Monday, October 15, 2012

Meat Market

Last November, DC restarted their entire line of superhero comics, dragging virtually all characters back to their conceptual infancy (the popular Batman and Green Lantern excepted). The results of the New 52 lineup were mixed, reflecting the tenacity of the artists and writers involved. Career steady-hands produced some of their worst work, while eyes fresh to the spandex circuit left us begging for more. Jeff Lemire, creator of the sublime Vertigo title Sweet Tooth, is from the latter camp. His and artist Travel Foreman's gruesome treatment of Animal Man is a uniquely unnerving read.

Animal Man (Buddy Baker, husband and father of two) can tap into a force called the "morphogenetic field." This allows him to temporarily adopt the skills of nearby animals, like the flight of a bird, or the strength of an elephant. His life in tights dates back to a handful of forgettable adventures starting in the mid 60s. Modern readers, however, know him from Grant Morrison's landmark 1988 relaunch of the hero for DC's adult-oriented Vertigo imprint. The cerebral Scotsman wrote the sometime Justice League member as a vocal vegetarian, an animal rights activist, and a dedicated family man.

Later writers of this run took Animal Man into more darkly challenging territory, which is where Lemire and Foreman grab the reins. Today's version stands for all that Morrisons' did. But we quickly discover that Baker's young daughter Maxine is better connected to his power source than he. After bringing some dead neighborhood pets back to life one night, she speaks of answering their call from the "red place."

Baker, out of bed and shirtless, need not question Maxine for long. A map to the Red has tattooed itself across his face and chest. Later, flying cross-country with her, he realizes, "I never really questioned the source of my power... I always liked to call it the Life Web. I thought of it as an abstract thing... an unseen energy connecting all living things that I was somehow accessing."

The Red is a place alright, and it's a macabre domain ruled by Foreman. The first issue gives us a whiff of the comic's true tone, when Baker dreams of three grotesque animal totems that claim to be Maxine's real fathers. They're gargantuan in size and comprised of the awkwardly-jutting limbs, gnashing insect faces, and random tentacles that make watching most 80s horror films such a blast.

In fact, when these three creatures later don human "suits" to better stalk Baker's son and wife, Foreman's art feels inspired by John Carpenter's 1982 monument to grisly excess, The Thing. The artist (who's drawn Iron Fist and Birds of Prey, but hasn't yet experienced breakout stardom) serves us tottering sacks of flesh that slip in and out of believability as actual people. And that's while they're hunting. Foreman's freak flag enters the stratosphere when his creatures finally meet Animal Man's family. As Ellen Baker answers the door, she's greeted by a tower of inverted organs. The chase begins.

But what of the Red and Animal Man himself? Surely the rest of the comic is presented in a manner casual readers can latch onto? That would be a steaming goblet of, "Nope." When he and Maxine find the source of their power, it's a big bare tree, floating where only they can see it. Its roots throb and bleed at the touch before whisking the pair into a Dali-esque dimension of dripping meat and unraveling bone.

Adorably, Maxine is at home in the Red. She guides her confused and terrified father to its heart, where past Animal Men live. They are gorgeously weird totemic figures, built of bulging bison horns and lion mane cloaks. They explain the villainous creatures in saying, "Something is wrong... there is a sickness invading the Red... a rot."

The rot, oddly enough, has a real-life counterpart that's noticeable in the first volume of Animal Man. Some pages (especially those inked by Jeff Huet) offer crisp views of Foreman's frequently scratchy line-work. Other pages, mainly those featuring rough, surreal penciling, went to print with smears on them. In any other comic, allowing the Bristol board's imperfections to reach readers would be sacrilege. Here, though, it works. It helps a character easily written off as Grant Morrison's leftovers go down like Filet Mignon.

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