According to two time Eisner-nominated comic book writer Jeff Lemire, family is at the heart of his new “Animal Man” ongoing monthly series — which is why he’s going to spend his entire run trying to tear them apart.
One of the first books announced as part of DC Comics’ company-wide New 52 relaunch, the inaugural issue of Lemire’s “Animal Man,” featuring interior art by “The Immortal Iron Fist” artist Travel Foreman, hit stores earlier this week. Starring Buddy Baker, a father and Hollywood stuntman able to access the powers of any animal in the universe via a mystical connection between living creatures known as “The Red,” the character was originally created by writer Dave Wood in 1965. However, most fans know Buddy from his 1988 solo series, penned by British writer Grant Morrison and illustrated by Chas Truog. Written shortly after “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” “Animal Man” became Morrison’s soapbox for issues such as animal rights while acknowledging and addressing the post-Crisis reboot itself as Buddy slowly became aware of his existence as a comic book character. Moving to DC’s Vertigo imprint in 1993, “Animal Man” stayed in print for nearly a decade, cycling through writers such as Peter Milligan and Jaime Delano as the content grew progressively darker.
As a long-time fan of the Morrison run, when DC began talking relaunch plans, Lemire jumped at the chance to bring back Buddy and his family: long-suffering but always sympathetic wife Ellen, teenage son Cliff and pre-teen daughter Maxine. Lemire spoke with CBR about “Animal Man,” touching on the importance of Buddy’s family, how the writer plans on pushing them all to their limits and what Maxine’s new powers mean for the DCU.
CBR News: Let’s start things off by talking about how you start off “Animal Man” issue one: with an interview about Buddy. Why open with an interview rather than an action-packed splash page?
Jeff Lemire: [Laughs] There’s a couple reasons. I think, first of all, the character of Buddy Baker and Animal Man isn’t your traditional superhero, so rather than start off with a big superhero-y action scene, I thought I’d go a different route and just get to know the man himself a bit better, because there’s a couple of things that make Buddy unique in the landscape. One of which is that, obviously, he’s a family man and his role as a father and husband always seems to come first before anything else. But the other aspect of his personality I wanted to introduce with that mock-up interview is that, unlike most of the characters in the DC Universe, Buddy’s secret identity isn’t a secret. He’s publicly known, and in today’s culture, if that were the case, there would be a certain amount of celebrity that would go along with that. I wanted to do something that showcased all the different aspects of him and his personality, and just show how being a superhero maybe isn’t his priority anymore; he’s sort of trying out some new things and he’s become sort of a cultural icon in some ways. I just thought, for new readers it was a smart way to make the character accessible. Instantly, you know everything you need to know before the story began.
You start off the issue talking about Buddy balancing his family life and work and heroics. How are you balancing the darker horror parts of “Animal Man” with the idea that Buddy is still this middle-class American everyman hero?
I think for any kind of horror to work, or for any kind of science fiction to work — any time you put fantastic elements into any story, for it to really, truly work, you need to connect to the characters on some kind of human level. The only way something is truly horrific or scary is if you are worried about the characters and you relate to them. For me, it seems like to have those dark horror elements in the book without balancing them with smaller, quieter family moments, and without the book having some kind of heart, those moments don’t seem as scary and the good moments don’t seem good. The whole core of the book, really, is trying balance the heart and the family aspect of Buddy with the terrible things going on around him and see how dark and how much I can put the family through and still have them stick together.
Part of that is obvious in the reveal at the end of the issue, with Maxine and her zombie animal powers. Are the implications of her powers going to be the driving force for at least the first story arc?
You know, it’s bigger than that; what you see at the end of issue one is only the tip of the iceberg as to what Maxine can do and who she is. It’s much more than just the first arc. I think Maxine’s development and the discovery of who she is and who she’s going to be is sort of the thrust of my entire story for as long as I’ll be on the book. Without giving too much away, by the time I’m done writing my arc on the book, whenever that will be, Maxine will probably be one of the most important characters in the DC Universe.
You’re also tackling The Red in your issue — will it be intrinsically tied to Maxine and the greater DCU?
Yeah. I don’t want to give away too much, too soon, but that’s a big part of the book and also a big part of what Scott Snyder is doing over on “Swamp Thing” with The Green. Our two books we’re kind of doing like sister titles; they are very connected, and while our separate storylines may start off being separate, and you can read each book separately, eventually, both of what we have planned merges into one big story which has greater implications for the DC Universe. Maxine and Alec Holland and Buddy are a big part of that.
Talking about the tone of the book, we’ve obviously seen the horror aspects of it in this first issue, with the guts and the bloody eyes and the zombie animals. While “Animal Man” in the past has been darker, with those “mature reader” warnings on it, what made you decide to explore the horror aspects rather than just the family or superhero side?
For me, the roots of “Animal Man” have always sort of leaned to a darker corner of the DC Universe, linked to “Swamp Thing” and “Hellblazer” before they became Vertigo books. And then, of course, when it became officially part of the Vertigo thing, the first wave of Vertigo books were all sort of dark fantasy and horror. That’s kind of always how I viewed the book. So, while you could easily make it another superhero book and explore the family stuff going on and have Buddy on some great adventure in space and things like that, it just didn’t seem very interesting to me, personally. I thought what would make the book unique was, instead exploring the darker side of this new DC Universe and the darker side of America and stuff, have this heartwarming, emotionally connected family at the core of that and have their love for each other shine through at the end. That was a much more interesting take on the character and it upped the stakes. It makes his connection to his family much more emotional because there’s so much at risk now. It’s really a dark world he has to navigate his children through. I just thought that was more interesting and sophisticated, for me as a writer, rather than writing Buddy as a superhero each month.
It also feels as though the horror extends beyond the gore to the less tangible idea of something bad happening to your kids and family.
Yeah! As a parent myself, there’s nothing scarier than the thought of something happening to your child. That really is the scariest thing in the world, and if I can get some of that feeling into the book, it just adds so much emotional resonance for so many people who have always enjoyed reading Buddy as a father. It makes the stakes much higher for him and for the reader, for him to keep his children safe amidst all this horror.
You’ve talked a lot about how much respect you have for the Grant Morrison run on “Animal Man,” which was done during another DC reboot and often broke the fourth wall to address continuity changes. Is this something you plan to do with the book during this relaunch?
I’m not going to go that direction, because [Grant] already did the ultimate version of that story already. For me to try to redo it or add on to it wouldn’t be respectful to what he did — and quite frankly, I couldn’t do anything more or better with it than he’s already done. In my mind, those stories still happened and they’re still part of his history. I feel like this is the next chapter after that. That meta-fictional aspect was so unique to what Grant Morrison did, it would be foolish of me to try and imitate him. I have to do my own kind of story and my own kind of take on it, otherwise I’m kind of doomed to be compared!
On the art side, you’ve got Travel Foreman. He has a very distinct, sketchy style to his art. Is that roughness what attracted you to him as the artist for the series?
Yeah, I wanted it to be a horror book, so I wanted it to be a darker, grittier art style, as well. You don’t want a traditionally clean superhero look; I don’t think it would work with the tone of the book. To be honest, a lot of the elements that ended up becoming part of the plot and part of the story came the from the way Travel was drawing things. Not so much in the first issue, but the second and third issues, when we get into some new elements and characters. The way he designed those characters and the detail and the imagination he brought to them really inspired me to take storylines and adjust to what he was doing. It was definitely a real collaboration between the two of us, sort of a back and forth, and I couldn’t be happier with him on the book. I think he’s phenomenal and he’s really going to shine on this book.
That brings to mind the layouts in this first issue, which has a lot of panels overlapping and elaborate splashes. When it came to the art, did you let Travel do most of the directing?
Oh, yeah. I think one of the mistakes I made earlier in my short writing career for DC — I’ve really only done “Superboy” and “The Atom” before this — but one of the mistakes I made with both of those books was trying to write them as if I was drawing them, or try to control the visual aspect a little too much and give too much direction on layout and things. Sometimes it ended up coming off stiff, because I wasn’t the one actually drawing it, and rather than the artist following his own thing, he was trying to do what I wanted. So I knew when I got an artist like Travel, and also with Alberto [Ponticelli] on “Frankenstein,” I could let go of that worry about the visual side of things and really explore character and dialogue and plot and pacing and let the artist completely control the visual side. That was freeing for me, and as soon as I did that with Travel, I felt I started to find my voice as a writer, as opposed to when I’m writing and drawing my own stuff. It’s freeing, and the obvious result is the collaboration between us, which has worked out and is really fun.
Finally, issue one is on the shelves now — for those who are still on the fence, why should new readers pick up “Animal Man?”
Because I think what Scott Snyder and I have planned for our two books is going to redefine this dark corner of the DC Universe. It’s a really big story with a lot of implications. I think both of our books have a lot of heart and a lot to relate to character-wise. It’s not your average superhero stuff or your average horror stuff; it’s hopefully a real balance of things that work and make the book kind of unique among all the other superhero comics out there.
“Animal Man” issue #2 hits stores October 5