Superman For the Animals

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.

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12 Responses to Superman For the Animals

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  6. Thank you for this in-depth, thoughtful and positive review of this comic book I worked with DC Comics to create. I’ve posted a link back to this page from the Superman for the Animals page of my Comic Book Justice blog.

    I’d like to address a few of the points you made about the story itself, as well as your closing comments about Animal Man and Superman.

    First, regarding the decision to focus on the pretty much universally reviled and illegal types of animal cruelty depicted in the story. Because this was geared toward children, we wanted to address the type of animal cruelty young readers might actually encounter. Having them go after institutionalized cruelty like that found in factory farming or vivisection seemed beyond the scope of most kids (even though there are young people who do take on these issues). Tackling these subjects would also have been perceived as too controversial for many parents and teachers, who would become obstacles to getting these comics into the hands of their intended audience.

    As for that audience, we weren’t trying to reach psychopaths in the making, like Ballser in the story (who is most likely beyond redemption), but rather the bystanders who either join in acts of animal cruelty or remain silent about them due to peer pressure and the belief that it’s wrong to “tattle” on their peers. We wanted to let them no that it was not only allowable, but admirable to speak out against cruelty, regardless of who the victim is.

    While we felt we had to show some of these acts of animal cruelty to create a compelling story, we were very conscious about the dangers of creating an illustrated “how to” manual for would-be animal abusers. We felt showing the guard dog get shot, but not showing how a (presumably) secured rifle could be removed from a home and loaded was an appropriate compromise. Likewise, having assisted in the trapping of stray or feral cats myself, I’m pretty confident Ballser’s cardboard box design wouldn’t actually work.

    Speaking of the cat, in Mark’s original script, Ballser was successful in dropping him in front of an oncoming truck and killing him. I suggested that, since he was already in town to deal with the chemical fire, Superman could make a slight detour to save the cat (which also provided us with a much more dramatic cover image than a close up of a crushed cat corpse). You are also correct that the cat Tommy adopts at the end of the story is the same one Superman saved. I actually made the case for Lois and Clark to adopt him (and possibly name him Streaky—which is also why I wanted the cat to be orange), but it was apparently decided that this would have too great an impact on regular DC continuity.

    We wanted Superman to play as little part in Tommy’s story as possible, beyond serving as a role model—to both Tommy and readers—because in real life, as you’ve pointed out, there are no superheroes to swoop in and make everything right for us mere mortals. My only regret is that Superman didn’t commend Tommy publicly, in front of the rest of his school, for finally doing the right thing. This would have been a more powerful statement of Superman’s belief in standing up for the underdog (or cat), with the potential influence many more young minds and avert even more animal cruelty in the future.

    I do want to address your closing comment about the difference between Animal Man’s and Superman’s approaches to activism. I agree that to end the types of institutionalized animal cruelty you mention, one must focus on the big picture and sweeping social change. But the direct, and sometimes illegal action of Animal Man still has a point—especially if you’re the individual monkey or dolphin whose life he is saving. (Plus, in cases like the real life raid Animal Man’s lab break-in was based on, stolen videos and records are used to expose experimenters’ cruelty to the public.) Just like there was a place for both the (legal) abolition movement and the (illegal) underground railroad in the effort to end human slavery, there is a place for both The Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Liberation Front in the effort to end animal exploitation, cruelty and abuse.

    I also have to totally disagree with your assessment of the likelihood of Superman’s vegetarianism. As a hero who is resolute in his unwillingness to take lives; has encountered, shown respect to, and befriended aliens of every conceivable type and form; and may not even possess a biological requirement to eat at all (getting all his nourishment from our yellow sun, according to some writers), it seems totally inconsistent with Superman’s character that he would eat meat. And as for his upbringing on a farm, seeing firsthand the violent means by which meat makes its way to the table (something most people never witness) is often more of an incentive, not less, for going vegetarian. Howard Lyman is a fourth generation cattle rancher, who was actively engaged in dairy, pork, chicken and cattle production for 20 years in Montana before going vegetarian around 1990. Today, he is a 73-year-old vegan animal welfare advocate, perhaps most famous for being a co-defendant with Oprah Winfrey in an unsuccessful lawsuit initiated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for disparaging remarks Oprah made about hamburger while Lyman was a guest on her show.

    In fact, it’s because of transformations like Howard Lyman’s that Mark Waid’s unsuccessful attempt to make Superman a vegetarian in Birthright ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth (I couldn’t resist). In the story, Clark made this choice because of his previously unrevealed (and since erased) ability to see the auras of living beings. (This is similar to writer George Rucka’s 2003 revelation that Wonder Woman was a vegetarian because she could speak with animals.) This seemed to portray being vegetarian as some sort of superhuman feat, even though millions of people around the world have been able to comprehend their interconnectedness with other species, and extend their circle of compassion accordingly, without the benefit of super powers of perception.

    Finally, and respectfully, given that real life humans have no more of a biological requirement to consume meat than Superman does (according to the USDA and American Dietetic Association, among others), unless no other source of nourishment is available, I don’t see how it can be considered “ethical” to breed, confine, and the prematurely kill healthy animals, no matter how little suffering the process causes, just to satisfy a craving or support an industry.

    But like you rightly point out in your review of X-Men Unlimited #44, that’s not a dilemma for comic book characters to solve.

    • fourthage says:

      Hi, Richard. I’m glad to hear from you and to learn a little more about the development of this book. When I first heard about it, I was curious about how such a comic could possibly have come to be as well as the development of Mark Millar’s script. As I indicate, I found it surprisingly good and affecting. I say “surprisingly” because when I first heard about it, I assumed it would be facile or propagandistic, as the occasional anti-drug comic can be. And while, as you say, the children are the intended audience and it doesn’t consider related issues that are more thorny but more egregious like factory farming, it still proved surprisingly sophisticated and offers a useful lesson to an adult reader (and, indeed, gave me the impetus to learn more about the Doris Day Animal League).

      I think the decision to have Superman take that moment to fly onto the scene, save the cat, and then fly off to rescue human beings without, I think, saying even a word was an ingenious one. The series of rescues provide an important piece of continuity for Tommy’s reasoning, and Tommy’s adoption of the cat at the end is, like volunteering at the shelter, an indication of how he has changed and how the reader can help, too. But even beyond that, Ballser has already maimed a dog, stomped on pigeons, and tortured other animals. I can’t say what the intended audience would think, but I would feel that the murder of the cat, too, would edge into the realm of excess, and frankly I would probably have attributed it to the violent streak Mark Millar often exhibits (though usually when it comes to humans, not animals). At any rate, I did think it was strange that the cat Superman rescued wound up at a shelter instead of going home with him or becoming immediately adopted by a bystander. As for Streaky, I think she may actually have a cameo in Animal Man as one of the characters deleted from continuity, but she certainly appears in a few panels of Final Crisis – it would have been delightful if she had been this cat.

      As for the ending, I can certainly appreciate that, for kids, having Superman publically commend Tommy would surely be more affective, though, as I say, I kind of like it as it stands. It brings us closer to our own world without a Superman, where I know that he will never appear and commend me for doing the right thing, but I can still draw inspiration from him and satisfaction from knowing that I’m doing what he would have done.

      Regarding the illegal activism Animal Man takes up, I absolutely agree with you that in the realm of animal rights and beyond, there is a place for legal and illegal actions. To consider an unproblematic example, clearly the world is a better place for Daniel Ellsberg’s leak, although surely the world is a better place for many of ALF’s actions too. What I was referring to about the troubles Animal Man encounters and where he breaks down compared with Superman here is not even the actions themselves, but, firstly, the gradual suggestion that violent and illegal activism may be incompatible with being a superhero or a role model, even if those actions are the right thing. But secondly, and more importantly, I was also thinking of his relatively unexamined thoughts and actions. He doesn’t seem to think very hard about the issues, and he certainly doesn’t actually try to change minds; he spouts the same or similar talking points again and again. A scene that springs to mind is when his wife finds him throwing out all the meat in the refrigerator one day, and when she asks him what’s going on, he says a few words about the poor condition under which the animals were raised. He’s right and I agree with him, but vague talking points aren’t going to convince or actually inform anyone, and Grant Morrison knew that. In the last issue Morrison himself says that he feels like whenever he tried to formulate statements about animal activism, they were banal or preachy. Animal Man’s actions are poorly explained and unilateral, and, unlike Superman and Tommy here, they don’t make a very good case, and, in the end, he himself gives up.

      Even the issue where Animal Man confronts the dolphin killers of the Faroe Islands falls short in a way, I think. I found it very emotionally affecting and I actually like that issue a lot, but it, too, breaks down in some ways when characters try to explain their actions. One of Animal Man’s colleague’s tells the islanders that he can stop them because he has a moral right. . .and a gun. That’s cool and exciting, but as a line of reasoning, deficient. Of course, most readers would agree that what the Faroe islanders are doing is manifestly wrong, and they don’t need to be convinced, but likewise maybe the other issues of Animal Man where he poorly explains his reasoning and then acts on it are better meant for readers (and characters) who already agree with him. Unlike Superman in this comic and with this comic, I’m not sure Animal Man is going to change any readers’ or characters’ minds.

      Regarding Superman’s vegetarianism, the business about farmers and farming is interesting. I’ve heard the contrary suggested: that people who live in the city and have limited exposure to animals that aren’t pets have a tendency to mythologize and over-anthropomorphize animals and their character, but that farmers are more familiar with the life cycle of animals and more inured to considering raising them and killing them as part of a natural process. Of course, even if this is true, it doesn’t really matter; all it means is that such farmers would be inured to the animals’ needless suffering. In my (limited) experience, Howard Lyman argues primarily against factory farming, but as you note, I was wondering about ethically raising and humanely euthanizing animals. Such farms are described, eg, by Michael Pollan, but maybe they don’t exist. Hypothetically, though, provided an animal is not confined, is treated well, lives happily, and dies painlessly and untraumatically, I’m not sure where the problem arises, if indeed our primary complaint against farming is that it causes animal suffering. Obviously there are many other problems with farming. As you also note, vegetarian diets are as healthy, and can be more healthy, than omnivorous ones, and, as Animal Man himself occasionally notes, farming causes substantial damage to the environment. But this doesn’t seem to be Superman’s problem with farming.

      But okay, maybe such farms and such activities are rare or purely hypothetical, and Superman’s vegetarianism is a statement against the system as it stands. That actually seems quite reasonable and consistent with his super-morality, and I can agree with your take on it. I think I had heard that his vegetarianism was a result of seeing auras, and I agree that that’s an obnoxious explanation. It makes vegetarianism contingent on empirical evidence that animals have something like souls (and, for that matter, that something like a soul exists at all), and not contingent on a sense of empathy and compassion that anybody can develop in response to living being with the capacity both to be happy and to suffer.

      Speaking of which, is there any background information on “Can They Suffer” (X-Men Unliited 44) and it’s development?

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  8. Inspired by your post here, I’ve expanded on some of my thoughts above, and tried to clarify my objections to all forms of animal exploitation, on my own blog site. My primary complaint—by which I mean the foundation of my opposition—is not animal suffering, although the degree to which factory farming, trapping, hunting, vivisection, etc., inflict physical and emotional pain on their victims certainly strengthens my opposition to them. I believe it is unethical for humans to use animals for our own purposes because they don’t belong to us. To quote an old PETA adage, “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.” Or, to quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, from her foreword to Marjorie Spiegel’s book, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery,

    The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.

    Of course, there are occasions when a person or group of people’s self-interest will conflict with that of an animal or group of animals, or times when we have to force our will on an animal or group of animals for their own well-being. Just as with any human-to-human conflict, these situations should be resolved as respectfully, nonintrusively and nonviolently as possible. (And yes, if I was physically attacked by an animal, I would defend myself using whatever amount of force, including lethal, I felt was required, just as I would if I were attacked by another person.)

    As for background on X-Men Unlimited #44, see the comments I posted on your review of that comic.

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