It’s not the sight of yet another predictably devastated future-Earth that disturbs. After all, we've seen pretty much everything that Animal Man #16 is telling us about the end of the world before, and not just a few dozen times either. No, what’s most disturbing is the presence of the corporate pod people who’ve replaced Animal Man and John Constantine in the already enervated and Not-New-At-All 52. Can it be that all concerned at DC Comics never even began to grasp what it was that made each character so distinct and vital? Or are the powers-that-be convinced that all that individuality was merely obscuring the marketable virtues of two utterly generic, fundamentally indistinguishable, ready-to-be-optioned media properties? For strip away pod-Baker's power to imitate termites and pod-Constantine's embarrassingly tame flirtation with the occasional Year Seven swear word, and what we're given here are nothing but a couple of characterless leads. Just to have seen Buddy Baker operating as a doubtful and yet doughty everyman, or Constantine as a distastefully scheming conspirator, would have added something of a spark to this mind-crashingly monotonous fare. But no, what Animal Man #16 presents us with is their grindingly dull pod-selves, perfectly homogenised to fit in with the issue's grindingly dull narrative.
The more vocal of the apparently ever-declining hardcore of New 52 devotees often label the folly's critics as reactionaries. The nay-sayers are, it's claimed, mossbacks who just can't bear to have been separated from the familiar and well-loved continuity of the past. And that may indeed be true where some critics are concerned. Yet there's a significant number of disappointed readers who shiver not at the imposition of the new so much as that of the tawdry, the exploitative and the patently uninspired. To see Buddy Baker transformed into an utterly decisive strategist and unquestionable leader of super-folks is to wonder how long it will be until the loss of the old DC is compensated for by the arrival of something less obviously facile than this. Because when John Constantine has been re-cast as Animal Man's second-in-command and up-and-at-'em cheering section, the brave new world seems less brave and more obviously thick-headed. Fans of Vertigo's Hellblazer who can watch without cringing while the fagless and rather buff Constantine shouts "All right. You heard him. Keep the bearded bastard busy!" in support of Animal Man's exploits undoubtedly possess an admirable tolerance for the process of corporation-pleasing dumbing down.
But then, none of the characters here shows anything more than the slightest trace of personality. The heroes are yawnsomely stoic or tearfully brave, the villains are self-glorifying and entirely wicked, and the plot progresses with a degree of predictability that's the only surprising aspect of it. If there's an impressive knowledge of the cliches of the end-of-everything superhero tale at work here, there's also a disturbing lack of interest in doing anything of substance that's not been seen a hundred times before. The ancestry of the content of The Red Kingdom Part 4 stretches transparently back through Grant Morrison's various DCU apocalypses to Claremont and Byrne's Days Of Future Past, and a great many of the long-established conventions of such dystopic-tomorrow tales are present and uninspiringly correct. A small team of world-saving costumed freedom fighters who seem both under-powered and relatively ill-suited to each other? A future peopled largely by a few surviving superheroes and their appalling, undefeatable enemies? A ruined cityscape with shattered landmarks long familiar from comics past? A tragic scene presenting the last stand of a small encircled cadre of costumed defenders? An army of once-virtuous crime-fighters now turned to a fiendish enemy's cause? As if Animal Man #16 were a fannish tribute to a particular class of previously profitable stories, or a homework exercise set at the conclusion of a term's course entitled Recycling The Perpetually Recycled, nothing on these pages steps beyond the expected for long.
And so, we're presented with the fascinating idea of a malignant druid who's created a great wooden supercity of a body to hide within, and yet that conceit's introduced and done away with in half-a-dozen pages full of nothing but posing, brawling and exposition. It's as if writer Jeff Lemire was somehow concerned that he might be straying away from the absolutely familiar and undemanding, and so hauled himself in to avoid anything which might carry a trace of emotional or intellectual resonance.
What is different about this supposedly epic tale when compared to its many genre predecessors is - as you might expect - the degree of body-horror that's been strewn around for the sake of it in Steve Pugh and Timothy Green's pages. In addition to the usual, wearisome presence of eviscerated bodies, Animal Man #16 also delights in showing big toothsome creatures biting down on their relatively powerless prey. Accordingly, we even have Animal Man himself grabbing Blackbriar Thorn in his be-fanged super-jaws for a reason that's never explained, while his daughter later has her arm perforated by a gruesome though unthreateningly personality-free monster. (As can be seen in the scan above, Green Arrow is also shown being fang-slashed to death, proving that someone believes that there's no such thing as too many lacerations.) As for looped-off and smashed-out body parts, fans of the like will find some of the most precisely-framed examples of such to be found in the New 52 era. Brave and honourable Constantine eventually has his heart punched out by a demonically-corrupted Flash, and Pugh makes sure that we get to enjoy the various pinkish body parts which accompany its flight as well as the contents of his body's suddenly less-clautrophobic interior.
It's a fan-blokeish indulgence which does nothing at all for the plot or for our understanding of Constantine and his allies, but then, it's not there to do anything other than lovingly entice those with an interest in fearsomely-evacuated human offal. Similarly, Frankenstein's fellow soldiers are sliced in half in what's an explicit and yet oddly bloodless way. Bodies can be ripped, stabbed and sliced quite in half with the consequences represented in enthusiastically prurient detail, it seems, but the presentation of blood is for some mysterious reason a no-no. Even Maxine's talking cat manages to be racked with what seems to be exceptionally fast-growing and malignant tumours without any of that ghastly blood business getting in the way of the reader's pleasure beyond a few scarlet flicks of spittle. (*1)
(*1) Something else entirely may be occurring there, but since Lemire doesn't outline what's happening, the innocent neophyte is compelled to speculate about what's going on. The writer's dialogue is clunky and functional at best, typically stiff and charmless and saturated with Shooterisms, and yet somehow a great deal of what's going is still left sadly unexplained. Fundamental plot-points such as who the comic's antagonists actually are, being being thoroughly bad, and what they want, beyond doing very bad things, are left quite unmentioned.
discussed. But then, the New 52's taste for fetishistically-depicted traumatic damage is all about those allegedly entertaining aspects of mutilation and death, and nothing that's thoughtful, heart-wrenching or genuinely disturbing is typically allowed to get in the way of the empathetically-disconnected fun of it all.
By the end of the tale, though sadly not of this apparently unending crossover, we're faced with the utterly unsurprising arrival of an evil Justice League. Well, of course we are. That's what tends to happen in this particular tradition. In the absence of anything much of depth or invention, what passes for stupefying has to be constantly pumped into the proceedings in the hope that the reader might mistake the gratuitous for substance. Bogged down in what appears to be a quite sincere belief that story is synonymous with a succession of cliches and little else, even the terrible dilemma faced by Baker's daughter Maxine Baker when faced with an off-the-conveyor-belt nasty yields exactly the result that it always promised to. For with no little irony, this isn't a comic about surprises, let alone shocks, at all. For all that legs are hacked off and much-loved innocents corrupted, such moments are grounded in a narrative that's exceptionally over-familiar and entirely predictable. The rubes are to be shaken up, but just to the degree that the pop of a Christmas cracker might inspire. Only the most timid of readers can possibly find themselves experiencing sweat and palpitations at the look-at-me beats of Lemire's tale, which leaves the comic lacking snares to hook anyone looking for more substantial, or even just more convincingly gruesome, material.
The best that can be said for Animal Man #16 is that it seems to be the product of creators who are entirely without cynicism. It might be thought that this issue would reek of a deliberate pandering to the least appealing traditions of the sub-genre. But there's no sense of anyone skimping here, and no suggestion of any contempt for the audience that's bleeding through the page. All concerned appear to have bought in entirely to the broad model of storytelling that the DiDio regime has imposed, or to have at least professionally accommodated themselves to it. And so, each of the comic's three major set-pieces appears to have been created almost solely with an eye to setting up an attention-catching panel in which something mildly trangressive occurs. It's as if Blackbriar Thorn, for example, has been introduced solely so that Animal Man can end up - gosh! - appearing to bite him. Rather than having carelessly sprinkled The Red Kingdom Part 4 with a selection of eyecatchingly pseudo-violent moneyshots, Lemire and his collaborators seem to have deliberately structured things so as to deliver the same in a particularly precise manner. Aiming low and aiming well, they've succeeded in producing exactly the sort of Vertigo-denuded comic that an editorial regime with little gift for storytelling matched to an obsession with quarterly returns will always consider well worth the publishing.