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.
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.