Remember how Mickey and Donald and Goofy all lived in the same town together with other talking animals? They all had houses and jobs and families and everyone they met was another talking animal in clothes.
When you’re a kid maybe you let that slide for a while and go with it, eventually you start asking uncomfortable questions like where are the humans? Sometimes you see the talking animals have pets (Like Pluto!) why is Goofy a dog and an equal, if dim, member of society but Pluto is a traditional living in a doghouse non talking dog?
Sometimes you see them eating meat, and the same questions arise but with a little more urgency.
And is there race mixing in talking animal land? Ducks seem to go out with ducks and mice with mice - is that an automatic or do any of these creatures ever fall in love across species lines? Is there a caste system?
At this point the obvious answer to all these questions besides ‘Put the bong down!’ is ‘For God’s sake man, they’re just cartoon funny animals!’
But interesting questions can lead to interesting answers.
Superheroes may be the dominant paradigm in comic books today but there was a time when funny animals completely ruled the industry. Anthropomorphic or ‘big foot’ comics (for their propensity for exaggerated feet) have been part of comics since the beginning.
Usually they are on the more juvenile end of the spectrum, though even some of the kid oriented funny animal books have been surprisingly sophisticated over the years - see Carl Barks Donald Duck comics for what many consider the peak creations of the funny animal genre. But the form’s childhood resonance has also been used by creators for more sophisticated tales of adult alienation like Robert Crumb’s Felix the Cat strips or Art Spiegleman’s searing Holocaust memoir Maus which featured the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.
The industry is in the middle of a mini-resurgence of the funny animal book, Grant Morrison has resurrected the superhero rabbit Captain Carrot in DC Comic’s cross continuity miniseries Multiversity and Marvel brought back their funny animal Spiderman analogue Peter Poker the Spectacular Spider-Ham (yes, really.) in their multi-dimensional Spider-Verse storyline.
Three recent comics explore the thornier questions about life in a funny animal universe. The Grandville series by Bryan Talbot, The Humans by Tom Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller and Tooth and Claw by Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey.
First there’s The Humans from Image. It’s exactly what it looks like on it’s cover; a high concept merging of Planet of the Apes and Sons of Anarchy following a violent chimpanzee biker gang called The Humans.
It’s crude and roughly energetic, clearly a labour of love by its creators but seems like it could suffer from diminishing returns quickly. In The Humans it’s Planet of the Apes rules, humans exist but are naked animals and are kept like dogs for human fights, so the biker gang being called the Humans is like a gang in our world being called The Gorillas.
Its got a dirty, underground comix aesthetic and a gleefully anarchic attitude but the conceit is kind of one note. It’s like AC/DC, who spent the last few decades putting out the same album over and over - but its a great album so people keep buying. The Humans still has me reading but its a junk food habit.
A more interesting takes is Tooth & Claw from fan favorite writer Kurt Busiek and artist Benjamin Dewey, a sprawling Science Fiction/Fantasy series about what happens when a world of intelligent animals is confronted with the fact that the great hero who founded their magic based civilization may have been a human being.
High fantasy tropes meet complicated stories about belief, hierarchy and racial privilege. A talking animal world rendered by Dewey in softly autumn lit pastoralism and animals with unique personalities and emotional range.
A similar theme of a human pre-history is present in the latest installment of Bryan Talbot’s sprawling Steampunk mystery series Grandville. The latest volume Noel continues Talbot’s fascinating take on the funny animal genre that asks the kind of questions that other funny animals don’t - like can two sentient animals of different species get married? (Yes, but they can’t have children) Most interestingly, he also explores a funny animal world that includes human beings.
In the world of Grandville humans are a despised racial underclass called ‘Dough faces’ and the latest book in the series explores the mystery of their existence.
It’s a vertiginous thing when humans appear in a funny animal world and that reaction is itself interesting. In a serious story like Grandville told in anthropomorphic form the reader begins to tune out the strangeness of animal characters and get drawn into the story. And then suddenly a human being enters a room full of talking badgers, rats and dogs and you are slapped in the face with the strangeness of what you had been accepting and the questions start all over again.
An artist as skilled and experienced as Bryan Talbot doesn’t create effects and reactions like that in his readers by accident, which made me think about the anthropomorphic style itself.
Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics discussed how a very simple, cartoony design, particularly of faces encourages identification with the reader because its the same way our brains are wired to perceive our own faces, all eyes and mouth. When juxtaposed with a very detailed and hyper-realistic external world a lot of perceptual buttons get pushed whether the reader realizes they are or not.
So the simple cartoony representation of funny animal faces encourages the reader to identify with the anthropomorphic protagonists, then when suddenly a human is dropped into this self contained world it subverts your expectations and lets you see the animal as the self and the human as the other.
That kind of conceptual juice explains why artists are still interested in worlds where cats and dogs drive cars and have houses and dream dreams a lot like ours.