Friday, October 30, 2009

The Last Days of Animal Man

Despite having perpetrated one of the most egregious creative missteps in the history of the super-hero genre, the disbanding of the original Justice League of America and the introduction of the so-called "Detroit League" made up of new and second tier characters, Gerry Conway remains one of my favorite comics writers. In my not so humble opinion, his run on The Amazing Spider-Man is second only to Stan the Man's seminal stand. Thus, his name on the cover of a comic book, marking a triumphant return to the sequential arts after more than a decade toiling in the vast wasteland of television, is a most welcome sight, and The Last Days of Animal Man may be his best comics work yet.

It seems at first that we've seen this story a few dozen times before, at the very least. After all, we've all read tales of super-heroes who lose their powers. These stories always involve the hero questing to regain his powers while at the same time attempting to find a way to save the world or defeat the mad scientist or beat back the alien invasion without them. Inevitably, of course, the hero regains his powers and the series goes merrily on as if the whole thing never happened. The early 90's Superman tale "Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite" is a prime example, following the template almost exactly.
However, while it contains certain similarities to the archetype as described above, Last Days of Animal Man eventually reveals itself to be another animal entirely. In this case, the loss of Buddy Baker's powers is not the result of a nefarious scheme by his archenemy or a freak accident, but simply a natural consequence of his growing older, and Last Days is a story about a man coming to terms with both the inevitable process of aging and the consequences of the way he has lived his life.
Conway is, it goes without saying, no Grant Morrison, nor does he want to be. Unlike the wildly experimental stories of Morrison and those who followed him on Animal Man's ongoing series in the late 80's and 90's, Conway's story is very conventional, even, in the words of another on-line reviewer, "old-fashioned," though in dealing with the themes that he chooses to in the story, it's just as ground breaking as those wilder epics. We've never really seen a super-hero dealing with the problems of growing older before, and the fact that Buddy has a wife and kids, and is, in fact, perhaps the only super-hero with anything approaching a "normal" family life, means that whatever choices he makes, and those he has made in the course of his career as a super-hero, affect not only him but those he cares most about as well.
By the way, I should mention that this series is set fifteen years in the future, and part of the fun is seeing not only how Buddy's life has turned out, but Conway's take on the future selves of other familiar heroes which include a whale as Earth's Green Lantern.
The art, by penciler Chris Batista and inkers Dave Meikis and Wayne Faucher (on issues 5 and 6), is quite good, combining solid story telling with classic comic book realism in the figures and environments. I've never seen Batista's art before, but I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more. Visual continuity with the old Animal Man series is provided by cover artist Brian Bolland, who did most of that series' covers, turning in his usual beautiful work. The cover of issue #1 is a riff on the image from the cover of the first Animal Man #1.
All in all, I'd recommend picking this up, either in individual issue form or in the inevitable trade paperback. At least I hope this gets collected, because it deserves better than to disappear after its brief run.

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