The big story that “Animal Man” and “Swamp Thing” have been building towards is finally here and… it’s rather underwhelming. We’ve had nearly a full year of good buildup to this point under Jeff Lemire’s stewardship of this title, so I was expecting to be entertained. What we wind up getting here is a kind of “Age of Apocalypse” lite where the characters are plugged into the standard templates for this story. Lemire is a smart enough writer to keep the momentum going through the story and throw in a few clever surprises, but there’s very little imagination on display in the world of the crossover and the overall plotting. Between all this and an epilogue that does its best to fundamentally break the character’s appeal and I can see why readers started leaving the title in droves during and after the crossover.
Things pick up pretty much right where they left off in the previous volume with Buddy Baker and his family encountering the Swamp Thing and Abigail Arcane as well as a portal into the Rot. With both of their recent victories over the forces of decay, the two superheroes figure that now is the time to plunge in and take out this force for good. Now, if you think that this sounds like a huge mistake or part of giant trap waiting to be sprung by Anton Arcane, then you’d be right on both counts. For their efforts, Animal Man and Swamp thing come out of the Rot in a world one year later where the world as they knew it is in ruins and most of their superhero compatriots are now twisted mockeries of flesh out to convert the rest of the world to their way.
Though a stronghold of the Red keeps some of the survivors safe, Buddy’s arrival sends a signal to Arcane that this conflict has entered its final stage. With no other choice, Animal Man, Steel, Black Orchid, Beast Boy and John Constantine prepare to take the fight to the avatar of the Rot himself. Will there be some surprise reveals regarding the assistance they’ll receive? You bet. Will something go wrong with all of their plans until the very last second when they succeed? Of course. Will our heroes get a final chance to avert this ghastly future at the very end? That should go without saying. The overall predictability of this story is its achilles heel and even fun bits like the use of Green Lantern aren’t enough to make up for the fact that you’ve seen all this done before and better. We do get some fantastically grotesque designs for Rotworld and its inhabitants courtesy of Steve Pugh, while Tim Green capably handles the present-day sequences, but it’s not enough to be worth the price of admission by itself.
Then we get to the epilogue and wrap up which piles on so much misery that it shoots right past tragedy and into miserablism. Now I get that Lemire really wants to show us the cost these events have taken on Buddy and his family, except that he goes about it in a way that I feel breaks the fundamental appeal of the character. While the weirdness and metafictional aspects of Grant Morrison’s definitive run on the title back in the 80’s are the things most people remember about it, there was also something else that set “Animal Man” apart from the pack. Unlike nearly every other superhero out there Buddy Baker was a family man with a wife, a son and a daughter. Here was a hero who had to balance his time fighting bad guys with being a husband and dad as well. Morrison didn’t neglect this aspect of the character during his run, and you really came to care about Ellen, Cliff and Maxine during his tenure. That made it all the more shocking when he killed them all and sent Buddy over the edge. Of course, even Morrison realized that was just too much tragedy for one person to endure and wrote his way out of it through a literal Deus Ex Machina.
Yes, I know I’m talking about a run that’s over two decades old at this point, but I think it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for Morrison’s groundbreaking work the title wouldn’t have been remembered fondly enough for them to try rebooting it today. Yet more than being a hero with the ability to assume the powers of the animal kingdom, “Animal Man” was also the “family man superhero” much in the same way that “Spider-Man” is the “hard luck superhero,” and “Batman” is the “world’s greatest detective.” There’s an extra set of circumstances, or a formula if you will, that defines the character beyond his power set and that’s what helps to make him memorable.
At the end of this volume, Lemire has all but dismantled the “family man” aspect of “Animal Man” and left him just as a man with the ability to assume the powers of other animals. Part of me wonders if this is the writer getting around to pleasing his bosses “anti-marriage” stance in the wake of “Batwoman-gate” or if he actually has a plan here. Are his efforts here simply to break Buddy down to nothing before building him up again? One can only hope as the changes to his character have not served to make him more interesting as a character so far. Unless Lemire is counting on people feeling enough pity for his protagonist that they’ll stick around just because they feel bad for him.
Unfortunately comics fans aren’t like that and the fact that the monthly title has lost a quarter of its readership in the last six months would seem to prove my point. Still, DC clearly has some faith in Lemire as they’re putting Rafael Albuquerque and Cully Hamner on the title to give it a fresh artistic look to it. That may work in the short run, but Lemire may have his work cut out for him here. Taking things further in this direction is likely to only alienate fans further -- starting with me. Meanwhile, any kind of “Journey Back to the Status Quo” is going to have some real imagination behind it if the story isn’t going to seem like he’s going through the motions to put the toys back on the shelf. Unfortunately, “Rotworld” showed us that Lemire’s imagination was either on hiatus or being saved for his new creator-owned title “Trillium.” I’m willing to stick around for one more volume to see in which direction he takes things, yet my optimism is in short supply after reading this volume.