Out of all the titles in DC’s New 52, Animal Man is the book that has surprised me the most. With it’s slow pacing and eerie visuals, the book falls more into the horror thriller category then the superhero genre. And out of everything I’ve been reading, this is one of the few books out there I find get’s consistently better with each issue. Where I was intrigued with Buddy Baker and his family when I started reading, I am now fully invested. It’s one of the best books out there and definitely the strongest that DC has to offer right now. Jeff Lemire has taken the character and restored it to the glory it had during Grant Morrison’s run on the book and in time, may even surpass it. So to say I was pumped to read Animal Man Annual #1 would be an understatement. And thankfully, Lemire once again raised the bar and brought us a story that while not vital to the current story arc, did bring us deeper into the mythology of the darker side of the DC universe.
Our story begins with a cat needing to take a leak. Socks, an agent of the Red (a force that connects all animals and creature on Earth) who has taken the form of a house cat to act as a guide for Maxine Baker (daughter of Animal Man), can no longer take being trapped in the family RV and needs to answer the call of nature. A simple set up for the tale, but an effective one. Maxine is to be the next avatar for the Red on the physical plane and will eventually take up the mantle of Animal Woman. But that’s a long way down the road. For now she’s just a girl on the run from the Rot (the Force that controls all death and decay on the planet) who plan to destroy and corrupt her. That’s why Socks is around. To help protect and guide her through the obstacles that are in her path. So Maxine takes Socks out of the van and into a nearby forest so he can do his business. While there, Maxine asks him questions about the past and the battle between the Red, The Rot, and the Green (in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s the force that connects all plant life). Socks attempts to explain the balance to her and how these forces have to work together to create and maintain life as we know it. No one element can overpower the others and that’s what the Rot is trying to do now. To further illustrate the point, He tells Maxine a story of the last time the Rot tried to over-reach their bounds. Back in 1894, Jacob Mullin, a young farmer living in Stone Lake, Manitoba, Canada, came face to face with the Rot. This was when his powers as the avatar for the Red manifested and along with the Swamp Thing of that era, used them to fend off the death and decay from his land and save his town. But, of course, this fight didn’t come without a cost.
This story very much reminded me of the Times Past stories from James Robinson’s classic Starman Series. It’s essentially a story that opens up the history of Animal Man to make it such that there has been a long line of heroes who have taken this mantle in one form or another throughout the centuries. Lemire has done a great job of expanding the world of this book and also connecting it to the themes and storylines in Swamp Thing. This issue continues this cohesion with the inclusion of Old Jack Crow, the Swamp Thing of 1894. It does a great job of whetting the palet as we get closer to the Animal Man/Swamp Thing crossover. And although it was only used as a framing device for the main story in this book, I really enjoyed the character development between Maxine and Socks. It’s not often that we get to see these two characters interacting on their own like this without it being interrupted by one of the other Baker Family Members. The story delivered on all levels.
The artwork has been a bit of an issue throughout the run of this book. The elements the creators are dealing with – roting plants, death, decay, mutilated animals – skews the work towards creepy and disgusting imagery, which is hard to do for most artists. When you know how to draw, making stuff look ugly can be difficult at times. Timothy Green II provides the illustrations for the annual and so far has produced the most interesting look for the book. Not really veering too far from what other artists have recently done in Animal Man, Green manages to make it his own. You can almost feels the difference between the characters that are living compared to those taken by the Rot – the stench of death almosts wafts off the page. My skin’s crawling just thinking about it. The visuals also display good pacing and the story is not lost in the creepiness.
I was happy to read an Annual that could stand on it’s own as a classic tale and not have to depend on a cross-over or event book to make it relevant. This story does a great job of enhancing the enjoyment of the current Animal Man story without it being necessary for readers of the series to pick it up. But if you are reading Animal Man, I strongly suggest you do pick this Annual up as it is a well-crafted yarn that is worth your time. Pick up Animal Man Annual #1 wherever you buy comics.
And if you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!
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