New Year’s 2006 marks the tenth anniversary of when I became a vegetarian. I’m not sure what I told people at the time why I did it. But I’ll tell you the truth now: it was because of comic books.
My mom bought me my first comic, Star Wars #71, at Forestdale Pharmacy, in 1983. I was eight years old. There was a teaser on the cover that Luke and Lando had found the block of carbonite in which Han Solo was frozen.
That they had found Han wasn’t just important to me as an eight year old: it consumed my life. My absolute first memories are of Star Wars, and the toys were my favorite. I knew in my heart that the fevered years after Empire were spent by Han’s friends searching for him. My cousin and I eagerly discussed what was then called Revenge of the Jedi (later dropped because true Jedi don’t seek revenge) and we knew that they just had to find Han.
The best thing was, in the comics, you got to read about all the cool stuff they were up to in between the movies. Even though at the end of issue 71 they find out that it’s not Han, it’s an old pal named Chido (from Greedo’s race), I was hooked. I still am.
(As an aside, I saw Return of the Jedi 4 ½ times at the movie theater. The precious “half” is because the electricity got knocked out at the Century Plaza movie theater we were out, right when the speeder bike scene started on Endor. We got rainchecks).
But what excited an 8 year-old Gorjus is scarcely noticed by the surfer-mulleted 14-year-old secretly-Metallica-obssessed Gorjus. Sometime when Pinky was ice skating I wandered into the Homewood Toy & Hobby Shoppe, which kept consecutive issues on the shelf, in a manner none of my normal haunts (Forestdale Pharmacy, Brooklere Pharmacy, and the A & P) did. If you had the cash, you could get a story arc that spanned several months all at one pop.
That’s where I first picked up a comic by Grant Morrison. I’d toyed with DC Comics’ Doom Patrol years earlier; I liked the they’re-all-dead-mythology of the first team, and John Byrne had done their Secret Origins issue, and he was, by far, my favorite artist growing up. Super-realistic Steve Lightle had started out on the series, but been replaced by the McFarlane-as-cartoon Erik Larsen (whom I hated), and I dropped it. I saved my cash for Avengers and X-Men and back issues of Legion of Super-Heroes.
The new issues of Doom Patrol were drawn by some guy named Richard Case, and they were somewhat crude, but . . . the story just flowed, and the art fit the realistic-yet-bizarre world the characters lived in. The best member of the new team was named Crazy Jane. She had multiple personalities, with a different power for each one. But she was oddly scary, which was off-base for all superheroes (Claremont’s Wolverine exudes a particularly cuddly form of psychopathy unique to him). I wasn’t sure I even liked Crazy Jane.
I’d later realize Grant peppered the series with references to the great music of his youth: Jane’s personality Driver 8 was named for the R.E.M. song; the early (and creepy) enemy of the Doom Patrol , the Butterfly Collector, named for a song by the Jam. While the X-Men fought the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Doom Patrol fought the Brotherhood of Dada. The stories became more and more bizarre, most likely culminating in the legendary, possibly homosexual kiss between Monsieur Mallah, the Communist ape with a genius intellect, and his creator, the bodiless Brain. That I cheered when it happened tells you how far round the bend I’d been corrupted/enlightened by the series.
The Doom Patrol made me weird, but it was Grant’s run on DC’s Animal Man that changed my life. Buddy Baker was a sixth-rate Aryan comic stereotype—a husky white blonde male with a crewcut who had animal powers. Ho-hum.
Yet under Grant’s mythic eye, he became . . . a normal, dorky guy, who was out of work, who wasn’t very good at being a superhero, but who loved his two kids. He drank beer with his friends, and his wife was an illustrator who saved his ass once by kicking a bad guy in the balls. Seriously.
Late in the series, a shadowy Cheneyesque government has his beloved family killed. Other superheroes gnash their teeth and swear vengeance under these circumstances: young Bruce Wayne took a blood oath on the grave of his murdered parents to destroy crime; the pre-Crisis Superman takes a similar oath to protect humanity when his human parents pass away.
Grant’s Buddy Baker was simply brokenhearted. A few days after their funeral he downed a bottle of sleeping pills and killed himself. The cover featured him in the fetal position on the floor, curled by the toilet, with a shattered photograph of his family nearby.
Yeah. “Comics aren’t just for kids,” indeed. But long before that macabre scene, Buddy Baker went on a “super-hero” mission where he encounters some grossly-mutated animals, tested upon by scientists. When Buddy heads home, he shocked the hell out his wife (and me):
Pencils by Chas Truog; inks by Doug Hazlewood; letters by John Costanza; colors by Tatjana Wood.
Then, in the next issue he met up with his best pal:
I had never contemplated that issue before. Rarely did the series address the topic so overtly. Mostly the discussion took place in the letters page, with literate and passionate fans on either side of the issue (and some in the middle) analyzing the pros and cons of vegetarianism and, often, the morality of radical movements that actually attacked testing labs and vivisectionists to free animals. It was like a philosophy class and a bang-up adventure (and later on, meta-adventure), all for a couple of bucks. (I heartily suggest buying the individual issues, if you can track them down, instead of the trades, as this dialogue, and Grant’s occasional participation, is wonderful outside of the work itself).
I didn’t give up meat immediately after reading Animal Man. It took years more, and the decision was made more quietly than anything else I’ve ever done. When I gave up the DGC (dead God’s children), it was once and for all, with no regrets.
I rarely, if ever, discuss the underpinnings of my vegetarianism. I still can’t tell you how I feel about animal testing, or where I stand on the issues of sentience or species equality; I just don’t know, and after years of contemplation I’m no further down one path then another. And my favorite jacket is still the leather one my parents gave me when I turned nineteen. Perhaps naïvely, I still have that gut feeling Buddy has: “these are dead animals.”
Hell, I don’t know where this is going. I felt like there were a lot of things I wanted to tell you, but that’s probably just the wine talking, or “Beat Surrender” in the background keeping my adrenaline up. Like at the very end of Grant’s run, I feel sometimes like the real world is in black and white, and our fiction, our myths, are in color. The way we feel, the way we want to be, is more real then what we are.
What that has to do with talking robots who poke me with corn-dogs, causing me to burst into flames, I don’t know.
For more information on the later stories in Animal Man where Buddy becomes aware of his status as a fictional character, and for specific information on which issues Grant wrote (which are available in two trade paperbacks), visit SeqArt.
For more information on vegetarianism and veganism, visit PETA’s “Go Veg.”