Animals in cartoons

I have noticed that a large number of comic strips feature non-human animals. Some of these animals behave as one expects them to do, in that they express themselves in the way that animals do by using their bodies, wagging their tails and so on. In the case of others, the animals are anthropomorphized to various degrees. At one end, the creators put in thought bubbles to indicate what they are thinking, though they cannot talk. This clearly appeals to pet caregivers who have often wished they could know what their pets are thinking. Other comic strips have animals and pets seemingly living and working together and able to converse with each other. And then there is the other extreme in strips where only animals appear and they live just like humans do.

I have been wondering about why cartoonists introduce anthropomorphized animals. Is it funnier when they do the kinds of things that humans do? Somehow that does seem to be the case though I cannot put my finger on why.

Take for example, the daily and Sunday strip called Sherman’s Lagoon. Its characters consist of aquatic creatures, the key ones being two great white sharks Sherman and Megan. The main characters are sharks, turtles, and crabs and they form a community just like humans. It all takes place under the sea except that the water seems to play hardly any role at all, and in fact would make pretty much everything impossible. Take this recent strip.

( Sherman’s Lagoon)

It is a testament to the power of art to get the audience to suspend reality that we can quickly come to accept the impossible that one can have a coffee stand underwater.

Only rarely does the fact of who they really are and where they live enter the story.

For the most part, the strip’s characters respond to killing prey to eat with indifference or coldness, as much of the plot revolves around what Sherman and Megan are going to eat for dinner. For instance, one comic had Megan declaring she was in the mood for Italian and the two sharks immediately sought to find an Italian swimming in the water. Also, a large group of tourists swimming in the lagoon is referred to as ‘the buffet’. Poodles are regarded as a delicacy, and Sherman regularly eats smaller fish that swim by. One strip saw a fish committing suicide by swimming into Sherman’s mouth while he yawned. Characters have also been seen going to shark-themed restaurants. (‘Leg of Pam’, ‘Bloody Mary’s, and ‘Beans and Frank’ have been named from the menu.) However, on one occasion Megan pulled a tourist under, then let him go unscathed, thus practicing her method of catch and release.

It may be the case that that kind of darker story arc happened earlier in the strip’s history (it originated in 1991). I came across the strip only in the local Monterey newspaper after I moved here in 2019 and there have been no stories of the sharks eating people or other fish, only occasionally scaring them. It has all been very wholesome.

I am particularly impressed by this strip because it is funny and so far out there. I would love to meet the creator and ask how it came to be that he thought of placing all the action underwater and what elements of reality would have to be kept and what jettisoned. That takes quite a feat of imagination.


  1. Holms says

    It is a testament to the power of art to get the audience to suspend reality that we can quickly come to accept the impossible that one can have a coffee stand underwater.

    Really? It struck me as just an easy way to look different. Change the setting to something other comics aren’t doing -- sharks in a lagoon! -- and then almost completely disregard that setting and its ramifications. Cups of coffee under water, because the setting is just an art choice.

    One of my favourite web comics, Achewood, takes a similar approach. The characters are mostly domestic cats talking, walking on two legs, driving cards and such, with no humans to be seen. Luckily the author does not simply write it as ‘cats in place of humans’, but writes lengthy storylines and characterisation arcs with a large slice of surrealism.

  2. says

    Gary Larson of Far Side fame had a penchant for drawing animals, doing normal animal things, suddenly becoming aware of what they were doing. The cow realizing that they’d been eating grass. The sharks realizing that their dorsal fins were sticking out of the water, giving warning to the swimmers. “How many times has that screwed us up?” The circus bears discovering that their muzzles just snap right off.
    Why is it funny? I don’t know. It just is.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    “I have been wondering about why cartoonists introduce anthropomorphized animals. Is it funnier when they do the kinds of things that humans do? Somehow that does seem to be the case though I cannot put my finger on why.”
    Comedy, like all living things, dies when you try to dissect it, but I think anthropomorphized animals give a layer of insulation that allows the cartoonist to discuss the potentially upsetting aspects of being human. If say, the cartoon Alley Oop, which was about cavemen, showed Alley bashing in an antelope’s head with his club and then ripping bloody chunks off to eat, it would be a horror show, but if a cartoon great white shark swallows a living creature, even if that creature is a human, it can be funny because we know that’s what sharks do, and the human could have avoided his fate simply by staying out of the water.
    Similarly, I never much cared for Peanuts when it stated directly that Charlie Brown was a loser and almost nobody wanted to be friends with him, but when Charles Schultz hit upon the idea that his dog Snoopy had a much more exciting life than Charlie Brown (fighting the Red Baron, winning the Christmas decorating contest, having a TV and other stylish furniture in his doghouse), it made the same point, but in a much more fun way.

  4. kenbakermn says

    I had similar thoughts about Square Bob Sponge Pants. I’m not the intended audience for that program but my kids watched it so I was exposed to it. Most of the time it was just plain annoying but occasionally fall-off-the-chair hysterical. Anyway, they would have pots boiling underwater, bowls of soup, sweat pouring like a fire hose out of armpits. I sometimes wondered if the kids ever thought “wait a sec, how can you have a glass of water under water”.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Recommendation: do whatever Vpning or torrenting you need to do to check out “Bluey”. It’s a kids TV cartoon from Australia about a family with two daughters of about 4 and 6… And they’re dogs. Specifically Australian blue heelers.
    they have a house and a car and the parents have jobs and stuff.
    but the dad… He’s the subject of a number of online forums where dads gather to marvel at the example of a casting, involved, patient, just wonderful dad. It’s playing right now as I type this… But I have two kids aged 3.5 & 1.5,so it’s playing all the time. And it’s great.

  6. says

    @moarscienceplz 3
    I agree and would call “insulation” displacement. I think it help to make the serious thing more digestible. Also anthropomorphizing is a very old thing.

    Separately: Furries might be related. That one is more bonding to cartoons because my own society was so awful. Maybe that bonding would have happened with a better society too. *Shrugs*

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Though unmentioned here, our esteemed host often re-posts cartoons from “Pearls Before Swine”, which features a mix of human and “funny animal” (highly anthropomorphized non-human animals), which perhaps offers an answer to his question.

    In “PBS”, the figures of “Rat”, “Pig”, et alia offer shortcuts to character development -- respectively more easily agitated and more placid -- that might take much more effort to suggest with purely human images (especially if one wants to avoid gender/ethnic/etc stereotypes). I phrase that as if it reflected laziness, but for an artist trying to tell a story with just a few square inches, and (if lucky) several seconds of each reader’s time, setting the scene that way provides multiple advantages, as well as making the overall graphic stand out a little better from the competitors immediately surrounding it.

    It also encourages the readers to project a little more of their own imaginative extrapolations into each depiction, perhaps inherently more interesting than relying on the clichés of curious-kid, patient-mom, fuddy-duddy daddy, and so on which populate the all-human cartoons.

  8. mynax says

    Bill Holbrook does a trio of webcomics (how does he do it?!):
    Kevin & Kell -- a rabbit married to a wolf, in a world of animals (though there is one human). Intelligent animals prey on other intelligent animals; there is a meat-supply company called Herd Thinners.
    Safe Havens -- Humans, mostly, though animals have human intelligence, and there are mermaids, life on Mars and presumably Venus. There are free-willed AI entities in cyberspace, like The Computer Bug. Originally the strip was kids in school, but they’ve grown up, gone on a Mars mission, and main character Samantha is a geneticist who can create potions that turn any species into another (though where the mass comes from when a mouse poofs into a human is not explained).
    On The Fast Track -- office humor with humans. One character, Dethany (a goth woman) has a fairly smart raven named Lenore, but Lenore has animal intelligence, despite apparently being in the same universe as Safe Havens.

    There is some crossover; there’s a dimensional doorway in Kevin & Kell that connects to the Safe Havens universe, but it is hard to get to and rarely used. Dethany sometimes appears in Safe Havens, like to run the Mars mission.

  9. Ridana says

    “Kevin & Kell — a rabbit married to a wolf” reminds me that, while OT re comics, anime is full of anthropomorphized characters to examine human relationships. The above sounds very like a postscript to Beastars, about a gray wolf who falls for a dwarf rabbit in a high school where predators and prey co-exist, albeit a bit uneasily, since it begins with a murder of a herbivore student by an unknown carnivore. It’s not a comedy, but it’s fascinating.
    On the mostly comedy front, I’d recommend Aggressive Retsuko (aka Aggretsuko) about a red panda office worker who takes out her frustrations with office shenanigans by singing death metal at karaoke nights. Created by Sanrio, the folks behind Hello Kitty. (on Netflix)
    And then there’s Odd Taxi, about a walrus taxi driver and his fares (I especially like the alpaca nurse who practices capoeira. It’s sort of a noir murder mystery, where said driver may be the prime suspect, but really it’s in a class of its own. It’s somewhat slow moving, and extremely complicated, and yet all its various threads are perfectly woven together by the time we reach its stunning ending (don’t read the Wiki article, which contains serious spoilers).
    As to why authors choose anthropomorphic characters, as others above have suggested, I’d say it’s just a way to allow them to say things that either wouldn’t be funny or would be uncomfortable or offensive with humans. There’s also the what-if factor, in imagining if animals behaved as ridiculously as humans do, which can be funny. Also animals can get in situations humans wouldn’t, and if they’re ascribed human intelligence, that’s funny (e.g., the sharks and muzzled bears mentioned above, and Deer 1’s comment on a red target on Deer 2’s chest: “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” Also a deer named Hal is funny).

  10. says

    I was reading Shoe recently and that specific strip brought up dating which had me thinking how much better the strip would be, where all the characters are anthropomorphized birds, if they did the actual mating rituals of their individual species.

  11. seachange says

    I have some ideas.

    Some cartoonists can’t draw humans.

    Cartoons are usually low-income prospects and they don’t have high art requirements. So you gotta have a schtick to mark yourself out from other cartoonists.

    Cartoons have a high demand for new content. So what you draw has to be easy to draw. Schulz got lazier the longer his series ran.

  12. lanir says

    I think the ones that really work well are taking advantage of the way we look at things. Familiar things come loaded with all sorts of prior ideas. The more familiar something looks the more baggage it comes with. If I want you to really think about something one of the fastest ways is to reskin it with some other look. And this shows up all over. In politics as the story of Mouseland by Tommy Douglas, teaching children about real world Nazis in the Maus graphic novel, in regular novels like Redwall or Animal Farm, and animations like Watership Down.

    They’re not done just to look cute. They’re using animals so you can see what’s going on in a different light and learn from it, then apply it to humans. We can relate to animals pretty easily and they don’t take as much work to flesh out as inanimate objects or non-anthropomorphic aliens. Anthro aliens are sometimes too close to the source to be useful for this so… animals really are one of the best ways to do it. I think the Muppets are one of the only stand-outs to succeed really well by bucking this trend, or at least one of the only ones I can think of.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    seachange @ # 11: Cartoons … don’t have high art requirements.

    That depends on your definition of art. Have you ever tried drawing cartoons -- even copying existent cartoons?

    The truly good cartoonists just make it look easy.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Get Fuzzy by Darby Conly has both animal and human participants and is in my humble opinion one of the best comics around. The dog, cat etc retain some of the characteristics we associate with those animals -Bucky the cat is a narcissistic quite unpredictable character, the dog Satchel is friendly but not very bright- while also being anthropomorpic.

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