This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on March 3, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Dog is man’s best friend. And Krypto, the Superdog is Superman’s best friend. What’s with the dearth of animal sidekicks?
I think calling it a death might be going a bit far. Without putting any effort (i.e. Googling) into it, I can think of five prominent animal sidekicks currently featured in ongoing series. I don’t mean an oft ignored gag animal, but an actual named animal that factors notably into most issues and impacts the plot. Here are the ones that immediately spring to mind:
- Lockjaw in Ms. Marvel
- Redwing in Captain America: Sam Wilson
- Tippy Toe in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
- Lucky in All-New Hawkeye
- Lobo in Red Wolf
There are probably a couple I’m missing, but that’s enough to avoid the description of dearth I think. That is also only looking at Marvel Comics. If we’re focusing on superhero sidekicks that means the majority of additional examples ought to be coming from their distinguished competition. Yet I can’t think of a single obvious example at DC Comics, unless you want to count Damian Wayne’s monster. I think the disparity between Marvel and DC’s number of super pets points at one of the reasons we don’t see these friendly sidekicks in copious numbers though.
In either instance, the number of featured animal sidekicks at superhero publishers don’t even compare to when they were invented with a profligate nature in the Silver Age. That was an era when the Legion of Super-Pets first appeared in Action Comics #293 in 1962. They included Krypto (a dog), Streaky (a cat), Comet (a horse), and Beppo (a monkey), all animals with powers and costumes based on Superman’s. It’s a time in comics defined by silliness and bizarre ideas. I’m pretty sure when Otto Binder and Jim Mooney created Streaky the Supercat in 1960 it wasn’t a question of “why?”, but “why hasn’t anyone done this already?”
It’s that tone of fun that I think made the creation and inclusion of super-pets so much more common now than it is then. Just take a look at the five examples in Marvel Comics today. At least four of those five are definitely in “fun” comics, able to easily dip into a tone of silliness (e.g. Ms. Marvel), if not outright defined by it (e.g. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). The only one that seems like an exception is Red Wolf and that comic, beyond not being worth pushing past issue one, inherits its sidekick as a core part of a character concept created in the 1970s. It makes sense that so many animals would be popping up in Marvel Comics considering the publisher’s willingness to let series dip into the silly or farcical.
DC Comics on the other hand has largely been defined by a tone of seriousness since at least the New 52 relaunch in 2011. I’m speaking in very broad strokes obviously. There have always been at least a handful of fun books at DC since the relaunch, and a whole lot sprung up last spring with the “Divergence” initiative. “Divergence” is already being ditched less than a year later in favor of “Rebirth” which seems to be refocusing on the seriousness of titles like Justice League and Batman. While Grant Morrison may have made room for Bat-Cow in Batman Inc., there’s no room for the poor heifer in this universe.
The popularity of animal sidekicks seems to be loosely tied to tone. The sillier a superhero comic is, the more acceptable it is to have heroes hanging out with their pets. The more serious a superhero comic is, the more inappropriate it is to see anything on four legs teamup with the protagonist. It’s cool for Tippy Toe and Lockjaw to make jokes and be adorable, but god forbid Krypto shows up during the very, very, super serious, this is really important for real, guys, “Darkseid War”.
We could leave it at that. There are less animal sidekicks now because superhero comics have left a lot of the silliness of the 60s behind. However, I want to go a step further. Maybe the association between things like the Legion of Super-Pets and the Silver Age have led to a decreased presence in modern superhero comics, but that doesn’t make this association logical or the decline good. In fact, I think the association between animals and silliness has pushed away the potential for great storytelling in a variety of tones in superhero comics.
First of all, let’s just examine what having a super-pet means for heroes. It provides them with a relationship unlike anything that can be duplicated with people. Think about the animals you’ve cared for and loved, and who have cared for and loved you in return. You might describe it as a friendship or a familial bond, but those are approximations of what the thing itself actually is. Just look at having a dog. They find ways to communicate without any grasp of language, reveal personalities every bit as fully formed as our own, and are dedicated in a way that seems truly superhuman. For many of us the relationships we’ve shared with dogs or other important animals in our lives can be just as important as those we’ve shared with close friends or family members. Our pets often help us become the people we are by teaching us things no person can.
So if you’re going to tell stories about people, it seems like leaving this relationship out of the vast majority of those stories is a bit of misstep. Run through your rolodex and you you’ll find significant relationships with mothers, fathers, siblings, lovers, friends, frenemies, and so many other archetypal roles all over the place. Pets seem to fill a reduced capacity in comparison to these other important roles.
It’s not any harder to make a compelling story about pets in superhero comics either. There aren’t a bunch of recent superhero comics featuring pets, so there aren’t many examples of top-notch pet-centric stories, but that doesn’t mean there are none. The best one I can think of was written by Grant Morrison, but it didn’t feature Bat-Cow. Instead it’s about the relationship you started this question with, between a boy and his dog, specifically Clark Kent and Krypton in Action Comics #13.
Morrison’s take on Superman in Action Comics isn’t nearly as lauded as All-Star Superman (a perfect superhero comic, if there ever was one), but it produced some issues that hit comparable highs. Action Comics #13 is one of those. It features the mad Kryptonian scientist Doctor Xa-Du, the first prisoner ever sentenced to the Phantom Zone, returning to seek revenge on the son of his captor: Kal-El. Superman is caught by surprise and imprisoned in the Phantom Zone left to the mercy of other Kryptonian criminals. When all appears to be lost, he finds help in the unexpected form of a dog.
Artist Travel Foreman and Morrison reveal Krypto was also trapped in the Phantom Zone when he protected baby Kal-El and his parents from Doctor Xa-Du before the destruction of Krypton. Sworn to protect Kal-El, Krypto has followed him across the universe and watched over him even while stuck in an intangible form. It’s a very sentimental bit of storytelling, but one that rings true to experience. Krypto’s journey and return in Action Comics #13 mirrors the relationship of loving dogs and their owners.
While Doctor Xa-Du and Superman do not experience anything in the Phantom Zone (unable to even see without the use of special goggles), Krypto was still able to follow him through his sense of smell. This tweak in experience functions on both a literal and metaphorical level. Dogs obviously possess different levels of sensory input and have a very keen sense of smell. That Superman can’t make sense of the Phantom Zone is a fault of his focus on sight and touch. Krypto’s ability to track Kal-El across the stars also speaks to an almost supernatural connection founded on dedication. That Krypto was sworn to protect Kal-El and has unerringly followed this edict for more than 20 years is presented matter of factly in a way that works for a dog, but would be difficult to believe for a person.
It’s this sense of dedication that is mirrored by Kal-El at the end when he finds a solution to an impossible problem in order to free Krypto as well. They are shown to be better together with Krypto’s own love inspiring Superman.
There’s one other excellent example that springs to mind, although it’s not in a superhero comic. In Afterlife with Archie #4 Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla tell the story of how Archie first met his dog Vegas and how Vegas saves Archie’s life in six striking pages. The warmly lit flashback sequence of Archie picking out a puppy displays the almost instantaneous loving relationship formed between a boy and his dog. Despite the mundane nature of the scene, especially compared to what is occurring in the present, Archie and Vegas’ connection appears almost supernatural.
The return to the present makes the love created in the flashback all more clear as Vegas acts with only his master and best friend’s interests at heart. Aguirre-Sacasa provides a stuttered internal monologue for Vegas formed only of words that a dog could be taught to recognize. This collection of commands and nouns along with Francavilla’s illustration of Vegas is heartbreaking as the dog gives his life to buy Archie a few moments of safety. The look in Vegas’ eyes is as human as anything ever drawn in comics.
Just looking at these two issues of comics from the past five years, it’s clear that there’s a lot of potential for telling stories with animals, whether or not they be super-pets. You need look no further than the proliferation of dog books and dog movies to know how much these stories are capable of. It’s so very easy to elicit laughter and tears, often within moments of one another, in these tales.
Our relationships with animals tell us a lot about ourselves and are capable of teaching us even more. While there are some good examples of super-pets doing so in comics today, it certainly feels like there aren’t nearly enough. It’s too bad that while Superman features prominently in so many titles, his best friend (Jimmy Olsen eat your heart out) appears so rarely in any of them. Superman may inspire us to be our better selves in comics, but pets often do the same in reality. Combining those two together seems like an obvious bit of storytelling alchemy.