“Funny Animals” is a genre of comics that is, like most things in comics, inappropriately named. Just as “comics” are quite often not comic and “graphic novels” are rarely novels, “funny animals”—comics featuring anthropomorphic animals—are only occasionally funny.
Once upon a time, funny animals roamed the pages of American comics. Beginning with the anthropomorphic bears of pioneering cartoonist James Swinnerton at the turn of the last century, the funny animals genre played a significant role in early comics history in the US. Some of the most original and important cartoonists in the first half of the 20th century worked with anthropomorphic animals, including George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat (1913–44) is one of the crowning achievements of the form.
While the earliest funny animals comics in American newspapers were often directed at mature audiences—Swinnerton’s Mr. Jack featured a lecherous tiger and Krazy Kat deployed surrealism and complex wordplay—by the 1930s the genre had begun to be associated with younger readers. Many of the newest additions to the menagerie originated in animation aimed at children: Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat and Carl Barks’s Donald Duck, for example. And during the height of the comic book craze in the 1940s there were several titles devoted entirely to the genre, including Fawcett’s Funny Animals, which explicitly targeted younger readers.
It was in one such title, Dell’s Animal Comics, that Walt Kelly’s now forgotten Pogo was born in 1942. For over a quarter of a century in the daily funnies Kelly used his swampland bestiary to comment on stupidity and cruelties of all kinds, from McCarthyism to the destruction of the environment.
Today Pogo is back, thanks to the ongoing series of beautifully restored reprints from Fantagraphics. These volumes remind us that funny animals have the power to speak truths that might otherwise go unspoken, especially in a climate of sanctimonious religiosity and paranoid surveillance culture—such as the 1950s, when Pogo was at its most biting and powerful, or today.
This month the third volume in the series appears, with comics from 1953–54, when Kelly introduced Simple J. Malarkey, an eviscerating satire of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
One might imagine that the effectiveness of Pogo would have sparked dozens of imitators, but such was not to be the case. After the 1954 Comics Code effectively banned many of the most popular genres in comic books, such as crime and horror, publishers raced to try their hands at funny animals comics, now recast as safe and family-friendly. Produced in desperation and fear, these comics were of course terrible, and the genre increasingly represented all that was wrong with post-Code comics: they were puerile, opportunistic, disposable.
The underground comix movement of the late 1960s reclaimed the funny animals genre, but primarily for adolescent fantasies of male sexual domination, as epitomized by R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, who became the unofficial mascot of the movement. Nonetheless, by the early 1970s, even as the movement was starting to lose steam, underground comix undertook some interesting recoveries of the genre. Air Pirates #1 was published in 1971 as an homage to past artists and as an explicit refusal of Disney’s claims of intellectual property in characters and stories borrowed from the public domain. Disney took the bait and brought Dan O’Neill and his Air Pirates collaborators to court, ultimately prevailing despite the cartoonists’ very reasonable argument that parody should be protected as fair use under existing copyright laws.
Even as Air Pirates #1 was being published, arguably the most significant revitalization of the funny animals genre in the United States was getting underway, also from within the underground comix movement. Art Spiegelman had been working in underground comix since the late ’60s, and had moved to San Francisco in 1971. It was there that he saw pages of Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, the first long-form autobiographical American comic. Spiegelman began turning to autobiographical comics in his own work, including a short story he created for the (deliberately misspelled) Funny Aminals.
This short story, entitled “Maus,” was about a mouse recounting his experiences during the Holocaust as a bedtime story to his son, and it was the first iteration of Spiegelman’s masterpiece, Maus, eventually published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991. Maus would earn a Pulitzer Prize for Spiegelman and newfound cultural and scholarly respect for comics of all sorts. As is now well known, Maus tells the story of how Spiegelman’s family survived the Holocaust and its aftermath from within the funny animals genre, using cats, mice, pigs, and other animals to stand in for the participants in world-historical events.
funny animals have the power to speak truths that might otherwise go unspoken, especially in a climate of sanctimonious religiosity and paranoid surveillance culture.
That Spiegelman’s choice of genre generated confusion and even outrage on the part of many contemporary commentators demonstrates how much had already been lost in terms of an understanding of the funny animals genre. Krazy Kat had offered one of the most nuanced critiques of identity politics American arts have ever produced, and Pogo used animals to criticize politicians and prejudices that mainstream media was afraid to touch. For Spiegelman, who knew this earlier work well, the genre was an obvious choice through which to tell the century’s most traumatic story. Today, of course, so canonical has Maus become that its decision to tell the story of the Holocaust with animals seems inevitable, even as genealogical connections to the funny animals genre remain largely lost to history.
This in part explains why, despite the achievement of Maus and its ongoing influence, the funny animals genre has not seen a revitalization in the US.1 Maus helped bring entirely new readers to comics and helped open doors—to museums, classrooms, the New York Times—that had historically been closed to the form. Nonetheless, the rise of the “graphic novel” that followed has remained overwhelmingly dominated by all-too-human realism and autobiography.
Across the ocean, however, Maus was recognizable from the start in terms of its generic conventions, because in Europe funny animals had remained a vibrant genre. Long after the work of Donald Duck’s longtime cartoonist, Carl Barks, had become known only to aficionados in the US, Barks’s comics continued to be translated and reprinted in Europe, where they remain immensely popular today. And Barks’s work inspired generations of cartoonists across the continent to develop a wide range of funny animals comics for both young and adult readers.
For example, Finland has Moomin, a strip originally created in 1947 by Tove Jansson, featuring creatures vaguely resembling a cross between a hippo and the Pillsbury doughboy. While these strips have been incredibly influential in Europe, and especially in the north, they have until recently been hard to find in the US. Last month, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Jansson’s birth, Drawn & Quarterly published a slipcased edition of the complete run of the original strip as authored by Jansson.2 As a window into the classic tradition of funny animals comics in Europe, I can think of no greater resource—or pleasure.
Finland has a thriving comics culture, but little has been translated into English. That is beginning to change, albeit very slowly. This past September, for example, Dark Horse published Jaybird by siblings Lauri and Kaakko Ahonen. A heartbreaking parable about the fruits of xenophobia and militarism, the book is told with very little dialogue and no textual narration. The central protagonist is an adorable young bird, devoted to an invalid mother who has used her son’s fear of the outside world to keep him subservient to her needs.
In the tradition of children’s books, we might expect that the story will end with our protagonist discovering that the outside world is full of wonders, freeing himself from his mother’s dying grasp and from the looming portraits of military ancestors. But such is not to be, and while I don’t want to give away the ending, suffice it to say this book serves as a brilliant (and gorgeous) example of the funny animals genre doing what it does best: putting on display the darkest, most uncomfortable truths about the human condition through adorable creatures both feathered and furry, creatures who leave us vulnerable to truths we might otherwise deflect.
Now, of course, I have opened up a can of worms—a basket of puppies? a barrel of monkeys?—I cannot hope to adequately consider in the space remaining. But I find myself unable to leave the topic without touching upon a few more beloved titles in this genre, such as the long-running French series Donjon (Dungeon), created by cartoonists Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar and offering an extended and loving funny animals satire of the sword and sorcery genre; and Trondheim’s ongoing autobiographical comics Les petits riens (Little Nothings), in which he represents himself and his family as animals. Both of these series have been translated into English and published by NBM (only the first four volumes of Les petits riens have been translated thus far, forcing this devoted fan to begin learning French at long last).
Elsewhere I have mentioned the beautiful stories of Renaud Dillies, who uses mice, small birds, and other fragile animals to delve into the meaning of love and art. Thus far NBM has published three of his works in English—Bubbles & Gondola, Abelard (with Régis Hautière), and, most recently, Betty Blues, perhaps the most bruising of the three—and we can only hope that more are coming.
France has also brought us the ongoing series District 14 by Pierre Gabus and Romuald Reutimann, perhaps the most ambitious funny animals comic ever produced. The series remains underappreciated in the US despite the efforts of cartoonist Jeff Smith. In part this is the result of the publisher—the English-language imprint of the pioneering French publisher Les Humanoïdes Associés—failing to find a toehold in the changing US comics market, leaving many of their best works to gather dust in warehouses.
District 14 deserves, indeed demands, all the attention in the world—and indeed what it offers in return for the attention it demands is a world, a complex society where anthropomorphic animals and humans coexist, alongside a more recently formed community of alien immigrants. In a story that already spans 600 pages and two oversized volumes, District 14 is encyclopedic in its aspirations, using funny animals to comment on the worst in humanity—corruption, racism, avarice, and brutality—and the best—heroism, sacrifice, and friendship. With dozens of fully realized characters and a good half-dozen subplots weaving through the narrative, the book is no easy read; but it is one of the most rewarding stories I have encountered in the last year in any medium.
I would be remiss not to mention as well Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, a series not in need of translation since it is, in fact, British. Grandville is one of the most innovative and entertaining funny animals comics today, drawing on both detective fiction and steampunk science fiction. Beautifully designed at every level, these books are treasures and, again, like so many funny animals books, underappreciated in the US. This month offers a chance to change all that, when Dark Horse publishes the fourth volume in the series, one that will send Grandville into the heart of a conspiracy involving religious zealots and ethnic cleansing in which the minority humans are the target.
Finally, we have what is arguably the most accomplished example of the genre in contemporary European comics and perhaps the one best known to American readers. The ongoing series Blacksad is the work of Spanish cartoonists Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. Published in the US by Dark Horse (which seems to be carving out something of a niche in sophisticated European funny animals comics), the fifth volume, Amarillo, has just been published in English.3
Blacksad is a black cat detective working in a 1950s America entirely populated by animals, where prejudice and injustice are as thick as the bumpers on the Eldorado that, in this latest adventure, our unemployed hero is hired to drive to Tulsa. There is no funny animals comic that is better drawn than Blacksad, and that alone is reason to celebrate these books. It is also a pitch-perfect homage to American noir and hard-boiled fiction, one that reimagines these genres—so often deployed in the service of paranoia and misogyny—as sites for imagining a radical humanism. Here Díaz Canales and Guarnido use both the funny animals and the American 1950s to allegorize the challenges of our present moment. Just as we imagine ourselves worlds apart from the animals, we fondly convince ourselves that the conformities, fears, and institutions of the 1950s belong to another age. Blacksad uses our imagined distance from its characters and setting to bring us face to face with a world—covered with fur though it might be—that is frighteningly, thrillingly familiar.
This somewhat breathless survey might give the wrong impression about the rightness of funny animals comics. There are plenty of bad examples of this genre coming out of Europe (although few of them, fortunately, are translated). But these remarkable highlights, past and present, remind us how rich and vibrant the genre can be and still is in other parts of the world, and how lucky we are that classic funny animals comics like Pogo and Moomin are being reprinted even as contemporary riches in the genre make their way across the ocean to us, where I am certain they will inspire a new generation of American cartoonists to revitalize this essential genre.
- One significant exception to this is the self-publishing movement of the 1980s and ’90s, in which Dave Sim’s Cerebus, featuring an anthropomorphic aardvark, and Jeff Smith’s Bone, featuring a wide range of funny animals, played a major role. ↩
- Almost complete: the strip’s short (1947–48) original run, in the children’s section of the Finland-Swedish leftist newspaper Ny Tid, was reprinted in 2007 but has never appeared in English. The main strip was created directly for the British market and ran from 1954 to 1975. ↩
- The first three Blacksad volumes were collected into a single English-language volume, so technically this is the third book of Blacksad stories published in the US. ↩