The big screen’s comic strips are so barnyard-bursting with animals nowadays, it’s as if Old MacDonald’s farm has taken over. Last year alone, amid the 10 top-grossing ’toon-features, Pixar’s forgetful fish swam back for a sequel, a panda went for a third round with his martial arts, and prehistoric pals had Ice Age adventures for a mammoth sixth time. Surely, animated animal features can get darker, deeper, and more interesting than all these fuzzy-wuzzy franchises. And it’s graphic novels—the animals and people steampunk of 2015’s film April and the Extraordinary World, for instance, was based on Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée style—that help point the way.
But first we’ve got to ask—what’s up, Doc, with rabbits and noir? When it comes to those animated Easter-critters getting into the hardboiled private investigator, shadows-and-light genre, it’s not Warner’s Bugs Bunny verses mean little mobster Rocky. It’s actually two of Disney’s post-Thumper thumpers—a 1980s hare-brain and 2010s hip hop-cop—that opened up the possibilities for animal animation and noir.
In 1988, released by Disney through Touchstone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—live-action private-eye tries to work out if Toontown’s animated bunny killed Acme Co.’s owner—went boffo at the box-office (and bazoomas—Jessica Rabbit’s curves didn’t hurt the adult appeal).
Last year, Disney roared past $1-billion in its return to the Dolittle-and-Holmes game, this time with a fluffy-tailed police officer digging into the secrets of an urban Zootopia.
For a savvy, pulpier, sexier take on animal noir, look to a comic series co-created by a lead character animator for Disney in the 1990s. Illustrator Juanjo Guarnido, with writer Juan Díaz Canales, conceived of Blacksad then; the first book appeared in 2000. Inspired by 1930s noir but shot ahead two decades, Somewhere Within The Shadows opens with four quick cut-like panels: police car outside mansion (establishing shot); Blacksad’s green cat-eyes (close-up); negligee-clad victim splayed out on her bed (medium shot); police commissioner Smirnov, a German shepherd, telling the hardboiled dick (two-shot), “No weapon, no motive, no suspect . . .”
After this Marlowe-like case, the series tackles white supremacy (Arctic Nation), McCarthyism (Red Scare), and the beat generation (Amarillo). Guarnido and Canales’ series, almost ready-made for the big screen or blockbuster TV, doesn’t so much draw attention to its beastliness—as Zootopia did—as tweak our animalistic inclinations just enough to reveal how sin filled the dark, deep “jungle” of America’s noir past was, from the personal—addictions, blackmails, murders—to the systemic: racist organizations, government blacklists, corrupt forces.
And then there’s Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, begun in 2009. Talbot, inspired by French caricaturist JJ Grandville, lures us into a neo-Victorian “scientific-romance thriller” world, dominated by animals, with distinct noir elements. Inspector LeBrock (a bipedal badger) shoves his gun into rogues’ mouths; he questions a drug-stupefied Snowy (from Tintin) in a back alley dive; two cops grill LeBrock beneath a lamp; he interrupts an S&M session led by his latest lover, courtesan Billie, to explain he’s afraid of losing her, too, because years ago one of the “Cray twins” (based on London’s notorious Krays) killed his wife. There’s also the tantalizing potential to recreate, in any film adaptation or limited TV-series, the Easter egg-like allusions which Talbot drops (Rupert Bear hedge clipping, Tintin as a page-boy, Asterix and Obelix like men demanding equal rights for humans at a street protest, etc.) and his artistic homages to paintings by Degas, Magritte, and many more.
Canales and Guarnido’s and Talbot’s series are more adult, more European, more gritty and historically detailed than Hollywood’s furry forays into non-human noir. And those are precisely some of the elements that American animal animation needs, to rejuvenate itself. And then, just maybe, our more mature, diverse cartoon culture could make even more distinctly odd creature features. Or maybe even tackle the masterpiece that started it all for the graphic novel on these shores—Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-memoir Maus. Now that would really take the Mickey.