That's What's Up: Who's the best animal sidekick in comics?

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."

Q: Who is the best animal sidekick?@YellFeat

I don't know if there's anything that instantly dates a comic as much as an animal sidekick. I mean, there was a time when everyone had one—and when some superheroes were running around with an entire menagerie of super-powered pets—but for some reason, the industry hit a point where publishers and creators just assumed that nobody wanted to see a crimefighting dog anymore. I think the record of, you know, the entire internet will show that they were very, very wrong on that score, but either way, there's a proud tradition and legacy for animal sidekicks that makes figuring out which one is actually best a pretty difficult task.

I'll tell you this, though: it ain't Comet the Super-Horse, that's for damn sure.

Comet the Super-Horse

Those of you who aren't familiar with Comet might wonder why he gets an immediate disqualification. He does, after all, have a good set of powers to work with, including a much higher level of intelligence than you might expect from a horse—even a space-horse—and the ability to telepathically communicate with other animals that makes him the de facto leader of the Legion of Super-Pets. He's incredibly strong, apparently immortal, and is even immune to the effects of Kryptonite since, despite the symbol on his cape, he's not actually from Krypton.

And that, incidentally, is a good thing. It's fine to imagine Jor-El testing out his rocket on a Kryptonian chimpanzee or even shooting the family dog into orbit, but cramming a horse into a rocketship while Lara waited around patiently wondering why their kid was the only one getting a free ride to Earth? That's a little ridiculous, even by Silver Age Superman standards.

He even represents an interesting bit of wish fulfillment. I can't really speak for Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan, who created the character in 1962, but it seems pretty clear from reading through those old appearances that he was meant to appeal to the kind of reader who could identify with Supergirl, with the assumption that those readers would also be really into owning a magic flying horse. There's just one problem.

He's not a horse at all. That dude's a dude.

Comet's secret identity: Biron the Centaur

Okay, so he's actually a centaur, which would make him only half-dude, but… well, it's a little more complicated than that.

See, Comet isn't actually "Comet." He's Biron, a centaur from Hercules' time who was accidentally turned into a full-on horse by Circe, who also gave him superpowers and made him immortal by way of apology. Because nothing says "Sorry I turned you into a horse" like making it so he'll be locked into his new form for eternity without even the sweet release of death to look forward to. To make matters worse, an evil sorcerer wound up trapping him behind a magic force field in space, where he stayed until a passing rocketship broke him out. It was, of course, Supergirl's rocket, and in thanks, he became her pet horse and occasional sidekick.

Now, that's all well and good, relatively speaking. I mean, if you want to be someone's pet horse, then by all means, chase your bliss, you'll find no judgment here. The thing is, this opens up the door to a whole lot of problems, which start with the fact that, while Comet's origin story was revealed to the readers, it was never actually revealed to Supergirl.

To make matters worse, Comet winds up having even more magic done on him that essentially turns him into a werehuman. Every time a certain comet enters the solar system—on a tight schedule of whenever the writer wants—he turns into a regular guy who goes by Bill Starr, and uses his instinctive knowledge of horses to become a champion rodeo rider and romances Supergirl into making out before mysteriously disappearing again. And that is problematic.

Again, I think this comes from an attempt by the creators, Leo Dorfman and Jim Mooney, to add something else to Supergirl that would appeal to younger girls, which in this case was a mysterious magic boyfriend. The thing is, that's not really the thing you should probably be combining with the magic horse, especially if he's going to be keeping his status as Supergirl's boyfriend a secret whenever he turns back into a horse and offers up a saddle-free ride.

Krypto the Superdog

No, if we're going to get a candidate from the Legion of Super-Pets, it's going to be the obvious one: Krypto the Super-Dog.

Seriously, Krypto rules. It's one of the reasons he's managed to find a spot in every version of the DC Universe. No matter how much they try to update it and get some distance from the hokey trappings of the Silver Age, he manages to make his way back like it's some metafictional game of fetch. It's resulted in some truly amazing stories, too, like Grant Morrison and Travel Foreman's Halloween-themed "The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude" from Action Comics #13, where it's revealed that he was confined in the Phantom Zone when Krypton exploded, and returned years later to save Superman from the Phantom Zone criminals.

That's an awesome idea, and just in case it wasn't enough, that issue also includes a backup story from Sholly Fisch and Brad Walker about how even while he was trapped in the Phantom Zone, just a half-step out of sync with the rest of reality, Krypto was so loyal to his best friend that he stayed by Superman's side, unseen and intangible, through all the worst days of his life, until they were finally reunited. And honestly, if that doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you might want to see a doctor about how your heart is literally made of stone.

Krypto in the Phantom Zone

But beyond his origins, the best thing about Krypto is that he pretty much does everything you want to see from a super-powered dog. He flies around, chases airplanes instead of cars, plays fetch with entire trees, has a doghouse in space, he bites supervillains—it's all there, this weirdly realized potential of what it means to have a universe built around Superman. He's Otto Binder and Curt Swan asking a simple question and then taking it to its logical extreme: if we can have Superman, then what else can we have in this world?

Plus, he's got his own archenemy. Admittedly, Destructo, who appeared in Superboy #92, isn't exactly the Joker in terms of being a well-known villain, but I genuinely love that there's a universe so firmly built around the laws of storytelling that the existence of a good super-powered dog requires the existence of an evil super-powered dog to balance things out.

Also, the fact that Lex Luthor—because of course Destructo is Lex Luthor's dog—saw that Superboy had a superdog and decided that the best thing he should do was create one of his own? That's one of the single best examples of how his character works that's ever made its way to the page. I mean, you might think you hate someone, but do you hate them enough to frame their dog for super-crimes? That's the level of all-consuming anger that Lex is at on a random Tuesday.

Destructo, Lex Luthor's dog

With all that said, though, I'm not convinced that Krypto is the absolute definitive best. And if he's not, well, there are plenty of other candidates to choose from.

There's Lockjaw, of course, the giant teleporting dog with a tuning fork on his head who lives on the moon and is unquestionably the single best Inhuman. Unfortunately, while he's great as a supporting character, he suffers from a lack of starring roles, and also has that weird thing where someone once said that he was actually a regular guy who just mutated so that he looks like a dog, which is pretty rough when you consider that the rest of the Inhumans definitely treat him like a pet. For the record, though, I'm going to go ahead and say that was just some sass from Karnak and Gorgon, who wanted to play a prank on Ben Grimm. Things get kind of boring on the Blue Area of the Moon when your culture is basically defined by a dude who doesn't talk, so you take your fun where you can, I guess.

Let's see, we've also got Squirrel Girl's squirrel Tippy Toe, who's pretty great. The Falcon has a falcon named Redwing that he has a rarely mentioned psychic connection to. Devil Dinosaur is amazing, but, in the original run at least, that's a weird case where he's kind of the star, and it's Moon Boy who's really the sidekick. Hm. Am I forgetting anyone?

Ace the Bat-Hound

Ah yes. Ace, the Bat-Hound.

Given my status as the World's Foremost Batmanologist, you'd probably expect me to be campaigning pretty hard to slide Ace in at the top of the list. The thing is, and it pains me to admit this, he's not actually that great. Don't get me wrong, I love him—and I especially love the idea that Batman is so committed to his secret identity that he made his dog wear a mask so none of the criminals he was fighting would notice it was actually Bruce Wayne's dog, because that is exactly the kind of thinking that leads to dressing up as Dracula to fight crime—but there aren't a lot of genuinely great stories about Ace.

I will say that Ace's current origin, told by Tom King and David Finch in 2016's Batman Annual #1, is every bit as fantastic as Morrison and Foreman's new take on Krypto. In that story, Ace was the only survivor of a dog fighting ring run by the Joker—hence "Ace," as the others were also named for playing cards—who was rescued and rehabilitated by Alfred, and given to Bruce as a Christmas present. The message of the story was that no one was so broken that they couldn't be healed, and it stands a King's single best Batman story to date.

Beyond that, though, Ace is one of those characters that's always been better in concept than in execution. And honestly, considering the menagerie that's cropped up in the Batcave over the past few years—including a tuxedo cat named after Alfred and a cow rescued from a Satanic sacrifice that is, of course, named Batcow—I'm not even sure Ace is the best pet in the Batman family.

So really, that just leaves us with one option.

Topo the Octopus

It's gotta be friggin' Topo.

It's at this point that I need to reveal a secret I've been keeping since the column began. This week's question was originally phrased as "who is the best animal sidekick, and why is it Topo," but I changed it for two reasons. First, I hate it when people ask questions structured like that, because if you already know the answer, then what am I even doing here? Second, and probably more important, I just did not want to admit that we have finally found the one arena where Aquaman legitimately beats everyone else in comics.

Then again, it makes sense that he'd have the edge in this one. Despite multiple attempts to distance himself from Super Friends and remind people that he's a super-strong, super-cool dude who stabs people in the face with his five-pointed undersea pitchfork, Aquaman's entire deal is that he gets animals to do his bidding. In modern comics, that often translates to summoning up sea monsters or whatever, but for years—for decades, even—his major tactic was overwhelming his enemies with actual sea creatures. Sooner or later, one of them was going to stand out and stick around for a while. Thus: Topo.

Octo-punches

For those of you who may not be familiar with him, Topo is Aquaman's loyal octopus pal. Get it? Oc-top-us? If you didn't, it's okay. I had to type it like 50 times today before I finally did.

Created by the great Ramona Fradon in 1956's Adventure Comics #229, Topo first appears in a story where Aquaman is auditioning a handful of fish for a job as his permanent sidekick, and immediately distinguishes himself by selflessly getting tangled up in a ship's propellers in order to prevent it from smashing into an iceberg. So right from the start, he's got an advantage over most other animal sidekicks, in that he's actually a character.

Say what you will about Comet the Super-Horse, but his status as a secret dude means that he actually winds up communicating a lot, and his weird deception about being a champion rodeo rider actually gives him some complexity and depth that you just don't see from someone like, say, Streaky the Super-Cat. By the same token, that's one of the things that really gives Tippy Toe a shot at claiming the title for herself. Since she can actually talk to Squirrel Girl, she expresses herself in a way that most other animal sidekicks never get the chance to.

Topo doesn't have a ton of dialogue, although there is one memorable splash page where he uses "fish-telepathy" to console Aquaman about how nobody likes him while resting a comforting tentacle on his shoulder. He is, however, very expressive, and manages to take the spotlight a couple of times in the standard-issue "Aquaman's gone bad!" stories. Which, in Silver Age DC terms, basically makes him a waterlogged Lois Lane.

Topo is surprisingly effective on land

More than that, though, Topo's actually useful. It's another trait that he shares with Tippy Toe or Lockjaw, but Aquaman's usual tactics make him downright indispensable.

Compare that to all the other animal sidekicks we've talked about today. Krypto's great, but more often than not, he's the cause of the problems rather than the solution, especially in the Silver Age Superboy stories where he was featured most prominently. He's always growing to giant size and rampaging through Kansas, or, in one memorable story, getting trapped in a box so a local crook can pretend he's invented a jetpack by strapping it to his back and ordering him to drag him around. By the same token, Ace is a great concept, but never really does anything. Topo, on the other hand, is in the mix constantly, always doing something weird and innovative to help Aquaman battle sea crimes.

He's not perfect, though. If nothing else, he suffers from the same extremely dubious understanding of sea life that you often see in Aquaman comics, which gave an entire generation of would-be marine biologists some extremely mistaken ideas of what swordfish or electric eels were actually like. And honestly, despite the fact that he's managed to sneak into continuity here and there over the years, his role as Aquaman's "permanent sidekick" was actually pretty short-lived—only four years after Topo was introduced, Aquaman would take a page from Batman's book and start palling around with a kid named Aqualad, as editors realized that it might be a little easier for readers to relate to an actual human child than an octopus.

But for that brief shining period between 1956 and 1960, Topo was Aquaman's version of Robin, and a universe that allows for an octopus sidekick is every bit as good a trait as Lex Luthor branching out into dog crimes.

With all that said, though…

Squirrels 1, Doom 0

If all these squirrels had names like Tippy Toe (and her predecessor, Monkey Joe), then they'd definitely be the ones at the top of the list instead. Topo's awesome, but he never beat Doctor Doom, and that still means something in this crazy world. 

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."