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The Animal in the Comics

November 12, 2013

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What do animals signify in comics? The hybrid interface of the beast and the human? The ends of the human?

Before signifying anything so depressing as death writ large, the animal in the comics is generally a cipher of otherness. Its appearance almost always accompanies the parodic veiling of the human. The style of such comics de-familiarizes. It’s never simply language–but language and pictures, which bear an indexical relation to the things they represent.

The proverbial one thousand words of a picture’s worth may grandly fail to express the value of even the most mundane of comics. Imagine how much greater that failure when the picture in question is an irregularity, a trick rhythm in the imagistic textures of graphic narrative.

An example of such an anomaly appears in Ho Che Anderson’s King, a graphic novel biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

At key moments of crisis, Anderson’s characters appear feral. They bare their teeth like wild animals or else like skulls, human heads caught in the flash of an X-ray.  What is most disturbing about this tic of the illustrator’s hand is the deliberate brevity of these moments that obtrude upon the real so as to signal both a momento mori and a momento bestie.

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 Bared Teeth from King

As if to say, “Remember Thou Art Mortal,” these toothy scenes of aggression also beckon, “Remember Thou Art Animal.” But toward whom is the warning directed? To King, Anderson’s readers or both?

Hans Holbein "The Ambassadors"

Hans Holbein “The Ambassadors”

Like some impossible cross between academic biography, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “Berenice,” King reveals dream logics of death and drive in these snapshots of the grotesque.

Omar Hirsig's comic adaptation of Poe's "Berenice"

Omar Hirsig’s comic adaptation of Poe’s “Berenice”

What continues to perplex long after our initial confrontation with these odd scenes of naturalistic expression is a nagging question about the typicality of such moments in sequential art.

Doesn’t the animal often function in comics as the semiotic talisman for conjuring the limits of representation?

Beyond the comic’s fascination with funny animal stories, these eruptions in King demonstrate how the process of “becoming animal” underwrites even those comics that have seemingly no investment whatever in the fable and its derivatives.


< originally published in College Literature 38.3 (2011) and elaborated upon in Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels >

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