The other night I was re-reading one of my favorite graphic novels, Pride of Baghdad, and found myself having an interior debate as to whether or not the novel would function as well, or at all, if the characters were humans instead of animals. I concluded with certainty that no, it would not, but could not specifically decide why – it was more of a gut feeling. This got me to thinking: animal protagonists are not an uncommon sight in any type of story, whether it be prose, oral, or a graphic novel – but why? And what makes them a powerful tool for the graphic novel specifically?
One major reason we use animals instead of humans is because we are numb to the human side of many issues. We have a tendency to focus on the hows and whys of tragedies on a grander scale (“How could this have happened?!”), but ignore the impact of the event on an individualized level. In a story that tries to put us in the shoes of a human in the tragedy, we are always thinking in the context of that tragedy. We cannot separate the event from the character, which is not always a good thing. An animal, however, does not exist in the same context as a human. The lions in Pride of Baghdad are unaware of the larger scale of the situation they are caught in. They do not understand war, only survival. When the reader steps back and looks at the animals as a stand-in for humans, their purpose becomes clear – they make it easier for the reader to separate the war from the civilians caught in the war. They’re no longer just people stuck in a warzone, they’re people.
There are other literary benefits to using animals – the reader’s suspension of disbelief is triggered as soon as they are greeted by an animal protagonist, making it easier for them to accept other fantastic elements of the story. It can be easier for us to put ourselves in an animal’s shoes (or paws, if you prefer) – a black reader may find it hard to understand a white protagonist, but everyone’s on equal footing when it comes to understanding a lion. Animals also come without the same distracting elements that humans do – when a human in a story is fired, we wonder about severance payments, how long his insurance will last, whether he’ll get unemployment payments… When a bee gets fired, we don’t worry about that. We just assume it will not be relevant to the story unless it is brought up.
In a graphic novel, animals are a powerful device because they can possess a wide range of expressions and characteristics that humans simply can’t. Tracy Butler, author of Lackadaisy, a webcomic where the characters are all cats, illustrates this well in her tutorial on drawing expressions. She uses the ears, whiskers, claws, tails, and fur of her characters to give them a wide array of signals for their emotions. A surprised human character can widen their eyes and open their mouth, but they can’t also perk up their ears and fluff out their tail. This makes animals very emotive and useful for a graphical format.
Animals can also be more vibrant. Nature provides animals with a wider array of shapes and colors than humans, which translates well to a format where color and shape draw the reader’s attention. Humans are visually distinct in both our bodies and clothes, but we can never be as distinct as a bright pink flamingo is from a dirty-gold lioness. A reader will never struggle to differentiate those two characters.
So to sum up my thoughts, there are two fronts on which animals function in graphic novels. The first is the way they function in all stories: providing suspension of disbelief, being easier to sympathize with, being metaphors, etc. The second is that their physical distinctions make them easier to differentiate, more interesting to look at, and easier to express emotions with. Pride of Baghdad could not function with human characters both because the story would be fundamentally different – somehow less moving and powerful – but because the art would also lose something as well. The same sunset-like hues and swathes of yellow would not fit in a world of humans like it does in a world of lions. The detailed expressions and body language would not feel the same coming from a human as it does coming from the feline cast. There simply are stories that animals convey better than humans do, and illustrated stories make that readily apparent.
Featured image and scene of chaos are from Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
Cats image from Lackadaisy by Tracy Butler