Reprint: Animal Planet

Funny thing, this anthropomophization craze we humans have going.

Here we sit, masters of a vast and bewildering ecosystem, strange and beautiful and wholly alien to our experience in any meaningful way…well, perhaps it isn’t so odd that our basic coping mechanism is ‘Stick that bear into a pair of overalls and give him a hoe!’

It starts early, with childhood daydreams like Little Bear and Franklin; then we move on to fairy tales, then the fables of Aesop and LaFontaine. In all of which we learn about human frailties from a safe and not incidentally cute’n’cuddly distance.
We want the world to make sense – or at least, we want to reassure ourselves that it isn’t going to eat us. We want to know that for all its apparent complications, life is all going to work out in the end. And in the animal kingdom, it does, because we literally have the last word.

Apparently, though, we’ve got no problem at all with the notion that it might be laughing at us behind our backs the whole time…
Hence, the animal-themed comic strip. It’s logical outgrowth of the above system: each animal has its own instantly recognizable set of human traits, but since they’re not really humans, they’re cats or dogs or whatever, they’re funnier! ‘Cause it’s ironic and stuff! Get it?!

…Me neither. The only laughing I’ve ever done at, say, Marmaduke or Heathcliff is in disbelief. Garfield…well, let’s just say that boat floated out of Funny Harbour after about age 14 or so. It just became impossible to ignore the fact that aside from the cat, everything else in the strip had become boring and/or unpleasant, which is not at all the way it’s supposed to work.

Snoopy…well, Snoopy’s not a dog in the first place, he’s Walter Mitty in a beagle suit. Charles Schulz was not a man to let mere floppy ears direct his genius. (Neither was Walt Kelly, in Pogo.)

Which is why we’re going to skip straight to Animal Strips, the Next Generation: Get Fuzzy and Sherman’s Lagoon.

Get Fuzzy, besides containing probably the best pure artwork of any strip post-Bill Watterson, is amazingly well-observed – take it from someone who owns two cats.
What separates it out from the standard ‘pets are funnie!’ strip, though, is that it treats those observations as the starting point, not the punch line. Satchel Pooch and Bucky Katt are furry little individuals…whose priorities just happen to be overwhelmingly food-and-sleep themed. (‘I pledge allegiance to the can/Of the perfect food that is tuna/And to the fishy for which it cans/One serving, just for me/With olive oil and crackers on top.”)

Along the same hyper-realistic lines, I like Rob the owner’s permanent grudge at the universe for convincing him to house fuzzy critters in the first place: “‘Get a cat’, they said. ‘Zero maintenance’ they said…” He’s not the hapless tool of his pets; he’s valiantly trying to respond on their level. Except, y’know, he’s a human and they’re not.

Thus he finds himself being asked to eat liver-frosted cake, to make small talk with a pooch who’s ‘really into smells right now’, and to critique a feline autobiography – “I mean, Chapter 5: In Which I Shift My Butt…I don’t wanna read that”. It’s parenting, through the looking glass.

Also fun is the concept of the dog Satchel’s owning a watch without knowing how to tell time (and doing all the housework), Persian cats as the supermodels of the cat world, and Rob’s buddy Joe being African-American without a big For Better or for Worse-esque deal being made of it. Darby Conley, quite simply, understands the great secret of comedy: nothing is ever as funny as real life. Unless it’s children – or their alter-egos, pets – trying to navigate it.

Sherman creator Jim Toomey, meanwhile, operates off a much different but equally rich comic inspiration: the gulf between traditionally ‘cute animal’ behaviour and, well, actual animal behaviour.
Sherman the shark and his gang – Fillmore the sea turtle, Hawthorne the crab , and assorted random bottom-feeders – aren’t even loveable losers; they’re just losers. They eat too much and hang around the rocks too much and aren’t very smart and never get the girl. They steal and cheat and con and – oh yes – eat each other.
They are, in a word, us humans as we are, not as we’d like to be. Which makes them, paradoxically, more loveable than a boatload of Disney bunnies.

Four Things I’ve Always Wondered About Cartoon Animals:

–What’s the deal with the clothes? Or lack thereof? In every ep of Little Bear, we see Mr&Mrs Bear in full-bore Norman Rockwell getups and their son in nothing at all. Which is fine, I guess…except that Little Bear hangs out with an entire posse of what appear to be adult animals, none of whom are wearing clothes either. Then there’s Timothy Goes To School, in which half the kindergarten class is wearing pants (teacher’s in a long skirt, thankfully) and half…aren’t.
It all frankly worries me, since we never do see the Woodland Mental Health Centre I’m pretty sure needs to be around the next block.

–OK, I can see where there’s a need to airbrush, say, the feral cats out of an episode of The Mole Sisters (“‘EEEEEEEEEK!!!’ screamed the Mole Sisters…”).
But what’s the deal in Franklin, otherwise fairly realistic, where the bear and the fox are happily hanging out with the turtle and the rabbit and the goose? Or Little Bear, whose aforementioned posse contains a cat along with an owl and a snake and a duck? I mean, Mom Turtle/Bear/whatever just plops the ‘stew’ down on the table, and everybody goes ‘Yum!’ and digs in. There are levels of Doom less disturbing than this.

–One word: Scale. I don’t care how loving and caring your community is, the animal world is not as homogenous as the human one.
This actually had an amusing lampshade hung on it in a Franklin segment, in which we meet Moose, who is, as the regulars put it…big. Really big. So big that we can’t help but start hoping, watching him wedge himself into a standard-size school desk, that the Animal Civil Liberty Union offices are right by the mental health centre.

–Along the same lines, humans have…um…how do I put this without sounding speciesist…fingers. Opposable thumbs. Animals, generally speaking, don’t. There comes a moment during every Babar ep I try to watch when I start wondering just how an elephant plays a normal-scale piano, let alone gets himself a snack out of Tupperware containers later, and the childlike wonder just zips right on out the window.

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