Applying human attributes to animals and objects is not new or revolutionary in storytelling, but anthropomorphizing characters can be a strength. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are testaments to the tactic. But these famous examples tend to be for children. What about the adults?
While the film Sausage Party showed there are audiences willing to consume such stories, comic books have been ahead of that curve for decades. Here are a few of our favorite stories featuring anthropomorphic characters to help us connect with the animals inside every one of us.
Juan Díaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido
Dark Horse Comics
If a Disney animator made noir, it would be Blacksad. And actually, that’s exactly what Blacksad is.
Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido teamed up to make an anthropomorphic noir tale about a black cat set in the 1950s United States. Canales and Guarnido both worked in animation, and Guarnido even worked for Walt Disney Animation before creating the series with his partner.
Blacksad is the main character, solving mysteries and meeting femmes fatales with hidden agendas. Characters are rendered as animals, the species often playing into their professions and mannerisms. Dogs are loyal and/or mean, cats can be aloof or precise, reptiles are cunning or deceptive, et cetera. Their fur and skin colors often play up racial stereotypes, as Blacksad often faces discrimination both for being a cat and for his black coat.
The mysteries are strong, drawing inspiration from Steve McQueen and Humphrey Bogart’s best films. Each volume is in Spanish, but Dark Horse Comics has released a few English translations. Their latest translated installment, Amarillo, features Blacksad traveling through middle America, where he runs into analogs of the beatnik scene including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Beautifully rendered, painfully heartbreaking, and deftly characterized, each Blacksad volume is a worthy addition to any collection.
Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda
One of the best new comics of 2016, the Eisner-nominated series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda is critically acclaimed for good reason. The linework is elegant, the colors are gorgeous, and the story weaves topical and relevant real-world issues in with an imaginative concept in a way that renders the story revered in the fantasy genre.
One of the best-reviewed and best-selling comics of 2016 (the first issue sold out of multiple printings at comic shops), Monstress chronicles the story of a young woman exploring her past — as well as her connection to the monster inside of her. Writer Marjorie Liu explores racism through the lens of her own experience of an Asian-American in the context of identity and heritage, creating a story with Sana Takeda that is wholly unique.
The story, set in a matriarchal society with female main characters, keeps women in focus. Maika, the focus of the series, is a former slave who harbors a monster within her. Other nefarious factions, struggling against each other, learn of Maika’s struggle and wish to control the monster for their own purposes, propelling her through her own epic journey to learn about herself and her mysterious mother.
Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Everyone knows Saga by now. Fiona Staples' striking visuals combine effortless linework, simple layouts, and breathtaking colors to render a fantastic sci-fi tale on par with the Star Wars saga. And Brian K. Vaughan knocks each issue out of the park, deftly weaving in new characters into the story of Hazel and her parents, Marko and Alana.
Born on a warring planet and its moon, respectively, Marko and Alana met in a prison where one was a guard and the other a prisoner of war. Their species typically hate each other, but love at first sight struck hard. The story begins with the couple on the lam, hiding in a literal grease monkey’s garage, where Alana gives birth to their daughter. A grown-up version of Hazel narrates each issue’s events.
The story includes many unforgettable anthropomorphic characters, including the fan favorite Lying Cat who only says the phrase “LYING” whenever a character, uh, ahem, lies. Then there’s Ghüs, the adorable humanoid seal in overalls, willing to defend his friends with his trusty battle ax. Both became loved after their first appearances and earned more time in the book. And that’s one of Saga’s best traits: how the creators engage with fan response and reward them for their enthusiasm, even if they occasionally break a few hearts along the way.
Read on for more anthropomorphic comics you should pick up.
David Petersen created this sprawling epic about brave warriors who defend those who cannot protect themselves. The titular Mouse Guard consists of different members, showcased in different eras, as they partake in battles, quests, and contests of might.
Petersen’s first two series took place in chronological order, setting up a betrayal of the Guard and their subsequent defense, all while building the legend of one of their greatest warriors, the Black Axe. The next volume delved into the Black Axe’s past, showing how his legend was established.
But Petersen’s focus has shifted lately, toward a book of production materials and artwork, a roleplaying game campaign, and two Legends of the Guard collections made up of short stories from other creators. However, Petersen said he’s back to work on the main series with another installment in the series’ past, focusing on a war between the Guard and some of their main adversaries: WEASELS.
So if you ever imagined a squadron of blade-brandishing mice killing a bunch of angry weasels, get caught up now before the next series starts hitting shelves.
Dark Horse Comics, Fantagraphics
Stan Sakai is a master cartoonist, cited by many working today as an inspiration in the field. His long-running opus, Usagi Yojimbo, began in 1984 and continues to this day. The comic was published by Fantagraphics in the '80s, but has since (and continues to) come out through Dark Horse Comics.
Miyamoto Usagi is a rabbit and a ronin, traveling throughout feudal Japan and often performing good deeds for those in need. One of the longest running independent comic series, Sakai’s Usagi has even appeared alongside more famous anthropomorphic creations in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics and cartoons.
But Sakai’s stories cannot be overshadowed by some half-shelled turtles. The critically acclaimed Book 15: Grasscutter does not require any previous reading to understand, nor does the just-as-good Book 18: Travels with Jotaro, chronicling Usagi’s complex-but-loving relationship with his son. So don’t be intimidated by Usagi’s over-30-year history, just dive in and enjoy some amazing comics about a rabbit remorsefully fucking shit up.
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Don Rosa, Carl Barks
YES, Uncle Scrooge. Not a typo, not a mistake. The late Carl Barks’ original comic strips — later continued by the great Don Rosa — maintained a historical accuracy while popularizing Scrooge and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
Barks created many of the characters and stories that would consist of Disney’s first syndicated cartoon, the beloved Duck Tales, including the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose, and of course Scrooge McDuck. For his contributions to the medium, he was one of the first inductees into the Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Rosa later took over the comics and used Barks’ original stories as his foundation, tossing aside the chaff that other creators added to the mythos, and maintaining the spirit of the original series. Fantagraphics has been publishing both creators' original strips for Disney in new, oversize, hardcover volumes. Rosa continues to tour conventions around the country — you might notice the sign at his table that warns less-savvy fans that the Uncle Scrooge comics and the Duck Tales cartoons are separate entities, so make sure you keep whatever bullshit quips you come up with to yourself when approaching him.