“There is not enough love and goodness in the world to permit giving any of it away to imaginary beings.” Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
I’m no expert in anthropomorphism in comics and its history, but I suppose it is pretty much co-extensive with “funny animal” comics, like Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. For me the most satisfying comics with anthropomorphic animal characters are those that Jason produces. His mournful humanoid dogs and birds seem all the more human for their non-human characteristics.
This de- and re-humanizing links anthropomorphic comics to fables, the allegorical stories that substitute animals for humans as a means of enhancing the stories’ parabolic nature. Using animals in human situations means that the fable represents a general case rather than a specific instance of human behaviour. The substitution de-historicizes a story so that it can have a moral that applies to the ages and to all peoples; hence the critique of such stories as ahistorical and acultural: falsely neutral. But when an animal fable is overtly historical, like Orwell’s Animal Farm, the conversion from human to animal seems pointless. I’m sure they made us read it in high school because connecting the dots is so easy. I prefer something like Melville’s Moby-Dick, though it is only partly an animal fable, that manages to provide a specific historical critique of slavery, whiteness, and power while also tilting at universal concepts. But this aside is taking me too far from comics, where anthropomorphism means allegory, unless it is just a gimmick.
Renee French really tests the line between allegory and gimmick in Micrographica. She drew the panels for this comic in one centimetre squares, which she then blew up for publication. This method of drawing comics gives rise to the question of whether we ought to do something just because we can do it. My answer, in French’s case, is yes because of the way her play with the relationship between small and big goes beyond gimmicky constraint to address the issue of allegorical thinking. At the Comics and the Multimodal World conference last week, Roger Whitson introduced the concept of “distant reading” as opposed to the “close reading” that dominated thinking about literature in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Distant reading asserts that large patterns are as important as small ones; it strikes me that the idea is a kind of fractalism. In any event, by working in such a confined space, which limits how much information she can put in her drawings, French must deal with “big picture” ideas.
In Micrographica, these ideas are ownership, friendship, and belonging. French seems wants to get at the most basic pleasures and fears that constitute a person, a masculine person at that, as the book deals almost entirely with homosocial structures. The book features four rodents (the consensus seems to be that they are naked mole rats, but I can’t see any confirmation in the text), a crap ball and the caterpillar-like creature within it, a sandwich, a human corpse, a glove, and a mountain.
Preston and Moe have the kind of antagonistic friendship we might associate with teenaged boys. They harangue and humiliate each other incessantly with farts and “your mom” jokes. Preston is the needier partner, who needs to assert that the crap ball belongs to him, its initial discoverer. The crap ball is Preston’s treasure, validating him as a worthwhile individual. But Moe gets the upper hand on Preston by not caring–his detachment does the same thing for him as the crap ball does for Preston.
The “mom” jokes Preston and Moe direct toward each other give the book an object relations angle, with the crap ball being a kind of surrogate maternal object: it even contains a living being! There are no father references, interestingly enough, but if we wanted to get really far out, we could consider the obviously male human corpse that Moe and Preston crawl over and into as the symbolic dead father. For them the body is just a thing with no individuality or personality.
These are post-oedipal mole rats, finding their way in the world as independent beings yet craving meaningful attachment. Moe and Preston are continually fending each other off and drawing each other closer as they try to figure out what is more important: their connection with each other or their individual power in the world.
No matter how much Preston and Moe harrass each other, they are a team. Their squabbles are like those of an old married couple.
Aldo, meanwhile, is on the outside looking in, doing whatever he can to ingratiate himself with the other two. He offers them part of a sandwich he has found, his generosity counterbalancing Preston’s need to keep his crap ball to himself. When the crap ball that Moe and Preston have left in Aldo’s care breaks, Aldo goes on a quest for more crap to replace it.
Aldo, it seems, will do anything to purchase acceptance, sacrificing individual power for a belonging that never arrives. The irony here is that absence of belonging creates a kind of independence that no one wants. French suggests that the homosocial condition is that individual power requires belonging so as to have someone else to boss around.
The fourth character, Nubbins, acts as the figure of allegory itself. He directs Aldo on his quest for more crap to replace the broken crap ball, giving him the delusion that more crap equals more likelihood of belonging.
However, Aldo makes a Kafka-esque mistake. Consider the following Franz Kafka parable, “On Parables”
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says: “Go over,” he does not mean that we should cross over to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.
Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.
Another said: I bet that is also a parable.
The first said: You have won.
The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.
The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.
Aldo confuses the literal and the figurative, the real and the parabolic, as he is unable to see the “mountain of crap” for what it is.
Renee French’s Micrographica is the comic book equivalent of the great literary parables. In it, small becomes big, crap becomes treasure, and significance emerges from the complex permutations we can generate from its simple elements. Does it matter that this parable is acted out by naked mole rats: hairless, helpless creatures scrabbling around with balls of crap? That’s for each reader to decide.
French, Renee. Micrographica. Marietta: Top Shelf, 2007.
Kafka, Franz. “On Parables.” Parables and Paradoxes. New York: Schocken, 1975.