Superman For the Animals was released as a free comic in around 2000 in collaboration with the Doris Day Animal Foundation (a bit on the circumstances here). It has Superman combating animal cruelty? And it’s written by Mark Millar? Sign me up!
Mark Millar is an odd choice for tackling a comic like this. At his best, he’s an interesting and subtle writer; just look at Red Son. In recent years, though, his reputation and fortune have exploded due to a string of extremely violent, maybe even excessively and mindlessly violent, books, such as Wanted and Kick-Ass. But he handles this exploration of Superman and animal rights with great skill, and I think For the Animals is a success. This book also ties into some of the questions we have been discussing lately: what sort of problems can Superman solve, and what does it mean for a superhero to champion animal rights?
Regarding the latter, Animal Man’s strategy was to preach to whoever would listen and to take a hard-line, personal stand against the most extreme forms of animal cruelty. As we saw, he found this was ineffective. The most widespread and insidious forms of animal cruelty come from the large, faceless, amoral corporations and from regular, apathetic average Joes. His stand against the corporations degenerated into violence that got his family killed and utterly debased him and his message. His preaching won nobody over, as his arguments were too passionate, personal, and senseless. So how might Superman handle it?
Millar’s take is novel: Superman is an important part of the story, but he isn’t the main character. The issue begins with Superman going through the thousands of letters he’s received lately detailing people’s woes and begging for help, and he stays up all night to read them.
He starts reading a letter from a boy named Tommy, and most of the issue is told in flashback from Tommy’s perspective. He describes the events leading up to and after Superman saves his father from a fire at a chemical plant, but until the very end of the issue, Superman and Tommy never meet. Indeed, until he reads the letter, Superman has no idea how influential he has been on Tommy’s life.
Tommy tells about how he had recently moved to a new town, and he is worried about finding new friends, but he falls in with a group of kids led by one named Ballser. These kids aren’t plugged in with the in-crowd; they don’t like baseball and football, but video games and comics – in short, they’re like the readers themselves.
They even argue about whether Superman or Batman would win in a fight (I wonder what Superman thinks of this!).
But while they get along well, they’re not good kids. Ballser in particular has a nasty streak: he abuses animals. We first see him kicking birds, which passes by without comment:
Next, he tries to suffocate a fish:
This sends Tommy into hysterics; he’s naturally empathetic, unlike the other boys, who seem happy to go along with Ballser’s cruelty.
He even convinces one of them to shoot a dog, whose leg later must be amputated.
Tommy tries to report Ballser’s animal abuse to a guidance counselor, who dismisses this, saying, “Boys will be boys.” Tommy says that he knows the guidance counselor has much worse things to worry about anyway. Kids with cancer, kids with bad homes. Who has time to worry about the animals? Most superheroes are the same way, even when it comes to humans. The Green Lantern is much too busy fighting galactic super-criminals that threaten the solar system to deal with most conventional crimes, much less with animal cruelty.
Superman comes in when Ballser gets the bright idea to drop a cat off of a highway overpass. Just as the cat falls, Superman flies by and saves it.
As it turns out, he’s en route to fight a fire at a chemical plant where Tommy’s father works, but he spends precious moments rescuing the cat. I wonder how it would have affected Tommy if those precious moments had cost his father’s life – but that doesn’t matter, and it’s missing the point.
The point is that maybe Superman can do anything, but he doesn’t use his greatness as license to ignore or be apathetic about the treatment of the weak, and he certainly doesn’t use his powers to bully the weak, as Ballser does. Nor do his powers make him arrogant. His powers aren’t what make him great – it’s his compassion and his humility. Likewise, our status as “human” and the powers associated with being human don’t make us better than animals or give us license to hurt or ignore them.
This is what inspires Tommy. After Ballser drowns a squirrel, he finally stands up to him in front of all of their friends. During a brief struggle in Ballser’s room, they knock over a suitcase full of pet collars, revealing that Ballser has killed at least a hundred animals. He’s a serial killer in the making, clearly. Ballser argues that animals don’t feel pain or have souls, and killing them is no different from destroying an inanimate object. At the same time, he picks up a baseball bat to silence Tommy.
Finally, their friends have had enough – threatening a human is going too far, and they disarm Ballser and turn him in to the authorities. Here, extreme animal cruelty is (rightly, I think) associated with a disregard for or even sadism towards the weak in general. Ballser’s argument about animals having souls is a nonsensical cover; as he’s making it, he’s picking up a baseball bat to attack a human. But if we take it at face value and accept that animals are fundamentally different from and inferior to humans, we hit upon the crux: is it moral or acceptable to hurt the different and weak? Certainly not. Our model, Superman, shows as much. He will try to save us all, even if we are so much less than him – me, you, the cats, Kandor, Tommy, Lex Luthor, Jimmy Olsen, Ballser, Regan, everybody.
As Tommy’s experience demonstrates, this is the real way Superman is fixing the world, both his world and our “real” world. It’s by inspiring us to be better and to be more like him. To be compassionate, to resist cruelty in all of its forms, especially against the weak and when it seems normal or easy or the status quo. We can’t always be like Superman and save people from burning chemical plants, but we certainly can save, or at least help, the animals, creatures who are as much weaker than us as we are weaker than superman.
Now, Ballser may be an extreme case (even if it isn’t as extreme as most cases in Animal Man). The most common and insidious animal cruelty isn’t a deranged individual who goes around killing hundreds of pets for fun. But a case like Ballser makes us realize how much like him we can be, if only due to our apathy: we may not be abducting and murdering animals, but we do stand aside and worry about other, more important things as thousands of animals are hurt by others or live sad, hungry, and painful lives. The effect of Superman’s inspiration isn’t just that Tommy stands up to his crazy, murderous friend. Facing down a single, egregious evil really isn’t that hard. Changing the way you live and putting an end to all of those little evils around you is hard, and that’s exactly what Superman inspires Tommy to do. Tommy gets different and better friends, and he starts volunteering at an animal shelter. He also adopts a cat (the same one Superman saved, I think. It’s a shame it wound up in a shelter):
At the end of the issue, there is a curious scene where Superman, having read Tommy’s letter, shows up as Tommy is walking to school. He appears behind Tommy, says, “Well done, Tommy. I’m proud of you, son,” and then flies away before Tommy turns around and sees him. Tommy assumes that he’s just hearing things and walks away.
All without ever having actually met him, Superman has inspired Tommy to become a better person. In fact, as Superman is well aware, it’s all the more meaningful if he’s never met him. Tommy has used Superman as a model for how he can be a good person, but in the end Tommy did it all on his own. Superman never told him how to be a good person, or tried to force him, or even really validated him, except for in this single, elusive encounter that Tommy dismisses. You or I, in the “real” world, aren’t in such a different position from Tommy.
This is where Animal Man broke down. He never succeeded in inspiring anyone to emulate him, and he tried to face down evil and save the world pretty much all by himself. But Superman knows better. He’s got to redeem us all first. Otherwise, what’s the point?
While I’m on the subject, I’d like to go off on a tangent and discuss in brief something I hear comes up in Waid’s Superman: Birthright (I’ll admit readily that, to my embarrassment, I haven’t read it yet. Correct me if I misunderstand anything). There, Superman appears as a vegetarian on the ground that he holds all life sacred. I’ve seen this praised by some, and I can certainly see the impetus for that. I disagree with this interpretation of Superman, though. Superman grew up on a farm. He’s seen animals live and die and has probably helped birth and kill a few himself. Those animals on the farm are alive today because farmers want to exploit them. They can live a good life if they are ethically raised and killed; presumably they are happier living this way than either having never lived at all or living a worse, possibly miserable life in the wild. I cannot conceive of a good argument against eating ethically treated, mercifully killed, and sustainably raised animals, aside from an argument based on aesthetics. Clearly Superman is not in favor of interrupting the natural course of life and preventing all creatures from dying. In Brian Azzarello’s story For Tomorrow, one of best parts of an otherwise mediocre run was when Superman’s confidante, a priest dying of cancer, asks Superman if he can cure it. Superman shrugs and says he’s never tried and he never will. Being a good person means being compassionate and not hurting the weak. It doesn’t mean not dealing with death and even killing in a mature manner.