Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I realized I could make more of a difference educating people on animal rights than I could by punching out a super villain, you know? It was kind of a natural progression. An evolution.
Issue One of Animal Man opens with an interview of the eponymous character, who can reach into the “life web” and take on the powers of any animal. This opening not only provides a back-story for Animal Man, but also comments on the changes in superhero comics over the past few years. Buddy Baker, Animal Man’s civilian identity, discusses his shift away from superheroics to education and acting — reflecting the increasing complexity of superheroes in comics as they shift from flat agents of objective morality to multi-faceted human beings.
While he takes his break from superheroics, Baker explains that “Animal Man will always be a big part of who I am,” and with Animal Man, Jeff Lemire sticks with superhero comics as genre and comic books as medium unto itself, unlike many writers who have fled to storyboarding or use comics as pitch for movies. Lemire uses Baker to say that superheroes will always be an important part of the comics industry, even though he, and many others, have expanded into other genres. The interviewer’s name is given as Lemire’s own, with the pen name “The Believer,” allowing the author to more overtly insert his metacommentary into the comic. Lemire believes that good superhero comics can still be made and goes about doing just that.
Lemire does an excellent job portraying the human side of his main character. Animal Man worries about coming off as arrogant to the media. He discusses finances with his wife. He disappoints his kids sometimes. He misses dinner. But ultimately, he puts on his blue spandex suit, complete with a huge capital A emblazoned across the chest. When Animal Man leaves his family to go “fight crime,” the criminal is a parent who has cracked under the grief of losing a child to cancer, not the customary evil super villain of golden and silver age comics. Animal Man is aware of the borderline absurdity of his own superhero status, rounding out his “favorite ‘action hero’ cocktail of animal abilities” with “the bark of a dog” for no other reason than to unnerve people.
Travel Foreman’s art is simple but expressive. In conjunction with Dan Green’s muted coloring, it is reminiscent of late 1980s/early 1990s comics, perfect for a comic about a character whose heroic heyday appears to have passed. The last few pages of Issue One stray into horror territory. The art shifts from clean lines and soft cell shading to subtle watercolor-esque black and white art touched with only hints of selective colors, creating an eerie dream-like atmosphere.
Animal Man is equal parts family drama, self-aware superhero story and creepy psychological thriller, and I would strongly recommend this comic to anyone who enjoys any of those things.
But if you’d prefer to stay away from intense psychological drama, that’s where Infinite Vacation comes in. The premise of the comic is fairly simple: we’ve invented the technology to travel to alternate universes and this technology is available on your phone.
Christian Ward’s art is simply gorgeous. His facial expressions are simple but emotive, his lines loose and energetic, his figures unafraid to break through panel boundaries. His backgrounds are detailed but non-specific, walls and buildings constantly shifting, shadows blending into bright colors and geometric shapes — perfectly suited to a reality in which there is no constant reality. The coloring is bright and over-saturated, almost to a point of psychedelia, contributing to the sense of limitless possibilities, all contained in a single, limited mortal life.
Nick Spencer’s writing is clever and varied. All background information is given through the protagonist’s internal monologues, emphasizing the subjectivity and self-indulgence of his reality-hopping adventures. The narrative is broken up by a four-page photographed infomercial. The advertisement is filled with the overblown, exaggerated language that usually fills advertisements, with Hugh the salesman smiling a smile that never quite reaches the eyes and speaking words riddled with conditional asterisks: *Service fees apply, *Do not use if you have had a stroke or suffer from high blood pressure. Perhaps the infinite vacation may not be as unconditionally great as the company who sells it would like consumers to believe.
Mark, the protagonist, is a frequent user of the infinite vacation technology who nonetheless cannot seem to find happiness. Hugh challenges users to “Go anywhere. Be anything.” and they do: Mark has arrested criminals, gone to jail, been the President, been shot for treason. However, he refuses to realize that reward without effort is meaningless. With each shift of reality, his circumstances change, but he remains the same. He makes the same mistakes over and over again because he does not realize that the key to happiness lies within his own hands, not within the phone in his hands.
Infinite Vacation serves as a commentary on modern consumer culture, a commentary full of wit and color and a healthy dose of adventure. So next time you feel unhappy, don’t try to be someone else – just read some comics, appreciate what you have, and do whatever you want.