When DC Comics relaunched its superhero titles in September 2012 during what was dubbed the New 52, one of the heroes transported from his Vertigo home to the main DC Universe was cult-favorite Buddy Baker, Animal Man.
Helmed by "Sweet Tooth" creator Jeff Lemire with art first by Travel Foreman then by Steve Pugh, Lemire's re-imagined "Animal Man" title kept much of Buddy's previous past as developed in the '80s by Grant Morrison. He was still a family man, still a Hollywood stuntman turned superhero and still struggling with his work-home-vigilante balance. Lemire added to the mix an expanded mythology that revealed Buddy's daughter is the true Avatar of the Red, close ties to writer Scott Snyder's equally acclaimed "Swamp Thing" series and a new elemental force similar to the Red and the Green, the Rot, threatening the DC Universe.
One year later, the Vertigo-to-DC move has paid off as "Animal Man" has been proven to be one of the New 52's most consistently critically-acclaimed titles, remaining one of the publisher's best-selling comics since its debut.
With exactly one year behind him as the writer of the Red, Lemire spoke with CBR about the past twelve issues, diving into his yearlong arc, which culminates in the upcoming "Rotworld" issues, as well as his early fears going into the New 52.
CBR News: You now have a year of "Animal Man" under your belt! On a purely emotional level, what does it feel like to still be helming this title -- and this storyline -- for a little over a year now?
Jeff Lemire: When I got the book over a year ago, before the book's launch and the New 52 was being discussed, I was obviously really excited about it and had a lot of high hopes for what I could accomplish with the character and the series. But when you're launching that many new titles at once, as fickle as the current comic book marketplace is, you never know if you'll have the chance to succeed or fully realize all the ideas you have in your mind. You kind have to enter it all cautiously optimistic, hoping you get to tell at least one good story; anything else is just extra. The reception we ended up getting on the book and the success it had was really unexpected. It far exceeded anything I think anyone at DC expected, too. That success has obviously been gratifying and great, but it also gives you the freedom to go ahead and start planning bigger stories ahead, planning on being with the character long term. That's something I haven't really had a chance to do with any other series yet at DC for different reasons.
For me, the first year was about building the character and his world, along with working with Scott Snyder to build this shared mythology between ["Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing"]. With "Rotworld," we're seeing the fruits of all that, and everything we've built and played with is now going to come into this big, climactic story, so that's very gratifying and exciting. We've already written all of "Rotworld," so I've already moved on to the next thing with the character and the title. We're looking to take it in a new direction to keep it interesting for fans. We're not trying to fall into a routine, either. That's the exciting challenge for me.
Like you mentioned, at the beginning you weren't sure how long the book would last -- so while in the midst of creating this year-long arc culminating in "Rotworld," were you worried about that fact that it was a year long arc? Was there ever a truncated version, just in case?
No, I didn't really plan a shorter version where it only lasted eight or ten issues or anything. I just approached it -- I do this with all the books I've had ,but especially this one -- I approached it really just wanting to tell the best story that I could. That story just started to grow and grow as we got out of issues #2 and #3 and #4, and it became this big mythology with Scott and I. There were themes and elements in common with both our books when we started; I don't know if either of us really planned this huge mythology or crossover from the beginning. That's something that kind of happened and started to come together mid-way through the first year. At that point, we realized that both books would be around for a while and we'd probably get a chance to do this. Once we talked to the editors and the whole lot, "Rotworld" expanded and became as big and ambitious as it was. Our original plans were much more modest -- they just grew as we got more and more into the characters and the themes and stuff. We came in with these big ideas and then realized we could actually do them!
As much as this first year has been about the DCU's mythology, "Animal Man" has also been about Buddy's family. Going into this from the beginning, why did you want to turn Maxine into the Avatar of the Red versus keeping it Buddy or even picking a different family member, like Cliff?
All the stuff, "Rotworld" and everything else, has to be an extension or has to grow out of the characters if it's going to be successful. When you get a new series, like I had with "Animal Man," you go back and you look at what's come before. I had read the Vertigo series when it was coming out, the Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano stuff, and then I reread it all in preparation for writing the book. What really struck me was that what really makes the book special is the family aspect. Buddy's relationship with his wife and his kids is what makes him unique in the DC Universe. Otherwise, he's just sort of another B-level superhero -- pretty uninteresting powers, and after a couple of months of fighting a couple of super villains, they kind of feel stale. If you want it to be something more, you have to tap into that family aspect. I decided early on that each member of the family would be the center of the book, not just Buddy, and the first year is really Maxine-focused. We're going to see a lot more emphasis on Cliff and Ellen coming out of "Rotworld." They're all going to have a key role in this mythology.
It starts with Maxine because, quite frankly, I feel Maxine is more like Buddy and Cliff is more like Ellen. It just seemed natural that Maxine would be the next in line to receive his powers. Also, that was an idea, Maxine having Buddy's powers, that Jamie Delano kind of hinted at and toyed around with back in his Vertigo run. [It was] never really executed fully; he just suggested it, really, and I picked up on that. Reading the old stuff, Buddy's relationship with Maxine in particular was something that really struck me and something I wanted to really latch onto.
I know you've been happily surprised with how popular the series as a whole has been -- have you been as surprised with how popular Socks the cat has proven?
[Laughs] It's funny -- I don't know where he came from. He was in my original pitch, and he just popped up spontaneously and had a life of his own right away! I just kind of thought it'd be a fun choice to have a talking animal in the comic, and to pull it off and have people go for it -- i's a lot of fun to play around with that. I'm a cat lover, so I guess it comes from there. I don't anymore, but I had three cats, so I've always been around cats and loved them! [Laughs]
Along the lines of unexpected elements, in this first year, did you find yourself going places in the story you never expected to go or encountered reactions to what you set up that really surprised you?
When you're writing any long term story, it's going to start going places you didn't intend originally, but I think just the general passion fans seem to have for this character and the whole family now -- I'm not going to say that it surprises me, because I put a lot of myself into it and really I breathe the book, but I thought maybe it'd be a cult hit. For it to be selling the way it is and crossing over to the mainstream superhero audience is really surprising. It's really promising to know that you can do something different in the superhero genre and that fans will follow and respond to it. I think that encourages us to push things further.
We've got "Rotworld" and the climax of this whole first storyline coming up -- once this giant maxi-arc is behind you, do you want to do another giant, sprawling epic like this one?
[Laughs] Well, I think the danger we have now with both "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing" coming out of "Rotworld" is to fall into a pattern of the family fighting various incarnations of the Rot again, or Swamp Thing fighting various incarnations of the Rot again, or another big fight where they team-up. We did it once and I think it worked really well, but to do that just to do that again would be boring and predictable and really wouldn't be interesting to us as writers. I think coming up for both books we've really challenged ourselves; I know writers say this all the time, but by the end of "Rotworld" there's going to be huge status quo shift for both series where the books we've been writing the past year will not be the book that we're writing the second year. I think it's important for each book to be on its own a little bit after "Rotworld," to separate and build their own worlds up, and then we can look to see how we can combine those things again and maybe have a shared story at one point. But I think we're both going in really different directions in our second year, challenging us and challenging the readers and keeping it fresh.
Looking back over the past twelve issues, you had Steve Pugh take over for Travel Foreman on the book, and while Travel did a really fantastic job Steve was one of the guys who worked on the original "Animal Man." Because of this, were you a little nervous talking to him about your ideas when he first came on?
[Laughs] Yeah, a little bit! I was the one who asked for Steve to be a part of the book when Travel needed a fill-in artist because I was a huge fan of the old "Animal Man" series. In a lot of ways, I wanted the book to be something you could read after you read those, like a continuation of those stories even though it was designed for new readers as well. Steve was perfect, because he can really capture the humanity of the characters and the acting and the emotion and everything. As soon as I saw the first pages he did, just a couple of fill-in pages in conjunction with Travel's pages, it just worked so well with what Travel had established. I certainly wasn't nervous in any way about the art because I knew the work would be great. There were emails I got from Steve where he was so excited to be back with the character. I think it was so unexpected for him to return to something he'd done ten, fifteen years ago. I don't think he ever expected to be able to return to it like this, let alone return to this at a stage where it's selling big numbers again. I think he was thrilled and it was a surreal experience for him as well! [Laughs] It's just really worked out; he's a great collaborator!
You've kept a lot of story elements from the original, too, like Buddy's animal rights activism as shown in the #0 issue. For this first year, what was the challenge in adjusting the Grant Morrison elements and Buddy's back story into five years while balancing it with new ideas as the biggest challenge of being a book in the New 52?
I think that was a challenge we all had in the New 52 -- I think in particular for Scott Snyder and me, as we were offered two characters that had such a beloved legacy. People adore Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" and the Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" so much, and we do, too. There is a responsibility to those fans not to erase all that stuff or wipe it out. Also, a lot of the stuff they did really works and is just rich with ideas we can build off of, so the challenge, really, was to maintain everything we loved about those characters, but make it accessible to a new audience who may have never heard of that stuff or read Grant Morrison or Alan Moore's stuff. In the early days -- especially writing the first and second issues -- that was really a bit of a balancing act. If you're using ideas Grant Morrison and Jamie Delano introduced, you almost have to reintroduce them as well so readers can take it all in. But we love these characters and we love these stories, so to be able to continue them is exciting.
"Animal Man" is really the story of the family. From the beginning, what this book really is about, especially the first year, is how much you can put one family through before they're torn apart and before they break. What we'll see in "Rotworld" is that breaking point, pushing it to the extremes and seeing how much they could take before the Baker family as we know it is destroyed -- and if the family we have is torn apart or changed in some way, what will it turn into? That's sort of the next year of seeing the next evolution of the family.
As a parent yourself, I imagine Ellen is sort of channeling what your reaction would be if all of a sudden your wife was Animal Woman and you had to go on the lamb!
[Laughs] Yeah, well, how much can [Ellen] take before enough's enough? That's really the question. I think we've seen in the last few issues where it's reached a point for her where it's gone too far. Her children are in danger, and she's not going to accept that anymore. If that means not being with Buddy, then that's a decision she's getting ready to make. That's one thing I'm exploring, definitely, going into the future.
Now that you've got the full year under your belt, if you could get in your time machine and go back to the very beginning of the New 52, is there anything you would have done differently, or any advice you would have given your one-year-younger self?
You know what? I got to say, this is one project I don't have any regrets on. It's just gone so amazingly well from the very beginning, and DC's given me such freedom to do things and take risks. There really aren't any regrets at this point or things I would have done differently. It's not often in your creation or on a project you can say that. I'm grateful for the fans supporting it and making it last long enough for me to do this story!
"Animal Man" issue #13, which begins "Rotworld," hits shelves October 3.