Comic book animals: an appreciation

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Last week, my Dog had a big operation. His recuperation hasn’t exactly gone according to plan and there have been some anxious times for our family as he’s gone back and forward to the Vet for more tests and medication. For us and so many others, pets really are part of the family. In recognition of our animal friends today’s column is going to focus on some of the greatest animal companions to have graced the printed page. From the everyday to the exotic, from birds to sabretooth tigers, the following is a whistle-stop tour through selections from comicdom’s menagerie.

Redwing: The Falcon is one of these heroes who, like Aquaman, is often underestimated by those who aren’t familiar with his character. After all, he’s just a dude with a flight harness and a pet bird, right? I’d have to disagree and say that talking to birds seems a supremely useful power to have. Birds are everywhere, making them the ultimate surveillance network. They can also be surprisingly intimidating – if you can be surrounded by a bevy of swans and not feel at least slightly nervous then you’re a braver man than I. Redwing is a hunting falcon who has been Falcon’s constant companion since his first appearances. With a telepathic link existing between the two, this relationship goes far beyond master and owner, with Redwing at the Falcon’s side against countless enemies over the years.


Zabu: Ka-zar and Zabu can’t be separated, it’s impossible. In every comic appearance, in every piece of artwork, in every piece of merchandise, statue or sculpture, there is Zabu at Ka-zar’s side. To have one without the other just seems unthinkable. Partly this is because Ka-zar and Zabu are family in a very real sense, Zabu helping the young Matthew Plunder to survive and adapt to life in the Savage Land. During his time in the spotlight Zabu has tackled everything from mutates to Thanos, armed only with a set of impressive teeth and a strong desire to protect his family. Further enhancing Zabu’s appeal is the always entertaining reaction of other heroes when they first meet him, which can loosely be described as “nice kitty, please don’t eat me.”


Niels: If the nation can be divided into cat or dog lovers then I am firmly in the canine corner. I’ve always felt cats to be rather aloof and arrogant, and they seem to cast some strange spell on their owners that compels them to post hundreds of kitten pictures on Facebook. Nevertheless, there is one cat that is worthy of mention – Niels, the pet of Robbie Baldwin aka. Speedball. Niels is of note not only because he had superpowers (and even I must admit that a bouncing cat is very cool), but also because the bond between owner and pet was so strong that becoming reacquainted with Niels was instrumental in helping Robbie discard his horribly misguided identity as Penance and return to the Speedball that we all know and love. He also deserves credit for allowing his master to turn him into P-cat, the penitent puss. Truly a case of a pet going above and beyond for its master.


Lockjaw: The pet and personal teleporter of the Inhuman Royal Family, Lockjaw resembles a dog; a huge slobbery dog with a tuning fork on its head. While other members of the Royal Family have had to contend with abrupt shifts in characterisation or long periods of inactivity, Lockjaw’s unique appearance and his useful powerset have ensured that wherever Inhumans appear he is normally to be found close by. Despite not being able to talk (depending on what side of the ‘mutated inhuman’ debate the reader falls), Lockjaw is a tremendously expressive character. Think of his portrayal in the Jenkins/Lee Inhumans miniseries, or his friendship with Ben Grimm, culminating in his becoming Ben’s dog in Dan Slott’s short-lived Thing series. My love for Lockjaw can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that in the Earth X series, which featured numerous unhappy endings for our favourite heroes, the reveal that truly affected me was that Lockjaw had been killed and the remaining Inhumans, being nothing if not practical, were still using his tuning fork to teleport. *Sniff*…. Good dog.


Ace the Bat Hound: Batman owns a lot of cool toys and has the ultimate man cave within which to keep them. But one of the most interesting devices employed in his fight against crime was a German Shepherd called Ace. As ‘The Bat hound’, Ace had a near ten year tenure in Batman comics before he disappeared from view in 1964 as part of a minor revamp. On the face of it the idea of Batman utilising a dog for a sidekick is ridiculous, especially one dressed up in a specially made uniform. Yet in some ways, the idea of a canine companion for Batman makes perfect sense, helping to humanise him. One thing that dogs offer so well is companionship and a sympathetic ear, forming a special bond with their owners. I’m pretty sure that if Ace had stuck around the Bat books then he could have humanised the driven, antisocial Batman of the late 90s/2000s, Bruce Wayne perhaps replacing night-time patrols with walks in the park and Batarangs with chew toys.


Krypto: Krypto is a genuine bona-fide comic book animal star. Heck, he even had his own TV show and his success in the comic books led to a host of animal sidekicks being created, including the aforementioned Ace. Initially introduced as a companion for Superboy, Krypto was Kal-El’s dog when he was a toddler on Krypton. Unfortunately for Krypto, Jor-El had no qualms about using animals as test subjects and the poor dog became the ‘lucky’ passenger for Jor-El’s initial rocket launch. After his much delayed arrival on Earth, Krypto became Superboy’s companion, even having his own secret identity as ‘Skip’, the pet dog of the Kent family. As well as having similar powers to Superboy, Krypto also had super-canine intelligence and was a member of the Legion of Super Pets. Regardless of these powers perhaps his most important quality was simply that he was there for the teenage Kal-El, a constant companion in a period when he often felt isolated from his peers and a reminder of a childhood and home he could barely remember. Interestingly, Krypto vanished from the Superman books in 1971 after a revamp by Julius Schwartz, the very same editor who had shown Ace the door when revamping the Batman books seven years earlier.


The above animals are only a small sample of those that play a part in the lives of our favourite heroes; this list could have gone on and on, covering Kirby, Aragorn, Tippy Toe and countless others. In the grand scheme of things, animals within superhero comics may not seem to play a very important role. Their heroic owners and companions would surely disagree.