The Silver Age is often defined by the ways in which comic book superheroes began to develop into increasingly complex figures who managed to right great wrongs in spite of their deep insecurities, imperfections, and strange idiosyncrasies. Some readers characterize them as anti-heroes with ambivalent souls and feet made of clay; others simply describe them as “more human.” Proudly eschewing idealized notions of heroism in the 1960s, Marvel championed the foibles of the Amazing Spider-Man: “the superhero would could be – you!

But talking animals have long occupied the “more human” spaces on the comics page and the question I’d like to pose this week is part of my effort to understand their appeal.

Despite the industry’s unshakable association with “funny animal comics” (we have titles like the wildly popular Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories to thank for that), anthropomorphic creatures follow a long tradition of embodying our desires and aspirations whether they originate from myths, folk tales, or children’s cartoons. What’s fascinating to me is the figurative pliancy of animal representations, especially when it comes to heightening the reader’s identification with the characters. As comics readers move from Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Kelly’s Pogo to Crumb’s Fritz the Cat to Speigelman’s Maus, the notion that what we encounter are animals made to act like humans is utterly eclipsed by the troubling realization that these creatures are little more than people who act like “animals.” Pogo put it best: “Yep son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Last summer, I discovered Blacksad by writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido. Originally debuting in France and Spain over ten years ago, the hard-boiled detective comic series is now available to English-speaking readers in a translated edition that reprints the first three volumes. (The next translated volume will be released this July!) The extent to which Blacksad ultimately joins the ranks of other well-known anthropomorphic animal comics will be due largely to the way that Guarnido’s award-winning watercolor illustrations bring stunning detail and expressiveness to the brutal crime stories of private investigator John Blacksad, a cigarette-smoking black cat. Clichéd noir devices abound in the series: the trench coats, cocked eyebrows, and murdered Hollywood actresses. But the characters’ temperaments, their glances, even the most subtle bodily movements are shaped by the perceived qualities of their animal counterparts in ways that are incredibly riveting.

Here again, reader identification plays a key role. Scott McCloud argues that we are more inclined to identify closely with illustrations that are more abstract or cartoony. This is certainly the case for a possum like Pogo, but there is something about the precision of Guarnido’s illustrations (and to a lesser degree, Bill Willingham’s Fables) that challenges this claim. Is this because all animals, not matter how conceptually rendered or realistically drawn, always remain abstractions to us? Does the ability to see our mannerisms, thoughts, and ideas reflected in the cruel and wanton acts of the furry intensify our culpability or do talking animals create a safe distance from which to observe the workings of humanity? What kind of critical language serves us best when it comes to interpreting the comic medium’s enduring fascination with animals that talk?

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

9 responses »

  1. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to read Blacksad, but the images you’ve posted are remarkable and I hope to start reading that series soon. Maybe I have to put it on my summer reading list!

    Your question about the way readers identify with characters is something that I grapple with. On the one hand, I want to believe McCloud’s claim that we identify more with characters who are more generalized or abstract rather than more realistically “human.” On the other hand, your point about the animal/human construct is an incisive comment. Are we identifying with those characters? Or are we maintaining a distance so that we displace our ‘issues’ onto them?

    Maybe those “animal” characters are, as you suggest, an abstracted style of human characters. Perhaps they are “humans” behind an animal mask, a mask that allows them to be read as Other but an Other that is similar enough to be connected to.

    Your question makes me think of Calvin and Hobbes. Or rather, the way that Calvin (as a ‘human’) sees Hobbes (a non-human funny animal character). Does Calvin project his own identity onto the tiger? Is that how Hobbes can come to life…that Calvin animates him by ‘reading’ life into him?

    • I like that, the idea of Calvin “reading” life into Hobbes and I think you’re on to something. I’ve already gotten two recommendations since writing this post to take a look at Vaughan’s PRIDE OF BAGHDAD because it resists the urge to present the animals as humans with an animal mask.

      And, yes, please add BLACKSAD to your list, Frank!

  2. Ross Cameron says:

    Great post! I love animal comics. One thing I think it’s worth thinking about is the difference between comics where animals are really being used as humans and ones where their animality is important to the fiction. In Blacksad and Maus, that they are animals isn’t really important to the story: rather, depicting the characters as animals is being used to say something about the characters’ traits or the relationships between them. So the reptiles in Blacksad are slippery, sneaky characters and the bear is the big tough bodyguard – and that’s really the only purpose that depiction serves, it very quickly clues you into what this character is like. Similarly, in Maus, that the Jews are mice and the Germans cats serves to convey things like the relationship between them: one’s hunter, one’s prey.

    Contrast that with some other animal comics I really love: Beasts of Burden or We3, where it’s really important to the fiction that the characters are animals, and it’s not merely a means of depicting something about those characters. Okay, in Beasts of Burden, the animals talk – but they don’t talk like humans, they talk like we’d imagine dogs talk. And they care about dog things, and see the worlds as we imagine dogs would. It’s more extreme in We3, where the animals have a realistic vocabulary for being those animals – there’s a very close world in which We3 is real.

    I think how we engage with both types of fiction is very different. McCloud’s point is perhaps more relevant to things like Blacksad and Maus: the abstraction we get by depicting the characters as animals makes it easier for us to identify with them. But in Beasts in Burden and We3, we’re not meant to identify with them: we’re meant to view them as animals, and the emotion of the story depends on the real world fact that we have such a strong emotional engagement to certain other species. (We don’t care too much about the rats in Beasts of Burden, e.g.) In the case of We3, I suspect it’s very important to Morrison that we don’t over-identify with the animals: if we identify with them we lose the idea that we’re emotionally invested in a *different* species – which Morrison, a firm animal rights supporter, is probably keen to drive home.

    • Hi Ross, thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate the way you lay out the distinctions between how animals are used. I am hoping to write a follow-up post that focuses on the Jeremy Love’s BAYOU and your remarks will be helpful.

      You’re definitely right about BLACKSAD with the animals being used to say something about the character’s human traits. I have to say – the thing that really unnerves me about that comic is how realistically the animals are illustrated. With MAUS, its much easier (okay, well, nothing is really “easy” about that story) to grasp the concept until you don’t even notice the animals, but Blacksad never lets you forget that these are non-human creatures with scales and whiskers. I think that’s a brilliant way to bridge the two approaches to animal comics (although the stories in Blacksad aren’t very exceptional in themselves as much as I love the attempts made in the story “Arctic Nation” to add some social commentary).

      I am definitely adding Beasts of Burden and We3 to my list!!! I’m excited to see how these dogs talk.

  3. Corey Creekmur says:

    Indeed, WE3 comes at this topic in a very interesting way. A curious example that ought to be central to such discussions is Herge’s Snowy (originally Milou) in the Tintin comics: he talks, but it’s not always clear who — other than readers — can “hear” him. It’s not clear that even Tintin, the only one he seems to address, hears him, as there’s no direct response or dialog. Snowy also barks and howls, so thus makes animal sounds. It’s then curious that in adaptations of the series (an earlier set of animated cartoons and the recent Spielberg film) Snowy’s ability to speak is removed, as if this would be difficult to deal with in other media than comics … (there’s also the classic Disney question: why does Goofy, a dog, speak, whereas Pluto, a dog, does not? One also wears clothes, walks upright …)

    • Hi Corey, thanks for stopping by! And I hadn’t thought about Snowy. It seems as if instances like that (in which the animals talks but only the reader appears to be able to hear them) allow the writer/artist to reflect upon the intelligence and personality of the animal, but without having to fully humanize them or add another element of the fantastic to the story. Sort of a variation on the old Lassie trick, “what’s that boy? you say there’s someone trapped in the well?” ha ha.

  4. roytcook says:

    This is a really interesting question, and I am not sure I have much of real substance to add to the already rich discussion. A few brief observations:

    (1) I am very skeptical in general of McCloud’s thesis that the more ‘abstract’ or ‘idealized’ a depiction is, the easier it is to identify with the character. Of course, something roughly along these lines is likely true, but I suspect McCloud’s overly simplistic account misses some very complex phenomena at work here. Of course, I have little idea what, exactly, that phenomena is. But I think some of the discussion above might provide some insight. For example, we are clearly meant, in Maus, to identify (and, relatedly, sympathize) in some sense more with the mice than the cats. Both are drawn in simplified and anthropomorphized manners. So how, if at all, does Speigelman’s Maus mouse-vs.-cat stylistic choices support such a mice-centric orientiation, sympathy, and identification?

    (2) The discussion above misses one of the most powerful, poignant, and important (in my opinion) cases of animals-as-thinkers/animals-as-target-of-identification in comics. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most structurally rich examples: Snoopy! In Peanuts, Snoopy (after his first, more purely animal-like year or so) is constantly thinking and, arguably, talking (when he interacts with Woodstock, Woodstock’s ‘speech’ is in speech balloons, while Snoopy’s is typically in thought balloons, but Woodstock clearly ‘hears’ and responds to Snoopy’s thoughts). In addition, he can clearly read and write English, and although the human characters cannot apparently hear Snoopy’s ‘thoughts’ the way Woodstock can, they can understand his writing, and seem at times aware that he can read. Very complex (and something I hope to write about at some point).

    Oops. As usual, not so brief after all!

  5. […] sceptical. I guess other people are also sceptical. In Qiana’s great How Do We Talk About Animals That Talk? post she raises a question about McCloud’s […]

  6. […] would be an interesting line of inquiry. All of the important questions Qiana Whitted asked in her recent PPP post on anthropomorphized animals, I believe, apply in spades to Grandville as well. There would be a lot […]

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