Animal Man Retrospective: Part 2

The middle section of Animal Man is pretty varied in content. It has a few stand alone issues, a few three or four issue arcs, and one big arc that runs through it all. There’s some meta-fictional stuff, a few superhero stories, and a couple issues just about Buddy’s domestic life. Some of the issues are very good; one or two are bad. I’m saving the discussion about meta-fiction for the last entry, and what I’d like to talk about here is one of the many things that makes Animal Man and Buddy Baker unique: the series’ and the character’s interest in animal rights.

I’ve talked briefly about how the sort of problems that a conventional superhero can deal with are quite limited. In most cases, they are really only concerned with supervillains; the occasion natural disaster; personal problems; and professional problems. While it does happen, only rarely does an author try to set Superman against world hunger, nuclear armament, institutional racism, or global warming. Those just aren’t the kind of problems superheroes can address because, well, those aren’t the kind of problems a single person can fix, no matter how powerful or genuinely good he may be. It’s very telling that what may be the most popular conservationist cartoon of all time, Captain Planet, has its environmentalists fighting environmental menaces in the form of evil supervillains. Faceless and amoral corporations are much harder to deal with.

Animal abuse is such a problem, and Morrison makes Buddy an animal rights activist. It’s an interesting and bold choice that, judging from the letters columns, was controversial. Buddy’s take on animal rights is like Buddy himself – well meaning and simplistic, though it evolves over the course of the series. It’s formulation in issue 6 is primitive:

What makes a human being more important than a rat? Well, provided that we agree on what “important” means, there are a lot of criteria we could come up with: intelligence; the capacity for changing the environment; the capacity for suffering. But Buddy doesn’t think about things like this. I really don’t think it’s because he’s intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think it’s because he isn’t particularly thoughtful or self-aware. However well-meaning he is, he’s always in the dark about the important things and unable to figure them out in time: that B’wana Beast, for instance, isn’t really the true threat (the scientist experimenting on animals and creating the weaponized strain of anthrax was; or, even more importantly, the hunters threatening Buddy’s family at home while he was off adventuring). Or, for that matter, what the Coyote Gospel was all about.

Another formulation in issue 5 in support of his world view is more robust.

Here, his argument isn’t based on importance or the relative worth of a human and a rat. It’s based on something more straightforward: animals are unnecessarily subjected to pain in order that we may indulge ourselves with meat. If meat is just an indulgence and it causes unnecessary pain to animals, sure, it may be unethical to eat it. This leaves the door open, of course, to the possibility that eating the meat of animals that were ethically treated isn’t wrong. But Buddy, of course, doesn’t think of that.

The last major argument Ι think he makes is in issue 17. He catches his son eating a hamburger, and he argues:

This is a simple, pragmatic argument. The processes required to produce the meat that goes into burgers are unsustainable. Killings cows and eating meat per se may or may not be ethical, but it certainly is not in our best interests. Once again, this leaves the door open to the possibility that there would be nothing wrong with eating meat from cows that are sustainably raised and ethically killed.

But while this is the best formulation yet, it’s still not very sophisticated. Of course, part of the problem is that Buddy’s world still isn’t very sophisticated. Morrison is aware of these short comings, of course. This is exactly what issue 17 is about (and it’s no coincidence that the best argument comes in issue 17), and issues 20 and following address it intermittently too. But let’s start with a look at issue 15, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”  This and issue 17 are the only two pretty much exclusively devoted to Animal Man and animal rights.

Issue 15 takes place in the Faroe islands, in which every year the islanders lure pods of dolphins to shore and butcher them in a centuries old practice. The story is told from two perspectives: Buddy and his friends, who are trying to prevent the slaughter, and a lost dolphin trying to find his mate and child, who are with the pod being lured to shore. Morrison is a skillful writer, and the latter story certainly pulls at the heart strings. While Buddy and his friends are eventually able to stop the islanders from killing the whole pod, the lost dolphin’s mate and child are killed by one depraved islander. In revenge, Buddy picks up that islander, flies away, and drops him in the ocean. But that lost dolphin shows up and brings him back to shore, for dolphins are different and more merciful than men.

As I mentioned above, a problem throughout this book is oversimplification. The islanders here are spiteful and depraved; like the scientist testing strains of anthrax on animals or the hunters who torture cats and try to rape Buddy’s wife, they’re too easy to hate:

And even so, no actual argument is presented to counter this old practice of the islanders. This is the only argument given for why Buddy and his friends have a right to come to the island and try to stop the slaughter. It’s spoken by one of Buddy’s friend:

This is the superhero method: the over-determination of both being morally right and physically dominant. Of course, morals are complicated and difficult to depict and describe. Physical force isn’t.

An undercurrent here, too, is that the actions these heroes take to champion animal rights debases them. The main conflict in issues 1-4 was about B’wana Beast’s attempt to recover his companion, an ape abducted by Dr. Meyer’s. To that end, he kills not only humans, but also (probably inadvertently) animals. Here, Buddy drops an islander who has murdered dolphins into the middle of the ocean.

The lost dolphin saves him. In fact, this is the islander who killed the lost dolphin’s mate and child, but the dolphin saves him anyway. The dolphins are not only better than the islanders, they’re also better than Animal Man. The dolphin also points the way to one of the best argument for animal rights. It’s similar to Buddy’s second argument: all else being equal, we should always choose mercy; we should always try to rise above cruelty; we should never unnecessarily hurt those who are weaker or more base than ourselves. But Buddy can’t live up to this, and he drops the islander into the ocean. Later, when Buddy’s own wife and children are killed, certainly he chooses a brutal and horrible revenge.

A fuller expression of this debasement occurs in issue 17. This issue has one of the most memorable covers I’ve seen:

I’ve remembered it ever since I first saw it as a boy in 1989. In this issue, Buddy and some animal activists break into a lab in which monkeys are having their eyes sewn shut for sight deprivation experiments. They liberate the monkeys, but one member of their group, wanting to shut down the lab for good, sets the lab on fire. The next day, Buddy learns that three firemen were horrifically burnt trying to put out the flames, and he starts to give up on his dream of being an animal activist superhero. He knows now that he isn’t dealing with the heart of the problem.

He starts to realize that the real villains are corporations and businessmen, and they don’t hatch nefarious plots to take over the world – they already own the world. And when Buddy’s friend here tells Buddy, “You don’t have conversations anymore, you give lectures!”, he’s dead right. If you look at the above images of Buddy giving his arguments for animal rights, they’re all the same, framed on Buddy’s head as passionately speaks his unexamined claims. He’s self-centered and self-righteous, brooking no opposition to his worldview, since he settles things by action and not argument – the superhero method.

In the last issue of Morrison’s run, issue 26, there is one more formulation of the argument for animal rights, but it doesn’t come out of Buddy’s mouth – it comes out of Morrison’s.

This is close to Buddy’s formulation in issue 6: it’s an argument that relies on intrinsic rights, as if that is something that we can accept, or even define, without further analysis. This is the most impassioned argument, the one that clearly means the most to Morrison; it’s also the one that requires the most explanation and is least likely to convince anybody. Morrison explains that in his view, mankind’s exploitation of animals has no honest moral justification and relies only on the fact that man is stronger than animals:

That’s also how the superhero method works. Animal Man is able to push his morality because he can defeat or kill people who disagree with him. Morrison acknowledges this, and a few pages later goes on to add that this is, of course, how we settle things in the real world too – we settle moral arguments by fighting. It’s not really the superhero method at all. It’s the human method.

As we’ll go on to see further in my final installment on this series, much of what this book is about is how the world of comics can be better than our world and how there is no good reason to debase our heroes and make them more like us. Morrison’s exploration seems to show, though, that there are limits to this. It seems to show that a conventional superhero book just can’t face certain problems without reverting to that method, a method that relies on force and the assertion, but not the argument or proof, of rightness.

Morrison wrote this book when he was about 30, and I wonder what his take on it would be today. It seems telling, though, that to my knowledge he hasn’t ever attempted anything like this since.

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8 Responses to Animal Man Retrospective: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Superman: For the Animals « Fourth Age

  2. Thanks for this post. I examine many of the same specific scenes (and use some of the same images) in an examination of Morrison’s run on Animal Man in a 2005 presentation I gave, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons and Graphics.”

    I agree with you about the one dimensional characterization of some of the animal abusers in the Animal Man, particularly the hunters. However, although I have never personally witnessed the Faroe Island slaughter, on several occasions I attended what used to be a similar tradition in Hegins, Penn. It was annual pigeon shoot in which contestants shot approximately 6,000 birds in one day. Thankfully, it ended in 1999 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave animal control officers the power to write citations for animal cruelty. I presume that some, or even most of the inhabitants of Hegins at these shoots were, in most other situations, perfectly reasonable, polite, and even kind people. But with very few exceptions, the behavior I witnessed by locals at these shoots, exacerbated by alcohol and misplaced town pride, was every bit as “spiteful and depraved” as that of the Faroe Islanders depicted in Animal Man.

    FYI: Just like the dolphin slaughter was based on a real-world practice in the Faroe Islands, the lab break-in, and the experiment it was meant to stop, was based on the Animal Liberation Front’s 1985 rescue of a similarly blinded monkey, named “Britches,” from the University of California at Riverside.

    My regret over Morrison’s comic book version of this event was that Buddy’s renouncing of it was too simplistic. He could have defended the act of liberating the monkeys while still condemning the act of burning down the lab, which resulted in firefighters being injured. In fact, I’m not sure how believable it was that Buddy would have allowed the A.L.F. stand-in in the story to start the fire in the first place (except that it was required for dramatic purposes).

    I was actually working as a correspondent for PETA when Morrison finished his run on Animal Man. I wrote an official letter to him from the organization congratulating him on his run that not only thanked him for his promotion of animal rights issues (as you know, he actually included a personal plug for PETA in issue #26), but for his groundbreaking accomplishment at storytelling. (Although I did get to meet him briefly a few years ago, I still don’t know if he ever received that letter.)

    • fourthage says:

      Hey, thanks for writing, and thanks for the link! I’ve read those papers with great interest (especially the third, of course). I figured that the scene in issue 17 where Animal Man inadvertently helps bomb the animal experimentation lab was based on true events, and now I know for sure. I’m disturbed and very unhappy, but maybe not too surprised, to hear that the people who participate in massacring the whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands or pigeons in Hegins are so unreasonable, bloodthirsty, and depraved, at least over the course of the festival. I guess what I was trying to say is that dealing with such extreme, black and white portrayals of animal cruelty almost tricks us into forgetting that Buddy and his friends are able to push their views onto others not because they’ve shown that they’re right (they, and in cases like this, most of us, pretty much take that for granted), but because they’re stronger. And Buddy, at least, really isn’t that morally superior: he drops that dolphin killer in the sea to die, after all. He did a good thing in saving the dolphins, a thing that really may have required violence and breaking the law to do, but he still debased himself in the process.

      I, too, find Buddy’s renouncing of his animal activism extremely simplistic, but simplicity and naivety were among Buddy’s problems all along. He is terrible at thinking in shades of grey or really reasoning things through. For him, it’s all or nothing: because he can’t help all animals everywhere in a very direct fashion, he pretty much gives up. This is partly because he’s a superhero, and superheroes are not conducive to nuanced stances; they’re conducive to solving problems through force and violence, so what can they do when a problem takes more than force and violence to solve? Indeed, the ultimate betrayal of his earlier convictions is when he becomes a typical 90’s superhero, starts dressing in black, and takes a bloody revenge on his family’s killers, while reflecting that now, he’s nothing more than an animal. This take on what an animal is is in direct contradiction to issue 15, where animals were shown to somehow be better than humans when the dolphin whose mate and child were killed takes mercy on their killer. I really do think that part of what Morrison is doing is showing how problematic it is to try to make a conventional superhero into an animal rights activist, and when he finally meets Animal Man at the end of the run, he apologizes for some of his failures.

      Even if so much of this run was experimental, treating in particular where superheroism and black-and-white morality break down, I don’t think I’ve ever read a series that was this thoughtful passionate, and socially conscious – a real shame, given that it ended twenty years ago. And even rereading it now, for the third or fourth time, the run still makes me reconsider how I feel about these things. I do hope Morrison read your letter, or at least ones like it; looking back at the old letters pages has made me realize how controversial and courageous writing a series like this must have been.

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