Sunday, September 11, 2011

DC Reboot Review: Animal Man #1 & Swamp Thing #1. The Excellent.

The obscure and overwrought Hawk and Dove might have been an easy target for ridicule, but that's not to say that showcasing relatively obscure comic characters doesn't make for a good book. Case in point, the first week of September also features the debut of Animal Man #1 and Swamp Thing #1, featuring the exploits of two title characters that, up until a few hours ago, I didn't know a lot about. They are also, in my fledgling opinion, two of the absolute best books released so far in the DC reboot. And there's not a glimpse of Batman in either of them! (No, wait... he pokes his head into Swamp Thing).

Join me after the jump to discover why these two outsiders work so well, and why I loved these books! (There'll be minor SPOILERS)...

Animal Man #1, written by Jeff Lemire, with art by Travel Foreman.

I went in knowing virtually nothing about the character of Animal Man, other than the fact that his reputation proceeded him. I know there have been runs in the past that have been praised by fans, and already the advance buzz on this book was pretty solid.

Here's a quick primer on what I know about the character now:

Buddy Baker (Animal Man) can tap into the "life web" and summon up the powers of animal (e.g. strength of an elephant, eyes of a hawk etc). He used to be a superhero, and then he was an animal rights activist and now he's somewhat of an actor. And he's kind of getting the urge to become a superhero again.

The whole animal powers thing might sound silly, but the book is anything but. Baker is actually by far the most grounded in reality of all the superheroes I've read so far in this reboot, and Lemire achieves this by giving him a very relatable domestic life, with cautiously encouraging wife, and a litter of kids. He's a guy who thinks about how he's perceived, has to be conscious about money, and has to make sure that his suits are washed. 

His background is dealt with very cleverly, and it is the complete antithesis of the clunky exposition that we've seen in other books (cough - Hawk and Dove - cough). The first page is a text piece - an in-depth interview with Buddy Baker from a Time-esque magazine, that tells us everything we need to know about his backstory, as well as giving us valuable insight into his character. From the first page, we get a sense of how he thinks. I'm a big fan of using this type of device in comics, its such an effective and economic way of passing on a great deal of information, without breaking us out of the story, and the overall tone here will make you feel like you're reading classic Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, as opposed to Liefeld. 

Sure enough, soon Buddy Baker is called back into action, and we have a hostage situation at a hospital, which is not dissimilar to what was occuring in the Batgirl I wasn't to sure about, but it's handled infinitely better here. There's an emotional core to the motives of the "villain" and Animal Man approaches the incident both sensibly and sensitively. There's an intelligent heart to his book that moves far beyond the easier route of, "HEY! LOOK AT ME, JERKWADS, I'M A PUNCHIN' THINGS!" The ending of this sequence is a swift sucker punch which serves to increase our investment in our hero, and raises questions that beg to be answered.

The art is quite natural, and at times a little ponderous, but there is a magnificently rendered creepy nightmare sequence which gets better and better as it progresses further into a darkness. It's the highlight of the book and contains some unforgettable imagery. 
This is preview art, presented without the dialogue.
This is an incredibly solid first issue and it ends with the perfect cliffhanger (which it actually earns - the seeds for the ending are sown earlier on). I can't wait to find out what happens next, and this is a book I will stick with. If you're at all curious, then this is heartily recommended.

Swamp Thing #1 written by Scott Snyder, with art by Yanick Paquette.

Swamp Thing #1 is similarly a triumph. You'd be forgive to think that there's probably not a lot of meat in a story about a creature made out of plants, but this first part wisely focuses on Swamp Thing's alter ego, botanist Dr. Alec Holland, and again creates a likeable, humble protagonist grounded very much in reality - despite the fantastical events that are mysteriously accumulating around him.

Our opening sequence focuses on the beginnings of what appears to be some type of sinister global change as birds, bats and fish simultaneously keel over and die. We see this happen through the eyes of some of DC's biggest hitters (reminding us of the shared universe that these characters co-inhabit) and it's well-realised sequence which is eerily effective:

But Holland has removed himself from the public eye and is not looking to get involved with these incidents. We know that his experimental serums have caused him nothing but trouble, and he has had a troubled past involving unwanted transformations into the Swamp Thing. He's now a construction worker in the wilderness, doing his best to move on and forget, and would get away with it too if it wasn't for a visit from a meddling Superman.

This isn't the same Superman that I read about in Action Comics #1. He's the full-suited version and he seems much older and wiser - probably closer to the image of Superman that most of us would have had prior to the reboot. I'm not entirely sure how all these comics exactly fit together and occupy the same space, but it isn't really a distraction. It's an intelligent scene that tells us a lot about Alec Holland and how he is valued, even though he, himself, may wish to escape.

I'm not in a position to tell you how thoroughly researched Swamp Thing #1 is, but Scott Snyder certainly writes with authority, and you feel that all the things Holland talks about in his inner monologues are well-researched and true. This is a man who knows about plants, knows about our natural world, and how it all works. He treats these things with reverence as he knows how easily they could lead to our destruction.

The best part, however, is the reveal of the story's "villain". It's unexpected, unique, and incredibly unsettlingly. I would hate to give away anything about the nature of the creature's first attack, but it is extremely effective, spooky, and creates a palpable threat. The art and design are perfect here. It's a beautiful looking book.

So this is definitely another title that took me by surprise and that I will continue to keep an eye on. Great work, DC! And this is only the first week!


  1. Both Animal Man and Swamp thing have already been rebooted brilliantly, by Grant Morrison and Alan Moore respectively (they're amongst the few DC titles I own) and I often use them both as examples that a good writer can make even the shittiest or most ridiculous character amazing.

  2. With you on these, Luke. A very few comics from the reboot got put in my 'keep reading to see how they turn out' pile, but these two went strait to the excited-fanboy stack.

  3. Good stuff! And I should check out the Moore and Morrison runs.