I have to give Jeff Lemire credit; the death of Cliff Baker a few months ago in "Animal Man" has played out far longer and more dramatically than first expected. That's a good thing; so often a loved one in a comic is killed off for shock value and the follow-up is rushed through. With Buddy Baker being one of the true family men of DC Comics characters, it's a relief to see him portrayed in such a believable manner. "Animal Man Annual" #2 picks up on that thread, as original artist Travel Foreman returns to help tell a story about an earlier time in Buddy and Cliff's lives, right before Maxine was first born.
Strictly from a plotting sense, "Animal Man Annual" #2 is fairly straightforward. Buddy goes about his business as Animal Man, a new creature kidnaps a group of people including Cliff, and Buddy rescues them. What makes "Animal Man Annual" #2's writing work is the way in which it's told. All of the characters have a distinct voice and approach; Cliff's jubilation when being picked up from school, Ellen's gentle exasperation with being pregnant, Buddy's good-natured attempt to be a superhero and a dad. When Cliff goes missing, the desperation in his dialogue is palpable; you can practically hear the squeak in his voice as he's trying to rescue his son. Ultimately sealing the deal is the way that Lemire uses a framing device to tie it into the present storyline and Cliff's death. The shift from the frantic, angry Buddy at the start of the issue and where he is at the end is both a relief and a little sad; once again, Lemire brings Buddy's feelings to the forefront, and while it's a tiny bit emotionally manipulative, it's still a good and even heartwarming conclusion.
It's also nice to see Foreman back on board for this story, as it feels like the plot was written to his strengths. He's great at the big emotional reveals on the faces of characters, for instance. The ragged face of Buddy as he tells Anansa, "This feels like a dream," is so wide-eyed and wondrous that it's perfect for the moment, and every panel involving panic just oozes with emotion. Foreman has fun with the storytelling, too; when Buddy is caught in Anansa's web, the way that the panels thrash back and forth with his body really helps sell that feeling of moment in a static medium, for example. And for an artist whose art often uses very thin and intricate lines, having him draw a villain who casts huge spider webs everywhere is like a match made in heaven.
"Animal Man Annual" #2 works as a stand-alone, longer-than-normal issue of the series; it's something that feeds into the main run but at the same time could be easily understood if you'd never experienced it before. It's nice to see Lemire and Foreman back together once more, and readers get their money's worth.