For Truth, Justice and Animal Rights?: Untangling the difficulties in being an animal abolitionist superhero in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (Part 1)

“I’d been horrified by harrowing scenes from the animal rights documentary The Animal Film, and a single viewing was enough to bring about my conversion to vegetarianism. And I saw how to use Animal Man as a mouthpiece against cruelty to animals and the general degradation of the environment as well as for deeper explorations of the superhero as an idea” (Morrison 2011: 217)

In 1988, Grant Morrison, already a critically acclaimed comics author, convinced the owners of Detective Comics to allow him to take a forgotten superhero from the 1960s—Animal Man—and make him the centerpiece of superman oppresseda new ongoing monthly series. The series was meant to explore the relationship between humans and nonhumans and push the boundaries of the traditional superhero narrative. Prior to Animal Man, superheroes almost exclusively addressed human concerns, and while many characters take animal names—from Wolverine to Batman—none actually fought to protect animals from abuse. This is especially surprising since superheroes have been viewed as protectors of the weak ever since the founding moment of the genre—Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman. In the early adventures of Superman the tagline for the hero was not “for truth, justice, and the American way” but “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed.” Even though superheroes protect the weak, the anthropocentric values of our culture made it so nonhuman suffering was not constructed as a form of “oppression.”

The life long confinement, suffering, torture, and use of nonhuman animals for human consumption and benefit was always defined as an acceptable process within the superhero genre—super scientists most likely did medical research on rabbits, superman never questioned the treatment of the cows that make up his hamburger, and while Batman beats up purse snatchers within an inch of their lives he never questions the billions of nonhuman living beings suffering in Gotham or being vivisected by Wayne Industries (there are even a few stories in which he actively tried to stop Cat Woman from freeing animals from medical research labs). Animal Man changed this narrative, and while even today animal issues are rarely discussed within the superhero genre, a space was opened for nonhuman animals to be discussed.[1]

In this paper, I put Grant Morrison’s twenty-six-issue run of Animal Man into dialogue with the contemporary work in Critical Animal Studies and Animal Rights ethics. I contend that Grant Morrison explores some of the philosophic concepts within the animal rights philosophy and through speculative fiction provides important comments on the limitations, contradictions, and radical potential of animal liberation activism. More specifically, I argue that Grant Morrison’s Animal Man explores three central topics of concern for Animal Liberationists: the role of empathy and the ethics of care, the interconnected nature of animal and human oppression, and the role of power in the maintenance of the anthropocentric political and ethical systems.

Section 1: Comics as Political Texts

Superheroes are enmeshed in nearly every facet of modern American life. The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy tantalize the film-going public, while Green Arrow, the Flash, Agents of Shield and Constantine entertain on us on Television. Batman dominates the videogame market with his award winning series Arkham Asylum, while the logos and images from comics are found on t-shirts sold in major retail chains including Target and Wal-Mart. Everyone laughs at the jokes about the lame powers of Aquaman and nearly every adult knows that Kryptonite is Superman’s biggest weakness and that you wont like Hulk when he is angry. Even though Superheroes are everywhere, because they are viewed as a form of “low” culture (like pulp fictions and romance books), the political and social implication of these narratives are rarely explored.

Superheroes are more than escapist fictional narratives meant to merely entertain the masses; they are, and have always been, political texts. Comic book superheroes help us understand the meaning of American values, they help us explore the major social and political issues that confront our society, they can reinforce or undermine gender and race stereotypes, and they are ways of playing with ideas—from the early Silver Surfer’s Philip K. Dickesque exploration of reality to Animal Man’s engagement with Animal Rights theory.

The comic book emerged as an art medium in the 1930s, first as book collections of the Sunday funnies. Quickly, as the original source material started to dry up, publishers began creating comic adventure books, which combined simple drawings with pulp inspired stories about crime, horror, romance, and the supernatural. The medium came into its own in 1939 when National Comics (now DC Comics) published the fantastical adventures of Superman in Action Comics #1. This first appearance of Superman set the norms of the genre—the character had superhuman abilities, a duel identity (without his glasses he was Superman but with them on he was mild mannered Clark Kent), he wore a colorful spandex costume (and looked good in it), and he used his superhuman powers to fight crime and make the world a better place. Superman was an instant hit, selling millions of copies and within only a few months he was given his own series. Quickly the rest of the comic industry followed suit and countless imitator superheroes where created—including Batman and Wonder Woman—and in a flash an entire genre was born.

Comics have helped define much of American culture, starting with Superheroes’ role in ramping up patriotic fervor for World War II and the role the medium played in reinforcing the cold war liberal consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. During wartime an estimated 90% of children, regardless of gender, read comics while on military bases throughout the world; series like Green Lantern and Captain America outsold the other magazines and newspapers on offer. At their peak the top-selling comics–Wonder Woman, Superman and Shazam— sold up to 5 million issues a month.

Supporters and critics alike immediately noted the political dimension of comics. Dr. William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, believed that comics could be used to instill feminist values and empower both men and women alike. Wonder Woman was, in his mind, a form of feminist propaganda that was meant to show the emotional, political, and sexual superiority of women.[2] Likewise, Superman originally spent his days fighting every day social problems that working class people faced: he would protect workers on strike, stop domestic abuse, uncover government corruption, and even work to improve public housing. The character, created by two first generation Jewish Americans, embraced the socialist left wing politics that typified the Jewish diaspora of the time.

Right wing critics noted the progressive dimension of superhero comics, many of them critiquing some of the anti-racist and socialist messages of early comics, but such criticism did not garner the attention of the nation. The comic criticism that gained popular support was from the progressive Marxist psychologist Fredric Wertham. Wertham argued in his best selling book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) that superhero comics undermined the rule of law (by showing the value of vigilantism and the limitations of liberal governance), undermined parents’ authority by making them seem weak in comparison, reinforced racist stereotypes, justified violence against women, championed a “might is right” ethic, and promoted fascism. Wertham’s critique of the political dynamic of comics was so successful that thirteen states—including New York—passed laws censoring comics. Even though these bills were all either vetoed or overturned by the courts, the threat of government censorship forced the comic book industry to pass the most comprehensive and restrictive industry censorship code, the Comics Code.

Even though from the 1940s on critics saw the political dynamic of comics, it has taken academia until the early 2000s to really begin exploring comics as a legitimate field of study. That said, within the nascent field of comic studies there are two dominant research approaches that have emerged. The first type of analysis the authors carefully select characters (between one and three) and use in-depth historical analysis to explore a dominant theme or concept imbedded in the superhero character. This work is typified by the work of Costello (2009), who examines the cultural anxieties during the Cold War, Dittmer (2012), who looks to the history of Captain America as a way of exploring the construction of national identity, and Robinson (2004), who uses the publication history of Wonder Woman to explore the changing debates around gender and feminism. Within this approach the scholars assert that the narrative shifts that occur within the stories over time correlate with changing cultural shifts in society.

The second form of scholarship attempts to use specific characters and story arcs to explore a given topic. For example, Alaniz’s (2014) recent book explores debates and tensions around disability by exploring the way superhero characters have explored the topic—from Daredevil’s struggles with being blind to the Thing’s emotional stress around being hideously deformed. Likewise, Nama (2011) used the stories that surround nonwhite superheroes—from Luke Cage and Blade to the Black Panther—to explore what comic books and superheroes tell us about racial anxieties. Finally, Dipaolo (2011) uses a range of superhero narratives to explain the tense relationship Americans have around foreign policy and militarism. Within this approach, the concern is not in describing shifting cultural anxieties, but using Superheroes as a tool for explaining and understanding political and philosophic tensions that exist within society. In effect, these projects take comic book narratives as spaces to explore ideas and therefore treat the work as a form of political theory or as political cases.

This project is following the model of the second approach and argues that comic book narratives should be understood as a form of “speculative philosophy.” By this I mean that comic books provide a space for philosophic ideas to be explored, debated, and developed. The comic, like all fictional stories, provides a way to see the potential impacts of a philosophic position by using the comic page to speculate on the how those idea work out (or don’t).


Section 2: Background on Animal Man

Buddy Baker, while on a hunting trip with his friends in the 1960s, comes across a downed UFO in the backcountry forests. While investigating the crash, the UFO explodes, seemingly killing the young man. Miraculously he does not die but instead the accident gives Buddy super powers which allow him to “borrow” the powers of animals that surround him. Meaning he could see a bird and gain its ability to fly (although he does not sprout wings) or he could see a fish and borrow its ability to breathe underwater (without growing gills). The explosion turned Buddy Baker into Animal Man, “the man with animal powers!”

            The character was originally created by David Wood for the comic Strange Adventures #180 (1965) where the character was a surprise hit and was regularly featured over the next two years (image 1). After his run in Strange Adventures Animal Man would sporadically appear in comics throughout the 1970s and 19tumblr_m3scn7MaDf1qbgo38o1_128080s, once battling Wonder Woman and another time helping Superman. He was even a member of the short-lived “super group” of minor characters called “The Forgotten Heroes.”

            The stories and comics that Animal Man starred in during the first three decades of his existence have been, for the most part, completely forgotten, and it was not until Grant Morrison, a critically acclaimed British author who had just had a successful run on Batman, convinced DC to let him take the character and develop a monthly series about his adventures. Partially due to the success of Neil Gaimen’s Sandman, which also resurrected a forgotten character from DC’s past catalog, DC comics agreed. The series was originally created as a vehicle for Morrison to work through his own ideas and concerns regarding animal rights, as he had just recently become a vegan animal rights activist, and it also allowed him (and DC) to push the boundaries of what a “superhero” is.

In Grant Morrison’s hand the character was given a deeper backstory and his origins and powers are further developed. Most importantly, Morrison changed Animal Man’s powers, as he no longer “borrowed” from animals around him but he instead connected into the “morphogenic field,” which is never fully described but seems to be something like a platonic transcendental space where the “forms” of all animals exists. While this “morphogenic” field sounds absurd, it allowed Morrison the ability to discuss the idea of transcendental reality and also allowed him to explore biocentrism. It is the first of these aspects—the ability to discuss transcendental reality—that has garnered the majority of academic discussion on Animal Man. Grant Morrison’s run is mostly known for its unique narrative style, with its intentional breaking of the fourth wall, the introduction of Grant Morrison himself as a character in the story, and the overall discussion around issues of free will, authorship, and continuity. What has been lost in academic readings of the series is the way it engaged with animal rights.


Either tomorrow or Thursday I am going to be putting the second part of this piece up. This will be the actual analysis of Animal Man and what he says about Animal Liberation.

[1] Since Animal Man a handful of other superheroes have addressed the suffering of nonhuman animals. For instance, Beast Boy—a member of the teen titans who can shape shift into an anima—became vegan and made animal rights part of his identity and Cat Woman began focusing her attention on protecting animals and for a while was stealing jewels from the wealthy in order to fund an animal sanctuary, and

[2] Wonder Woman’s early run is a really interesting and complex feminist story. Many important second wave feminists were inspired by the series and saw it as promoting a message of female empowerment, but others saw it as the sexual fantasies of Marston—who was a strong supporter of BDSM and in the comic bondage accounted for nearly 25% of all panels. Recently third wave feminists have been reclaiming the bondage feminism of early wonder woman and seeing it as a story not only of female political empowerment but also of female sexual empowerment.


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