One of the books to surprise me in the New 52 was Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man. I had only a passing knowledge of the character from his role in 52 and did not read the acclaimed Grant Morrison run. It told the tale of not only the titular hero, Buddy Baker, but of his family and the strength behind it. It had wonderful horrors, such as dealing with the dark powers of the Rot, some great humor, and incredibly poignant and tragic moments throughout its thirty issue (0-29, plus two annuals) run.
Like I mentioned, the idea of family was the biggest theme and how a family would be effected by superhero work. After the New 52, the only superheroes that seemed to be married or even have relationships outside the costume were Animal Man and Aquaman (and yes, they are married in my headcanon and Geoff Johns seems to agree, with the way he wrote his run). Not only was Buddy married but he also had kids. This wasn’t like Fantastic Four where it was a family of superheroes. It showed that it takes a certain amount of will and patience to manage one’s life as a superhero, but as an ordinary family man.
One character in particular I have to highlight is Buddy’s wife, Ellen. I know when people discuss favorite female character in the DC Universe; they of course discuss female superheroes like Wonder Woman and Batgirl. But honestly, Ellen has been the rock of the Baker family. She provided a stability and strength not seen very much. True, she has no powers, but I pity anyone who tries to hurt her family. It makes it all the more heart wrenching when the family reaches its absolute dark point, which I will discuss in a few moments.
I cannot go on without talking about Little Wing herself, Maxine Baker. She provided some of the more light-hearted and fun moments through her interactions with everyone, even as we watched her powers develop and she too experienced quite a deal of trauma throughout the series. However, she too shows a great deal of bravery and love for her family at such a young age. You can’t help but smile when she smiles.
Now we come to the moment that nearly made me drop the series: the death of Cliff Baker. Following the conclusion of the crossover with Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing called Rotworld, Cliff Baker died defending his father. Now, I am not going to lie, one of my major problems with the New 52 was not only the removal and/or unnecessary changes of legacy characters but the removal of kids as well. When Cliff died, I was infuriated (It did not help that, only a week prior to the release of the issue he died in, 11-year old Damian Wayne died in Batman Incorporated #8 and I was disgusted by how DC advertised the gruesome death of a child character). It was at that point I was shouting “What the hell, DC?!” While I still hold to the idea that DC seems to have little to no interest in getting a younger audience, I did stick with the series, even if it was on notice.
It was good that I did because Cliff’s death was not forgotten. His presence was still felt, especially in the utterly soul crushing Animal Man Annual #2 which told a story of Buddy and Cliff against a bunch of spider creatures. It once again reinforced the theme of family and shows that Buddy would gladly die for them in a heartbeat. All the way up to the finale in Animal Man #29 was this death felt as the family began the slow process of healing.
The art of the series was fantastic. Its three main contributors, Travel Foreman, Steve Pugh and Rafael Albuquerque, deliver the truly horrific and weird moments fantastically. They all easily are able to also communicate the very human moments that were necessary for us to connect with the characters as well (Foreman’s work in the aforementioned Annual as well as Pugh’s work in issue #19 which was the first fallout from Cliff’s death are standout examples). We even had great guest spots from artists such as Cully Hamner and even Lemire himself contributed to the final issue, illustrating a fairy tale Maxine tells to Buddy.
I know this isn’t the end of Buddy Baker’s story. He is following Jeff Lemire on to the comic book Justice League United. To be honest, it really came down to the final issue of Animal Man as to whether or not I would follow as well. Why? Well, because of the editorial mandates behind such things as superheroes being married as well as them having rather terrible lives outside their superhero work. With such a, in my opinion, narrow-minded view, I feared that the result of this series would’ve separated Buddy from his family and Ellen and Maxine would’ve fallen into obscurity.
However, Lemire was able to stick the landing. Yes, the family has experienced a horror no family should ever. Yes, they have been shaken to the core. But at the end of the series, the Bakers are still together, weary but with the hope that they can make it through and they can be stronger for it. I sincerely hope Lemire continues this as he moves to Justice League United, even though I know the rest of the Baker family will not have as much focus as they did in this series.
For thirty issues, Jeff Lemire took a character that I did not know much about and made me care for him and his world more than many other books. The idea that heroes need to forgo relationships with non-super people is absurd and this series proves it. We are stronger because of our relationships. Having attachments does not make us weak.
Take a bow, Mr. Lemire. You earned it.