May 02, 2012 at 04:53 PM EDT

The latest version of Buddy Baker, Animal Man, who can assume the powers and shapes of members of the animal kingdom, is one of the best of DC Comics’ “New 52” comics series, and the first six issues have been collected in a trade paperback titled Animal Man: Vol. 1 “The Hunt,” released today.

Baker is one of the luckier minor-tier comics characters. Created in the 1960s, Animal Man was drawn by one of the greats, Carmine Infantino, best known as the finest Flash artist. In the late 1980s, Grant Morrison overhauled Animal Man in a typically imaginative manner, establishing Buddy as a family man and promoting animal rights and vegetarianism. Not long after, Peter Milligan went in a nicely wilder direction, employing narrative techniques that fractured and cut up stories into near-incomprehensibility. (Trust me, it was highly enjoyable.) Then Animal Man went to writer Jamie Delano, who killed off Buddy and re-formed him as a so-called “animal avatar” in thrall to “the Red,” a blood-crimson force contained within all animal life.

Now writer Jeff Lemire — creator of one of the finest comic books now being published, the razor-molared apocalypse-now Sweet Tooth – has applied his take on Animal Man. The Buddy Baker is here very much a family guy, and one of his kids, daughter Maxine, has inherited the animal-morphing, “Red” gene. Lemire has a gift for depicting parent-child relationships, and this lends Animal Man a heart that few super-hero comics possess. The art here is primarily by Travel Foreman, and it’s frequently spectacular.

Foreman draws his central figures with long, spidery lines that can occasionally resemble veins of blood; he’s also very good at combining realism with the grotesque, exaggerating background characters’ chins, necks, and balding scalps. Foreman is equally adept at drawing cozy domestic scenes and eyes-bleeding images of horror.

Lemire is similarly skilled at telling stories at the same two extremes. Better yet – he can combine both, to create tales that are both comforting and frightening. This Animal Man collection is a measure of how far a writer and artist can go within the contemporary super-hero format, and a demonstration of how satisfying such an experiment can be.


Twitter: @kentucker

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