Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Animal Man Vol. 3: Rotworld: The Red Kingdom

I thought Animal Man was supposed to be one of the good New 52 books, one of the best comics DC is currently publishing? It's probably the comic I see cited most often in the comments that occasionally attach themselves to pieces I write at Robot 6, or under articles on various blogs about some dumb editorial decision DC has made; you know, things like, "Ugh, DC is the worst, Animal Man is the only book I'm still reading" or "That it, I'm dropping everything but Animal Man" or "Wow, I guess I can drop Batwoman too now, so Animal Man is my last DC comic."

And it's written by Jeff Lemire, a very talented cartoonist and pretty decent super comics-script writer that everyone seems to like, in this volume occasionally collaborating with Scott Snyder, who seems to be the universally accepted Best Writer At DC.

And yet this comic is sort of awful. Granted, I started the series with volume 3 instead of volume 1 (my only previous encounter with New 52 Animal Man being this summer's annual), but what I found wanting about it had absolutely nothing to do with not being able to follow the plot or recognize and understand the characters and their conflicts (all of which were pretty similar to how I remember them from 1990s Vertigo stories); Lemire and Snyder do a fine job of making this volume stand on its own and serve as an easy enough entry point.

Rather, I just found the whole endeavor repetitive (of older, better comics I read as a teenager), and bloodless and cold. It was plain old generic superhero comics, without any interesting or fresh ideas boiling under the surface; the art was occasionally very creepy and weird, and kept my eyes from drifting up from the page to the carpet or wall paper, but it was inconsistent (seven artists were involved in the volume), and rarely inspired enough to make up for the overall deficiencies of the comic.
Steve Pugh's "Rot Queen Maxine" is scary as fuck. Good job, Steve Pugh!
This volume contains eight issues of Animal Man and two of Swamp Thing; despite the 200-page contents, a sizable chunk of the narrative seems to be missing, as the two DC-to-Vertigo-and-back heroes are separated when arriving in Rotworld and go on separate quests that converge; we see the start and climax of both, but Swamp Thing is otherwise MIA, returning with a bunch of characters that weren't introduced and with a deus ex machina not mentioned int his volume until it appears (Given the title, I suspect there's a volume of Swamp Thing out there with the sub-title "Rotworld: The Green Kingdom," but if issues of this aren't reprinted there as well, I have a hard time imagining how complete that story must read).

Buddy Baker, aka Animal Man, is on the run with his family: Wife Ellen, be-mulleted teenage son Cliff, power-sprouting young daughter Maxine, and his mother-in-law. Both she and Ellen are pretty unhappy with Buddy about all the dangerous craziness he brings into their lives, an unhappiness that ultimately culminates with Ellen leaving him. I read issues written by Jamie Delano featuring these very conflicts and events, some of which were drawn by artists Steve Pugh, who drew the lion's share of this volume, increasing the sense of deja vu (The greatest change is that Animal Man's costume is quite different, and he looks like a minor X-Men character. While these issues were being published, there are Animal Man collections written by one of the most popular writers to work with DC in the last twenty years for sale on bookstore shelves, and short cartoons featuring Animal Man on Cartoon Network; he looks completely different. Synergy!).

What they are running from are agents of The Rot, which is the equivalent of The Red, the mystical lifeforce web that binds all animals that Animal Man draws his powers from, and The Green (Replace "animals" with "plants" and "Animal Man" with "Swamp Thing").  Cliff has been injured and seems to be near death, and while the adults argue about how best to help him, ultimately Buddy convinces them they have to stop the problem at its root, by visiting the swamp with a talking cat and allying themselves with Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane, both of whom have slightly different haircuts, but seem to be otherwise immediately recognizable as their mid-nineties Vertigo selves.

The two character with books bearing their names dive into a fetid pool that is a portal into The Rot, and something something, Arcane is the Avatar of The Rot, they end up in a post-apocalyptic, possible, so-sure-to-be-immediately-reversed-this-might-as-well-be-an-Elseworlds-world future in which The Rot has conquered the world, save for a handful of heroes in need of Animal Man and Swamp Thing's leadership to win the day.

In this respect, it reads a lot like (what I've read of) Age of Ultron or sections of Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell's "Rock of Ages" storyline; there are no consequences, and thus no import, to anything that happens (In fact, a reset button is pushed by cosmic forces near the end, sending the characters back in time to prevent Rotworld from ever coming to pass.

But what it reminded me most of was Jeph Loeb's "Hush" story arc in Batman: A series of cameos, strung together like beads. Many of these are indeed cool, several are completely out-of-left-field (Would Medphyll be in many readers' list of The Top Ten Green Lanterns Most Likely To Appear In a crossover...?*). That is at least one virtue to the parade of Geoff Johns-like guest-star reveals; many of them are relatively minor characters, fan-favorites (as in, like, one fan likes them a whole lot) that probably don't appear as often as they should.

They get a chance to shine, and some cool stuff happens, like Frankenstein joining The Green Lantern Corps.
Black Orchid can morph her hands into big scary monster claws, just like her namesake flower
So Buddy teams up with New 52 Black Orchid, who wears purple cabbage leaves, can change shape and generally looks infinitely worse than the original DCU version or the later version reinvented by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (And why would you want her to resemble the version of her appearing in that graphic novel by Neil Gaiman? It's not like millions of people like to read books that guy writes or anything); Beast Boy, who is now red and doesn't look anything like the version in Teen Titans, Young Justice or the new Teen Titans Go cartoons that are on television;  Steel, who is now a robot with his consciousness uploaded; and John Constantine, who apparently must appear in every single comic featuring more than two superheroes in it.

Together they pick up some more allies, like Frankenstein and his Patchwork Horde, an army of sewn together cavalry on sewn-together horses that the Rot can't rot and the aforementioned Medphyll, and fight some villains, like Blackbriar Thorn and Gorilla Grodd and his gorilla army (which Mallah and The Brain are in).
Pugh's cover to Animal Man #13, I think, featuring an awesome Rotworld Hawkman
At Arcane's castle, they meet Swamp Thing's team—a Batgirl who looks like a female Man-Bat, Mister Freeze, a giant Batman robot with the power to fix everything—and get in a big fight with the various forces of The Rot, most of which are corrupted, badly deformed versions of DC superheroes and villains behaving a bit like zombies, only much more fucked-up looking.

A lot of them die horribly, but who cares? It reboots at the end, as is clear from the pages.

In order to win the day, they have to get the Batman robot-thing up into the clouds, where it will make it green Fix Stuff juice, that will fix stuff. Because this is an Animal Man/Swamp Thing crossover, it falls on them to get it up into the sky, by having Swamp Thing grow wings made of plants (?) and fly it, while Animal Man fights Arcane atop it.
Artist Andrew Belanger takes over for the climax, because that's when you wanna see a different artist come in. I'm no botanist, so I don't know how much metal a pair of leaf wings can carry
This is sort of weird, since Green Lantern Frankenstein, who has a magic ring that specializes in allowing its bearer to fly and in lifting heavy objects, usually in green spheres or giant green hands, keep the hordes at bay. This would be a little like a Justice League story where Superman is like, "Batman, I'll keep these thugs off your back while you  fly that nuclear missile up into space where it won't hurt anyone when it goes off in thirty seconds!"

And then, back in the past, Cliff dies, which is actually more funny and sigh-inducing than tragic, given the fact that Grant Morrison, the writer who salvaged Animal Man from DC trivia obscurity and made him a character capable of supporting his own book (and serving as a pillar for DC's adult reader Vertigo imprint), a writer whose work apparently so inspired both Lemire and Snyder that they are here near-constantly echoing and quoting aspects of characters Morrison wrote, whether from Morrison's runs or from those that preceded or followed Morrison, did a whole story arc decrying cheap shock tactics like killing off Buddy Baker's family as pretty shitty things for writers to do.

I liked seeing so many characters I like—particularly Steel, whose presence isn't what I would have hoped in a rebooted DCU—and much of the artwork is fine, but it all felt quite soulless, like a plot for a comic book with a first-draft of a script that got illustrated, before the writers could work in any real drama, or any fresh, big, new ideas that can justify the otherwise generic Heroes Go To a Shitty Possible Future Then Avert It storyline.

If those Internet comment leavers are right, and this is the best DC Comic, than the publisher is in much greater creative trouble than I could have imagined.

Luckily, Internet comment-leavers are never, ever right about anything.**

*On the other hand, he has appeared in Swamp Thing before, so, again, we have that repetitive, recycling element.

**Um, except for all you guys who leave comments on EDILW, of course. You guys are the best. You've discerning taste in writing-about-comics, you smell divine and, is that a new shirt? Or did you lose weight? Something looks different about you.


Unknown said...

You really did yourself a disservice by reading this instead of the first volume.

Animal Man fell off in a big way after its first year, but that first collection is fantastic, and the second trade is quite solid as well.

Please don't let this dissuade you from at least reading the first trade.

Patrick C said...

Yeah, I thought Animal Man was very strong out of the gate. I often listed it as my favorite of the New 52 at the beginning, but I ended up dropping it after the first issue of this Rotworld crossover. It just got stretched out way too long. I was planning on checking back in after Rotworld ended, but I haven't made it back yet.

Unknown said...

I think the fundamental problem with Animal Man is that every post-Morrison story suffers in comparison; not necessarily in story quality, but at least in scope and ambition. After starring such a progressive piece of postmodernism where exactly is there left to go with Buddy that doesn't seem derivative? Trying to live up to the legacy of that book by putting another writer with comic hipster creds (not meant as an insult) was almost certain to lead to an anti-climax.

To reiterate, I don't think Lemire's Animal Man is bad at all, and, from my experiences so far, it probably is better than 90% of the Nu52. I just think it's going to suffer in the perspective of the type of reader it's trying to attract because stylistically it appears to be retreading old ground. I think Lemire has a better chance of becoming a bigger selling name if DC would give him something new to do in the Nu52. But then you'd have to trust them not to screw that up.


SallyP said...

Hearing all these great things about the new Swamp Thing and the new Animal Man, I began reading these two books...only to give them up part of the way through, because man, it was just TOO depressing.