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

The Story: For some people, just hugging the animals isn’t enough.

The Review: I’ve often thought about this, but the grind of constantly having to churn out a new villain every few issues seems like one of the most wearisome aspects of the superhero genre.  The basic good-versus-evil formula of nearly all superhero comics is pretty repetitious in itself, and since villains are the x-variable in that equation, the interest, integrity, and success of the whole thing almost entirely turns on that one factor.

The sad part is Animal Man as a property doesn’t really mesh well with that traditional superhero formula anyway.  You have to keep in mind that if the series has any lasting value now, it has very little to do with our hero’s origins as yet another Silver Aged costumed adventurer.  In fact, if not for Grant Morrison’s radical work with Animal Man decades after, the character could easily have been abandoned and forgotten altogether.  In other words, Animal Man is now really more of a conceptual property that draws its interest from ideas than battles.

The Splinterfolk,* despite their grotesqueries, are also just really hokey villains to begin with.  If you have a superhero who can become one with the animals, then it seems a tad obvious to come up with supervillains trying to literally become one with the animals.  The notion that someone could be so shortsighted as to think sewing random bird, mammal, and lizard parts to their bodies would somehow give them greater communion with the creatures they basically mutilated is just—well, obviously insane, but also pretty lame.

Even more offensive than that is how poorly motivated and developed the Splinterfolk seem.  By describing themselves vaguely as “animal activists,” “freedom fighters,” “[a] radical offshoot of a more established organization,” they make themselves sound like the kooky branch of the San Francisco chapter of PETA.  As for Clinton Hogue, the self-declared leader of the group, the fact that he admits he doesn’t care about how extreme his views are means that Lemire is barely trying to create accessible antagonists at this point.

With the last-page reveal of our masterminding villain, the Splinterfolk are rightfully reduced to mere distractions (not to be confused with the actual—and annoying—distractions of the media people that follow Buddy even into a den of horrors). Spoiler alert: honestly, the appearance of Brother Blood does nothing for you.  It’s not as if his inglorious stint on Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans made him a breakout character or anything, and all that bathing in blood just strikes you as distinctly C-movie behavior.

The one good move Lemire makes in the issue is in ensuring Maxine fails at resurrecting her brother—at least the first time around.  Shepherd indicates that Cliff’s spirit is still out there, retrievable, and that finding him is “not going to be an easy task,” but not explicitly an impossible one for her.  It’s a nice change of pace to see finally see Maxine as other than emotionally oblivious to a problem, though she returns to her sunny self before long.  Perhaps this is necessary; if she broke down, too, whom else can her mom lean on?

As the issues stretch on, I grow wearier of Pugh’s brazenly dramatic art, not to mention Portela’s (whose work I panned when he worked on the pre-relaunch Legion of Super-Heroes).  More than other titles, Animal Man prospers with a less in-your-face art style, so when the horror elements appear, they strike you with a thrill.  There’s little of that kind of subtlety with Pugh and Portela, so it’s not surprising you may feel a bit visually overstimulated after reading the issue.  With such big, broad, looming figures populating the issue, Kindzierski’s colors lose the delicacy which made them so lovely when Travel Foreman still drew the issue.  Now they just seem garish and almost monotonous, especially once you get to the Red.

Conclusion: Given the utter shallowness of the villains at work here, it does seem like Lemire is simply phoning it in at this point, perhaps too occupied by Justice League happenings to focus on smaller fry.  I don’t know how much more of this merciless mediocrity I can take.

Grade: C

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * I find it bemusing that in the age of the early promo, you can know the names of the villains well before they ever introduce themselves as such.

– Okay, seriously, whatever happened to those scientists who emerged from the bodies of the Hunters Three?  Is Lemire really going to just let that WTF moment go?