The Last Days of Animal Man #1
“Part One: Deny”
Writer: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Chris Batista
Inks: Dave Meikis
Colors: Mike Atiyeh
Letters: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Brian Bolland
Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US
This limited series is getting underway about, oh, two years too late. I’m not suggesting it’s been delayed or lying around or anything. The point is that Animal Man’s popularity peaked in 2006-2007, when he was a featured player in 52. This far removed from that weekly series, this title’s sudden arrival in comic shops is a little perplexing. However, there were a couple of elements that were enough to grab my attention, to pique my curiosity. Chief among them was the fact that this marks Punisher and Firestorm co-creator Gerry Conway’s return to comics. He spent some time as a part of the Law & Order machine, and he also served as a producer and writer for a variety of other TV shows. Conway’s super-hero sensibilities of the 1970s and 1980s show through here, but he also includes some socio-political elements and some solid characterization. Furthermore, I’ve always really enjoyed the crisp, dynamic super-hero artwork of Chris Batista.
In the not-too distant future, a middle-aged Buddy Baker contends with some challenges that go with this later stage in life. With the kids gone, he and his wife have begun to drift apart, and professionally, the stunt co-ordinator is forever butting heads with young directors who want to sacrifice safety in the name of theatrics. But the biggest problem — and we’re talking life or death here — is the fact that when he’s fighting crime as Animal Man, his powers have been sputtering out on him as of late. And when you’re going toe to toe with super-villains (like, for example, a new one by the name of Bloodrage), that spells trouble.
I can see why Batista was chosen as the penciller for this series. His detailed approach is comparable to the style of cover artist Brian Bolland, who has a close association with the title character through his stint as the cover artist on the original Animal Man series penned by Grant Morrison. In fact, this issue’s cover is an homage to Bolland’s illustration adorning the front of Animal Man #1 from 1988. Batista has a penchant for bringing a real dynamism to his heroic and villainous figures. I was most impressed with how he manages to convey Buddy’s age without making seem ancient or feeble. There are just enough age lines to do the job. The backgrounds are nicely detailed as well. The design for Bloodrage is rather generic in tone, but I suspect that’s rather the point when it comes to the character.
Bloodrage is a perplexing character. He’s the typical 1990s super-villain — Kewl name, one-dimensional, and as I noted already, generic in appearance. At first, I wondered if Conway simply devised this uninspired antagonist so as not to take focus away from the title character and his plight. But after some quick research online, I wonder if there’s another message the writer is trying to convey. Conway left comics in the early 1990s, when style reigned supreme and substance was often left behind in favor of cover gimmicks and the latest Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee clone. I can’t help but wonder if Bloodrage, so reminiscent of the sort of character that arose in the early 1990s, is Conway’s comment on a less-than-admirable phase in super-hero comics.
Conway’s come up with a great way to acknowledge the character’s history and recent continuity without being bogged down by it. By setting his story a bit into the future, he’s able to step away from what Animal Man’s been up to lately while still incorporating references to continuity from the recent and distant past. He even incorporates a reference to a major development from Aquaman from a few years ago, tying up something of a loose end. I also really enjoyed how Conway describes the manner in which Animal Man’s powers work in the script. Describing animal powers and essences as voices singing in a choir brings a certain spiritual and soothing tone to what was originally some Silver Age weirdness and campiness.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me was how Conway uses the fact that this is set just a little bit into the future to explore issues society is wrestling with today. With DC’s restored San Diego, he comments on New Orleans and devastation from hurricane Katrina. There’s also a passing reference to a carbon tax, presented as a matter-of-fact inconvenience rather than the political hot potato it is today. I appreciated these small touches, as they elevated what could have been a generic super-hero story into something a little more intelligent.
The point of Conway’s plot isn’t difficult to discern, but fortunately, it’s not painfully obvious either. The writer is using the loss/fading/unreliability of the title character’s powers as a way to explore natural human insecurities about aging. Conway is in his 50s now, and that he’d explore such subject is perfectly understandable. Furthermore, with the stunt-scene conflict, he may also be commenting on headaches he’s encountered or witnessed when working in TV. They say one is meant to write what one knows, and it would appear Conway’s doing just that. The story, despite its many fantastic elements, is grounded and has a certain genuine quality. 7/10