The creation of derivative versions of super-heroes goes back to Captain Marvel’s derivatives, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. — which were introduced in the 1940s. Superman followed suit, in more ways than one, introducing Superboy (in 1945′s More Fun Comics #101) and Supergirl. Such derivative versions of characters differ from the sidekicks, like Robin or Tonto and so many before him, as well as similar characters, in that they are essentially other versions of the main character: Superman as a boy and with a sex change. Such characters proved popular, and soon enough, even pet versions were introduced.
Few people have recognized the genius in this, and it is my intention to demonstrate that genius to you. The genius here is this: remember that Kryptonians are normal, lacking super-powers until they come to Earth, where, in lower gravity and under a yellow sun, they acquire super-powers. Even Kryptonian materials, such as the rocket ship that brought Kal-El to Earth, become indestructible on Earth. Well, what happens to animals? I mean, there are animals on Krypton, right?
The first super-pet was Krypto, a dog with Superman’s powers that Jor-El had bought for his baby son Kal-El. When Jor-El was developing the rocket that would eventually take that son to Earth, he cruelly (however conveniently) used his son’s dog as a test subject, jetting him into orbit. A (similarly convenient) meteor collision (presumably bounced the poor pooch around and) bounced the ship into space, where it would be drawn into the path of the young Kal-El’s rocket. Once his ship landed on Earth, Krypto quickly went to search for his master Kal-El, now Superboy.
But the parallels between Krypto and Superman didn’t stop there. Hilariously, Krypto was so much a version of Superman that Krypto also had a secret identity: Chip, the dog of Clark Kent. Just as Superman had his (also convenient) glasses when in his Clark Kent persona, Krypto when Chip had a dark patch over one eye, faithfully granted him by the application of woodstain. As Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, Krypto had a Doghouse of Solitude, a strange orange construction in outer space. Like the trophies of Superman’s Fortress, Krypto’s Doghouse had a collection of exhibited bones and the like. However comic, these innovations were also a work of genius. I mean, really. A woodstain — a spot that mirrors Clark Kent’s glasses.
The genius didn’t stop there. If Krypto was a derivative of Superman, or perhaps Superboy, (the perhaps unfortunately named) Streaky was a derivative of Supergirl, whose story had always featured more magic than Superman’s. Streaky was the pet cat of Linda Danvers, the alter ego of Supergirl, until Streaky was exposed to Kryptonite-X, a rarer variety of that multi-colored remnant of Krypton, giving the feline super-powers. Because the nugget of Kryptonite got into the twine with which Streaky played, the cat was always recharging her powers.
Even though Streaky did not demonstrate the ingenious logic of asking what happens to animals when the Krypton-Earth transition is applied to them, such pets that derived their powers through other means demonstrated that the bizarre logic of gaining super-powers, though all sorts of bizarre means, could be applied to animals as well. I long for stories of childless scientists who equipped their wounded but beloved pet, rather than their son, with a technological battlesuit. I long for stories in which radioactive spiders didn’t need to bite some stupid teenager: humans only have to be exposed to radiation to mutate on the spot, so why do spiders get such short shrift? Better yet, the radioactive spider could bite an animal such as a mouse, giving that mouse the super-powers of a spider. Surely, this is a phenomenally rich mine that sits remarkably unexhausted.
The more domestic dog and cat did not suffice. Biron, a centaur in ancient Greece, saved Circe the sorceress — who, in return, offered Biron a wish. The centaur chose to be transformed into a human, but the very enemy from whom Biron had saved Circe sabotaged the magical spell so that it made Biron entirely a horse rather than entirely a man. Circe amended the spell so that Biron could become a human, but only when there was a comet in the sky — thus the name. Comet thus had an alter ego, though it was not only a different being who toggled with the super-powered being — along the lines of Captain Marvel — but a different species. As a horse, Comet had super-powers and flew around; because he wasn’t a Kryptonian, Comet was unaffected by Kryptonite or red suns. Biron had a (very minor) super-hero career as Biron the Bowman — but the rarity of a comet overhead made this persona far less frequent. As a human, Comet was occasionally Supergirl’s love interest — and in one story, they even married.
Many super-heroes, not the least of which are Batman and Spider-Man, are themselves human-animal hybrids, not so unlike the centaur. Though many have pointed out that super-heroes are the modern equivalent of Greco-Roman myths, this obvious connection has been rarely noted. It suggests a deep animalism in the super-hero genre, one that might naturally lend itself to super-pets. Comet the super-horse, with his unique origin and transformative nature, brings these rarely-addressed themes to the fore.
The lines between human and animal are blurred by the very notion of super-pets, who rescue humans and (under a good writer) might even have their own worshipful fan clubs who invert the normal relationship between human and animal by yelling out to the super-powered animal that they want to be the animal’s pet, calling him “master” — fans who might even have fetishistic fantasies about being placed in cages like animals. Knowing this, having Comet be a love interest for Supergirl is a further stroke of genius. One can imagine the wonderful implications: Supergirl, absolutely stricken in love with Biron, should discover her lover’s secret. Only in this version of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is not a member of warring family, or even secretly handicapped. No, he is a horse. Yet, this horse has all the thoughts and love for Supergirl that Biron has. Supergirl goes through all the stages of revulsion, self-loathing, and alienation — but ultimately decides that love makes its own rules, and that she must try it with Comet. What ensues is nothing less than bestiality, a love affair that defies the world’s rules, as did Romeo’s and Juliet’s, as did Nabokov’s Lolita more bravely.
Another, stranger super-pet was a Kryptonian monkey. If Krypton had a dominant species essentially the same as humans, and it had dogs, why not a monkey? After all, the monkey is closer to the human in evolution, making more sense than dogs. In the case of Beppo, he stowed away on Kal-El’s rocket, naturally gaining super-powers once on Earth. Strangely, given Superboy’s continuity, Beppo wasn’t around much during Superboy’s youth. Beppo was, unlike the other super-pets, a bit of a troublemonger, causing chaos and even threatening Superboy’s secret identity. Rather than civilizing him, Superboy actually had to lure Beppo far into outer space and abandon him there. Beppo took years of wandering to find his way home, and my mind can only glee at the chaos he must have caused throughout the cosmos on his confused and pathetic voyage. Meeting Supergirl, Beppo was civilized and introduced to the other super-pets, though it took a bit of time for Krypto and Streaky to acclimate to the super-monkey.
Again, more ingenious logic. Why should all super-pets be the convenient, domestic animals like dogs and cats — or even majestic and controllable animals like the horse? Beppo further pushes the implications of super-powers and the possibilities of super-animals. Moreover, the potential dangers of super-powers being granted (not to a person lacking moral rightness but) to an animal consciousness are explored in the case of Beppo. This is an important complication of super-powered animals, though it should not surprise use that it has rarely been explored, given that the consequences of super-powers being granted real-world human psychologies has so rarely been explored with any depth.
Of course, heroes demand villains, and that’s just what Krypto got in Superboy #92 (cover-dated October 1961), with “Krypto’s Arch-Enemy!” In that story, Lex Luthor is attempting to endow himself with super-powers using a ray he’s invented when his own dog, named Wolf, intercepts the ray. Playing a bad guy, Luthor slaps Wolf, exclaiming, “You miserable cur!” But of course, Wolf has been endowed with super-powers, so Luthor promptly renames the dog Destructo and sets about training the dog to kill.
Krypto, Streaky, Comet, and Beppo also teamed up, alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes, as the Legion of Super-Pets.
Krypto was also a member of a less-known group: the Space Canine Patrol Agency. Their meetings were chaired by Tail Terrier, who could stretch his tail like Plastic Man could his entire body, because he was the only one who could hold the gavel (not to mention — and I write from experience — that most terriers wouldn’t have it any other way). Chameleon Collie could change shape. Hot Dog could heat himself up, though he (unfortunately) lacked the more expanded powers of a Firestorm or a Human Torch. Mammoth Mutt could swell up like a balloon by inhaling air. Tusky Husky could make one of his teeth grow so large that it hit the floor, allowing him to pry and wedge. There was even a Space Cat Patrol Agency, featuring Power Puss and other super-cats.
For super-pets, the Silver Age was the Golden Age — the classic period in which the super-pets were created and existed. Batman even had a Bat-hound. DC was famous for its frequent use of apes. Kryptonite and its weirdness, as well as the campy stories of the Silver Age in general, allowed for characters such as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, as well as Superman, to be transformed into animals. Superman even had Titano, a gigantic villainous ape who menaced him on a number of occasions — another ingenious move that brilliantly forced us to consider animal super-villains as well, and to realize that super-pets had a long legacy. After all, wasn’t King Kong a super-animal version of Tarzan?
As the super-hero has become more self-consciously realistic, the notion of super-pets has been linked more with camp and has appeared less frequently. Yet a few super-animals have occasionally cropped up. Such instances have tended to emphasize the complications of super-pets, though this has been limited to the more predictable point of animal consciousness. One such dog appeared in Alan Moore’s classic Miracleman, at first threatening Miracleman’s alter ego and ultimately being tamed. In Moore’s final issue (#16), in which Miracleman transformed the world into a utopia, this super-powered beast was seen flying through the skies in a cape, all hokeyness redeemed in a world altered by super-powers so that anything is possible. Moore even has Miracleman remark, in narration, that when he “fowls” on them, they curse him as “Miraclemutt.” Krypto himself has even reappeared in the Superman comics, reintroduced as part of the resurgence of unapologetic and less realistic super-heroics that was inaugurated by Marvels. This Krypto, too, has been depicted as having animal consciousness. In Superman #170, he attacks the alien conqueror Mongul to protect Lois Lane, and Superman has to move Krypto to the Fortress of Solitude, afraid of what Krypto might do, however well-intentioned, with super-powers and the brain of a dog. Just imagine what a pit bull might do.
Of course, this is only the beginning of what should be done with super-animals. Urinating or defecating in the air, or attacking in defense, is only the beginning of applying the animal consciousness factor to a more considered exploration of super-pets. Krypto, no matter how loveable, surely wants to hump a human leg sometime — and no one wants super-powered thighs powdering their leg’s bones at super-speed. Some humans may have sexual self-control, but a dog, for example, would be somewhat less likely to exert such control when he spots a bitch below in heat.
Despite the historical fact that super-animals were historically at their height during the campy Silver Age, that same period has been, in the last decade, the beneficiary of revisionist analysis that recasts the narrative aesthetics of the Silver Age as imaginative. This imagination, much as it has been greeted alternately by scoffs and boyish wonderment, was not utterly chaotic or random, but rather flowed along certain logical lines, exploring the narrative possibilities, if not implications, of the genre. In the case of super-pets, we seem to have the best of both worlds, imaginative joy combined with super-heroic implications. Few can doubt that a cute puppy in a cape is a crowd-pleaser, however difficult for writers to address beyond this pleasing image. But such a pooch is also a radical expansion of the super-hero genre, applying the internal logic of a world in which super-powers may be almost randomly granted to animals. And the possibilities of such tales (if one pardons the pun) still lay largely untapped while bacteria still are relegated to the slide, where no capes are allowed.