For almost 80 years, since the publication of ACTION COMICS #1 and with it, the birth of the superhero genre, an idea has been put forward using the medium of comic books. It’s the idea of selflessly saving human lives with whatever abilities we have, extraordinary or ordinary. But is this an idea that works exclusively for members of our species? In other words, if we take a look at the altruistic heroes from sequential art that many of us admire, what are their beliefs when it comes to helping non-human animals? How does the medium deal with the idea of refusing to consume meat and/or other animal products?

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most famous vegetarians amongst superheroes and what their motivations are. How do their standpoints relate to the moral debate that’s been going on a lot lately about animal rights, their ability to suffer, and whether humans have the right to consume them? Is the genre suited for dealing with the theme? How are writers influenced by their personal opinions?

First, a little disclaimer: being a vegetarian myself, I’m going to address this issue from the point of view of a vegetarian, with all of the ethical implications that go along with that. None of which means that I want to accuse any of the readers of this article of “not living ethically” if they still eat meat. All I want to do is to draw attention to the topic so we can all develop our own opinion and have a constructive discussion. If you disagree with one of my points, feel free to take that discussion to the comment section.

Animal Welfare

Needless to say, animal rights or animal welfare has been addressed in many comic books without directly associating them with vegetarianism. One of the most important characters when it comes to the protection of animals is undoubtedly Aquaman, who, due to his ability to communicate with the creatures of the sea as well as his status as the King of Atlantis, has a long history of defending his underwater friends.

aquaman on a throne

Black Panther opposes the monkey-torturing White Gorilla Cult, and Thor protests against whale slaughter in the ULTIMATE AVENGERS animated film, but there’s one example of animal welfare in comic books that really stood out for me and that I want us to take a closer look at. In X-MEN UNLIMITED #44, the fish-esque, but yet humanoid Squid-Boy discovers that there have been several cases of animal torture going on near the Institute. While Cain Marko, the Juggernaut, mocks Samuel for caring about crimes against these animals, the angry adolescent mutant can eventually convince Jean to help him identify the committers. What happens next is that Jean, due to her telepathic contact, experiences the pain that a tortured dog has felt.

LISTEN:  Our latest X-Men Podcast about Storm!

It is, without any doubt, an extremely emotional experience for the reader, who, through Jean, gets a really good impression of the dog’s emotions. Throughout the course of the story, it is not only the animal tormentors, but Cain Marko, as well, who are being taught a lesson by Jean: they are telepathically forced to experience the exact same pain that has been afflicted on the animals.

The moral of the story is obviously that the reason we shouldn’t be unnecessarily cruel to animals is based on their ability to suffer, which originates directly from the British philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism as we know it, Jeremy Bentham. In fact, the story is named after one of his most famous quotes:

The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

This is a central idea of animal ethics: the other abilities of those affected are irrelevant; as long as they can suffer, they have the right to be taken into account. Were we to legitimize violence against them for the sole reason that they can’t talk, reason, or maybe just because they are members of another species, as Cain does, that would be an example of speciesism. This means we treat an animal with less respect and think it’s worth less not because we have any rational argument for that, which would be OK, but simply because it’s not a member of our species. Which is not any better than racism, sexism, or any other “-ism.”  In fact, it’s the exact same thing. Cain Marko also argues that being “on top of the food chain” gives us certain rights, but this argument implies that the strong are entitled to torturing the weak whenever they feel like it, which is dangerously close to social Darwinism.

This issue was worth pointing out, not only because it addresses the speciesist tendencies in our society and criticizes the arrogance of many humans towards non-human animals, but because it gives us something extremely important in the debate about the way we treat animals: the victims’ perspective.

x-men unlimited 44 jean grey telepathical contact with dog

In the year 2000, DC Comics, in cooperation with the Doris Day Animal Foundation, published a PSA one-shot called SUPERMAN: FOR THE ANIMALS, in which the caped crusader saves a kitten from another youth gang of animal tormentors, teaching them a lesson: you shouldn’t be picking on anyone weaker than yourself.

superman for the animals one shot by dc comics

Superman is a great example for how superheroes can work as advocates for animal rights: he, more than any other hero, is the Champion of the Oppressed, defending those who are too weak to defend themselves, and animals are probably the most oppressed beings on the planet. Interestingly, this book was written by the now infamous Mark Millar, creator of KICK-ASS and writer of OLD MAN LOGAN, who is a vegetarian himself. This is one of many examples of how vegetarian writers use the medium of comic books to express their opinion or to raise attention to animal suffering.

READ: More about Superman? Check out our review of the all-time classic SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY!

Vegetarian Heroes

Let’s cast our eyes at some confirmed vegetarian superheroes!

When it comes to the lesser-known characters within the superhero genre, there are quite a few examples of vegetarian superheroes that are worth mentioning. There’s Broo, a mutant of the deadly alien Brood race and former student of the X-Men’s Jean Grey School. He’s portrayed by Jason Aaron as extremely sensitive, intelligent, and caring. Then, of course, there’s Beast Boy from the fan-favorite TEEN TITANS cartoon, who has, due to his ability, transformed into animals who are commonly used for meat production. Fans of TEEN TITANS GO! are usually annoyed by the new take on the character, since he appears overly emotional, as well as, in a way, dogmatic about his culinary decisions in both shows. The militant crybaby vegetarian has been a stereotype in society for years, and in a way, it almost feels like Beast Boy was made a cliché character embodying the negative connotations many people have with the word “vegetarian,” whereas Broo has many positive character traits associated with it.

But there are also a ton of more famous vegetarian superheroes that restrain from eating animals, one of the most surprising and famous of them being our favorite Amazon warrior princess, Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman! In this scene written by Greg Rucka, the Minotaur chef Ferdinand serves meat-free meals only due to Diana’s vegetarianism. The reason for her decision is implied through this rhetorical question: “Would you [eat meat] if animals could talk to you?”

wonder woman is a vegetarian

Although this portrayal has been criticized pretty often by fans claiming that the Amazons are a people of proud hunters and therefore not against taking the lives of animals for the purpose of eating them, at least in my opinion, it makes sense given her abilities to communicate with them. We’re starting to sense a pattern here: super-powered heroes decide to no longer support the meat industry because their abilities give them a totally new insight into the perspective of animals. Which brings me to the most surprising entry to this list, who is, at the same time, the most famous superhero

You heard it right. The Man of Steel, the Son of Krypton, Superman himself was confirmed a vegetarian in the re-interpretation of his origin story, SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT. This might be extra surprising given his childhood on a farm, but writer Mark Waid comes up with a very reasonable explanation: as a part of his power set, Clark is able to sense some kind of glow around every living thing, fading away whenever that being’s life ends. He describes it as “hard to look at” and as the reason he is a vegetarian. What’s interesting about this is how it contradicts a common prejudice many people have regarding male vegetarians: a lack of physical strength or masculinity is often associated with the diet, because there’s a common misconception about protein supply. However, here’s Superman being one of the strongest beings on Earth. It also proves my earlier claim about Superman being a perfect example for a superhero reducing animal suffering, as well: not only does he have the strength and righteousness to defend those who can’t defend themselves, his abilities also grant him a whole other sensitivity for non-human animals.

superman birthright vegetarian

On the other hand, BIRTHRIGHT was de-canonized quite a while ago, and so were Rucka’s interpretations of Wonder Woman as a vegetarian. For both characters, it’s not really been an issue since. Still, it’s amazing to find out that two of the most famous superheroes of all time have, at some point, been depicted as people who restrain from eating meat for ethical reasons.

This is apparently, not only amongst vegetarians in the real world, but among vegetarian superheroes, as well, the number one motivation to stop eating meat (although there are some examples for characters dieting for health reasons- Wonder Man, for instance).

CLICK: Find out more about ethics and superheroes- check out our piece about Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben!

Grant Morrison: The most important vegetarian writer?

The best example for an animal rights supporting, vegetarian superhero is still DC’s Animal Man, though. Buddy Baker had his first appearance in the 1965 book STRANGE ADVENTURES #180, but didn’t gain a lot of popularity up until 1988, where Grant Morrison was assigned to write a four-issue limited series about the man capable of borrowing the abilities of other animals. However, his book, targeting a more mature audience and featuring the protagonist out of costume a lot, was extremely successful, and Morrison ended up writing the first 26 issues of the now ongoing title.

When it comes to promoting animal rights and vegetarianism, this book has it all: Buddy arguing with his wife about meat consumption, claiming that the conditions animals in factory farming face before being slaughtered are “terrible.” Buddy claims that he would save rats used for medical research because a rat’s life is not necessarily less important than a human life, once again addressing speciesism. Buddy assists a group of animal rights activists in saving dolphins. Out of all superhero characters, Animal Man is probably most active in fighting for animal rights.

animal man meat consumption

animal man vegetarian lab rats

It’s easy for us to get behind why Morrison, who is also a vegetarian himself, would want to implement these topics into his run- because he actually wrote a meta issue in which he, as the book’s author, directly talks to the book’s main character, explaining to him his motivations as a writer. Morrison admits that he feels strongly about the topic, and that he’s afraid of sounding too preachy. We can see how difficult it is for him to draw a line as to where he should stop implementing his personal views into his work. Nevertheless, what he wanted to do was “draw people’s attention to what’s happening in the world, which is because he feels unable to do anything else to oppose what’s happening to animals. He goes as far as to claim that the life of a rat is worth exactly as much as the life of a human child and that there is absolutely no way to morally justify animal exploitation.

animal man grant morrison meta issue

These strong views have been implemented by the Scottish writer into many other works of his. In BATMAN INCORPORATED Vol. 2 #1, Robin a.k.a. Damian Wayne decides to become a vegetarian after a mission that took place in a slaughterhouse.

batman incorporated #1 damian wayne is a vegetarian

His 2004 mini-series WE3 is the story of three animal test subjects, a dog, a cat, and a rabbit escaping the facility in which they have been experimented on and fleeing from the military. Morrison does something extremely remarkable by giving his three non-human main characters the ability to speak.

Humans usually disregard the interests of animals out of two reasons.

  1. Because we are less likely to feel empathy for a being that is less similar to us, and
  2. Because most non-human animals don’t have the ability to communicate with us and express their needs.

This is why we automatically question our own view towards animals as soon as the characters in Morrison’s WE3 begin to talk.

we3

CLICK: Our podcast about the Grant Morrison run on NEW X-MEN!

The Bottom Line

After taking a look back at some of the most remarkable examples for animal welfare in comics, some of the most important vegetarians amongst superheroes, and the motivations of comic book writers to express their views and draw attention to the topic of animal rights, we can draw a conclusion. While there are many occasions in which the protection of animals is demanded by comic books, relatively few heroes propagate a consequent step to reduce animal suffering. Although vegetarianism and animal welfare have been discussed on relatively few occasions overall, and although there are still some clichés implemented, as we’ve seen on many of the examples, writers who have certain views about the topic will use superhero comics as their to way draw attention to animal abuse. The superhero genre in particular is perfectly suited for this, since the main characters work as protectors of oppressed beings, and the creators can decide to give their protagonists abilities that make it easy for them to either communicate with the victims directly or to put themselves in their shoes (telepaths being the best example). Which enables the readers for a whole nother level of empathy.

The number of vegetarians in the western world is ever-growing, and once the debate about animal rights and meat consumption becomes more heated and tangible, the superhero genre of comic books will grab the chance and be an important part of overcoming the speciesist bias within our society.

READ:  More Comic Book Theory pieces on ComicsVerse!

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