Red to bring his son back feels both unnatural and a little appalling.  Ellen understandably would rather let Cliff lie in peace, perhaps not only in pursuit of normalcy, but as a way to spare her son from anymore of Buddy’s risk-taking.

These are realistic sentiments from the perspective of people who live in the real world, but in the context of Buddy’s fantastic life, his claim that Maxine has the power to bring Cliff bang isn’t out-of-place at all.  She herself hints as much once the funeral is over, telling Socks, “I-I don’t feel like he’s really gone yet.  Maybe that’s why I’m not too sad.  Maybe he’s not really dead yet.”  Now, we know that Buddy’s daughter has some pretty hefty powers (creating new bodies from scratch, for example), but do they extend to raising people from the dead?  And do we really want her to?  Cliff’s death felt cheap to begin with, and bringing him back to soon will only make it worse.

In the meantime, what should Buddy do with himself now?  On the one hand, he has this opportunity to be his own hero again, which he hasn’t been in a while.  On the other hand, with Arcane disposed of and the Rot getting its act back together, it seems he’s lost the most fearsome enemies he’ll ever have.  We have to remember, though, that Buddy also has a foot in the superhero world, and there are more threats out there than those involving the Rot, the Green, or the Red.  Now that the Totems have shut him off from the Red, he now has to rediscover his purpose—though, in a rather malevolent scene, they remind him, “We will never let you go.  You are ours.  Our puppet.  Our ‘Animal Man.’”

Given more straightforward dramatic material to work with, Pugh can put his soap-opera style to best use, though he does like to go big with the emotions in the issue.  I don’t think he quite realizes that people don’t always react to events with big eyes and mouths wide enough to stick a fist in.  He really gets into trouble once the script demands any kind of action, because then the art just looks stiff and awkward.  Buddy flying off from a gaggle of reporters looks almost comical; you can easily imagine the Shwooo!! sound effect as he takes to the skies.  Kindzierski has always provided sophisticated, earthy colors to this series, giving it a distinctively non-superhero look.

Conclusion: Shockingly, it’s not the most moving portrayal of a father losing his son you’ve seen this year, even though it involves some of the ostensibly more grounded characters in the DCU proper.  That alone should tell you how desperately this title needs a reset at this point.

Grade: C+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – By the way, whatever happened to those scientists who popped out of the Hunters Three last issue?  Lemire’s just going to let that slide?