Maggie’s World 061: Funny Animals
Aesop’s stories teach lessons for centuries.
Folk tales of Coyote and Fox and Rabbit are brought to an American audience by Joel Chandler Harris.
In Britain, Alice grows to accept that Wonderland is a world of talking animals, an elephant’s child gets a longer nose, and a hedgehog takes in washing.
In America, one of the earliest animated characters is a dinosaur, interacting with his creator in 1914.
The earliest broadcast television image is a doll of the 1919 comics character Felix.
By 1973, it is no leap of the imagination to accept a fox playing the traditional role of Robin Hood, when Disney goes from Richard Todd in 1952 to a fox voiced by Brian Bedford. (Did the 1973 film become the inspiration for a generation of “Furry” fans? But that’s not today’s topic.)
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or character to something that isn’t human. And that’s pretty basic to “funny animals” in comic books, comic strips, and animation.
So … Comics …
What were the earliest anthropomorphic characters in comics? Felix? Bre’r Rabbit? Krazy Kat and that gang? It’s easy to get caught up in looking for specifics—setting up the foundation for ongoing arguments. And then there were Mighty Mouse, Pink Panther, Howard the Duck, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … How many will I forget? Let’s understand from the beginning that this discussion will omit hundreds, because there are more than I can count.
By the time I began to collect comic books (at age 3½), newsstands were packed with those characters, and I took them all for granted. Most told new stories about animals appearing on movie screens. As in:
- MGM: Tom and Jerry. Barney Bear and Benny Burro.
- Walter Lantz: Woody Woodpecker. Oswald Rabbit. Andy Panda.
- Warner Brothers: Bugs Bunny. Porky Pig. Sniffles. Henery Hawk.
- Walt Disney: Donald Duck. Mickey Mouse. Goofy. Pluto. Three Little Pigs.
Those are only a few of the ones I found in the comics I was buying in the 1940s. Frankly, I’d never seen cartoons with Barney or Henery and didn’t even connect animation with my growing collection. The Donald Duck I knew from comic books spoke clearly. I always knew the licensed characters better from their comic book versions than I did from their animated incarnations.
In any case, my comics in the 1940s were packed with animals who were pretty much just people in the guise of a variety of other animals. As they had been in Aesop’s Fables 2500 years earlier.
Why Animals in Comics?
For one thing, the comics creator has an infinite resource in design when the characters are picked out of a menagerie. Even the youngest reader can tell Tom from Jerry at a glance.
Moreover, readers can identify role models without regard to skin color or ethnic groupings. Age and gender are often distinguishing characteristics, but the audience can be more broad when its members look for characters with which they can identify. I’m looking at you, Roadrunner!
Aside from Shirts and Hats …
More realistic animals did get their own comics stories now and then.
I grew up with Animal Comics, where I first encountered Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and the publication edited by Oskar Lebeck did stay true to its title by carrying a variety of other animal features. These even included the licensed comic book version of Howard R. Garis’ Uncle Wiggily. Garis was still writing his own stories, but his often cover-featured rabbit acquired such other writers and artists as Kelly in new comics material.
Not all the animals were of the animals-as-humans variety, though.
Rover began as a captioned feature by Dan Noonan, whose tales of a cocker spaniel in the Caribbean started in Animal Comics #20 (April 1946). And the prolific Gaylord Du Bois provided “Chuckwagon Charley’s Tales,” in which a kindly cowboy told animal stories to a couple of kids. When Animal Comics came to an end, the feature moved to Roy Rogers Comics in the late 1940s.
Speaking of Rogers, his Trigger, Gene Autry’s Champion, and The Lone Ranger’s Silver eventually got their own series. Nor were horses the only animals to star in more realistic comics. So did Rin Tin and Lassie.
Especially in the case of the more realistic animal tales, the stories focused on adventure, rather than humor.
Why, then, fans’ adoption of the “funny animals” description for all of them?
At a guess, it’s because the term was an existing title that fit a spectrum of material. Fawcett’s Funny Animals found its way into collections—and fan parlance.
After all, we’ve called what we read “comic strips” and “comic books” for so long that we long ago tired of the now-and-then articles bemoaning more serious tales with the plaintive cry, “Comic strips and comic books aren’t comic!”
Not all “funny animals” are funny.
Because, as was the case with Aesop (and tales of Coyote, Fox, Rabbit, Anansi, and more), some anthropomorphic stories go beyond action-adventure and farce.
Though his career began with a newspaper-strip biography of P.T. Barnum, Walt Kelly spent years developing funny-animal entertainment. He morphed his comic book Pogo character into comic strip format for the New York Star. But, as he did so, he began creating political cartoons for the newspaper, and they ran almost as counterpoint to the animals rollicking on the comics page. When the Star folded, he took Pogo to the Post-Hall Syndicate, and the antics resumed as before. But slowly his characters began to reflect events outside the Okefenokee Swamp, and several sequences became grim satiric commentaries on current events.
Among the most notable cartoonists to continue in that vein is Art Spiegelman, whose self-published feature received national recognition when Maus won a Pulitzer Prize. Its autobiographical tale of the Holocaust as told in the form of a father mouse’s conversations with his son is one of the most stunning examples of the simultaneous distance and empathy possible in a “funny animal” comic strip.
Comedy and tragedy, fantasy and reality, low gags and high art: They can all be found in comics starring those “funny animals.”
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!