DC Comics writer Jeff Lemire and artist Steve Pugh have spent the past year of building the world of “Animal Man,” pitting hero Buddy Baker against the mystical elementals that control the balance of life and death in the New 52. But starting with issue #20, the two pit Buddy against an even more perilous danger: his rapidly disintegrating family life.
Coming off the months-long Rotworld crossover with “Swamp Thing,” “Animal Man” #19 saw Buddy Baker deal with the aftermath of the loss of his son Cliff, a casualty in the war against the Rot. With his marriage threatening to dissolve before his eyes and the loss of his connection to the Red, “Animal Man” is poised to take the character in a new direction –one with shorter arcs and a repurposed DC villain lurking in the shadows, according to writer Jeff Lemire.
On the heels of the title’s funeral issue, Lemire dove into the changing world of Animal Man with CBR, including the long-term plan for Cliff’s death and a dip into the upcoming “Trinity War” event, helmed by Lemire and “Justice League’s” Geoff Johns.
CBR News: I know from talking with you before that you feel that one of the things that sets Buddy apart from other superheroes is his family. With that in mind, when did you start planning to kill Cliff and take the family away from him?
Jeff Lemire: You know, Cliff’s death was in really early incarnations of — not my original pitch, but the next wave of pitches after the first six issues. We got past the first five issues and realized the book was doing well and would last for a while and I started making bigger, long-term plans. There’s a couple of reasons: I felt the whole Rotworld story was a lot of fun, but if it didn’t have some kind of consequence, it really wouldn’t have mattered. It would have just been an imaginary story. I wanted something of consequence to come out of Rotworld. Also, I just felt like the characters dealing with the death of a child could be really powerful and emotional, the kind of subject matter you don’t normally see a lot in mainstream superhero comics. As a writer, it was something really emotional to hook into; from the beginning, the book has been about the Baker family and pushing them to the limits and seeing how much they can take. I think now we’re seeing the absolute limit.
For many families, the death of a child would be their limit, if not their breaking point. So, moving forward, does that mean we’re going to see less of the Baker family because of the divorce and the death of Cliff? Will this start to focus more on Buddy and less on Ellen and Maxine?
No, not at all. It’s just sort of the next chapter of their story. There’s nothing worse that could possibly happen to a family than what’s happened to them, and now its about exploring the consequences of that. It’s still very much a story about the entire family, about Maxine, about Ellen and about Buddy and how the three of them deal with what’s happened, in different ways. It will also be about what it will take to bring them back together — or will this be the end of it? That’s where we’re going with it. So while all three characters will be separated within the context of the story, they’ll still very much be in the book.
Besides the break with his family, we saw Buddy getting kicked out of the Red. Is this a big turning point tonally for the book? Will the upcoming issues be more tights and capes and less mystical Red/Rot/Green supernatural stories?
In a way. I mean, it’s tricky. I wanted to get away from the Red/Green/Rot mythology for a while. Well, that’s not true — I think the Red will always be a part of the book. His relationship with the Red is changing, but I really wanted to get away from the Green and the Rot, I wanted “Animal Man” to stand on its own, tell its own stories and not be so tied to “Swamp Thing” for a while. I feel like we’ve seen the Rot from issue one through seventeen, so I’m definitely done with that for a while! [Laughs]
Really, there were a lot of status quo changes: Cliff’s dead, Buddy’s relationship with the Red and the totems has totally changed, the family’s changed. All of that, I think, will bring a new appeal to the book. In a way, we’ll see Buddy in costume more, fighting what seem to be, at first anyway, more traditional super villains, but it’s still very much a horror book so those super villains will quickly become something more creepy and horrible than your regular super villain stuff! It all kind of leads back to the bigger story of the family and the Red again.
You’ve got new antagonists showing up called the Splinterfolk. What can you say about them? Are they part of the wave of bad guys who seem like normal super villains but are more along the supernatural bent?
They don’t really seem like super villains! They’re pretty horrible! [Laughs] I can’t really tell you much about them because there’s a bigger twist coming, but they’re the ultimate, most extreme possible version of animal rights activists, taking it so far they become so perverted and demented in their thinking that they’re trying to become one with animal kind by surgically grafting animal parts onto their own bodies. Buddy kind of goes after them and that leads to a bigger story and a bigger reveal of a bigger villain who’s behind this all, who is actually an old DC villain that has appeared in the New 52 but not in “Animal Man.” I’m going to develop his character a bit and make him very specific to “Animal Man” and sort of make him Animal Man’s new archenemy. I don’t want to say who that is but that will be coming at the end of issue #22.
Coming off this years-long arc, how do you create a good villain for Buddy that feels just as important as the Rot with as much danger and as high stakes as losing Cliff?
I’m not trying to be evasive, it’s hard to answer that question without spoiling who the villain is and what I want to do with him. But I think a big shift for me in this book after Rotworld, what I really want to do is tell stories that are a little bit shorter, things that are three or four issues long that don’t drag out for a year because I feel it keeps the book fresh. What I want to explore, aside from the continuing story of the family, is Buddy’s celebrity. He’s a really cool character in that he’s a superhero but he’s also this high-level celebrity in the DC Universe, he’s an actor and everything, so I really want to use him as a tool to explore our society’s obsession with celebrity. Some of the villains we’ll see, and the villain in particular to what I’ve been teasing, will be connected to that in a dark reflection of that obsession with celebrity. I’ve also managed to connect it to the other aspects of Buddy people like, so I think he’ll be a good villain not just for this story but for the future as well.
You’re still working with Steve Pugh on the art, and Steve’s worked on so much “Animal Man” for so long — what was his reaction to the death of Cliff? Did you two talk about the gatefold issue beforehand?
No — he did send me one email with sort of a “WTF?” [Laughs] But I explained where I was going with everything and I think he’s cool with it. Of all the writers and creators who have ever worked on the characters, I think Steve at this point by far has done the most issues of anyone. I think he did like thirty or forty issues of the old series, and now he’s done a lot here. It’s really cool to work with him. I think that gatefold issue was an issue that really played to his strengths; the acting that he was able to pull off with some of the characters was really brilliant. It’s really great to work with someone like that, where you can throw all this emotional material into the book and you know they’re going to do it right.
DC recently announced the books that are a part of “Trinity War,” and you’re working on that with Geoff Johns and with “Justice League Dark.” Is Animal Man going to be involved with Trinity War too?
I went to LA in January to meet with Geoff and sort of just focused on “Trinity War,” breaking the story down. There actually was a point, I remember — on the board, we were putting up the teams of who would be in the book and I really wanted to bring Animal Man into the story because I thought it’d be a fun way to showcase him to have him be a part of “Trinity War.” But with everything going on in “Animal Man,” with Cliff’s death and everything, it felt strange to put him through all that in his own book but then be a part of this big picture in the other books. It didn’t feel right. So he won’t be in it!
It seems like there’s a ton of characters already involved in the event.
Yeah, no kidding! We have enough to worry about! [Laughs]
You’ve worked with Ray Fawkes, co-writing “Justice League Dark,” and now you’re co-writing “Trinity War” with Geoff Johns. In your opinion, what goes into a successful co-writing partnership, both in terms of writing an individual title and with an event as big as “Trinity War?”
It’s interesting; working on my own books for Vertigo, I do everything. I write them myself, and draw, I’m so used to working alone. One of the really fun and rewarding things of working on DC books is the collaborative aspect. The stuff like I’ve been doing with Scott [Snyder] on “Rotworld” and now with Geoff on “Trinity War,” it’s a lot of fun to collaborate with that. For me, with all these superheroes, the biggest thing is, everyone collaborating kind of puts their egos aside. We’re all invested in the story. I know it’s like that with Ray and me — we don’t have ego involved and we try to help each other as much as we can and try to tell a good story. Working with Geoff is a lot like that as well. It’s cool, because Geoff’s done so many of these events before and this is sort of my first one. It was really interesting to watch how he approaches it, how he breaks these big event stories down and how he keeps it focused on character despite how large they are. It was a real learning experience, but also really a lot of fun just to play around with the characters. It’s just been exciting.
Well let’s talk the broad strokes of the event. If you’re just a “Justice League Dark” or a “Constantine” reader, will you be able to get the full story of the event from just those books?
“Constantine,” Ray is taking over by himself starting with issue #4. I was actually only a part of the first two issues. There will be “Trinity War” tie-ins with “Constantine” — that’s a story you can read by itself and it’s a lot of fun if you’re reading “Justice League Dark” during “Trinity War.” But the actual three Justice League books, the one Geoff and I are co-writing, you really do need to read them all. They continue into one another. The “Justice League Dark” issues, for instance, don’t just start as Justice League Dark. All three Justice Leagues are in those books. They are part of the overall story, so you will have to read all six parts.
“Justice League Dark” has always been on the outskirts of the Justice League corner of the DCU by dint of them being magic-based. How would you describe the Justice Leagues, plural, relationships to each other?
[Laughs] Well, it’s going to shift dramatically over the course of the story, but at the beginning, we kind of know the Justice League as the world’s greatest superheroes. We know that at this point, the Justice League Of America was created as a foil to them. Really, the wild card in the whole thing is the Dark team and what the hell they’re doing. Without spoiling anything, one of the major Justice League characters goes to the Justice League Dark team seeking help because of their connection to magic, and that kind of sparks all kinds of new problems for all three teams.
It is really fun to write those Dark characters interacting with the major Justice League characters. Frankenstein is a lot of fun, for instance; we’re having a lot of fun writing Frankenstein and Star Girl together! These weird mixes of characters is really fun.
What should readers keep an eye out for in “Animal Man” and in “Trinity War” as the event takes off?
“Trinity War” is just exciting because it’s the first big event the New 52 has done. It’s the first time we see all these characters together, and I think Geoff and I managed to come up with a story that, while exciting and with big blockbuster action going on, is still very character driven. I think its something we’re both pretty proud of. The artists are obviously top notch — it’s an exciting project.
“Animal Man” I’m really excited about. There will be a new “Animal Man Annual” in July drawn by original series artist Travel Foreman, which I’m really excited about. I just feel that after “Rotworld,” it’s just a really good chance to refresh the book. Some of the people who were reading it at the beginning and got a little tired of the Rot story after sixteen or seventeen issues, it’s a good chance for them to come back and check it out again. For me, that’s how I felt as a writer and I got reenergized with this! [Laughs]
“Animal Man” issue #20 is out May 1; “Trinity War” begins this summer.