Friday, November 01, 2013

New 52 Vs. DC Super-Pets: Animal Man

Carmine Infantino's Animal Man from the pages of Strange Adventures
Created by writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino for a one-off feature in 1965's Strange Adventure's #180, Buddy Baker was a man temporarily gifted with the power to borrow the abilities of animals in his vicinity (See Brian Cronin's post on Comics Should Be Good here for a scan-filled history of the character in the Silver Age).

He proved popular enough to return a handful of times, eventually earning a proper superhero name and costume, although he remained an extremely minor, even obscure character until writer Grant Morrison and company's late-eighties revival of the character.

The original costume featured an orange, blue and black color combination, which wasn't exactly popular among superheroes, but that was probably what helped generate it: By the late 1960s, they were running out of color combinations for new superheroes.

In the Superman tradition, Animal Man had the first letter of his name emblazoned on his chest, but it's pretty fully integrated into the design, rather than being a logo that looks hung there. He wore goggles and an unusual, head-hugging half-cowl that allowed his hair to breathe (The goggles were no doubt functional as well as identity-concealing, and it looks like he's got some ear-protection built in).  Note the scale-like texture of the costume, and the shape of his gloves and boots.

Brian Bolland's cover for 1990's Animal Man #19

In 1988, DC awarded Animal Man his own title, by writer Grant Morrison and pencil artist Chas Truog. His costume was little changed, the major innovation being the addition of a leather jacket over his costume. Well, given Animal Man's vegetarianism and support of animal rights, it was more likely a pleather jacket. The material of the costume gradually gave way to your more standard superhero spandex as well.

And that was pretty much what Animal Man looked like from then on, save for a few story-specific costume changes, as when he became a "dark" version of himself near the end of Morrison's run, or when he assumed a chimerical form during Jamie Delano's run and finally quit wearing his costume and grew his hair long and white near the end of the first volume of his series in the mid-1990s. In all of his subsequent appearances, he'd look like the version from the Morrison run, sometimes wearing the jacket and sometimes not.
Steve Pugh's cover for 2012's Animal Man #0

Animal Man earned a second, ongoing series when DC relaunched their line under "The New 52" banner in September 2011. The character saw one of the more drastic character redesigns, keeping only the large A design element and the partial cowl. His colors were now blue and white, he no longer wore goggles and rather than having a glove-like element to his costume, the white arms were more sleeve-like, extending up to his torso.

I personally don't like it much, mostly because of how far divorced it is from the original costume that it makes him look like an entirely different character. He looks rather like an X-Man to me ("A" aside), and while orange, blue and black might not have been the best color combination in the world, Animal Man did sort of own blue and orange, whereas blue and white is a color combination that a lot of super-characters use (particularly villains and characters with cold powers).

I don't think the change makes very good business/character evangelization sense, either (The same goes for most of the New 52 redesigns). I understand the idea of signaling the drastic change by so thoroughly redesigning everything—costume tweaks and changes have long been a way to call attention to an old character or a new storyline—but in this case, Animal Man no longer looks like the character that appears in the critically-acclaimed Grant Morrison-written graphic novels (or any of the other Animal Man trades, or in the collections of 52, which featured him among its cast). Nor does he look like the Animal Man in the DC Nation shorts, Animal Man's only real appearance outside the comics medium.

Personally, I prefer the following design.

Art Baltazar's Animal Man from the DC Super-Pets Character Encyclopedia

Animal Man makes an appearance in the DC Super-Pets Character Encyclopedia, as the "Superhero Owner" of Super-Pet King (a lion).

Baltazar keeps the basic color combo—orange suit, blue A, black accessories—as well as the half-cowl and goggles. He streamlines it quite a bit though, so those amoeba-like tendrils at the borders of the boots and gloves that Infantino gave his costume are gone, replaced by straight edges or triangular shapes.

I especially like the little animal touches he adds, like the big, rounded goggles (suggesting an insect's eyes), the leopard or cheetah-like spots near the gloves and boots, and even the little lines suggesting a paw-like boot. There all just little flourishes, but each signal "new" and "different" without actually radically changing the costume (They're more like adding a yellow circle behind Batman's bat-symbol, or taking that yellow circle away, rather than, say, giving Wonder Woman a pair of black pants or Hawkman a suit of golden armor).

I also really like the torn vest, which replaces the problematic leather/pleather jacket (even if it's fake leather, it looks like leather), and might have different connotations to different viewers. With the vest, Animal Man's got a cool accessory to wear over his costume to signal he's a little more hip than the characters who just wear their spandex costumes.

Maybe the next Animal Man series will see Animal Man wearing a costume more like this than his blue and white, New 52 togs. Not much point in re-dressing the current Animal Man in the cooler, Baltazar-designed costume. From what I've read, the new, New 52 Animal Man isn't a very good comic, and seems to be repeating plot lines from the original series (and Swamp Thing), and doing the sorts of things Morrison parodied and criticized in superhero comics during his Animal Man run, without a trace of irony or understanding.

This is, by the way, Example #1 for why Art Baltazar should be the next person DC calls to redesign all their characters, rather than Jim Lee and company.


Jeff McGinley said...

I second the vote. As soon as the Super Pet Encyclopedia was released, I bought copies for everyone I know that just had babies, or kids I need presents for. I'm trying to raise an entire generation on Baltazar's art.

Anonymous said...

These posts are always highly informational & fun, C.

My principle objection to the Nu52 redesign is it reminds me too much of Doomed Buddy. Since a huge chunk of Morrison's revamp was a comment on the grim'n'gritty state of affairs killing comix, well, the redesign hewing closer to that dim future version only cements that DC's editorial staff either don't realize or don't care that the publisher has met the enemy, a la Pogo, and "we is us".