Politics in Comics: Animal Man and Animal Rights
In 1988, Grant Morrison – who had, at the time, come to DC Comics’ attention due to his work on the 2000AD story Zenith – proposed a rebooted comic book series for the C-list Silver Age character, Animal Man. Before this, A-Man had been just another “gimmick” hero, enjoying some popularity within the pages of Strange Adventures and appearing as a guest character in more well known titles on occasion. However, in the pages of the Vertigo imprint series of Animal Man, the character took on a new lease of life, and a new purpose in Morrison’s hands. Animal Man, in short, had become – among other things – a champion for animal rights.
Of course, to discuss Animal Man’s modification into a more politically-minded series, it’d be a good idea to look over the origins of the character himself. Bernhard “Buddy” Baker was created in 1965 by comic book writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino, famous as the man who designed the Silver Age incarnation of the Flash. A-Man first appeared in Strange Adventures #180, a science fiction title published by DC throughout the “Silver Age of Comics,” and would appear regularly in the title until issue #201, where he was replaced by Deadman as the book’s main focus. During a hunting trip – anyone detect the irony there? – Buddy encounters a crashed alien spaceship, which detonated, bathing him in radiation as it did so. As is usually the case with comic book origin stories, the incident gave him superpowers; he could call upon the abilities of the animals around him and adapt them into various superhuman abilities to use against criminals. This origin was revised by Morrison in the initial issues of his run on Animal Man, as he felt that the original explanation was too unbelievable. In his new origin story, Buddy encounters the ship while hunting, as he did before, but this time it doesn’t blow up in his face. Instead, the aliens inside experiment on him, genetically modifying him and allowing him access to a “morphogenetic field,” which lends him his ability to borrow powers from the animal kingdom. It’s worth noting that in both incarnations, Animal Man does not physically change in order to use these abilities, unlike heroes such as Beast Boy; for example, if he were to borrow the ability to swim rapidly from a fish, he wouldn’t develop fins or anything like that.
Speaking of changes, Buddy Baker’s transformation from part-time superhero to full-time animal champion isn’t unique in the world of comic books. John Stewart, introduced as Earth’s Green Lantern in 1972, was initially used as a way to explore the effects of racism in modern society. Similarly, Wonder Woman has long been associated with feminism and the women’s rights movement, and many writers have explored this status in their work. Steve Ditko, famous as one of the two masterminds behind Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, created a slew of characters to discuss political and philosophical ideas, such as Mr. A and the Question. He also teamed with Steve Skeates to create Hawk and Dove in 1968, a series which they intended to use as a way of examining the political divide rapidly becoming evident in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly, politics and comic books have gone hand in hand for a long time, and Grant Morrison’s work on Animal Man was following in this grand tradition. Still, even if it isn’t an especially rare title in terms of it’s socio-political aspirations, the discussions in Animal Man are still excellent examples of the sort of political messages writers will often weave into their stories. In some ways the series is still unique even amongst it’s peers; it is, perhaps, one of the most self-aware stories of it’s kind ever to have been written – though we’ll get into why that is in just a moment.
So what drives writers to turn their stories into something more than just men and women battling evil in tights? The simple, somewhat not-very-satisfactory answer is; a variety of reasons. It seems most likely, however, that there is something about a character’s powers or background that make them admirably suited to champion a certain cause; In the case of Buddy Baker, ex-stunt man turned animal-powered vigilante, it seems fairly obvious that his name and abilities make him a bit of an obvious candidate for animal activism. Morrison himself broadly focussed on three main areas of his own personal philosophy, that of animal rights, vegetarianism and the role and purpose of family in a world where alien invasions, fantastic powers and terrifying occurrences are the norm. At first, Buddy’s adventures are fairly true to type for comics with a political spin. In the first few issues, he helps free monkeys bound for needless vivisection, punishing the scientist in charge quite horribly as he does it. In a later issue, A-Man helps a radical environmental group save dolphins from slaughter by the fishermen of the Faroe Islands. The latter story is particularly interesting, as not only are A-Man’s actions progressively more violent as the tale goes on, but he also chooses to associate with a group of self-confessed eco-terrorists in order to achieve his goals. Despite the moral dilemmas and Buddy’s own self-questioning, up until this point Animal Man is more or less what readers might expect from a comic with a political message. However, it’s in the final act of the story, so to speak, that Morrison’s tale really begins to stand out from the crowd. Buddy Baker, fresh from disaster, meets with his re-creator, Grant Morrison himself, and talks with him about the merits and drawbacks of the comic itself. They discuss violence in media, the rights of authors to use characters to champion their own personal causes and the nature of reality, skewing from politics to philosophy in the span of around ten pages. The debate even includes an admittance from Morrison that the messages he tried to convey were “preachy” at times, a confession made all the more interesting and bizarre by it’s audience – the very character Morrison was using to convey those messages!
To call Animal Man surreal would be to make a particularly hilarious understatement. However, as a political piece of work, it is – in this writer’s opinion – absolutely fascinating. At points, Morrison’s writing can come across as somewhat heavy-handed, particularly in the sections of the story that focus exclusively on animal rights. The first issue of the run, which deals with vivisection, and issue #15, which concerns itself dolphin hunting near the Faroe Islands, are particularly heavy-handed; if nothing else, the writer’s passion for his cause is extremely evident. Overall though, the issues are explored in an extremely cutting and engaging way, and unlike some comics with a similar purpose, Animal Man never loses focus on the fact that these events are also a test of Buddy’s character and moral fortitude. His decisions aren’t presented as perfect ones in the pages of these stories, and he is never portrayed as a hero whose righteousness cannot be doubted. For me, at least, this was one of the things that made it so easy to forgive the occasional propaganda-like elements of Morrison’s writing, something greatly enhanced by the already-discussed ending of the arc, and the self-awareness exhibited therein. The fact that, even when at his most “preachy,” Morrison is capable of presenting A-Man as more than just a political standard alone makes Animal Man worth the praise it gets. When you consider just how rare a self-aware piece of political fiction can be, it’s utterly remarkable that this particular tale is able to avoid becoming a simple black-and-white morality story.
That said, while Morrison may avoid the trap – for the most part – of converting Animal Man into a political diatribe, other authors have been less able to avoid such accusations. Perhaps the most infamous example is Holy Terror, a graphic novel that it’s writer, Frank Miller, expressly admits to being a propagandistic examination of terrorism and Islam in general. It is fair to say that the critics did not like it, and upon reading it, it’s not hard to see why. It’s brutal stuff, and as with any work given the label “propaganda,” it’s message – that Islamic terrorism (and apparently Islam generally, given that the author doesn’t go to any trouble to make a distinction) is a terrible, real threat to the freedom and security of the United States – is about as blunt as you can imagine. This isn’t the first time Miller has allowed his political views to enter a story, either; a less recent example would be his work on All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, and his depictions therein of the killings of corrupt cops, the near-veneration of Batman’s violent and morally dubious vigilantism as “justice” and the characterisation of Wonder Woman as a brash, violent, hypocritical straw feminist whose assessment of her own powers and place in the world borders on narcissism – and really, given how unsubtle that last critique is, it’s pretty easy to theorise where Miller stands in regards to feminism, all in all. Miller has, in the past, received his fair share of accolades, but these works brought a lot of criticism, and even the most charitable amongst us would have to call them controversial at best.
But then, that’s the trade-off with politically minded comics. Even Animal Man, as I mentioned earlier, has moments where the writing is very close to propaganda itself. Some people may even find themselves disliking the heavy tone of Morrison’s work on the title for precisely that reason; it would be fair to say that Animal Man’s occasional moments of one-sidedness can be frustrating, if you aren’t especially invested in animal rights yourself. Like every piece of political media produced, for every person a comic book story hits a note with, there’ll be another for whom it represents a problem, a point of view to be contested. In modern times, the heated debates over representation in comics indicates – if nothing else – that the tradition of political discussion within the pages of comic books is still alive and well, and that it continues to inspire passionate responses of all kinds amongst the readership. Whether you agree with the themes and discussions presented in Animal Man or not is entirely up to you; either way, as long as the author can succeed in provoking both thought and debate, then in my mind a politically-infused comic book has served it’s purpose… even if it wasn’t in the way that it’s author intended!
What do you think? Leave a comment.