When Jeff Lemire launched a new Animal Man title in September 2011, the Eisner-nominated creator had the daunting task of reintroducing a character that readers often associated with superstar writer Grant Morrison, but to do it in the midst of a huge reboot that allegedly wiped away much of the character's past.
But over the course of his run, Lemire has established his run as unique from, yet respectful of the Morrison years. And as his run on Animal Man ended this week after two-and-a-half years, it was apparent to critics and fans alike that the concepts and emotional stories he created for the character reign as some of the best of the New 52.
Lemire said goodbye to the Baker family last week with a somewhat sentimental yet satisfying final issue, Animal Man #29, where Buddy resolves to keep his family out of his superhero business. After experiencing horror, pain and loss (including the loss of his son, Cliff), Buddy Baker survives the "Rotword" and "Brother Blood" arcs to appear next as a team member in Lemire's April-launching comic Justice League United.
In part two of our interview with Lemire (see our Justice League United-focused Part 1 here), we look back at the writer's run on Animal Man.
Newsarama: Jeff, looking back at your run, and this week's issue in particular, it's clear that your style really fits this, particularly having your art in issue #29. Did you always feel like this was in your wheelhouse, even before the book launched?
Jeff Lemire: Yeah, it seemed like the perfect book for me, at the perfect time, when they offered it. There had been a few things floated my way when the New 52 stuff was developing, that I tried to get my hooks into, but it just didn't feel right.
Then as soon as Animal Man was mentioned, it was just like, immediately I knew it was perfect, because so much of what makes that character tick is the family stuff, and that's so much what I always explore in my stuff anyway. And I knew there'd be a weirdness and a horror element to it that I could tap into.
So it seemed perfect, and it's really lucky that I got a chance to do it.
Nrama: It feels like, as much as it was Buddy's story, it felt like it was Maxine's story.
Nrama: Did you always kind of know that?
Lemire: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if I knew that the first time I sat down to write the pitch or whatever, but as soon as I started writing issues, the first couple, it became clear that she was, in very many ways, the co-star of the book.
And I always knew that the book was about the family as much as Buddy, especially about her journey. She's a central part of the mythology of the powers and the Red and everything.
So it really was a dual starring role between the two of them, right from the beginning.
Nrama: When you look back on the run, what was Buddy's evolution. How would you describe not only his emotional evolution — and this "acceptance" at the end — but also, his evolution as part of the DC Universe?
Lemire: Well, I think there are two parts to that. The first is an evolution toward, I wouldn't say it's acceptance… I would say him accepting responsibility, more than anything.
After the loss of Cliff and the family being torn apart, it was really… Buddy's kind of the dumbest guy on Earth, because it took him all of that to realize that he really needs to keep Animal Man and his family separate. He can't continue to be Animal Man and do that stuff if it's going to constantly put his family in danger.
And that was his realization. As long as that's the case, that's what's going to keep that family together now.
So the other part of the evolution gets to the other part of the question, which was him becoming a bigger part of the DC Universe.
I really feel like the only way for me to continue to write him and do something new with him is to put him in a team setting, and have him interacting with the larger DC Universe more, separate from the family, keeping that like, his day job, a 9-to-5 thing.
So he can go and hang out with the Justice League and go into space and stuff, but as soon as that starts coming home, he has to quit. The family's more important.
I feel like that was really the evolution, and that's the starting point for him in Justice League United.
Nrama: I actually thought of that when I was reading this week's issue. I thought, nobody else can do this type of run, at least not right now, because you couldn't keep putting that family through that stuff. There's no way it would survive it. It barely survived what you did. This had to be the end of it.
Lemire: Yeah, it's completely unrealistic that any family would do any of that anyway [laughs], but you know, it's comics… so there's certain leeway there.
But yeah, I mean, for me, I told that story now. I told 32 issues, which was this big story.
They started off as a family, horrible things happened, they get torn apart, they lose a member of the family, and somehow they get back together.
To do it again, you'd just be repeating yourself, with different monsters. So I couldn't do that again.
That was why I had to either stop writing the character and the book, or think of something completely new to do. And for me, just to do straight superhero stories with Buddy doesn't really work for me. It's pretty boring. There's not a lot there. So to do a solo book where he's just doing superhero stuff, to me, just isn't going to work.
Nrama: And particularly after you established something much more unique and interesting.
Lemire: Yeah. You know, after seeing maybe one or two fun adventures, that would be it.
But to take him and then put him as part of a group dynamic? Where he's not central? And with a different kind of family? That's interesting to me. And that can bring out different sides of his personality.
The way he is with different members of the Justice League now is revealing different facets of him that I hadn't really written before and didn't know were there. And that's been really cool, seeing him with a number of younger characters on the Justice League team.
Seeing him, for instance, with Stargirl, you start to get the sense that he's kind of like this big brother to her — or almost, in some ways, a surrogate father, although I would say Martian Manhunter is more of a surrogate father. So he's almost like a big brother to Stargirl.
And then you put him with Green Arrow, and they have this sort of weird rivalry and this camaraderie. And they have this brotherhood thing going on too, this love-hate thing.
Each of them brings out different sides of him, depending on who you put him with. And that's been cool. I'm learning more about him again. So that's been great.
Nrama: You guys have also added — and when I say "you guys," I mean Scott Snyder too — this whole concept of the Red and the Green and the… Rot. Wow, I almost said, "the Black!"
Lemire: Yeah, well, you know what? There were so many different names for that, behind the scenes before, and I think "the Black" was one of them, so there you go.
Nrama: But that's such a rich, well-developed tapestry that you've woven into his mythology. I assume you hope that continues as part of the DC Universe, but it's going to be hard to put that into the Justice League title with Buddy, isn't it?
Lemire: Yeah, you know, I feel like I told the story of the Red and the Green that I wanted to tell. I'm kind of sick of it and done with it, to be honest. [Laughs.]
But I do see the value in it. And I do see the value in it being part of the bigger tapestry of the DC Universe now. So I hope other writers — Charles Soule or whoever else, through Swamp Thing and whoever does Animal Man one day after me — I hope it continues to be expanded and explored in other ways.
But right now, I don't have any plans to go there in any way myself. I feel like, especially after that big Brother Blood war and that Red thing I did at the end, that was really the end for me.
Nrama: Yeah, that got pretty gory. It wasn't this week's issue, but I think it was issue #29 that made me remember this was once a Vertigo title.
Lemire: Yeah. You know, it was a horror book more than a superhero book, to me, always. And with that comes certain things, the violence, the gore and everything else. And I'm grateful DC let us establish that tone at the beginning, because I do feel — when Scott was doing Swamp Thing and me on this book — it probably wouldn't have worked if it had to be more conservative with that stuff.
So I'm glad we were allowed to try that and that it was successful enough that we were allowed to continue with it.
Nrama: Let's talk about your artists on the book, working with Steve [Pugh] and Travel [Foreman] and Rafael [Albuquerque] and the whole artistic team you had over the years. What did they bring to the project over the course of your run?
Lemire: Yeah, I think each guy brought something different, you know? I mean, Travel, I think, is as big a part of the success of Animal Man as I am, for sure, you know? He has such a unique visual imagination.
In those early issues, he set a tone and created a world that was so dynamic and interesting. I look back at those early issues, and the Red and stuff that he did — it looks like something you've never seen before, you know?
So he really established the world, and that was invaluable.
And Steve coming on… Steve's real strength to me is character work, and the acting of the characters. So when you're doing a book that's actually about a family, to have someone that can do that and deliver these characters and make them believable and human, that's, I think, what Steve really excelled at. So that was great.
And then at the end, I felt like Rafael was perfect, because the book really needed shot in the arm and needed some energy. And his work is so dynamic and kinetic, you know? When he does Maxine, it feels so sweet in a weird way. And he was perfect for that last storyline.
So each artist really brought something unique to the overall series.
And you know, another guy that gets kind of overlooked is Timothy Green III, who did a lot of work during "Rotworld." He did that Annual with me — the first Annual, which I think is one of my favorite stories of the whole run. So he was actually pretty terrific too.
I was lucky. I got to work with some really talented people who made me look good.
Nrama: Last question, then, is there anything you want to say to fans who stuck with Animal Man who are hating to see it end?
Lemire: I really do feel that Justice League United is really the next step for the character, right now. So if you don't want to stop reading, I really do recommend that you keep reading Justice League United. And that's not just a cheesy sales pitch on my part. It really is me continuing and trying to explore the character in new ways.