Animals have a very special role to play in stories, at least according to the long history of tales utilizing their presence as potent symbolism. Throughout the world of story-telling, a multitude of beasts have had very specific representation pinned to their proverbial rears; black sheep, loyal hounds, royal lions, and so on. This is not about to go on to discuss the great injustice placed on the cart of story progression tugged along by the tugging pack animal, wheels deeply burrowed in the tracks of tropes and expected symbolism. Like any well-established narrative convention, some of the most interesting examples are the ones that turn the method on its head and deconstruct the rules to see what makes the clockwork tick, all the while adhering to the form of maxim enough to be recognizable and often, likeably roguish in the unorthodox presentation. The following are comics displaying such a turning-table effect where animals overtake the reigns to becoming the main characters.
Beasts of Burden
In the iconic small-town American neighborhood of Burden Hill, strange and unexplainable situations are investigated by the best-suited for it: the local dog population. Amidst the white picket fences, wafting scents of cooling pie on windowsills, rambunctious pre-teens getting in and out of forgivable mischief, and a widely chaseable feline population, an oddball pack of hounds find one paranormal event that requires their attention after another, working hard to be the best guard dogs with little to no recognition. While dark in subject, the presentation is rather lighthearted, picking up on the unbreakably enthusiastic tail-wagging of a dog at play. Lovingly written by Evan Dorkin (Milk and Cheese, Dork!) and gorgeously illustrated by Jill Thompson (The Sandman, Scary Godmother), Beasts of Burden is the recipient of multiple Eisner Awards. Despite the popularity of the series, there is a limited amount of available content, a 4-issue miniseries released in 2009, a one-shot issue crossover with Hellboy in 2010, and most recently, 3 issues released in 2011 collected in Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch. Take the chance and take a gander at this wonderful comic.
When the cover of a comic happens to display the names of Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman, The Invisibles) and Frank Quitely (All-Star Superman, The Sandman: Endless Nights), there’s no question of the quality held together by the binding. These creative titans have collaborated on a number of oft-considered groundbreaking series and have been crucial in the furthering of comics being considered a beautiful narrative medium. That said, We3 is not the black sheep of their well-tended flock. The twisted science-gone-too-far story of three animals, a cat, dog, and hare transformed into militarized mech-inhabiting forces of nature reads like Homeward Bound meets Robocop. What follows is a bloody rampage from this unlikely brotherhood of recently freed half-aware hazards desperately trying to find the most important thing their tech-invaded minds can conceive: home. It’s a beautiful eddy of release stained with a terrifying warning of morality and absolutely deserves a read. The plot is based off of The Amazing 3 (or Wonder 3 in Japan), a manga and anime by Osamu Tezuka (Astroboy), an almost unheard of series in the western hemisphere that’s rich with rather progressive views on ecological concerns and poverty. Despite We3 releasing more than 40 years after The Amazing 3, it utilizes the concept to greater effect, successfully hitting the essential chords of a succinct and poignant story with broken English and transcendent humanism.
Made by Spanish creators Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido and originally published by French company Dargaud, Blacksad is the winner of many international prizes, including three Eisner Awards. Framed in the noir film style, the world of Blacksad fills a recognizable 1950 with an all-anthropomorphized animal cast whose species echo personalities, roles, and character types. Common tropes are utilized in this representation of characters: police are foxes and german shepherds, reptiles populate the seedy underground, and gorillas are boxers. The stories are segmented in four individual installments, all following a classic down-on-his-luck private eye named John Blacksad, a tall, dark, and handsome black cat with a distinctive chiseled white jaw. Traditional noir story formats are used wonderfully to help expand this animalistic world filled with the realistic aspects of the time. Segregation and persecution are prevalent forces in the western world and our hero finds himself in the midst of these forces all too often, especially in the installment Red Soul, where famous historical figures of the time are represented in their animal forms and pseudonyms almost reverse engineering the mechanic of utilizing an animal type to represent character. Senator Joseph McCarthy as the cockerel Senator Gallo, painter Mark Rothko as Sergei Litvak the bear, and Greenberg, a bison, portraying Allen Ginsberg. Blacksad has often been put to the side and negatively considered a “furry comic” (lumped with a culture already doused in misconception and unfair judgement) due to its use of animalized human characters, but its genuine quality allows it to shine beyond the stereotypes and stigma. Wonderfully written and lusciously illustrated, Blacksad is an entertaining and thoughtful examination of the noir genre as a whole, while being perfectly dedicated to the structure. Additionally, since it’s not an American release, it has been carefully translated into: Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, Czech, English, Finnish, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Swedish, and Turkish. No excuses for foreign friends’ birthdays anymore.
Pride of Baghdad
Apologies must be expressed due to this choice. Not because it’s in any way a poor comic; quite far from it actually. It could be easily the best book on this list. No, recompense must be sought because this story is by and far one of the most sincere and moving tale I’ve ever experienced and it will hit the absolute tender of your heart like a poison-tipped spike-covered train falling from the the stratosphere. Pride of Baghdad follows a family of lions attempting to escape the wreckage of the Baghdad Zoo after the United States bombs their captivity to hell and back. Created by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and Niko Henrichon (Fables, New X-Men), this story is quite unlike anything out there, beyond just what can be found in the comic medium. Though a fictionalized tale of an occurrence that genuinely happened during the 2003 invasion of Iraq to four lions who escaped the Baghdad Zoo, the minimal cast of animals embodying different viewpoints of the Iraq War as a whole, crafting a detailed and personal commentary of the conflict. Winner of IGN’s award for Best Graphic Novel in 2006, Pride of Baghdad paints a fertile wonderland of animal life overrun by the trauma of humanity’s wars and provides a bittersweet account of family, nature, and yes, pride.
My pulls for 4/2 are:
- Animal Man #19 by Jeff Lemire & Steve Pugh
- Swamp Thing #19 by Charles Soule & Kano
- Fairest #14 by Bill Willingham & Barry Kitson
- Snapshot #3 by Andy Diggle & Jock
(top image contains cover art of Animal Man #19, Swamp Thing #19, Snapshot #3 and Fairest #18)