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We need a unified theory of which animals make good superhero identities. Why is it that some animals get some superheroes or get to inspire superheroes from other and some don't. We have Batman and Spider-Man and Catwoman, but where is Hamster Man? Where is Capybara Woman?
One could argue that the unequal distribution of animalistic superhero personae is merely an artifact of historical chance: some nerds back in the day thought of a dude who dresses as a bat, or a dude who got bitten by a spider, and ran with it. Nobody at the time happened to be thinking about anteaters, or gophers. But that ignores the fact that there were several failed attempts at creating animal-based superheroes. Like the Fly or the Black Owl, both of whom were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
And it can't be an accident, or mere happenstance, that Batman and Spider-Man remain so iconic and are about to reboot their reboots by including previous versions of both characters from previous reboots, on top of probably debuting new pairs of boots. Clearly some animals are just more suited for superheroification than others. There must be some characteristics that mark out a proper supercritter from an improper one. Right?
So let's start out by ranking animal focused superheroes from most beloved to least beloved. Note: this list is highly subjective and probably completely incomplete.
that I'm forgetting
sorry, there are a lot and I honestly don't care
as much as I thought I did
Hawk and Dove
The Crimson Fox
sigh, FINE. Ant-Man.
So what are the characteristics of a good animal-based superhero?
For starters, you'll notice that almost all popular animal-based superheroes are based on land creatures, such as bats or spiders. We do have Aquaman and Namor the Submariner, but they're not, strictly speaking, based on a particular aquatic life form. They're just dudes who hang out underwater. A lot. I think there was a villain called Orca, and of course there's King Shark, who's a villain but sometimes does nice things. Generally, if you're based on a fish, you're probably evil. Look at Doctor Octopus.
But what are some other factors we could look at?
Degree of domestication. Neither bats nor spiders have been widely domesticated. Nor have Wolverines. (Fun fact: wolverines are also referred to as "gluttons," which means that Wolverine's superpower ought to be eating anything that gets in his way.)
Cats, of course, have been domesticated — although it's debatable how domesticated the average cat really is, and also bear in mind that Catwoman started as a villain and only fairly recently made the leap to antihero. There's also a Dog Man, but he's really a spinoff of Captain Underpants and as such not part of a major superhero universe. (Sorry, Dav Pilkey fans!)
Still, if you look at the most successful animal-based superheroes, they are generally not based on domesticated creatures, especially creatures that you might want to have in your house. Which brings me to...
Type of domestication. What do you notice about the above list? That's right. Not a lot of farm animals. Cows, pigs, horses, mules, and even goats are denied the opportunity to inspire a righteous battle for justice. (Quantum and Woody did have a goat sidekick, but he was an actual goat.)
My theory is that this stems from an increasing alienation from our agricultural past and a desire to see nature as untamed and fundamentally other, and thus suitable for inspiring fear among supervillains. Even more than pets, whom we view as part of the family, farm animals are viewed as mere tools, or food. Although you could argue that horses somewhat sraddle this dichotomy, which brings me to another possible factor...
Size relative to humans. Bats and spiders are a lot smaller than we are. So are cats. So, in fact, are most of the creatures whose likeness has been appropriated by our champions of liberty.
It's possible that someone dressing up as a creature that is larger than themselves would only end up highlighting our own smallness and frailty. Imagine, for example, a superhero called Elephant Man — not to be confused with the real-life person who inspired the David Lynch film of the same name. Elephant Man would look small and puny compared to a real-life elephant, whereas it's a pretty big good bet the Batman punches a lot harder than an actual bat would.
Whether they bite people. This might actually be a major factor. Bats and spiders have both been known to bite people, although only certain subspecies, and to a degree that has been somewhat exaggerated by pop culture. I imagine Wolverines bite people too, since that's probably how they got that "glutton" nickname.
A good superhero might want to project an image of "I'm going to bite you with my very sharp teeth and possibly inject you with some kind of venom and or take some of your blood " sensibility. As opposed to "I'm going to lick your face until you're mildly uncomfortable," which the Legion of Doom might find somewhat less threatening.
Update: Folks on Twitter have been asking questions, so let me clarify... in this article, I'm talking about heroes who are based on specific animals --- so not Animal Man or Vixen or whatever. And also heroes who actually are animals, like Howard the Duck or whatever. I was more thinking about why certain animals make sense for otherwise human-appearing heroes to transform themselves into, which perhaps is a bit esoteric. I dunno. Also, I forgot to mention that the above artwork is by Mark Bagley et al., from Spider-Man and Batman.
Behold, the Book Blob (PrintMag)
Our constitutional crisis is already here (Washington Post)
Some people are Kool and the Gang purists — they only like the band's hits from its first decade, when KatG was mostly jazzy and instrumental-focused, with minimal vocals. And it's true that albums like Wild and Peaceful and Live at the Sex Machine are the tits. But I like all Kool and the Gang. "Celebrate," "Get Down On It," "Emergency" — it's all bouncy good fun, and the band's chops never lost their groove. In any case, Kool and the Gang released a new album, their first in I don't even know how long, and it's really quite good. Perfect Union is a collection of songs that co-founder Ronald Bell aka Khalis Bayyan worked on since the Obama era. The first song, "Pursuit of Happiness," is a bit preachy, but in a good way, and the rest of the album is just pure dancefloor-filling, partying fun. It probably won't make anyone's top ten list of Kool albums, but it's solid and very danceable.
Yesterday, I was on a panel at the Bookmarks Festival with Ryka Aoki, Lucinda Roy, K.M. Szpara and Nghi Vo, and you can watch the playback here. (Though you have to sign up for a free trial.) I'm also featured on the latest episode of the Lez Hang Out podcast, where we get into it about the movie Gunpowder Milkshake.
As I mentioned above, I am publishing nonstop these days. My young adult space fantasy novel Victories Greater Than Death came out in April, and the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, comes out in April 2022. (I'm working like mad on the third book right now.) My writing advice manual for surviving dystopia, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories, came out in August, and I've been so happy to hear from people that it's helped them to get back to dreaming and creating. My first full-length short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes, comes out on Nov. 16. Wheee. These books make excellent gifts for the humans in your life, I promise.