By Hiba Aleem
Ahmed, Maaheen, editor. Strong Bonds: Child-Animal Relationships in Comics. Collection ACME, vol. 6, Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2021.
Some of the most popular works of children’s literature and comics have often owed their very popularity to the child-animal dyad at the heart of their narratives, be it Tintin and Snowy, Calvin and Hobbes, or Charlie Brown and Snoopy. While popular culture has mostly romanticized the bond between children and animals over the years, potentially hidden beneath this romanticization can be a multitude of socio-political and gendered ideologies masquerading as entertainment. Sometimes mirroring and oftentimes sanitizing real-life issues and complexities, as Maaheen Ahmed’s insightful, compelling, and thought-provoking anthology notes, comics, as popular culture artifacts, are both reflections and refractions of our material realities. Compiled with the intention of fostering connections “between the fields of comics studies, childhood studies, and animal studies,” as Ahmed notes in her preface (9), the anthology explores the perennially popular child-animal relationship in diverse comic strips and comic books. The comics selected for analysis in the anthology range from classics like Little Orphan Annie, Tintin, Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes and superhero favorites like Supergirl to newer, unsettling works like Panther and wordless tales like Jinchalo, covering several decades, countries, and genres. Divided into five interesting, thematically different sections (alternative families, queered relationships, childhood under threat, politics, and poetics), the anthology brings together thirteen engaging readings that explore the metaphorical underpinnings, affective significations, gendered implications, ideological undercurrents, and real-life reproductions of child-animal relationships in comics.
The first section, titled “Alternative Families,” explores the child-adult, and child-animal binaries in comics, with all their hierarchical ramifications. The section begins with Peter W. Y. Lee’s exploration of Harold Gray’s comic strip Little Orphan Annie, where Lee notes how the child-animal relationship reasserts the American middle-class readers’ socially sanctioned idea of a perfect family by using dogs as conduits for introducing Annie to the idea of motherhood. That comics like Little Orphan Annie replicate gender roles in the socio-political landscape they are rooted in is unsurprising of course, given that they are but popular culture artifacts reflecting the material realities of their age. As Gert Meesters and Pascal Lefévre note in their analysis of the Flemish comic strip Jommeke though, comics do not just reflect, but also reiterate and reinforce the ideas and values integral to our social imaginary. In their chapter, Meesters and Lefévre highlight how animals and their anarchic conduct serve as binary oppositions to the supposed superiority of human decorum, and through their analysis of how Jommeke positions the ‘human’ as always superior to the ‘animal’, with the ‘normal’ in every story entailing a going back to being ‘human’, they unpack our anthropocentric and narcissistic tendency of viewing everything beyond our comprehension as beneath us. Exploring the hierarchical structure of these binaries further, Jennifer Marchant’s chapter on Tintin and Jo and Zette comics foregrounds the role of animals as the colonized others against whose beastliness the ostensible humanity of the colonizers can be highlighted. Marchant notes the overlaps between the adult/child and child/animal binaries and the colonizer/colonized one, illustrating how the colonized are often regarded as children and/or animals in Hergé’s comics. Towards the end of her chapter she also acknowledges Hergé’s change of ideological stance, stating that the racist undercurrents running through the Hergé’s work are but a reflection of their times (much like the gender dynamics in Little Orphan Annie). Given the outrage against writers like Roald Dahl in the present times, and the recent publication of sanitized versions of his most popular works, Marchant’s new historicist approach to the comics reminds us, crucially, of how comics and literature serve as historical repositories of their times, documenting the socio-political milieu of their age, and therefore must be interpreted as such.
The section titled “Queered Relationships” introduces a new binary to consider: image versus text. As essential to the medium of comics, this section explores how hierarchies of form are intertwined with content so as to maximize—or in some cases challenge—the latter’s impact. The section begins with Olivia Hicks and Nicole Eschen Solis’s alternate and queer readings of works from the comic book industry giants, DC and Marvel, in which they separately explore how comics reflect the complexities of navigating adulthood in the modern age. Hicks’ chapter superimposes the image/text binary in the comics medium with that of the animal/human one to address how the artists behind Supergirl employ the visual-verbal dynamics of comics to delineate, blur, and transgress animal/human and childhood/adulthood hierarchies. While Hicks and Solis both explore the perennially popular girl-horse trope in their chapters, Solis’ queer reading of Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur offers an exceptionally persuasive analysis of how the medium of comics is a perfect fit for queer narratives. The manner in which comics are visually rendered, with panels representing time as spatial and the breaks between panels representing the fissures in time, Solis notes, is much like most queer narratives where one’s identity does not follow “the linear narratives of growing up” but is in fact filled with “overlaps” and “dissonances” (120). Solis’s analysis here, of how form and content are intertwined, brings to mind McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” and reiterates how comics might be better suited to tell certain kinds of stories more effectively.
Of all the sections, “Childhood Under Threat” is perhaps the most intriguing, troubling, and unsettling, for its chapters read the darker metaphorical underpinnings of child-animal associations and through these readings complicate the whole idea of childhood as a period of innocence. José Alaniz’s analysis of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi explores the child-giving-up-the-pet trope (that other chapters in the collection notably refer to as a prerequisite for evolution into adulthood) in an alternate manner: as crucial for the survival of humankind in a dystopian future where the environment is on the verge of total collapse. Much like the comics it explores, the chapter itself comprises of “ground-level commentaries” on humankind, which are significant as they force us to reflect on the state of the planet we are leaving our future generations to inherit, forcing children with no choice but to grow up too fast, too soon (146). Much like Alaniz, Mel Gibson also explores the dystopias we create, albeit of the mind, in her analysis of The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot and Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe the Barbarian. Gibson explores how metaphors and labels are employed by humanity to label and ostracize those on the periphery—especially children—and how a subsequent subversion of the same can empower the otherized. By far the most brilliant work in the anthology though, is Shiamin Kwa’s chapter on Brecht Even’s Panther. Employing a deconstructionist approach, Kwa explores how borders, identities, binaries, and our sense of ‘belonging’ are perpetually in a state of flux. In turn, this instability, when overlapped with the nationalistic rhetoric permeating the world’s socio-political consciousness in the present times, forces us to confront and question our trust in our state apparatuses to keep us safe. Much like Solis, Kwa also notes how “the visual ambiguity” of the comics medium in Panther “aligns with (its) narrative ambiguity,” highlighting the idea that sometimes, what we fear the most comes from within the borders and not from outside them (168). This muddling of boundaries is especially relevant in today’s times, where nationalism ‘works’ through clearly defined binary differences. Kwa’s timely analysis of Evan’s deliberate disruption of borders and boundaries then, embodies the ambiguous, ever-shifting nature of our socio-political realties.
The penultimate section, titled “Politics,” continues to complicate our expectations of normalcy from child-animal relationship in comics, beginning with Michael Chaney and Sara Biggs Chaney’s ‘twisted’ reading of the celebrated boy-dog trope in the classic Peanuts by Charles Schulz. Unlike most other pets in child-animal relationships, the insouciant Snoopy offers little in terms of emotional relief to Charlie Brown, and this reading of neurodivergence in the comics explores how Schulz’s work has readers question their own generalized assumptions about socialization and success. In their exploration of the absurd and the unusual in child-animal relationships then, they highlight how the absurdity of the world that Charlie Brown inhabits mimics the farcicality of our own, thus foregrounding the role of humor in our lives—as an agent that reminds us, time and again, to not take ourselves too seriously. While the Chaneys’ explore the lighter side of child-animal relationships, Fabiana Loparco explores the darker side of the aforementioned in her chapter on the recurrent use of the child-animal relationship for wartime propaganda in the Italian children’s magazine Corriere dei Piccoli, published during the First World War. Loparco inspects the nationalistic narratives aimed at creating “future generations of soldiers” in the comics (200), but the significance of her arguments, where she highlights the intersections between gender and nationalism, lies in its topical relevance. The domesticated girl stereotype as an integral component of nationalistic rhetoric unfortunately remains as relevant now as it was during World War One, and Loparco’s exploration of the gendered nationalism in these comics serves as a stark reminder of how little gender roles and expectations have changed.
Emmanuelle Rougé’s exploration of the thread of anti-authoritarianism running through both Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes begins the section titled “Poetics,” perhaps the most fitting end to this diverse compilation of ideas, given that it goes back to a discussion of how the formal aspects of comics are strategically utilized to advance the narratives about child-animal relationships. While previous works have discussed a blurring of animal/human hierarchical constructions, Rougé maintains that Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes eliminate them entirely. Likewise, Benoît Glaude’s reading of Job and Derib’s Franco-Belgian series Yakari questions if we can ever truly dismantle the hierarchies between the human and the animal. Just as Meesters and Lefévre highlight our anthropocentrism in their chapter on Jommeke, Glaude too notes that despite our noblest of intentions in giving animals a voice, it is always “the human experience” which acts as “a reference point” (248).
In an anthology that seeks to question the boundaries and, by extension, the hierarchies between animals and humans, Laura Pearson’s analysis of Matthew Forsythe’s wordless Korean tale Jinchalo comprises a befitting last chapter. Pearson notes how the work’s lack of both panels and words crucially erases all boundaries, all apparatuses of meaning-making altogether. Fittingly, Pearson points out that the name Jinchalo means “really?” or “seriously?” in Korean, which mirrors the how readers are thus left questioning the very nature of the reality they are confronted with in Forsythe’s comic (259). Pearson’s chapter appears an apt summation of the very essence of the entire section; while Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts laughed at our absurd attempts to call ourselves the best of all creatures, Jinchalo erases all our attempts at classifying ourselves, or other species, as human/animal altogether. However, the trouble with such a deconstructive approach is that it reduces anything and everything to utter meaninglessness. As humans, we are wired to attempt to make sense of the world through the meaning-making apparatuses available to us. Therefore, the beautiful subversiveness of this reading of Jinchalo poses questions but offers few answers as to how exactly to make sense of the world if there is no meaning to anything at all.
Some of the chapters in this brilliant anthology might perhaps have benefitted from the inclusion of images, especially given that it is a collection about comics. Marchant’s chapter on Hergé’s characters and Alaniz’s exploration of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi for instance, would perhaps have given the readers a better picture, literally, with the inclusion of images to support the detailed written descriptions of the comic panels. Similarly, visual supplementation would perhaps have aided the discussions of ‘Queered Relationships’ given that the section explores how the visual rendering of panels in comics makes it the perfect medium for queer narratives. Also, though the classic tale of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is referenced in brief, I feel that the cult favorite feral child Mowgli and his loyal animal friends deserve a separate chapter of their own in an anthology with scholarship on classic child-animal relationships like this one.
Strong Bonds: Child-Animal Relationships in Comics makes for a fascinating read for all scholars of comics studies or children’s literature, with the chapters providing valuable insights into the verbal-visual dynamics of the comics medium and how these can be seamlessly integrated into the narrative, detailing how the child-animal relationship becomes, in the words of Ahmed, a “testing ground” for diverse socio-political ideologies, and exploring how the said bonds mirror the complexities of life.