Talking Heads from the Red
Aerial melées between skull-helmeted humanoid canines and tentacle-skittering eye stalks would take great effort to make boring and mundane, especially when the fight takes place on a red island of rot floating upon a blood-filled sea. Animal Man #10: Warriors of the Redlands! infuses this fight with the energy it deserves. Buddy Baker and his Redland escort, the Shepherd (a Herne-Virgil amalgamation who guides Buddy through this Redland inferno) battle the minions of the Rot before advancing to hold counsel with the rules of the Red, the Totems. This verbal exchange offers a greater challenge to rouse reader excitement. Usually, watching someone standing around talking to others (even when the others are giants with unrestrained goat, rhinoceros, or stag horns guarded by alligator men) contains all the excitement of speculating on wallpaper patters for characters in a Jane Austen novel. Yet, in Animal Man #10, Buddy Baker’s discussion with the Totem trio evokes tension and rouses excitement.
An analysis of this dialogue unearthed some aspects for how this conversation eschewed tedium. Hopefully, the following will do the same for you, dear readers (yes, both of you).
After avian taxi to the Kingdom of the Red, Animal Man prepares to enter the foyer of the Totems. While standing on this threshold, Steve Pugh utilizes a bird’s eye view of Buddy and the Shepherd. Buddy’s closer placement to the foreground has him dwarfed to the Shepherd. The tilt of the panel slightly moves Buddy away from the viewer while also moving the Shepherd closer. This tilt is balanced by the adjoining panel, tilted to the right to balance its companion’s left-leaning tilt and places Buddy nearer the reader. This composition emphasizes the Shepherd’s superior size without utterly belittling Buddy Baker.
This placement preludes the half page image of Buddy Baker standing before the Totems. Pugh parallels the placements of this page’s first panel; Buddy’s back faces the reader and he stands in the foreground (only the flanking alligator men stand closer to the reader). The other creatures tower above Buddy, and they physically and metaphorically look down on a diminished Animal Man, although one who still maintains a heroic demeanor with a spread stance, and straight back. So far, even though Buddy hasn’t spoken a word (his silence also adding to Buddy’s diminution of power) and holds himself heroically, Pugh makes it obvious he’s outmatched.
The following page has Buddy finally speaking, but his dialogue panels place in bounded fields; each bordered panel encloses Baker’s words while each of the Totems speak beyond boundaries. In fact, in this four-page conversation, only two panels have Buddy outside of grid lines, and both of these instances involve Animal Man either asking a question or bleating distress for his children. Aside from these two instances, Buddy either remains silent when not given a border, or he speaks within a boxed panel, and always he’s dwarfed by the Totems. This composition constraint dynamically enhances the exchanges between these beastly chatterboxes.
The Totems, when they respond to Buddy, convey their grandeur by transcending their panels; no Totem’s head completely fits the allotted space. Buddy’s full head appears each time he speaks on the second page of this interaction. Again, this variation between Animal Man and the Totems enhances the eminence of the Totems and animates this creepy conference.
Finally Animal Man, like Lydia Bennet savagely plopped in the plot of Justine, moves more than any of the Totems. Buddy gestures, fist shakes, a tilts his head to enhance menacing eyes, finger points, and covers his mouth in surprise. All these kinetics magnify Buddy’s reactions and keep the readers’ eyes moving along with their empathy. In the final scene, the Totems pass a judgment on Animal Man. Pugh positions Buddy at the right edge of the page while placing an alligator man who holds a curvy halberd menacingly aligned with Buddy’s neck behind him. Opposite the pole arm, a Totem’s extended finger nails aim towards Animal Man’s neck and heart; it is no wonder that Buddy appears so stiff and motionless on the books final panel of the final page.
While perhaps conversations don’t leap to mind as the most captivating aspects of super-hero books, the elements Pugh employs transfers some of the physicality of the earlier battle into the verbal exchange between Buddy and the Totems. One could only hope all conversations would appear half as dynamic.