One of the most critically acclaimed titles of 2011, "Animal Man," by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman has taken the superhero comic and not only stood it on its head but spun the genre around faster than one of the original Electric Boogaloos.
As DC Comics' ongoing series grows organically with each issue into a mesmerizing twist of strange adventure and horrific mystery, Lemire has continued to keep readers gasping for more by running Buddy Baker and his family across the boundaries of dysfunction, dystopia and, if things don't change soon, sheer disaster.
As the action pushes headlong into a highly anticipated summer crossover with Scott Snyder's "Swamp Thing," "Animal Man" took a slight pause this month, dipping its sequential soul into the character's long-standing meta-fictional history, originally explored by superstar writer Grant Morrison during his run with Buddy Baker in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Writing a story within a story in "Animal Man" #6 for guest artist John Paul Leon, Lemire takes readers into Buddy Baker's acclaimed film "Tights," which the writer teased in the title's first issue when readers were re-introduced to the Dave Wood/Carmine Infantino creation through a fictional prose magazine article.
In an effort to stop the spinning for even a few moments, CBR reached out to Lemire for his insights and introspections of what's truly being expressed in the pages of "Animal Man" #6, which is in stores now.
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING COMMENTARY TRACK CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR "ANIMAL MAN" #6, IN STORES NOW
CBR News: In the first issue of "Animal Man," you introduced Buddy Baker through a magazine article that chronicled his budding movie career. Did you always plan to feature the movie as prominently as you have in this issue, or did this story grow organically from what you and Travel Foreman have been doing throughout the series?
Jeff Lemire: I thought I would touch on it, and I think there still might be more to touch on later, but it wasn't really part of the plan. I think it came about after I had done a couple of issues and Joey Cavalieri, the editor, suggested we may want to think about doing something different around "Animal Man" #5 or #6 so Travel could take a break and catch up. When he said that, I started to think of ways to do a stand-alone story that wouldn't take away from the main story. I wanted to do something that would complement it and add some subtext to it. Doing the movie seemed like a real fun way of doing that.
Did you script this issue differently than a regular comic to give it a more cinematic feel?
No, not really. I just wrote it as a comic book to be honest, but with the visuals really in mind so that it would look and, especially in the beginning, play a bit more like a film. I knew having John Paul Leon do the art would create a different look, anyway. I definitely kept his style in mind when writing it.
On the first page, the title cards feature "Liirimax Films Presents" and "a RYAN DARANOVSKY film," which sound eerily similar to some much more recognizable names.
I pictured Buddy's movie would be like "The Wrestler," the Darren Aronofsky movie, but with a down-on-his-luck superhero as opposed to a professional wrestler. That was not very veiled reference. [Laughs]
"The Wrestler" certainly jumped to mind right away. Whether it's Tony Stark's battle with alcoholism, the anti-heroic ways of the Watchmen or the dystopian future of the Dark Knight, why is that comic book readers want to see our superheroes struggle?
As readers, I think we became more sophisticated. Maybe not sophisticated, but as readership trended older in the seventies and eighties, when it wasn't just kids reading comics anymore, the stories had to reflect that change. It was just a natural growth or progression for the medium. Now we're at the point where most writers, or at least good writers, try to inject real life into superheroes in an effort to make these characters relevant. It's not a matter of darkening things up, it's also doing other things like what I'm doing in "Animal Man," where I am creating, or at least trying to create, a real family with real relationships between the family members. I'm just trying to bring more real life and a more layered and complicated approach to these characters. Obviously, readership is broader and more diverse and they want more from these books, so it helps to keep them relevant. The other aspect of it is, so many of these characters have been around for so long that in order not to repeat what's been done before, you have to keep adding layers and new quirks to them.
I love the movie title, "Tights." However, so far during your run, Buddy has been far more Tarzan than Superman, as he's walking around topless most of the time. Why the title, "Tights?"
There probably wasn't as much thought put into the title than you would think. It kind of came to me and it stuck. "Animal Man" is a superhero book, but it's not really a superhero book. I am really just referencing something that is traditionally associated with superheroes. A series of grown people running around in tights is not what Buddy's life is about.
When Grant Morrison was writing "Animal Man" in the eighties and nineties, the series turned completely metaphysical when he wrote himself into the series as a character. Now, you've delivered a story within a story surrounding a movie Buddy starred in, which eerily foreshadows what could happen to him in his own life, if he's not careful. What is about Buddy Baker that allows for this level of storytelling, because I can't imagine these types of stories being told with Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.
With "Animal Man," there is such a huge footprint there from what Grant Morrison did. It felt like, at some point, there had to be a nod to what he did with his meta-fictional post-script, because I thought that was a really important part of the character. I wanted to find a way to do a meta-fictional story with him, but in a different way than just putting me in the book. I didn't want to repeat what Grant had done and I thought this was a fun way to do it. The movie Buddy is starring in is almost the opposite of his real life in just about every way, but it is also a dark reflection. It could almost show what might happen if the family was torn apart when you get those different types of fictional layers going on.
I absolutely love Travel Foreman's work on "Animal Man," but John Paul Leon's take on Buddy Baker is bang-on. He looks like a movie star! I know you love working with Travel, but what was it like collaborating with an industry heavyweight like John Paul Leon for this issue?
It's really cool. I really love John Paul Leon's work and I always have. It's a real thrill to work with someone of that calibre. If Travel wasn't going to be on the book for a month we needed to get somebody really good to step in. I can't be happier with what John did on the book. His take on Buddy and the rest of the family was really great to see.
In these pages, Buddy's character is meeting up with his estranged wife and while he has not lost his real-life family yet, there are certainly echoes here to his real life. Is this his "It's a Wonderful Life" moment, where he's witnessing what could be if he doesn't start making some different choices?
That's exactly what this is. It's very much the opposite of Buddy's life at the moment, but you get a real sense of what might happen if things continue the way they're going. It could really tear the family apart. And while it wouldn't be exactly like this, this is almost a metaphor of what could happen.
I don't know if you caught the Easter eggs with the character names, but Buddy's name in the movie is Chas Grant, which is obviously a nod to Chas Truog and Grant Morrison. The son's name is Jamie for Jamie Delano and the boyfriend's name is Steve for Steve Pugh, so I drew another meta-fictional line through all of them.
Buddy is growing closer and closer to his daughter every issue as Maxine's powers continue grow. In the movie, Chas is trying to win over his son, Jamie. Are we seeing how Cliff, Buddy's son, might be feeling towards his dad these days?
Maxine has really been the focus of things so far, and in many ways, Cliff has been left out. This sequence is sort of the first sign that Cliff is going to become a much bigger part of the book. You'll see in "Animal Man" #7 and #8 that Cliff is getting a lot more in-panel time. His relationship with Buddy starts to come to the forefront more. I have real big plans for Cliff. Using the son in the movie like this was a way of drawing attention to things that are going to be coming with Cliff.
Jamie is also quite the opposite of Maxine. Maxine loves being outside and running free with her dad while Jamie is cooped up in his bedroom, playing with the video games on the computer. Again, is this withdrawal from society a glimpse into the future of what could be?
Exactly. He's the opposite of Buddy's real kids. You draw attention to what he has by showing what he doesn't.
If you really wanted to go meta, I guess you could start creating "Red Thunder" comics, like Dark Horse did a few years back with "The Escapist," based on the character from Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." Any plans for a "Red Thunder" comic book series?
The funny part to that, and really the other meta-layer to all of this, is that before I started to do comics professionally, I had a superhero character called Red Thunder I used to play around with. Actually, I almost did a book with him once, maybe 10 years ago. So, there you go. I admit that when I was doing the Red Thunder, I never imagined that one day, John Paul Leon would draw it. It just goes to show that you never know what can happen.
What can you tell us about Red Thunder?
You don't need to know too much about him. He's just sort of a generic superhero. There's not a lot of substance to [the character], at least not in the scenes of the movie that we see here.
Is Chas an optimist or a liar? He doesn't really have a job lined up at all, and it sounds like he has to convince himself that what he's doing as superhero is important before he'll be able to sell his importance to a temp agency.
What Buddy thought being a superhero meant, before the series started, is not the reality of what he's faced with as Animal Man, and he's not the only one realizing it. Ellen has put up with a lot, even before this storyline, and maybe what we are seeing here is Buddy finally taking everything too far. And when Ellen's children start being threatened, it's going to change her opinion of his life, as well, and some of his chances he takes. I really don't think there is any going back for Buddy after this storyline concludes. He can be the superhero he dreamed of being, but the strain on his family is too much. You are going to see the repercussions of that later on in the series.
It kills me when he talks about the Justice League this way. He sounds so defeated. As a long-time C or even D-lister, does Buddy/Chas have superhero envy?
Of course, he does. Wouldn't you? It's like if you formed a band and your best friend did too -- and his band became U2 while you end up being a band no one has ever heard of. Buddy set out with this dream, this fantasy of what these other superheroes like Superman and Batman were like and how they lived their lives. The reality is so much more horrific and dangerous for him.
He looks pretty pathetic bellied up to the bar, but there is hope when he gets home and sees a picture of his son dressed up as Red Thunder. He really feels he has one more shot at the title here, doesn't he?
This scene could have gone either way. It could have been a big cliche, which it still kind of is, but I think John Paul added a lot of weight to it with the expressions on the characters' faces and everything. I'm really happy with how the whole issue turned out.
Sadly, Red Thunder's last stand isn't against the Joker or Darkseid. It's just a couple of punks trying to knock off a magazine stand. Is this the level of where's he's at as a superhero or is just so happen to be something that he stumbles upon?
It's probably a bit of both. I don't think this character would ever be in the position to take on a real supervillain. He's not at that level. All he can really do is walk around the streets and see what he runs into and what kind of trouble he can get himself into. It just adds to how pathetic he actually is. He's just some guy in a suit.
What do you think about these real-life heroes that keep popping up on the news in New York and Chicago?
These are some pretty misguided people out there. Maybe this is a little bit of a commentary on those types of characters, too.
If we weren't already clear, we see the tell-tale signs here that what we're seeing isn't the actual events of this story. "BUFFERING... 97%... PLEASE WAIT" can only mean one thing. Did you consider staying in the movie for the entire issue?
No, no. I really wanted it to be bookended with the real Baker family. Without that, it just doesn't have the same resonance or meaning because the whole thing is, like we've been discussing, a commentary on Buddy Baker's life. If you don't see his life juxtaposed against the movie in the issue, I just don't feel that it works.
So yes, it was always the intention, and, of course, you don't even get to see the end of the movie. You get to see this cliched moment that you get in every movie -- the big emotional moment with his son. Then, right as we're about to see it, it cuts out and there is no resolution.
I love the line as Chas is lying there in bed, smashed to beyond recognition, and he asks his doctor, "Did my costume get ruined?"
That was a direct lift from "The Wrestler," too. He had his heart attack in that movie and the first thing he asked about was his tights.
Cut scene and we're back to "real-life" at the Baker home, with Travel Foreman on pencils. This is really Cliff's scene. Is this the moment when Buddy's son is about to take center stage in "Animal Man?"
All four members of the Baker family are the stars of the book. It's not just Buddy. It's not just Maxine. It's Buddy's and Maxine's story that kind of launches the book, but we're going to start seeing how Ellen and Cliff become really important and integral to the story, I think in some really unexpected ways. Now, it's time for Cliff to step forward and for us to explore him and explore his relationship with Buddy, what it's like to live in Maxine's shadow. Maxine is really the apple of Buddy's eye. Maxine is very much like Buddy, and now she obviously has his powers too, so there is a lot of jealousy and insecurity there. Things like that are going to start to play into Cliff's head and his actions. That makes for an interesting character.
What's the deal with Cliff's hair? That's the worst haircut I have ever seen.
It is a bad haircut -- but he always had a bad haircut. That was always one of his signatures back in the nineties. He had the mullet. And he still does. [Laughs]
One of the rising stars of comics, Socks the Cat, gets a panel to wax philosophical, too.
For sure. He's a really fun character to write. He's going to evolve a lot as well, as the book moves forward. It's just fun to have this family pet who talks and seems to know more about what's going on than the Bakers do.
Socks' mentions Alec Holland and how he is a being of great power. DCU readers know Alec Holland is the Swamp Thing, and you and Scott Snyder are moving towards a major crossover this summer between "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing." We've talked about this mashup before, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about it here.
We've been putting a lot of work into it. We have some really big things planned for the crossover. It's certainly not just a team-up where Animal Man and Swamp Thing get together and defeat the Rot. It's a real battle, but there's a lot more planned than that. There is going to be a lot more unexpected twists than what people might normally think is going to happen. It's a really different story and it's a really big story. We're really, really excited about it.
These two characters have a long history together, and it appears their stories' fabrics will continue to be intertwined. Is it safe to say this relationship will continue to be explored beyond this summer's crossover?
I don't want to comment any further. I don't want to give anything away.
Ellen looks like she at her wit's end -- she says as much, with her head down on the table, "Buddy... This is too much." Is this the beginning of the breakdown that was perhaps foreshadowed in the movie?
Of course. I don't think any parent would put up with what she has. And it's going to get worse. The more her children are put in danger, the more she is going to start pulling away and refusing to go along with this. But it may be too late. The Bakers may be caught up in something so big that they just can't escape. That's going to create a lot of tension.
And Buddy's not the one consoling Ellen. It's Maxine, who says, "It's okay, Mommy." She truly is wise beyond her years.
Technically, she's only supposed to be four-years old. But she speaks and acts much older than any normal four-year old would. I think that's a reflection of the special connection she has with her dad. She knows she's not a normal kid, so she has to behave more mature than a normal four-year old. And perhaps, at this point, she's even more mature than Buddy.
On the last page, Buddy sums up the story to this point perfectly with "...it's starting to get pretty dark out there." It is getting pretty dark out there, isn't it?
Yes, it is. "Animal Man" #5 featured a cliffhanger with the animals being infected by the Rot and chasing the Bakers, and that's where we're going to pick up with "Animal Man" #7. The next arc is going to run four issues. It's called "Animal vs. Man," so I'll let your imagination fill in what that could mean. It's us getting back to the regular story and re-establishing what that is and getting ready for the next story -- the bigger story that begins in the next issue.
"Animal Man" #6, by Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman and John Paul Leon, is in stores now.