Matt Miner’s Animal Liberation Comic Gives Hero Themes a Reality Check
by Rabb!t / Earth First! Newswire
The second installment of the ALF-inspired comic series, Liberator, comes out this Wednesday [Update: street date changed to 7/31], and I have to say this issue is even better than the first. The story, characters, and political issues are complex, the art is sharp, clean and vibrant, and the moments of ecologically-motivated property destruction and animal rescue are even more satisfying this time around. If you haven’t read the first issue or our first review, you may want to do so before you read on, in order to get some context for the following analysis. Be warned, there are a few minor spoilers ahead (but nothing you probably couldn’t guess from looking at the cover).
As an activist who enjoys reading comic books, I knew the Liberator series would resonate with me, but I was concerned that it wouldn’t be accessible to non-activist comic book fans, or non-comic book-reading activists. While portraying underground animal rights activists as superheroes sounded like a great idea, it had the potential to be forced into place, and consequently come across as either too hokey for the political issues or too serious for the medium. As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded. In fact, rather than alienating either set of potential fans, the unique combination of underground activism with classic comic book structure offers something for everyone, and adds a refreshing dose of realism and depth to traditional superhero themes.
Take the common trope of the secret identity. Though Damon and Jeanette, Liberator‘s animal liberating protagonists, don’t have superhero names—and in fact don’t even employ the common practice of spray painting “ALF” on their targets in order to get some form of recognition—they still have to hide their actions from the public, from their friends and, like good practitioners of security culture, from each other when necessary. As usual, this adds suspense and frustration to the story: like other superheroes they must refrain from vocalizing support for their actions for fear of being found out, and listen silently as people call them names and mock their acts of bravery. However, these vigilantes also deal with the hostility and drama of activist culture. When mainstream groups take credit for Damon’s accomplishments, or when aboveground activist groups Jeanette works with begin questioning her loyalty, our heroes are unable to stand up for themselves, not wanting to reveal their true identities to anyone. This serves as a heads up to potential eco-warriors and animal liberators, but also as a lesson to aboveground activist groups, revealing that horizontal aggression and in-fighting can ultimately turn well-meaning activists into well-meaning villains of the cause.
The merging of superhero and activist themes flows the other way, too. In this issue the protagonists make references to comic books, comparing themselves to certain well-known characters to help define their roles. This normalizes the superpower-less superheroes by making them comic book readers themselves, once again suggesting that there’s nothing stopping you, the reader, from masking up and dishing out some vigilante justice. It also adds a bit of meta-humor to a story rooted in deeply serious issues. The realism of the series doesn’t just serve a political agenda—in fact, I’d say that the lack of superpowers and magic is the source of Liberator‘s charm and sincerity. While many comic book heroes feel pressured to put a stop to evil because of their special abilities—“With great power comes great responsibility,” etc.—these animal liberators feel pressured to fight evil simply because evil exists. Damon struggles to get the faces of dog-fighters out of his head, and Jeanette is haunted by the unnecessary torture she witnesses while working in animals labs—but rather than ignore the feelings in their guts that something in the world is terribly wrong, these characters, like real vigilantes, decide to risk their own freedom to do something about it.
The evil forces in Liberator #2 are also more realistic than that of your average comic book super-villian. Miner was wise in the first issue to ease readers into animal rights by having Damon target a dog-fighting ring, since dog-fighting is already considered cruel by most pet owners, and is against the law at that. This time around, however, dots are connected between various aspects of our corporate-political structure to show that animal abuse is not made up of isolated incidents, but rather is a symptom of a corrupt system. Police and politicians are accurately portrayed as paid thugs ordered by governments to protect the interests of corporations, universities, and crooked scientists in a climate where torturing animals is rewarded with money and political power. It’s even hinted at that Damon’s personal issues, namely his hyper-masculinity, are products of the patriarchal environment in which he works and lives, filled with bully co-workers and even bully non-profit groups taking credit for Damon’s work while dishing out judgments in the name of donations and notoriety.
Because the evil forces Damon and Jeanette choose to fight are complicated in nature, it is fitting that the strategies and tactics they use are intricate as well. Rather than simply knocking out baddies one thug at a time, the animal liberators employ a diversity of tactics to put a stop to animal abuse. Taking notes from the communiques and actions of real animal and earth liberation groups, Damon and Jeanette stress the importance of freeing animals and getting them to safe homes, causing economic damage to animal abusers (since money is what these groups are after in the first place), destroying scientific research to set projects back (another form of economic sabotage), and sticking to their principles by causing no harm to any animals, human or non-human. The examples these heroes set are not just inspiring—they’re informative, advocating good reconnaissance and research, pointing out what kinds of security measures to look out for, and practicing good security culture on and off the job. Somewhat ironically, this comic book displays the real faces of the ALF; rather than misguided terrorists, Damon and Jeanette are caring, informed and patient, taking the measures they see as necessary to achieving their altruistic ends. But, like Peter Parker and Walter Bond, these actions are spun by a co-opted media as the work of dangerous criminals.
As in the first issue, Liberator #2 is concluded with the thoughts of a real animal liberation activist, this time animal rights attorney and rescuer Shannon Keith. I was excited to see that Keith was lending her voice to this project—she has done great work in defending animal activists, saves dogs from animal testing with the Beagle Freedom Project, and her documentary, Behind the Mask: The Story of the People Who Risk Everything to Save Animals, played a significant role in my personal radicalization. Keith dispels some of the myths behind animal testing, and explains why this cruel and outdated practice is worth fighting against.
Whether you want to live vicariously through the actions of true superheroes, or are seeking some inspiration for your own activism, the Liberator series has what you’re looking for. It’s refreshing and just plain fun to watch Damon and Jeanette kicking ass against real world villains. After the first issue I was delighted, but with more action, a deeper story, a few hints of mystery and a cliffhanger ending, issue #2 has me officially hooked. I can only hope this mini-series sparks a new trend of eco-action comic books.
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