Friday, February 19, 2010

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #4

By Lon S. Cohen

Spoiler Warning: In this series of posts on “The Last Days of Animal Man” limited series comic book, there will be periodical spoilers. If you haven’t read the series and intend to, please be advised that I will discuss plot points and surprises.

This is an ongoing review of the series in six parts. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Brian Bolland captures the anxiety and conflict that runs throughout this issue. The shattered image of Animal Man into shards of mirror-like pieces by the hand of Mirror Mistress while he desperately holds Starfire’s inert body in his arms perfectly encapsulates the chapter of this tale. Ultimately it’s about breaking Animal Man down and finding out what he’s made of. As a side note on the cover illustration, I like how detailed Starfire’s hair is as is flows upside down. It must have taken a long time to get all those curls in there.

If you read issue three then you already know the shocker at the end. We open with Animal Man in the enviable position of being lip locked with Starfire. Now I don’t care who you are or the color of your skin or even your gender, if you ain’t in lust with Starfire, check your pulse. Of course the act is entirely forgivable. I checked with my wife and she said that she would absolutely forgive me if I ever cheated on her with Princess Koriand’r. (Of course I also told her that the same went for her if she ever found herself in that situation with Starfire – but she said that she prefers Wolverine. Hey, we all have to make concessions in life.)

Immediately Animal Man is faced with guilt and regret and it’s a long road he takes until he hits absolute bottom by the end of this issue. He questions everything. His fatherhood. His manhood and his herohood (I made that word up.) Gerry Conway has a quirky storytelling style that I happen to love. How many comic writers insert a double page spread flashback into a scene where a super hero is getting his ass kicked. In his painful euphoria, Animal Man confronts the ghosts of his memory to come to a stunning conclusion: Despite the fact that he is losing his powers, he’s still a man, with the emotions, desires and ultimately, choices that every man has. It’s this revelation that saves him and Starfire, but just barely.

The issue sees the return of Bloodrage and Mirror Mistress, both of whom give Starfire and Animal Man a run for their money, both villains equally matched to the heroes’ weaknesses, Mirror Mistress with her ability to control the power for light (including Starfire’s star power) and Bloodrage with brute force against Animal Man’s fading abilities.

There’s not much traveling in physical space for this issue, in fact it almost entirely takes place on the League of Titan’s island HQ off of Manhattan and inside Animal Man’s own mind. All the action takes place in one spot but of course the tension and angst provide enough power to drive the plot along, including some kick-butt fight scenes rendered in stark and classic comic style by Chris Batista. I like the way Batista has developed the facial expressions for the characters. They are expressive and telling, which is a good thing because Conway is long on dialogue and inner thought in his writing. The layout of the text verses the illustration is balanced and flows very well throughout the story. I have never written or drawn a comic (although one day I hope to do both) but I imagine there is a lot of planning that has to go into such a complex mechanism relying on a writer to limit his pen so it fits into little boxes and panels and the penciller’s ability to translate a writer’s instructions into panels and renderings that blend perfectly while not drawing (pun!) too much attention away from the story.

I absolutely love the comic illustrations of Alex Ross but I find that I gaze longingly at the rich, realistic renderings of heroes more than I pay attention to the story line. In Batista’s case, his drawings are very detailed and expressive but not too modeled and not too flat. Like Goldilocks – just right, making this a very enjoyable read. Not that his penciling is too mundane at all. In fact like I mentioned, the characters are very well drawn and consistently illustrated. The layouts make the story move along at a god pace and I really enjoy some of the decisions they have made in how to integrate scenes including the way the flashback sequence works.

I have never been one to notice the details of coloring and inking. I’m no professional critic who picks apart every comic detail but I have to say the shading and colors in this book so far are very good. With Batista’s detailed comic illustration style it might be hard to not go overboard with the inking and color choices. The color and ink job is certainly not flat. It’s done with a sense of depth and attention paid to the penciller’s style. Again, I’m no expert on this type of thing but this one seems to be very well matched to the Batista’s style.

Overall this book, as with the entire series so far has far exceeded my expectations.

In the end, Animal Man transports home with Princess Starfire’s unconscious body in his arms narrowly escaping death. A surprise shock to be sure for his family but one I am sure they are used to.

The Last Days of Animal Man is a limited series published by DC Comics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #3

By Lon S. Cohen

Spoiler Warning: In this series of posts on “The Last Days of Animal Man” limited series comic book, there will be periodical spoilers. If you haven’t read the series and intend to, please be advised that I will discuss plot points and surprises.

This is an ongoing review of the series in six parts. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

One of the things I’m still undecided about by the third book is the way Gerry Conway is mucking around in the way the near future of the DCU might look. In this issue it’s revealed that Red Tornado, Superman, Starfire, Power Girl, Nightwing and The Flash are all part of a hybrid super group called The League of Titans. Obviously a melding of the Teen Titans and the Justice League, from which the members were drawn (zing!) While the other heroes seem basically the same, The Flash is now African American, clearly not the Barry Allen or Wally West versions of the Flash.

What I’m getting from these subtle unexplained changes is that Conway wants you to know that this is just enough into the future that things will be different but not so far that we’re going to be meeting the Legion of Superheroes any time soon. (Though I’m only halfway through the series so there’s still time for that!) Things change over the years. It’s inevitable. Sometimes change happens without explanation and most times, it’s not fair. I guess Conway wants us to be clear about that. It’s a central theme to the book.

It’s something that Buddy Baker needs to learn to deal with.

Interestingly, I am just starting to read David McCullough’s “John Adams.” The beginning deals with Adams’ youth. He’s astute, quick, intelligent and verbose. In one part he writes a letter to his cousin about what he perceives of the future of America. In those times, still a young collection of colonies of England, no one but a few “Americans” – as they were starting to call themselves as opposed to “colonists” – could see the greatness of the properties across the ocean from Europe. History tells us that no matter how great a nation that exists it must start from somewhere and in another place a nascent town – or colonies – is growing into the next great nation. “All that part of Creation that lies within our observation,” Adams writes. “Is liable to change.”

So as great nations change, so do great men.

The book mostly follows Animal Man through his painful personal journey while he is seeking a solution to his super power problem. In the meantime, we get a glimpse into what it was like to be stuck on an alien planet together with Adam Strange during the events of the yearlong comic series 52. Oh boy! Don’t get me started on my teenaged fantasies about Starfire during the 1980s when I voraciously read Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Teen Titan run. By the stars could Perez illustrate hot, orange alien babes with big, um, assets and abilities. I know what I’d be thinking that whole time. “How can I get rid of this square Adam Strange and make time with Kory.” Seems that’s exactly what Baker was thinking. The sexual tension between Kory and Buddy was palatable and surprising to me. I found myself thinking, “Did I just see that?” In the end, Conway makes good on that promise in the panels and proves the point that if you hand a gun over the mantle in Act 1 you should have it go off by the end of the play, which it definitely does in this case.

Over the course of the book, things go from bad to worse for Animal Man. Not only is he losing his powers but Nightwing addresses the elephant in the room by asking, “Does anyone even know what a Morphogenetic field is?” Subsequently Animal Man’s idea to heal himself by taking samples of his children’s DNA proves to be an eye opening experience as both his kids tell him exactly how it is. Again, Conway delivers an emotional punch by addressing the issue that every police detective and noble politician has since the dawn of time. Mainly how do you balance a duty to public service with your commitment to family? In a way the interactions between Baker and his wife and children reminded me a little of Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol, where he’s confronted by his past, present and future in his daughter, wife and son learning too late that while his business was being a hero he should have made his family his business all along. One scene reflects the classic Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” that always brings a tear to my eye. When speaking with his son – now an attorney fighting for the rights of environmental groups – he’s confronted with a mirror of himself. The man he was while his son was growing up is the model his son now uses in his own life, too busy saving the world to think about himself or his father’s feelings. Animal Man laments but is he learning from the experience or going right back to the place he was before, in denial of the truth.

This is a comic book after all and so by the end of the story the tension ramps up when his two former nemeses from the first two books now join forces to defeat the Animal Man. Sure kick a man while he’s down.

The Last Days of Animal Man is a limited series published by DC Comics.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #2

By Lon S. Cohen

Spoiler Warning: In this series of posts on “The Last Days of Animal Man” limited series comic book, there will be periodical spoilers. If you haven’t read the series and intend to, please be advised that I will discuss plot points and surprises.

This is an ongoing review of the series in six parts. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

So we open this issue with Animal Man falling out of the sky contemplating his own demise. Like many of us in this situation (facing death, not losing a super power) his thoughts turn to his family first, his wife and children and regret. If you’re going to write in a deus ex machina, then having it take the form of a Green Lantern who’s a giant whale will make most of us forget that little trick. This Green Lantern (it’s unclear if it’s Earth’s resident Green Lantern or some intergalactic patrolman passing by) saves Animal Man’s life and rids him of his a problem terrorizing him since issue one, a super villain with terrorist proclivities named Bloodrage. The little encounter is a great way for writer Gerry Conway to do his thing, namely making this super hero seem more like a normal guy. His reaction to being saved and the revelation by The Green Lantern that he is loosing his powers is anger, lashing out to the one who saved him. Lashing out at a hard truth. Of course he’s not a total dolt and the Green Lantern’s passivity shows Buddy Baker what a jerk he’s being to this animal-like alien.

Except for a side trip to explain the back story of the villain Mirror Master’s daughter as Prismatik - someone I assume who will be Animal Man’s main antagonist throughout the rest of the series - the entire book’s theme is Baker’s struggle with loosing his power and how he’s able to discover one clue to what’s been happening. I won’t spoil that minor point but when it does happen you get a sense of understanding about both Baker and the character inside the comic and out. What I mean is, the series seems to be addressing parts of Animal Man’s origin, regressing backwards in a way, which I hope will continue.

I do like the banter between the hero and his new villain. Also Animal Man’s thoughts behind his action are well written, feeling true to form for his current situation. He explains once that despite having no powers he teased Prismatik because he was angry and felt it was unfair what was happening to him. A little masochism can go a long way. In this case it helps him clear his head and figure out what’s wrong with his powers. By the last panel, Animal Man’s animal nature comes out while putting down his foe until some major forces show up to stay his hand, in the form of a selection of Justice League and Teen Titan members.

One thing I have to remember is that this series takes place ten years or so in the future so things may be different than they are now. The whale Green Lantern seems to be earth’s protector at the time and the heroes that show up in the last panel may all be part of the Justice League together now or some other group. Future issues will probably hash those details out. I really like the subtle hints of the future that this series throws at us. But more so I like how Conway is constructing his old character, building him up as real as possible for what I fear may be some sort of revelation and ultimately unfortunate ending. Again, it is called “The Last Days of Animal Man.” I like that Conway is getting to play with Animal Man’s character in this story arc – one he helped popularize and redefine twenty years ago. No one really has the knowledge and insight into a character like its creator or one who redefined that character to its modern incarnation. I also liked that the cover announces that Green Lantern is a guest star but the image is of a giant whale, like it’s normal that Green Lantern is a whale in the sky.

On Twitter I was speaking with a fellow comics reader after posting the previous article’s link. He pointed out that Conway had left comics writing to write for television and only recently cam back to comics, a fact I didn’t know. Digging deeper, I found out that Conway was the co-creator of one of my favorite comics characters in one of my favorite comic lines of the 1980s: Firestorm. After Teen Titans and All Star Squadron, Firestorm was probably my third favorite all time title. No wonder. Quirky, second tier characters and good characterization are all traits that Conway brings in full force to his books. I haven’t kept up with Firestorm since I was a kid except to in some of the titles he’s guest starred in but I know the character has changed quite a bit since teenaged Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein inhabited the nuclear man.

The Last Days of Animal Man is a limited series published by DC Comics.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #1

By Lon S. Cohen

Spoiler Warning: In this series of posts on “The Last Days of Animal Man” limited series comic book, there will be periodical spoilers. If you haven’t read the series and intend to, please be advised that I will discuss plot points and surprises.

This is an ongoing review of the series in six parts. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.

I have to admit, before picking up the first issue of this mini series, I really didn’t know anything about Animal Man. He was a secondary character in the DC Universe in my mind and I had never come across him in any of the adventures I’d ever read in all my years, or at least any that stuck out in my mind.

A Little Behind The Scenes History.

According to Wikipedia, Animal Man’s first appearance was in Strange Adventures #180 in 1965, in a story written by Dave Wood and drawn by Carmine Infantino and George Roussos. He was a very minor character until the late 1980s when Grant Morrison revived him eventually penning an Animal Man title from 1988 and 1990. Animal Man was aligned with animal rights causes in the book. Morrison also experimented with story telling in this book, sometimes breaking the “fourth wall” of reality for the character. Other authors continued to write the series until it ended some time later in 1995.

Animal Man plays a part in the universal story arcs involving many if not all of the DCU characters of Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis , the weekly series 52, Countdown to Final Crisis and Blackest Night.

Origin of Animal Man.

Like all things in the DC Universe, there is a Pre-Crisis and Post Crisis version of the story. With Animal Man, his origins are almost identical in both. The crux of it is that Buddy Baker encounters a crashed spaceship that gives him with his ability to tap into the morphogenetic field of energy created by all living creatures. While doing so, he can gain the powers and abilities (but not the physical form) of any animal in the universe, including aliens.

Buddy Baker is just a regular guy in the DCU. He’s a father of two kids and husband. In his day job he works as a stunt coordinator for movies and he lives in San Diego. He has some normal problems like paying the bills, fighting with his wife and kids, a personal mission to advocate for animals (no surprise there) and a desire to make his name known in the superhero world.

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #1.

Like I said, I had not really heard of Animal Man much before this. I read most of the DCU changing titles listed above but his character didn’t stick with me. So why did I start to read a mini series based on what was a third-rate DCU character I only knew in passing? Because I’m a sucker for a well-told story about a minor character. Don’t get me wrong, I love a comics universe shaking story as much as the next guy, but give me a well written, well drawn, personal story and I’m yours.

I’ll also admit I can get burned this way, wasting money on a story that’s pretty blasé. I’m happy to say that the first issue of the series was terrific. It combined some of the best elements I find in a comic book. There’s plenty of great panels to look at, there’s lots of good dialogue and the story line looks to be a major shift in this character’s life. Granted, the title is “Last Days of Animal Man” do I’m expecting something big for Buddy Baker, but the way they launched this one was spot on.

It’s hard to balance great visuals with a good story and dialogue that doesn’t intrude too much into the panels and also keeps my interest. I hated reading plays in high school. They made us read Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and I was bored. A good comic book is like a play on paper but with the biggest difference being you get to see the visuals in the dialogue, along with some ass kicking. This titled has real depth and drama so far. Perhaps that’s thanks to Grant Morrison who had done a lot of work with the character in the late 1980s making it easy for the current team of writers to jump off. Still, it’s hard to balance the mundane life of a super hero’s alter ego and the big action of that same hero in conflict with a villain all the while telling a cohesive story and writer Gerry Conway gets it right. The art, by Chris Batista & Dave Meikis, is also a nice balance between words and visuals.

Animal Man is losing his powers. At crucial times his connection to the morphological energy field becomes cut off. His ability to reach out beyond earth’s animals into space is also limited. Obviously this is affecting his abilities as a super hero but it also intrudes on his professional and personal life as well. The story takes place in a near future so it doesn’t affect any of the ongoing DCU story lines.

I’ve collected all 6 issues in the series and have just completed the first issue. I generally do collect a few issues in a title or an entire short series before reading it because from month to month you can lose the thread of a story and I like to read them straight through.

Issue #2, which I already cracked open features a visit by a whale-like alien Green Lantern. Looks to be interesting. Judging from the first in the series, I expect it to be just as good. I’ll check in when I read it for an update.

Notes on the Cover by Brian Bolland.

The cover of the first issue is very cool because it’s a play on the first issue of the Grant Morrison series. Issue #1 of that late 1980s series shows an introductory pose of Animal Man running at the viewer surrounded by various animals. In the “Last Days” cover, Animal Man and all the animals are in a similar pose but they’re skeletons. A foreshadowing? Or just an inventive Easter Egg for astute fans by the cover artist, Brian Bolland? Either way it’s really creative. Bravo to Bolland who did the covers of both the original series and the “Last Days” cover. It just shows how a talented cover artist can make something very interesting out of the mundane.

The Last Days of Animal Man is a limited series published by DC Comics.