By: Jeff Lemire (story), Travel Foreman (art), Lovern Kindzierski (colors)

The Story: Can we call child protective services on reckless superhero endangerment?

The Review: Lemire made the interesting choice when he started this title of dropping us into Animal Man’s life after his prime as a pure superhero.  By the second issue, Buddy had already realized his role as the shirtless agent of the Red, and we never did get to see what life pre-Rot was like.  We ignored this point because of the pressing nature of the story at the time, but now that Buddy has picked up his costume again, you wonder how he started out in this biz.

It seems Lemire had the same thought in mind, as here, despairing from the loss of his family, Buddy flashes back to happier times, when his powers were still new (he tells Ellen that he and Cliff spent the last night surfing the web for ideas of new animal powers he can channel).  At this point, he’s only just made a name for himself down in San Diego, fighting one of your typically punny villanis (“Biowulf”) with the late Detective Krenshaw and a team of cops by his side.  Even in these early years of the superhero age, Animal Man ranks among the D-list of masked marvels, but he seems quite content and thrilled to be part of it all anyway.

His family life is all together as well: Ellen, pregnant with Maxine but still hard at work as a cartoonist; Buddy, happy to go to the store in costume to pick up his wife’s favorite pomegranate juice; Cliff, sans mullet.  Yup—life seems pretty good for the Baker family.

But even in the midst of domestic bliss and vigilante success, there are bubbles of problems stewing in the background, which we know end up at full boil years later.  Buddy’s reveling in his new role as superhero is already at odds with that as father to his second child, and it’s pretty clear this is all a big ego boost for him.  When Ellen calls shortly after his triumph over the pathetic Biowulf, inquiries as to her health come second to his own rush of excitement: “Hey, did you see that?!  Were you watching TV?”  It’s easy enough for Ellen to indulge him now, when his other life merely results in him forgetting to pick up his son, but it both of them minimize how incredibly dangerous it is for him mesh his family and heroics so closely.

I doubt Ellen would be so complacent (“Just when I think I want to kill you, you go and say something ridiculous and cute like that and I fall in love with you all over again.”) if she knew how substantial the risk to her children could be, and the really disturbing part is that Buddy does know, but chooses to conceal it from his wife.  After narrowly rescuing his son from the clutches of a creature prepared to feast on his mind and flesh, Buddy even persuades Cliff to deceive Ellen.  True, she needs no additional stress while in labor, but there’s also no denying that this is proof of Buddy’s deepening addiction to his life in costume.

This is not to say that Cliff’s death is Buddy’s fault, exactly, only that he’s not entirely blameless for what happened to his son.  For purposes of this issue, he really lucks out that Anansa, the spider-woman, is more amoral in her animalistic qualities and that she can be reasonably convinced to have mercy once Buddy appeals to her nurturing instincts (and finds a simple, everybody-wins way to satiate her sustenance needs).  He doesn’t know it, but this is only the beginning of Lemire’s horror-infused era of Animal Man, and he gets out of it very lightly indeed, a point brought home when we return to his grieving present.

Although I don’t always give artists the credit they’re due for the success of a comic as a whole, sometimes even I can’t overlook how powerful and substantial an artist’s contribution is to a title.  While I think Animal Man’s decline would have happened anyway, had Foreman remained on board, we probably wouldn’t have noticed nearly as much.  Lemire has revealed a tendency towards the melodrama in his writing, but Foreman’s delicate, sophisticated art softens these overdone scenes considerably.  Certainly no one else has conveyed the creepy horror of the series as effectively as Foreman.  He draws terrifying visions like Buddy’s transformation into a massive, birthing spider* with convincing, organic form, but with the lightness of a nightmare you can’t escape from.  Without having to compete with thick inks and lines, Kindzierski can take a more graceful approach to his coloring, which is what suits him best, anyway.

Conclusion: A decent story that works better as a study into our hero’s competing interests as superhero and father, strengthened by Foreman’s perfectly attuned artistic efforts.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Good practice for his future ability to half-morph into whatever animal he channels.