Writer Jeff Lemire finds a deep, inner grunge in “Endless Rot”, the lone story appearing in the Animal Man Annual of 2012. By grunge I of course mean “Seattle Sound”, the music that seems to have dominated much of the 90s. And when I say Jeff Lemire finds a deep, inner grunge, this has nothing to do with acoustics or synthesizers or licks or riffs or anything else you can read about in Spin or in Alarm. This has to do with emotional content. And has to do with bands like Mudhoney or Alice In Chains or Soundgarden or even the hyper-recognizable Nirvana and how they are the true heirs to The Clash’s London Calling. This has to do with why they opted for a kind of self-exclusion from the cultural mainstream, and consequently how they came to leave their imprint across a generation.
Marry up the idea of grunge, the meaning and the value of grunge for the music industry, with cultural shifts going down contemporaneously in the comics industry, and you come to realize that Jeff is playing a very high-minded game. Because at the time, comics were on a cusp themselves. At the time, comics had seceded from the cultural mainstream and retreated into the rarefied boutique culture of comic book stores. And the last time Animal Man was popular enough as a character to warrant his own book, was at this time. Around about the mid-90s.
“Endless Rot” is a simple enough story once you get into it. Mister Socks, the Spirit Guide to Maxine Baker (the next Knight of the Red after her father, Animal Man Buddy Baker), regales Maxine with a story about an earlier Knight, Jacob Mullin. There’s a little backstory here. The Red is that mystical spirit-web that connects all living animals. When things are in balance, the Red is in a symbiotic relationship with the Green (all living plants) and the Rot (all things dead, dying and in decay). The trouble being faced right now by Buddy and his family (and will still be faced years down the line by an adult Maxine, if issue #7 is anything to go by), is due to the Rot overzealously reaching beyond any measure of balance.
Mister Socks, Maxine’s nickname for her cat and Spirit Guide, isn’t simply a house pet but a reincarnated Knight of the Red. An Avatar, just as Buddy is now, and Maxine soon will be. Mister Socks’s story about Jacob Mullin the Knight circa 1894, is also the story that marks the Rot’s current upswing in power and ambition. An upswing that Animal Man and confederate Swamp Thing must now stare down the barrel of. In other words Dear Reader, 1894 is where the current ugly began.
There’s something strangely comforting in artwork of Timothy Green II. On the surface of it, this artwork is profoundly disturbing. The monsters of the Rot are beautifully realized, fiendishly so. But the Poe-esque artistry is at its best around the framing narrative, where Maxine and Mister Socks enter the woods, and the story is told. Like a Disney maiden of yore, Maxine finds herself surrounded by wild animals. But Timothy’s art belies none of the caricatured cute, friendliness of such beasts as have gathered. Instead what we see is their raw savagery held in check by Maxine’s nascent powers. And then there’s the open sprawl of the story. The talking cat speaks of a devastation, and dead, bloated cattle and arid land is unfurled in Timothy’s vivid artwork.
It’s the Disney of the situation turned to find an inner dark. Animals have gathered but they’re not of the cutesy, cuddly, cartooned caricature variety. There’s a talking pet, but his story is of death and monsters, made all the more vividly real by Timothy’s artwork. Finding this inner darkness in what has always been a hitherto dominant mode of children’s storytelling, is part of that deep, inner grunge spoken of earlier. The isolation from the dominant forms of media, the self-exclusion from the dominant modes of the popular imagination, and then only to turn inward and reinvent the original terms of these modes and media. This is the true work of grunge.
We’ve seen it play out before in a much more sedate way with John Byrne’s now legendary view of Superman. Kal El didn’t escape a kind, loving world, Byrne’s vision of the flagship DC character informs us. Rather, Kal’s homeworld of Krypton was incredibly cruel in its pursuit of science and rationalism. And Krypton goes on to become the post-Soviet Russia of outer space—where weapons of mass destruction, on a planetary scale, are freely available because Krypton is no longer there to keep it in check. The Superman we saw come out of this shift was both insular and magnificent. You had to learn the codes, but learning the codes would reward you.
While 90s Animal Man came from the same place philosophically, a place of reimprinting the core character with new codes, Animal Man was even farther flung than Superman. Buddy Baker didn’t have the long cultural legacy of Clark Kent/Superman. And now, at a point when everyone is looking to a new kind of New, when everyone is mired in understanding networking and social media and relation-webs and trying to understand what the cultural drivers for the Millennials, Jeff Lemire makes art from a dated artistic movement. And it is as deeply engrossing and purely beautiful as anything. For Millennials, as much as for us all. It just goes to show, it’s always the artist, and never the character.
Jeff and Timothy’s offering this summer is a rare treat—something that simply deserves to be read and reread and really cherished for the high art it is.