Animal Studies Bibliography
Carmack, Betty J. 1997. Realistic representations of companion animals in comic art in the USA. Anthrozoos 10(2/3): 108-120.
Scholars agree that comic strips transmit the social and cultural values of the time, dealing with current issues in the culture (e.g. homelessness, parent-child relationships, AIDS). Although companion animals are central to American culture, however, only one study has previously been done to examine how companion animals are portrayed in comic art. The present study collected 928 cartoons (as convenient, from 1984 to 1995, from San Francisco paper but nationally syndicated comics) that portrayed companion animal-human interaction in realistic or semi-realistic form. 1598 cartoons were examined, but this paper will restrict analysis to the 928 that were realistic or quasi-realistic. Within the larger sample of 1598, anthropomorphism was the third largest category.
Three major categories were identified among these 928 comics. First, 50.8% of the comics showed endearing aspects of human-pet interaction. Subcategories of this theme were (in descending order of frequency): affection/companionship; pet as family member (including substitute for child or grandchild) or best friend; communication with pets (owners talking over life problems, etc. with pets); caring considerations (owners nurturing and pampering their pets); kids and pets; pet receiving gifts (toy, treat, estate); sleeping with pets; pets giving social support (helping owners through hard times, being therapeutic); pets' dependence on people; playing with a pet; and the pet as socializer. The prevalence of this theme is supported by literature on pet ownership, which shows that most people value their pets for affection and companionship, that most consider their pets family members, and that people frequently talk to their pets. The second-largest theme (27%) involved obligatory/necessary aspects of human-pet interaction, which were: training; feeding; threat of or actual death (which may include black humor or a realistic portrayal of the grief involved); housebreaking/elimination; injury, illness, or vet care; obedience school; walking/exercising; grooming/bathing; new puppy; aging; and commitment/responsibility. The third theme (22%) was nuisance/stressful aspects of the human-pet interaction. This theme included the pet as a source of stress; a destroyer of property; an aggressor or threat; having nasty habits (drinking from toilet, bringing in dead bird, etc.); barking; having fleas/itching; licking; digging; and shredding. The literature shows that most of these behaviors are normal for animals and that they are only problematic because owners have unrealistic expectations. There are real problems, however, including dog bites and aggression, which is exacerbated by owners choosing violent breeds and owners not training the dogs properly. Increasingly, owners are choosing to enlist pet behavior specialists rather than getting rid of a problem pet.
Many of the important aspects of human-pet interaction are realistically portrayed in comic art, but some aspects are missing. Difficult issues like “pet loss and death, pet injuries and accidents, animal abuse and neglect, and pet overpopulation” (118), the role of service dogs, the importance of companion animals for the elderly and the ill, and showing pets with people who aren't white and middle-class are rarely present in comics, and comic artists should take up these themes to better educate the public. Further research should examine changes over time and link the portrayals to economic, social, and political periods.