X-Men Unlimited #44: "Can They Suffer?"

Given our look at Superman For the Animals recently, I thought it would be interesting to look at another comic produced in collaboration with the Doris Day Animal League as part of its Comics for Compassion Program, X-Men Unlimited #44, “Can They Suffer?,” written by Chuck Austen and drawn by Romano Molenaar. Mark Millar was a surprising choice as writer for For the Animals because, while he has undeniable talent, he has made his name with excessively violent books like Wanted and Kick-Ass. Chuck Austen is a bit of a surprise too: for me, at least, he is most memorable for his failed attempt to produce a book even more sexualized and violent than Stormwatch and The Authority (it was imaginatively titled Worldwatch). But like For the Animals, “Can They Suffer” is pretty good and pretty successful.

The X-Men are a natural choice to deal for discussing animal abuse and animal rights; for decades now, they’ve been a symbol of resistance by the weak and oppressed against racism and aggression. They have had to face pointless, stupid violence at the hands of bigots who believe mutants are subhuman, and they’ve struggled to gain acceptance and convince the public that mutants deserve the same rights, protection, and respect as everybody else.

Indeed, seen from this perspective, the X-Men have an even more proximate connection to the cause of animal rights than Superman does. In For the Animals, the protection of animals was shown to be a natural extension of the same principles we so admires in Superman and that cause Superman to protect humans in the first place. It’s just for the strong to protect the weak; it’s wrong to stand by and let a wrong happen; it’s wrong to cause needless suffering. But for the X-Men, it’s not a matter of extrapolating principles, since animal cruelty and the impetus behind it affect them every day and is exactly what they’re reacting against: the conviction that something that is Other does not feel, think, or experience reality in a meaningful or valid way, and therefore it is acceptable to treat the Other inhumanely.

In fact, the connection between mutants and animals has long been emphasized. Many of the most important mutants have an animalistic appearance, and their unusual appearance is just another reason for bigots to hate and abuse them. Consider, for instance, Feral, Wolfsbane, and the Beast, or Beak.

(From New X-Men 117: Beast above, Beak below)

Add to that, perhaps, characters who appear mostly human but also have a strong animalistic dimension, like Wolverine, Sabretooth, Toad, Wild Child, and Nightcrawler.

In “Can They Suffer,” Austen uses such a character to explore this connection between mutant and animal – Sammy Paré, a ten year old student at the institute.

After going for a swim with another student, he notices that taken some fish from the pond and stomped on them. Sammy empathizes with the fish; Cain Marko, Juggernaut (at this point an X-Man, I guess), dismisses the incident with, “Boys will be boys.” Sammy is in the awkward position that, while he is human, or rather super-human, his resemblance to fish is undeniable. Cain can dismiss fish, and animals in general, as entirely other and unworthy of pity or protection because their resemblance to him is unapparent and they seem entirely other.

Sammy has no such luxury, and he can’t help but identify with the fish, and he begs Jean Grey to use her telepathy on the nearby town to find out who is responsible. But she refuses, saying that she won’t read people’s minds against their will. Sammy goes to confront Charles Xavier about the same – and, as they are arguing, another student appears with a dog he has found tied to a fence and tortured.

Since the animal is newly dead, Jean is still able to enter its mind, and she experiences and narrates its last moments:

Austen presents a truly revolting scenario and shamelessly plays with our emotions here; and it works. I can hardly imagine anything more pathetic than a dog being tortured, begging for its tormentors to stop, trying to show them its goddamn tummy. Maybe it’s so affecting because it has no idea what’s going on, only that the creatures its loved and trusted its whole life are hurting it for reasons it can’t understand. Austen isn’t being subtle here, but animal abuse isn’t subtle either, and confronting us with this does, I think, make us give serious thought to it.

But some, like Cain, still don’t get it.

Boys will be boys, he’s said. This is code, of course, for “people have been doing this for a long time, and giving it serious thought will open up a can of worms.” Maybe some readers are thinking this too.

In the mean time, Wolverine has run off. The gang, Sammy in tow, hunt him down, because he has, as they suspected, tracked down the dog’s torturers: three stupid kids in a tree house. (Having Wolverine track the kids down is a tidy way to avoid having Jean or Charles use their psychic powers on people against their will to do it).

The kids, and Cain, just don’t get what the big deal is. Cain admits that he did things like this as a boy, and he thinks that humans are qualitatively different from animals and therefore can hurt them at will. To show them the error of their ways, Jean makes the three kids and Cain feel every torture they had ever inflicted on animals. The owner of the land, and the father of the one of the kids comes to drive the X-Men off. He’s clearly a bigot (he says he can smell the mutie on them), and once the X-Men go, he yells at his son for crying. “Be a man!” he says.

Cain seems to have had a similar relationship with his father. He says that when he was a child, his father made him feel the same way those animals felt.

And while the two other kids seem to shape up, the third, the one with the abusive father, doesn’t. He throws a cat tied to a brick through a window in Xavier’s mansion. He’s arrested, and, the police say, he’ll receive a stern punishment. But it’s clear that he’s broken.

Something that Austen is getting at here, and something that Millar alluded quite briefly to in For the Animals, is that animal abuse is a symptom of something else. Cain and that child lived in abusive, broken households, and they are broken themselves. Cain’s “boys will be boys” tries to normalize and dismiss animal abuse as a basic feature of human behavior, but the truth is that cruelty to animals is evidence of inhumanity and cruelty to humans, too. That same callousness towards and estrangement from the weak or different that these boys feel towards animals is what their fathers felt towards them; and, indeed, what a bigot might feel towards mutants, blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, or Jews.

I like this comic, and For the Animals, very much. It’s a strange to think that two free one-shots produced as PSAs are some of the most affecting comics I’ve read this year. For understandable reasons, both consider an extremely visible form of animal abuse: the cruel and senseless torture of dogs and cats by children. However, my thoughts, as they often have lately, keep returning to Animal Man and his crusade – Animal Man knew that this kind of abuse was only the tip of the iceberg. It’s easy to rail against, and it’s easy for superheroes to oppose. But what about the truly insidious forms of animal abuse: the kind perpetrated not for fun by individuals, but for profit by faceless corporations, the kind that is built into the System and our way of life. The kind that, as Animal Man claimed, is destroying the world because we want cheap meat and factory farming is a convenient way to get it.

Is this a subject a superhero can tackle? It ruined Animal Man’s life and ultimately broke him. Maybe this simply isn’t a story for superheroes, since it can’t be solved, as it were, by the superhero method, superior morality and superior power. A single person’s superior power can’t stop an industry. Instead, it takes a large number of normal people doing what they think is right. I guess in this case, they can do something Superman or Animal Man can’t.

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6 Responses to X-Men Unlimited #44: "Can They Suffer?"

  1. Pingback: Green Lantern 154-155: “Hate Crime” « Fourth Age

  2. Pingback: Justice for all |

  3. Thanks for another insightful review of one of my Comics for Compassion projects. I’m gratified to know that you both enjoyed “Can They Suffer?” as a story, and felt that it was effective in promoting humane values. I’m also glad you picked up on what we call the “violence connection” that links childhood cruelty to animals to later physical assaults against humans. I wrote an article on this, “The Vicious Circle,” that appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of Animal Guardian magazine.

    I would like to correct one misstatement you made about X-Men Unlimited #44. Although I approached Marvel Comics about commissioning them to produce a PSA comic book for the Doris Day Animal Foundation, like the deal we made with DC Comics on Superman for the Animals, that’s not how this comic book was ultimately created.

    During the course of our negotiations with Marvel, it became clear that we did not have sufficient funds to finance a custom publishing job on the scale we envisioned. However, by that tine the editorial staff at Marvel was completely behind our project and felt that our intended message was one they wanted to help get out to the public. Therefore, they decided simply to write a story on animal cruelty in one of their regular ongoing X-Men titles, at no cost to DDAF. My primary contribution to the story was providing writer Chuck Austen with background information, including the quote by 18th-19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, from which Chuck took the title for the story. X-Men Unlimited #44 was shipped out to comic book stores on April 16, 2003, where it was sold like any other Marvel title published that week.

    In addition to those direct market copies, DDAF purchased its own print run of 75,000 copies to distribute free to parents, teachers, and humane educators. The DDAF copies differed from the direct market edition in that they had the organization’s logo on the cover where the bar code would normally appear, and a special letter of support from then Marvel President Bill Jemas on the inside front cover (which thankfully replaced the milk mustache ad in the direct market edition).

    Because this comic book was put out by Marvel Comics, and not commissioned by DDAF like Superman for the Animals, it was eligible for, and became the first and so far only comic book to receive, a Genesis Award. The Genesis Awards are held annually by The Humane Society of the United States to honor media outlets that bring public attention to animal protection issues. Because both my wife and I worked for DDAF at the time, we got to go to the 2004 ceremony in Los Angeles where Chuck Austen and editor C.B. Cebulski accepted the award on behalf of Marvel Comics (it was presented to them by Kelly Hu, who played Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2: X-Men United). On the X-Men Unlimited #44 page of my blog site, you can see a photo of me with Chuck and C.B., as well as the picture of Sammy artist Romano Molenaar drew for me and the autographed copy of the comic book I was given that’s signed by virtually everyone who worked on the issue, including Bill Jemas and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada.

  4. Pingback: Justice for All | Sequart Research & Literacy Organization

  5. Bruce Wayne says:

    This is why I hate animal rights groups. They believe harm towards people is a lesser crime than harm towards animals. What the HELL is wrong with you people?

    • fourthage says:

      I would be interested to see how you got that from either this post or the comic. The idea is not that animal pain is more important than human pain. On the contrary, the claim here isn’t even that human pain is of the same quality as animal pain. It is that needless pain is a basically bad thing. You are complicating matters by mentioning harm, for harm comes in many forms. The metric posed here is “can they suffer”?

      I will add that you have seemed to miss something very important. The comic does have an answer for you even if your concerns are primarily anthropocentric (mine often are for practical reasons): the willingness or desire to cause unwarranted suffering is indicative of human flaw – indeed, in extreme cases, human scarring.

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