Review – Animal Man (Books 1-3) by Jeff Lemire

Here’s the thing about Animal Man:

1. He has animal powers.

2. He has a wife and two kids.

3. He likes being Animal Man.

These traits are not immutable. Animal Man is a superhero, and the most memorable superhero stories take liberties with established characters. Writers and artists are remembered for bringing their own innovations to familiar archetypes, adding new chapters to what’s considered canon.

But I think it’s kind of important to show Animal Man using animal powers, interacting with his wife and kids, and just getting a kick out of being Animal Man.

Taking inspiration from both Grant Morrison’s iconic run and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Lemire’s Animal Man begins as a horror story. No longer attached to the morphogenic field that connects all life, Animal Man finds himself a pawn in a war between the Red (life), the Rot (decay), and the Green (er, plants…also a type of life). In Book 1, this approach is very effective. Animal Man lives a pretty normal life for a superhero. He doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s money to throw around or the backing of the Justice League. He’s a struggling actor and activist whose wife pays the bills for their San Diego home. He fights small time crooks for free. So when his daughter starts raising the dead and the misshapen minions of the Rot track her down, the disruption of his normal life is palpably unsettling.

Then he goes on a road trip, a wise-cracking cat shows up, and there’s a lot of talk about avatars of the Rot, the Green, and the Red. There’s also a lot of yelling about the fact that Animal Man being Animal Man has ruined everything, how Animal Man isn’t really that important because one day his daughter will be Animal Woman, and maybe no one should use their powers because it makes grandma upset. A few pages into Book 2, Animal Man goes from a disquieting series full of disturbing body horror to a generic chosen one fantasy with ill-defined players and scope that far exceeds the writer’s grasp.

And there’s a that goddamn talking cat. Here’s the thing about talking cats:

1. As Coraline proved, they’re more interesting when they don’t speak. A cat that’s consistently on the precipice of speaking is intriguing. A cat that’s an ages-old emissary of the Red and yet complains about the indignities of the litterbox is not. The most cat-like thing a talking cat can do is refuse to talk to humans.

2. Okay, honestly, I don’t really like cats[1].

3. There’s a brief period in the series where the talking cat turns into a large half-man, half-cat creature that’s pretty neat. The next time it would help to have a deadly half-man, half-cat around, the cat claims it won’t be able to do that again anytime soon. It isn’t allowed and shape-shifting makes it tired.

This lawless mythology of convenience runs rampant throughout the series. The Rot is an immortal, unknowable hive mind, yet its incarnations have conversations with each other and seem largely motivated by human concerns like hatred and revenge. The geography of the Red is an endless mess of blood seas and meat islands with strict metaphysical travel restrictions, except when it’s not and Animal Man can just pop in and knock on the door. The only function of the Red realm in the story is to present Animal Man with overwhelming encounters in Book 2 for a grotesque cavalry to then swoop in and solve[2]. And there’s Animal Man’s dilemma itself. He’s super important to the Red because he needs to keep his daughter alive to save the future, except he’s not and don’t push them because they can find someone else to do it.

The idea that the war between the Rot, the Red, and the Green is an endless cycle of balance between necessary forces (occasionally thrown out of whack when one of them turns evil[3]) is the story’s most tired trope. But it’s the looseness of the avatar concept that’s ultimately its undoing. In genre fiction, godly avatars are usually chosen for adhering to certain virtues and strictures. In Animal Man, they’re titles granted on a whim without much research. In Book 3, the Rot apologizes for giving avatar powers to a guy it didn’t realize was crazy. Traditionally, avatars are also stripped of their powers when they don’t follow the restrictions of their deities. Which makes it a little bit weird that the Rot is unable to do so while the Red is more than happy to strip Animal Man of his animal powers for daring to show up unannounced at their house.

At the end of Grant Morrison’s run in the early ’90s, he lamented the trend of characters turning dark in order to seem more realistic. Inadvertently, Lemire seems to have fallen into our own contemporary trap. It’s possible that an iconic Animal Man story could be told with Buddy Baker interpreted as a reluctant superhero, but this miserabilist version brings nothing of value to the character, just ill-fitting angst and a mishmash of mythology best forgotten.

[1] I just caught a spider sneaking down the wall by my desk. It was probably sent by a cat.

[2] It begs the question: “Why didn’t Animal Man just take the Meat Hawks or a Pegasus Centaur straight to the Ancestor Moot?” There’s no good comeback for this question, other than Jeff Lemire really likes meat islands. (See also, Frankenstein, Agents of S.H.A.D.E. Book 1.) I imagine artists working with him get tired of drawing hordes of shapeless monsters very quickly.

[3] Spoiler alert: It’s always the Rot.


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