I have to hand it to Jeff Lemire, Steve Pugh and Francis Portela; after the recent "let's show more footage of Buddy Baker's 'Tights'" issue of "Animal Man," I was a little hesitant about picking up this new issue. "Animal Man" #21 has me feeling that all is forgiven, though; not only is the story moving forward again, but Lemire and Pugh do so in a way that has a ton of potential.
If you broke "Animal Man" #21 down to a truly basic plot outline, it would seem fine if nothing out of the ordinary; Buddy Baker is still grieving the loss of his son but reluctantly starts to investigate a series of disappearances. In terms of just that amount of plot, it's good. Buddy being holed up in his home for two months fits with the character; pre- and post-New 52, he's always been someone for whom family was vitally important, and Lemire continues the character down that path. Getting tangled into something that's starting with missing cats is a little slight at first, but once Lemire begins to show just how big the situation truly is, that part of the plot also becomes much more interesting as readers find out just how unsettling and large this animal-vanishing epidemic has become.
What makes "Animal Man" #21 stand out, though, is how Lemire handles the social aspect of Buddy Baker's life. The book is regularly accompanied by social media postings reacting to Animal Man's life, tracing his every move even as they also bicker about his award nomination, his family life, and more. It's not just that we've got faux-Twitter and Facebook postings peppering "Animal Man" #21 that makes it work, though; it's using those to examine the way that fans and the public as a whole treat celebrity and the support and attacks that come with it. Lemire isn't just doing a riff on this phenomenon, he nails it perfectly. This is probably one of the best depictions I've seen in comics about what it would really be like to have superpowers and how the rest of the world would treat you; when the woman who's being helped by Animal Man sends out a picture of him flying out of the window, I simultaneously winced and nodded in approval. Lemire isn't just tacking on an idea, he's running whole-hog with it and the end result is smart and savvy.
Pugh's art is dark and moody, a perfect match for Lemire's script. The two-page spread of Buddy sitting amidst the squalor of his home that opens the book is a great example of Pugh's strengths. The shadow that shrouds his face and covers part of his body makes him look almost like half a man, a great metaphor for how Buddy himself is feeling at that point, especially since we can't see his facial features so we're missing that emotional reaction. At the same time, the massive shadow looming over him that he's casting on the wall has an added punch; that darkness is so much bigger that Buddy that it ends up dwarfing him, helping Buddy visually withdraw further into himself. With his costume tossed onto the floor alongside newspapers and fast food boxes, we instantly understand Buddy's mental state thanks to Pugh's art. Portela tackles Maxine's pages, and it's a smart choice; his art style his a little cheerier and more bubbly, just like Maxine herself. When that look of glee comes over Maxine's face as she and Socks move into the Red, it's the perfect contrast to the red veins unspooling and uncoiling all around her.
"Animal Man" #21 has the book back in fine form, and I'm completely enthused about the title once more. Lemire, Pugh, and Portela's kick-off of a new storyline is strong and interesting, and wherever we go from here, I feel like I'm on board for the ride. "Animal Man" #21 is the sort of superhero comic that makes me continue to enjoy the genre.