Beyond the big bad wolves of medieval folk tales, animals are mostly appropriated these days for innocent children’s entertainment. From Looney Tunes‘s Bugs Bunny to Ratatouille‘s Remy, fuzzy woodland creatures are now regularly stripped of their primal natures in the name of cuddly, moral-leveraging amusement. But David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary — essentially an R-rated answer to Aesop’s Fables — reaffirms that pop culture has had an equally engaged, if somewhat less overt, relationship with animal characters intended for mature audiences. From books to comics, movies to street art, and puppets to paintings, the following artists have created a spectrum of grown-up animal iconography that’s best kept away from young eyes.
BOOKS David Garnett David Garnett’s slim, award-winning novel Lady into Fox tells the story of a man whose wife suddenly and inexplicably transforms into a literal vixen. Although the newly fur-covered young woman insists on maintaining her dignified, lady-like decorum — wearing clothing, playing cards — she eventually meets a rather inhumane death at the primal jaws of hunting dogs. Not quite a fairy tale ending, but from the imagination of a Bloomsbury group member known to his friends as “Bunny” (after a rabbit skin cloak he wore as a child) it’s not all that outlandish of a concept.
Drawing by Oh My Cavalier's Juliana Swaney
BOOKS George Orwell George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an obvious example of less-than-kiddie-friendly animals in pop culture, but the overt political allegory is nonetheless a touchstone illustration. The novel’s starring species are variously selected to suit their anthropomorphized character traits, and the overall setting functions at symbolic and hilariously satiric levels. Although Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War is an unsurprising source of inspiration for a book about social injustice, his preface to a Ukranian edition of Animal Farm further noted: “if only [farm] animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them…men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”
COMICS Robert Crumb Robert Crumb has achieved widespread notoriety and fame with his books and drawings, but his career really kicked off with underground commix classic Fritz the Cat. Running from 1965 to 1972 — and adapted into the first X-rated animated film — the series centered on the self-absorbed, wildly hedonistic titular feline, who postured himself as a suave, sexually assertive, and adventurous bon vivant. In describing his choice to portray the character in animal form, Crumb once explained: “I can express something [with animals] that is different from what I put into my work about humans…I can put more nonsense, more satire and fantasy into the animals.”
COMICS Art Spiegelman Few, if any, literary readers paid much attention to comics before Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus came along, but his spectacularly illustrated series elevated comic books from their once ostracized niche to the now lofty “graphic novel” category. Spiegelman’s account of Jewish persecution and strife during WWII takes on a paradoxically detached yet intimate angle by substituting historical nationalities with animals such as mice, cats, and pigs that correspond with propaganda from the time. Of this emphasis on metaphorical species distinctions, Spiegelman clarifies: “Ultimately what the book is about is the commonality of human beings. It’s crazy to divide things down along nationalistic or racial or religious lines.” The resulting effect is at once familiar and disarmingly foreign, inverting youthful cultural cues (illustrated pictures, animals as characters) for decidedly adult storytelling.
MOVIES Ralph Bakshi Long before John Kricfalusi created Nikelodeon’s gross-out masterpiece Ren & Stimpy, his mentor Ralph Bakshi was pioneering a whole genre of incendiary adult entertainment. After gaining notoriety as the director behind the X-rated adaptation of Fritz the Cat (over which he and Crumb had a bitter falling out), Bakshi reverted to caricature-ish human characters for films like Heavy Traffic. But in 1975, he released a hyper-violent reimagining of the Brer Rabbit fable titled Coonskin, which brazenly satirized blaxploitation tropes and stereotypes. When asked in an interview with BOMB Magazine if he felt confined by these anthropomorphized animals, he admitted: “Fritz the Cat was a lot of fun because it was the first of its kind, and I really loved some of the animals, like the pig cops…[after that] I really felt that I needed to draw real people, but then again, I fell back to using animals in Coonskin.”
MOVIES Peter Jackson Years before Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into one of the most sweeping epics in Hollywood history, he was better known for low-budget camp classics. Sure, his 1992 horror flick Dead Alive holds the title for using most blood in a single scene, but his 1989 film Meet the Feebles is by far the most disturbing of his pre-LOTR cannon. Starring a brigade of what might as well be Jim Henson’s bastard rejects, the movie’s use of animal puppets in adult situations involving sex, drugs, rape, and death is at once hilarious and horrifying.
Note: Apparently Thobias Hoffmen’s in-development We R Animals is going for the same effect, but no word yet on when it’ll be released.
ART Walton Ford Although 19th century naturalist watercolors might seem like a rather banal style for satirical commentary, Walton Ford’s “Audubon-on-Viagra” paintings reinvent the genre for the 21st century. Adhering closely to the detailed flora and fauna field guides of bygone explorers, the New York artist paints large-scale allegorical paintings of animals and birds in masochistic and often sexually compromising positions. Touching on topics like imperialism, industrialism, politics, and environmentalism, Ford manipulates the animal kingdom into a perversely distorted reflection of our own social pecking order.
Walton Ford, "Nila (1999-2000)
ART Ron English Seminal street artist Ron English is best known for mocking corporate figureheads like Joe Camel and Ronald McDonald with his pop-surrealist portraits and large-scale murals (often painted guerilla-style over billboards). But make no mistake about the familiarity of these ubiquitous images — English’s approach is all about distortion and horror, transforming well-known imagery into startlingly sexualized and/or creepy altar-egos. And for anyone who’s ever enjoyed Mickey Mouse, you can be sure that English’s mousetrap crucified iteration of the Disney mascot will turn those fond childhood memories into haunting nightmares. When asked during an interview with Artasty about the inspiration behind these pop culture obsessions, he simply explains: “I like to enrich the personalities of the icons that populate my existence.”
Ron English, "Mickey Mouse Trap"