Friday, March 12, 2010

The Last Days of Animal Man – Issue #6

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.

A leaf coyly covers up the born date on Animal Man’s grave marker. An orange and blue suit flaps in the breeze, draped over the top of the stone marker clearly marked with the death date of 2014. The shadow of Buddy Baker seems to be turning away, walking away, leaving behind the role of Animal Man forever may he rest in peace. Everything on the cover is rendered in a sparse black, gray and morbid green except Animal Man’s empty discarded costume. Even the title of the book has been altered to show that this book means business. As if there were any doubt the letter “s” in the word “Days” in the title, “The Last Days of Animal Man” has been crossed out. It’s a promise of finality as if the 6 of 6 issue numbering wasn’t telling enough. This isn’t only the last issue of the series but the last time we’ll see Buddy Baker as his famous costumed hero.

Here’s the thing. This book has been a good ride. It’s a psychological profile of the downfall of a hero. It defines the man behind the mask and the people who were behind the man behind the mask. It explores the complexities of relationships between a superhero and his cohorts; a superhero and the very man that he was before he became a meta human; the man in the costume with his family as if being a superhero were a civil servant’s job like any other fireman, soldier or police officer. What happened when it’s time to retire? When you’re not fit for duty for whatever reason? How does a man who played at being a demigod with all the strange and wonderful things that come with it just give it all up and become a regular Joe again? Can he?

One thing that Buddy learns in this series is that his family suffered a big price for his powers. The times he was away instead of helping his kids with their homework or attending a little league game made his kids both pragmatic and disillusioned. His son seeks to emulate his father, though without his powers by putting himself fully into his work as a lawyer fighting for the conservation of the environment – like his father fought for animal rights as Animal Man. His daughter matter-of-factly tells him point-blank that he just wasn’t there for her and after a certain point, she just stopped caring that he wasn’t going to be a big part of her life. His wife remained ever faithful but the toll on her is obvious and she’s none too sad that Buddy’s Animal Man powers are fading. She tries to remind him time and again that he was a man before he was Animal Man and that counts more than all the meta human powers in the universe.

Ultimately, this is what Buddy learns. From his memories of his father’s point of view on life and manhood, to his lost powers to his duty to continue on as a superhero without his powers he learns that the man is much more important than the super man. From this he draws the strength to attempt a rescue of his fellow Justice Titan Leaguers (or whatever new hybrid futuristic group Conway dreamed up for this series) ending up at the mercy of two super powered psychos high above Times Square, beaten and defeated.

In a scene that may be just symbolic, a dream or an actual encounter, Buddy faces the aliens who gave him his power. They try to answer the question that Buddy has been asking all along, “Why?” In a short but poignant conversation the aliens tell him that in defeat and death all living things are equal yet it is how they face defeat that makes them special. “Face death and live,” one alien tells him.

So the theme has been defined. Eventually all of us, every single person who ever lived and ever will live will have to cope with defeat. We all face the ultimate truth that “existence struggles with nonexistence,” as the aliens put it. Buddy’s father also told him that you can’t chose how you die but you can chose how you live. He finally gets it in the end with the last breath of power to tap into the morphogenetic field of energy created by all living creatures. He will face this end of Animal Man as he has every single other defeat in his career as a superhero: Never give up living.

Animal Man may be defeated but Buddy Baker lives. He beats the bad guys and ends up in a good place with his family. As he says in the final panel, life is a choice and he chooses to life.

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

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