In 2011, DC Comics did a company-wide overhaul of their comics stable, effectively rebooting their universe under “The New 52” banner. This included a number of titles associated with DC’s mature readers’ line, including HELLBLAZER, SWAMP THING and ANIMAL MAN, being integrated with the capes-and-tights crowd of the regular DC Universe. While the results were mixed, it’s been argued by some that Jeff Lemire’s take on ANIMAL MAN was one of the best (and least-appreciated) of the bunch. It also happens to be one of the – if not THE – best cross-breeds between superhero and horror graphic fiction.
Tying in closely with Scott Snyder’s revamp of SWAMP THING, Lemire’s ANIMAL MAN finds former superhero and actor, Buddy Baker, working primarily as an environmental advocate. Baker’s power – the ability to take on the abilities of any animal – comes from The Red, a life-force that bonds and empowers all bioorganic life. Baker is The Red’s chosen ‘avatar’ (just as Swamp Thing holds the same position with the plant-based Parliament of Trees aka The Green). In direct opposition to both of these life-affirming energies is The Rot, the force of entropy and death. All three of these forces maintain a form of balance, until The Rot (and its avatar, Arcane) decides to get ambitious and declares war on both The Red and The Green. For Buddy, the danger is twofold as Arcane and his army of grotesqueries want not only him, but his daughter, who shows Red Avatar potential that may pass even her father. And with that premise, we’re off and running, as Buddy struggles to keep his family safe as well as fulfill his duties as The Avatar of The Red.
For many comic readers of a certain age, it’s Grant Morrison’s meta-take on the character from 1988 to 1990 (via DC’s Vertigo imprint) that’s considered the high-mark for ANIMAL MAN. But damn, if Jeff Lemire doesn’t do something wonderful in his own right. The best horror stories work on the simplest of principles: take a group of good people, put them in a bad situation and see how they come out at the end of it all, and Lemire does just that as he puts the Baker family through the meat grinder. The family dynamic and relationships are all fleshed out and believable, especially that between Buddy and Maxine. While both have their shared bond with The Red in common (and Maxine, a chip off dad’s old block, proves herself more than capable of taking care of business on her own), it’s Buddy’s fears as a father and husband that make his struggle (and the flesh-crawling horrors) all the more tangible. And brother, there are horrors a-plenty here.
The Rot’s agents engage in all kinds of flesh-splitting, organ spewing Bottin-esque transformations in their pursuit of Buddy and his family, all lovingly rendered by a team of artists that includes CONSTANTINE THE HELLBLAZER’s Travel Foreman and AMERICAN VAMPIRE’s Rafael Albuquerque (while initially rated for teens, it could be argued that portions of ANIMAL MAN rival some of Vertigo’s greatest moments for nightmare fuel status). It also doesn’t pull any narrative punches either. Bad things do happen, and Lemire wrings out every painful and heart-rending consequence of these actions without resorting to the maudlin or the cliché. And after The Rot… well, things only get worse from there.