Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
May was a big month for DC Comics, and it saved some of the best for last.
The first collections of DC’s New 52 – the massive re-launch of the publisher’s entire line of superhero titles, which took place last September – arrived in May, with predictable big titles like Batman, Justice League and Wonder Woman leading the pack. But nestled among all those superstars was a trade paperback of a surprise hit titled Animal Man.
Animal Man was created in the mid-1960s, a B-level superhero named Buddy Baker, who could take on the powers and abilities of any animal or combination of animals. He wore a garish orange-and-blue costume and only appeared 11 times in his first 20 years – only five times as a headliner. In the 1990s famed writer Grant Morrison was given free rein on the character in DC’s mature-readers line Vertigo, and wrote Animal Man as an everyman who happened to have super-powers, emphasizing his role as father and husband, and his interests in animal rights and vegetarianism. It also emphasized horror and utter strangeness, with Buddy Baker becoming a sort of mystical avatar of the animal kingdom, one who actually met his creator – i.e., Morrison – and became aware that he was a comic-book character.
That title eventually died, but all of Buddy’s weird past is represented in his new book, at least in spirit. The new Animal Man is written by Jeff Lemire, who also writes two other horror titles, the post-apocalyptic Sweet Tooth and the more superhero-y Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Once again Buddy is an everyman hero, once again his role as a family man is emphasized, and once again “Animal Man” is a horror book.
And in regard to that last, Lemire has really made a bloody splash. Buddy is facing something horrible and ancient that is killing the animal kingdom from within, called The Rot. But worse, the point man in this fight isn’t a man at all – it’s his five-year-old daughter Maxine, which means that Buddy’s entire family is in danger, which includes wife Ellen and nine-year-old son Cliff. From the first issue on, Buddy and his clan are on the run from The Rot, a grotesquely drawn trinity that can revive dead animals, possess humans and make flesh run like water.
Part of what makes this book so impressively frightening is artist Travel Foreman, who can render tranquil scenes of charming domesticity and assaults by zombie animals with equal skill. Add that up and you can see why this book has been a critical hit and a sales surprise, and why Animal Man Volume 1: The Hunt ($14.99), which collects the first six issues, was rushed into print.
Meanwhile, DC debuted three new titles recently aimed at three different audiences.
Batman Incorporated #1 simply picks up where the “old 52” title of the same name left off, with Batman building an army of Bat-people around the world to fight something called Leviathan. That’s a lot of fun, and riffs off old Batman stories from the 1950s and 1960s, which introduced “El Gaucho” as the Batman of Argentina, “Knight and Squire” as the Batman and Robin of England, and so forth. But equally fun is Batman’s relationship with the current Robin, his actual son via Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia, who was trained as a master assassin and chafes under the Dark Knight’s tutelage. This book, I think, is aimed at Batman fans and traditional comics fans, who skew older.
Ravagers #1, on the other hand, seems designed for a teenage audience, since it stars teenagers and features tons of teenage angst. It stars an eclectic mix of teens, some revamped from old Teen Titans and Gen13 comics (Beast Boy, Terra, Fairchild), and some brand new. These super-powered kids are on the run from the mad-scientist club called N.O.W.H.E.R.E., which wants to do the usual scientific experiments on them, a scenario which I’m afraid doesn’t rise above cliché. I didn’t much care for it, but then again, I’m not a teenager.
Finally, and oddly, I really enjoyed Superman Family Adventures #1, which is aimed squarely at children. It stars simple, cartoon versions of Superman and his many friends, not just from the Daily Planet but also Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto the Super-Dog and – introduced in this issue – Furry the Super-Mouse. The story may be simplified for children, but it isn’t dumb, and I can well imagine parents reading Superman Family to their pre-schoolers and enjoying it just as much as the kids.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.