Animal Kingdom: Grant Morrison’s All-Species Comics
By Richard De Angelis
In most people’s minds,
comic books represent the cultural bottom of the artistic totem pole,
drawings, bad writing, and no socially redeeming value. One reason
for this is that people think comic books are synonymous with adolescent
fantasies of super-powered men in tights (and super-powered women wearing
even less). While it is sadly true that this much-maligned art form
has been dominated by superhero stories for nearly 70 years, comic
books have often been used to raise awareness about social injustices,
including those committed against animals.
Without a doubt, the gold standard of animal rights superheroism begins
with DC Comics’ Animal Man, who began his career as a minor character in
a 1965 Amazing Adventures story entitled “I Was the Man with Animal Powers.” In
1988, Scottish comic writer Grant Morrison was recruited by DC Comics to breathe
some new life into this forgotten hero—with the help of regular interior
artists Chas Truog and Doug Hazelwood, and cover artist Brian Bolland.
In his first adventure, Animal Man is hired to find the super-powered person
responsible for a failed attempt to liberate great apes from a laboratory. Animal
Man initially treats this assignment as a straight up criminal investigation,
but as he learns more about what goes on at this lab, he eventually resigns in
disgust. This experience radicalizes Animal Man, who quickly becomes an outspoken
animal rights activist. In addition to going vegetarian, he felt a growing duty
to serve (as one of my all-time favorite animal rights buttons puts it) as a
loyal subject of the animal kingdom.
Swooping out of the sky like an eagle, Animal Man snatches a cornered fox from
a band of British hunters and their pack of hounds. Swimming like a fish, he
tries to stop the annual slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales by local villagers
on the shores of the Faroe Islands. In a scene obviously based on the 1985 liberation
of “Britches,” the monkey from the University of California at Riverside,
Animal Man bursts through a laboratory wall like a rampaging elephant so that
he and a group of ALF look-alikes can rescue primates whose eyes have been sewn
shut by researchers.
Animal liberation was not only a prominent part of the storylines in Animal Man,
it was also a frequent topic of debate in the comic book’s letter column,
where readers regularly wrote in to share their views on topics like vivisection,
hunting, and factory farming. While many readers were offended by Animal Man’s
activism, many others shared his sense of outrage and commitment to social change.
This hints at a valuable but often overlooked service performed by these comic
books. People who have become sensitized to the plight of animals in our society
often feel isolated, surrounded by people, even in their own families, who fail
to comprehend or even actively revile their ethic of boundless compassion. When
someone like that can pick up a comic book and see their point of view expressed—perhaps
more eloquently than they could themselves—it validates their concerns
and makes them feel less alone. Especially when they see their own efforts to
make the world a more compassionate place portrayed as heroic.
Unfortunately, Grant Morrison left the series after issue #26. While Animal Man’s
commitment to animal rights left with Morrison, his entire run as writer on the
series has been collected in three trade paperbacks which should be easy to find
at any book store—comic or non—or ordered online.
More recently, however, Morrison revisited the issue of human inhumanity towards
animals in a three issue miniseries from Vertigo Comics that was totally devoid
of superheroes. WE3, illustrated by Frank Quietly, is a frightening, hyper-violent
science fiction story “suggested for mature readers.” It opens in
a secret military research laboratory where scientists are working to replace
humans on the battlefield with cybernetically enhanced, remotely controlled animals.
Their first success is creating a horde of “rat biorgs” able to repair
complicated machinery—aided by drills and other tools that have been surgically
grafted to their bodies. But when a senator comes to inspect their progress,
the scientists show him their proudest achievement, an armored dog, cat, and
rabbit outfitted with an array of deadly weaponry and electronic voice boxes
that allow them to communicate in a crude form of human speech. At the conclusion
of his visit the senator orders the animals destroyed—or as he puts it, “decommissioned”—not
because he disapproves of the project, but because they were not specifically
bred to be used as test subjects and he is afraid the mental strain of their
condition may eventually make them uncontrollable. Each cover of the three issue
series makes clear that Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat, and Pirate the rabbit
are all stolen pets.
Instead of euthanizing the animals as ordered, the doctor in charge of their
care removes their restraints and allows them to escape into the night. As described
in the ads for the series, what follows is a cross between Terminator and The
Incredible Journey, as the three animals try to find “home” with
the U.S. military in hot pursuit. Without making any mention of animal rights,
this rollercoaster ride of a story touches readers on an emotional level that
makes it clear whose side Morrison is on. If you missed this critically acclaimed
series, don’t worry. On June 1, Vertigo Comics will release a trade paperback
collecting all three issues in one book.
While they are arguably the best, Animal Man and WE3 are not the only comic books
to make readers more aware of the plight of animals in our society. And the more
the message of animal liberation is expressed in popular culture, the more it
becomes part of mainstream consciousness. As that happens, hopefully one day, “Justice
for All” will make the leap from comic book fantasy to reality.
Richard De Angelis has worked in the animal protection field
for 15 years
has read, collected, and studied comic books for 30 years. He is the Director
of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program, which
works to produce and distribute comic books that promote humane values to children.
In this capacity he worked with DC Comics on Superman for the Animals (2000)
and with Marvel Comics on X-Men Unlimited #44, which contained the award-winning
story “Can They Suffer?” (2003).