ByMelissa H., writer at
Writer. Nerd. Penchant for liking villains. Follow me @wickednerdery
Melissa H.

I’m sure we can all recall various fables - often in the form of movies like Beauty & the Beast and The Little Mermaid - from our childhood that featured anthropomorphic characters. Those animals (and occasionally objects) that walked, talked, thought and had emotions just as a human would. Whether they were teaching us vocabulary, math or basic manners, they were a cornerstone of our early learning development. As we reached maturity, most of those magical creatures faded out to make way for real people as main characters. Most, but not all.

Select artists chose animals once again to tell very adult stories. Art Spiegelman used cats and mice to tell the biographical story of his father, a Holocaust-survivor, in Maus. Writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido created an adult noir series titled Blacksad, which has a black cat as its protagonist. They all returned to the magic of anthropomorphized characters to explore the darkest sides of humanity. The question is… Why?

Symbols & Accessibility: How Does Anthropomorphism Teach Us What It Means To Be 'Human'?

A cat and a weasel take the case. (Canales & Guarnido)
A cat and a weasel take the case. (Canales & Guarnido)

In children’s literature, animals make the story more accessible to a wider audience. Animals may be less threatening: a bunny in a dress or a monkey in a shirt exploring the world and getting into trouble is cuter and more fun than a human doing the same. There’s also the great advantage that an aardvark or a bluebird has no gender, race, or religion on the outset. Animals are blank slates upon which both the creator and child can write, and thanks to this blank slate, a child can emotionally connect and empathize more easily, aiding in their social growth and development.

Farm animals cover Communism in George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'. (Orwell, Halas and Batchelor)
Farm animals cover Communism in George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'. (Orwell, Halas and Batchelor)

What changes, and somewhat drastically, approaching the teen and young adult market is the narrative's goal. Once five little monkeys taught children how to count backwards and the importance of not jumping on the bed, but now farm animals are teaching high school students the concepts of Communism and classism. The animals are also more carefully chosen to fit a stereotype based in common metaphors: horses and dogs tend to be loyal, tigers and panthers regal, and pigs, well, piggish. This, ultimately, is reflective of the learned appreciation for symbolism and metaphor as a reader ages.

Far From Fiction: Stories About Animals That Provide Greater Social Commentary

As the reader matures, so do the stories the animals tell. (Spiegelman)
As the reader matures, so do the stories the animals tell. (Spiegelman)

By the time we reach adult novels, the traditional use of anthropomorphic animals is further deepened for effect. The traditional animal metaphors are used to greater extent and with greater symbolism. Both graphic novels acknowledge their readers will come in with presumptions based on common animal characteristics and play into them to great benefit of their respective tales. In Maus, the inherent cat-mouse/predator-prey relationship is given a nod as Nazis are made cats and Jewish people mice; in Blacksad law enforcement characters are canines while criminals frequently show up as slithering amphibians and scurrying rodents.

"When the political, religious, social, or personal risks are high...the use of animals has long provided intellectual and psychological distance and allowed us to critically explore that which we would not be comfortable exploring directly." ~ Burke And Copenhaver.

One major difference between children’s literature and adult literature is the level of connection the reader makes with these characters. As adults, thought processes develop in complexity, and so too does their reaction to humanized animals. The emotional connections to these characters seem to both loosen and widen. Knowing humanized animals are logically impossible, adults are able to emotionally separate from what happens to them in the story. While adults can still empathize, they're more inclined to objective thinking than children. On the flip side, because adults have a deeper understanding of symbolism, they will also have a far easier time connecting anthropomorphized animals to themselves and those around them. As objectivity, subjectivity, and life experience work in balance a greater message about humanity can be found within the art.

These critters are no longer the cuddly ones from your youth. (Canales & Guarnido)
These critters are no longer the cuddly ones from your youth. (Canales & Guarnido)

With that contrast in mind, artists are able to delve into far deeper, more troubling, issues than might otherwise be impossible without concern for alienating the reader. Issues such as racism, classism, corruption, drug abuse, betrayal, revenge, child abuse, and all manner of prejudices can be covered with an honesty and directness that lends itself to this style of storytelling. Both Maus and Blacksad cover these topics to varying degrees, and always with an unflinching eye towards reality. Knowing their audience can take that mental break if need be allows both graphic novels to be almost shockingly explicit with their refusal to shy away from various displays of violence and cruelty. That their audience will also see humanity in the blank slate of animals allows the creators to use their freedom to produce important messages in those beautifully horrific images.

Of Mice and Men: Using Animals To Explore Human History and Psychology

Maus is a disturbing trip into the experiences of a Holocaust survivor.  (Spiegelman)
Maus is a disturbing trip into the experiences of a Holocaust survivor. (Spiegelman)

Maus focuses on the true experiences of Art Spiegelman’s father during World War II and The Holocaust. Traditionally a difficult topic to begin with, Spiegelman is able to delve into the true horrors of what his parents went through while keeping the content both palatable and shocking. A careful selection of animal species works as a quick guide to understand the Nazi views concerning different nationalities: Jewish people are mice (a.k.a. vermin), Polish are pigs (a.k.a. swine), French are frogs (a common slur for the French) and Americans are dogs. However, aside from faces and tails, the characters remain human in appearance, driving home the reality of what occurred during The Holocaust. It also causes a surreal effect for the reader as characters hide their cultural identities using animal masks or switch species when their true identities are revealed to the reader. This turns the graphic novel into something akin to a fever dream not unlike what it may have been like living in Europe during that time.

Animals get the adult treatment in 'Blacksad'.  (Canales & Guarnido)
Animals get the adult treatment in 'Blacksad'. (Canales & Guarnido)

The graphic novel series, Blacksad, occurs a decade or two after Spiegelman’s father’s tales from Maus, yet covers similar adult topics such as racism and other types of prejudice using anthropomorphic characters. It also mixes animal characteristics with human ones, but the species vary more and are based closer to the character’s personality and profession than ethnicity. For example, one story involves a racist political organization similar to the Nazis. The species vary widely, but each animal has white fur, scales, or skin.

"Ultimately in the act of making something unhuman manages to be even more so. In it, we recognize both our inadequacies and our potential." ~ Akhtar

While Maus is starkly drawn, the coloring mostly black and white with shocking pops of red, Blacksad is richly detailed and colored. Blacksad works hard to enrich the fictional world it creates, to heighten the sense of reality; Maus strips things down to remind the reader how true its story is.

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Despite widely varying techniques on the page, ultimately both graphic novels allow the reader a strong connection to the stories. Both encourage their audience to think about the bigger picture; about humanity, about what people are capable of and how those things can have a lasting affect on generations of society. They are a warning of how easily things can go horrifyingly wrong, but also a reminder that hope, love, and determination can save us from ourselves.

Not Just About Storytelling: Anthropomorphism Aims To Educate Its Audience

From kid-friendly to adults-only, the goal is education.  (Disney, Canales & Guarnido)
From kid-friendly to adults-only, the goal is education. (Disney, Canales & Guarnido)

Children’s literature uses animals as main characters to aid the child’s connection to the story, to stimulate their minds so that they might have an easier time learning and making connections with the world around them. As readers grow into their teens, these animals remain inclusive to subject matters, exploring broader societal and historical issues. By the time a reader reaches adulthood, anthropomorphic animals walk a fine line between drawing the reader in and creating an emotional buffer, exploring the darkest sides of what humanity is capable of. Graphic novels such as Maus and Blacksad force us to look at ourselves individually and as a whole, without the risk of offending our sensibilities, and in doing so get us to consider whether we want to embrace our animalism or our humanity in the end.

This article was selected to be part of the fanzine, Graphic Novels: The Breakthrough Medium That Revolutionized Storytelling.

Sources: Academia, PsychCentral, NPR, Comics Alliance


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