I have to admit that I never really got sold on the DC Young Animal line. I tried very hard to get into it starting with Shade, The Changing Girl, and every time I threw up my hands in boredom. The crossover of that line of books, Milk Wars, has finally broken through that disinterest. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best mass-crossovers of the 21st century in comics.
Here’s the background. The Earth’s reality is up for sale by a company called Retconn, who is intent on homogenizing existence down to milquetoast blandness. To accomplish that they are using special milk that changes the superhero narrative into a bizarre Leave It To Beaver facsimile. Superman is now Milkman Man, Wonder Woman is Wonder Wife and Batman is Brother Bruce (I really feel they missed a trick here not calling him Pastor Batman). Oh, and if your life has not included Lobo as a pipe-smoking father-figure who heads the local Neighborhood Watch then it should because that’s totally a thing that happens.
The way out of this mess comes from the Young Animal heroes (minus Forager who only gets a mention). Doom Patrol, Shade and Mother Panic use their powers to break the hold Retconn has on the Justice League, Wonder Woman and Batman, while Cave Carson uses his cybernetic eye and a little help from Swamp Thing to assemble the combined heroes for a final showdown as a bomb that threatens reality counts down.
That’s the comic book plot description, but it really doesn’t do the book justice. Milk Wars is beyond out there, featuring everything from an inside-out cow to a legion of teen sidekicks using increasingly more bizarre animal motifs like Lesser Antillean Iguana vowing to fight the War in Christmas to breastfed appliances. Every page is crazier than the last, but not in a way that would make the book hard to follow.
At its heart Milk Wars explores how we see heroes. At least a few of the Doom Patrol members kind of don’t really exist, and the homogenization into a 1950s parody has scathing shades of how twisted a false idyllic time can be. Capitalism and religion get their turns in front of the firing squad as well. All of it boils down to a simple message that being different and a little broken is a no barrier to being heroic.
That message is served well by the Young Animal cast. Shade is the one who breaks Wonder Woman free of the housewife role and brings both women to a greater understanding of themselves. Casey and Killer Frost form a dichotomy of mutual support based on their backgrounds and powers, and the latter in particular becomes vulnerable and relatable as a hero.
The real winner is Mother Panic, though, who is something of the anti-Batman. She has her roots in other peripheral Bat characters like Red Hood and Orphan, and her strange hero’s journey is beautiful to behold. It’s she that takes on the most evil of Retconn’s plans, breaking up their child hero factory.
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Milk Wars makes me want to go back and try Young Animals from the beginning again. I felt like I finally understood Shade and Carson and the others in a way their own books never really could make happen. So much brilliant characterization is established across a massive cast in just a few short pages. In keeping with the themes of the book, a new universe opens up based on the conflict.
I’d almost recommend reading through backwards. Milk Wars should have been the starting off point of Young Animal, sending us looking for the stories behind the players. That’s its genius, and it’s something few comic crossovers seem to manage these days. There’s no soft reboot here. It’s a weird blend that defines homogeneity, which is wonderfully apropos.
You have to get to know the Young Animal universe to love it and understand it. After so many tries, I can say it’s worth the effort. Pick up a copy of Milk Wars and see if I’m wrong.
Milk Wars is available now.