“[M]oral philosophy functions, by and large, within an implicit anthropocentric, subject-centered model, and in order to make a case that can gain a hearing within that model, one has to speak its language and accede to its demands. Of course, it is precisely that moral model, language and demands that have been used to deny animals basic moral standing for centuries…”.
“If the animal is celebrated it is as a sign but not as a body”.
2. Empire of the Ghost Cat
Some individuals never showed a threat response, even though they were approached multiple times; others gave threat responses during the first and only approach. We could not predict whether a puma that behaved one way during an approach would behave in a similar way during a subsequent approach.
A pioneer farmer, walking a woods-bordered wagon road on the way home to his isolated cabin in the dark of night, could never be sure that a cougar was not keeping pace with him in the timber a few yards away, slinking through the undergrowth with no more commotion than drifting smoke, itself unseen but measuring with its big yellow eyes each step the man took. It was a chilling thought.
Night. What happens at night in an island wilderness like the Quabbin? That was the starting point. The issue, like certain others, was an experiment with narrative. Could we answer that question while using wildlife and their various vocals as a means of telling a story? As a starting point I used an experience of mine where I’d snuck up on and scared a beaver, prompting the beaver to immediately slap its tail against the water surface in a loud clap in order to warn other beavers of my presence. I then wrote a script centered on the puma making its way through a very noisy night in the Quabbin watershed—an empire of the senses. If you’ve ever spent a night out in true wilderness, especially in spring, it can be really loud. That’s what we were trying to capture.
[C]omics, in displaying intervals (in the same way as persistence of vision erases the discretization of the cinematic medium) rhythmically distributes the tale that is entrusted to it. To ignore speed—its images are immobile and no voice imprints a delivery in dialogue—does not suggest any less of a cadenced reading, or an operation given rhythm by the crossing of the frames… Each new panel hastens the story and, simultaneously holds it back. The frame is the agent of this double maneuver of progression/retention.
3. The Empire Gazes Back
entail or inspire a sense of the real animal uncluttered by the emotional and psychological links that allow for human-animal relations in the first place. The visual animal is caught in an argument over whether the animal should be considered on its own terms or understood through a network of human-animal relations.
Thus we describe bat sonar as a form of three-dimensional forward perception; we believe that bats feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other, more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive.
redress an imbalance in the theorizing of human-animal relations by seeking, instead, to outline the impact animals have on humans rather than always seeing animals as the passive partner, or victim…[I]n film human-animal relations are possible through an interplay of agency regardless of the nature of animal interiority, subjectivity or communication.
The naked state that Viola develops strips the gaze down to its scopophilic structure: the desire to see, which is indulged fully, but is always unsatisfying, always leaving a gap of unknowing, of desire that sustains itself through lack. In Viola’s portraits of bird, fish and animals, the gaze functions as a form of containment and a site of excess.34
4. Conclusions: A Tree Falls
[W]hen the animal is put into visual form, it seems somehow to incline towards the stereotypical and stupid, to float free from the requirements of consistency or of the greater rigor that might apply in other non-visual contexts. The image of the animal here seems to operate as a kind of visual shorthand, but a shorthand gone wrong, a shorthand whose meanings intermittently veer from or turn treacherously back upon that of the fuller form of the text.
The narrative drawing privileges the character, the agent of the action; it successively accedes to each character the level of protagonist, in the etymological sense of “he who plays the primary role.” Moreover, the format of the panel often appears calculated to be married to the body of the character represented in the frame, as if the panel constituted its natural habitat, its vital space, delimiting the space of its immediate behavior.39
The observer who studies and records behavior patterns of higher animals is up against a great difficulty. He is himself a subject, so like the object he is observing that he cannot be truly objective. The most “objective” observer cannot excape [sic] drawing analogies with his own psychological processes. Language itself forces us to use terms borrowed from our own experience.(quoted in (Lehner 1979, p. 44))
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Critical reviews uniformly echo the fan discourses. Tim O’Neil of A.V. Club calls it “an environmental fable,” effusing: “It seems almost lazy to call the work sui generis, but nothing really serves to adequately summarize such a surpassingly odd but also supremely affecting work…it eventually grows to encompass pseudo-autobiography, New Age mysticism, conspiracy literature, UFO-logy, and natural history” (O’Neil 2016). The Comics Journal’s Alex Dueben calls it the “missing link—a pop culture precursor to DC’s Vertigo line, The X Files, Twin Peaks and a thousand other creative works” (Dueben 2016b); while Nerdy Show also emphasizes the series’ wide-ranging influences: “Transmetropolitan meets Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, liberally dipped in the grittier side of the 1980s and paired with John Audubon-style nature art” (Nerdy Show).
Zulli called The Puma Blues “sort of a shot across the bow to wake the fuck up” (Dueben 2016a).
In a section called “Blue, Blue Oceans,” Murphy sets down a list of sobering statistics, e.g., “lifespan of a plastic six-pack ring, in years: 450” (Murphy and Zulli 1986–1989, #15, February 1988, emphasis in original); “Notes on the Environment” informs: “The United States Supreme Court handed down a decision limiting the ability of citizens to sue polluters for past violations of the Federal Clean Water Act, thus giving industrialists a measure of protection against suits brought by environmental groups…” (Murphy and Zulli 1986–1989, #14, January 1988).
“Blahblahblah” (Murphy and Zulli 1986–1989, #16, March 1988) devoted a section to reader responses to a previous letter-writer’s contention: “I think environmentalism is a lost cause.”
Despite occasional sightings of specimens crossing over from other regions, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct in 2011 (Bolen 2013, p. 37). In part due to increased sightings in Ontario, the Canadian government in 1971 proclaimed the species “endangered” after earlier saying it had disappeared entirely. “There was a time that if you reported a cougar, it was like you reported a flying saucer,” declared an official of the Canadian Ministry of Natural Resources in 1968 (Hunter 2006/2007, p. 19). An ironic statement, considering The Puma Blues’ ufological predilections.
Disagreements persist even among scientists on the proper designation for the animal. See (Hunter 2006/2007, p. 21).
Human-on-cougar violence of course occurred much more often than the reverse. Then-president Theodore Roosevelt killed a Tom weighing 227 pounds in Colorado in 1901 (East 1979, p. 51).
The study did indicate a variation in movements based on sex: “Male pumas in CRSP traveled 1.7–2.8 times greater distances than females (mean of means) during crepuscular and night periods, when pumas were most active” (Sweanor et al. 2008, p. 1079).
Throughout the text I elect to use the pronoun “it” when referring to animals, as a marker of their non-human status. I wish to express my thanks to the article’s anonymous reviewers who helped me clarify my own position on this and other relevant issues.
Latin for “common loon”; see (Dueben 2016b).
Other characters, including the patrician Ms. Malcolmson and her android chauffeur Ernest, and a loose plot which eventually takes Gavia to a nuclear facility in the deserts of Nevada, and in the conclusion, to Alaska, lie beyond the scope of this essay.
All further references to The Puma Blues come from the 2015 Dover collected volume.
East reports a cougar following a man for over a mile and even watching him have lunch for an hour, unnoticed (East 1979, p. 19).
Murphy and Zulli derived the title from the British musician Bill Nelson’s song of the same name, which appears on the 1982 album The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart). It features these relevant lines: “Is there life beyond the curtain?/All these things are so uncertain…/in the empire of the senses,/in the empire of the senses…” The phrase also recalls the morbidly erotic arthouse film In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima 1976).
Of course, panels act in conjunction—and often in tension—with myriad other devices, as Charles Hatfield has written: “the single image functions as both a point on an imagined timeline—a self-contained moment substituting for the moment before it, and anticipating the moment to come—and an element of global page design” (Hatfield 2009, p. 140).
For a similar, if more complicated, view, see (Cohn 2010).
The first of these landscapes depicts the reflection of the moon unrealistically high, so that it encroaches on the mountains’ reflection (the effect is not as stark in subsequent landscapes). Zulli presumably drew it that way to underscore the sequence’s subtle irreality (?) in light of the conclusion.
As McCloud writes, “Silence has the effect of removing a panel from any particular span of time…Silence also allows readers to step off the twin conveyor belts of plot and dialogue long enough to let their eyes wander and explore your world, instead of viewing it as nothing more than a passing backdrop” (McCloud 2006, pp. 164–65)
For example, Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and Zulli’s short story “Act of Faith,” set in the Puma Blues universe, achieves a very different, more human-centered effect through a narrator commenting on the rays’ behavior. See (Alaniz 2008).
They resemble the “radar” grapheme from the Marvel superhero series Daredevil (launched Lee and Everett 1962).
Most mainstream comics at the time used hand-lettering, as did The Puma Blues for its word balloons and sound effects in chapters other than “Empire.” As Murphy explained: “It was the only time that I had a hand in the art, in that I helped Michael paste in all those various sound effects over the course of a very long afternoon. But it was fun” (Dueben 2016b).
Though it remains unclear whether the sound effect conveys the glide of the manta through the air, or the flap of its wings. Such indeterminacy underscores the creature’s “unnatural,” imagined status.
On the historical development of word balloons in comics, and in particular on animal representation’s role in the process, see (Smolderen 2006, p. 104).
Huang and Archer describe giseigo/giongo as words that mimic the actual sound of an object or action (giseigo for animate objects, giongo for inanimate), while gitaigo conveys a state or abstract quality or condition, for example a sound effect to denote something being done quickly (Huang and Archer 2014, p. 475). Schodt offers these examples of the latter: sound of a penis standing erect (BIIN), the sound of silence (SHIIIN), the sound of milk being added to coffee (SURON), slurping noodles (SURU SURU) (Schodt 1983, p. 23) Petersen adds such phenomimes and psychomimes as “noro noro” for moving quietly and “peko peko” for bowing humbly (Petersen 2007, p. 583). Beyond Japan, Joost Pollman cites the invented sound effects of Dutch artist Jeroen de Leijer (e.g., “Kazwierp” for the action of a ticket-dispensing machine); the French artists Dupuy and Berberian (“Pschhrrrllooo” for a flushing toilet); as well as those of US artists Ben Katchor and Walter Simonson as comparable to the Dada poetry of Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara (Pollman 2001, p. 14).
On different kinds of sound effects and their affectual content, see (McCloud 2006, pp. 146–47). On the use of sound effects for explicitly humorous ends, see Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s locus classicus “Sound Effects!” (Kurtzman and Wood 1955). See also John Byrne’s parodic depiction of superhero action via sound effect in Alpha Flight, (Byrne 1984).
See for example such critical responses as Dueben’s: “the nature drawings in Puma especially, but so much of the detail in the book feels like an act of witness” (Dueben 2016a).
One may object that readers of science fiction and fantasy comics routinely engage with non-human characters. These figures (whether Marko of Saga or DC’s J’onn J’onz), however, mostly behave as humans. Even Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ gigantic dog, acts in ways that meet the expectations for such a long-domesticated species. See comments on “ani-drag” in Alaniz (2017).
A historically controversial notion, as is Cary Wolfe’s in Animal Rites: “[W]e share our world with non-human others who inhabited this planet before we arrived on the scene and will in all likelihood far outlast the tenure of Homo Sapiens but also that we—whoever “we” are—are in a profound sense constituted as human subjects within and atop a nonhuman otherness that postmodern theory has worked hard to release from the bad-faith repressions and disavowals of humanism” (Wolfe 2003, p. 193, emphasis in original).
The animals’ “unintended effects” in Burt’s model clearly link it to the concept of excess in cinema; see (Thompson 1986).
The sequence seems a literalization of the anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley’s adage: “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human” (Eiseley 1978, p. 16).
As Russell goes on to say, “The visual economy of I Do Not Know is reduced to its purest voyeuristic structure within the context of a crisis of subjectivity” (Russell 1999, p. 187). See Russell for a much fuller treatment of Viola’s video art. The more conventionally ethological documentary Kestrel’s Eye (Kristersson 1998) also makes for a good cinematic comparative case to “Empire.”
We never know, in fact, if this is the same rabbit that was hiding from the cougar before (it seems to be), or whether this is the same weasel that was previously observing the cougar. Murphy and Zulli leave such questions open.
The authors’ dilemma has a correlate in ethological debates over the use of remote camera traps for wildlife observation. Despite their aleatory nature, they too enframe the animal subject, artificially removing context. Among other things, the very act of introducing the man-made camera trap into the environment risks altering the findings: “Behavioral responses by animals to camera traps potentially introduce biases to ethological and population ecology investigations” (Meek et al. 2016, p. 3217).
On the at times vast gulf between different languages on the onomatopoeic interpretation of animal sounds, see (Nunn 2014).
I would go so far as to say the “happy ending” to the hunt (the cougar finds a carcass to dine on, apparently just before dawn) also constitutes an “anthropocentric” narrative arc.
Burt discusses a cinematic correlate to Groensteen’s “anthropocentrism,” emphasizing the highly illusionistic construction of most filmic animal portrayals: “Just as the animal image is divided by cultural contests over its status, so the image is made up, technologically, by a process that usually depends on some form of montage. More than most other forms of filmmaking, animal cinematography invariably requires considerable editing to fit the different shots into the required narrative structures” (Burt 2002, p. 87).
In fact, “Empire” bears striking resemblances to the episode “Puma Pass” of the TV nature documentary series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which aired in December, 1963. The episode shows a cougar hunting mule deer in Colorado, and even an extended encounter with a beaver.
Such “romantic sublime” imagery instantiates what Kai Mikkonen describes as “the central role of ambiguous and doubled focalization in the medium” (Mikkonen 2012, p. 87). The reader enjoys the fantasy of their own absence from a “wilderness” which they can nonetheless still witness. On the romantic sublime and the deeply-rooted appeal of wilderness in US culture, see (Cronon 1995).
The previous chapter established that Jack had gone to the bathroom, leaving Ruth to regard the photo alone (Murphy and Zulli 2015, p. 95).
The Puma Blues, even in its completed 2015 version, never definitively confirms or denies this possibility. Consider also the gendered implications of a feminine figure with a deeper “connection” to the natural world than the flailing Gavia or the utilitarian Jack.
Such human/animal “blurrings” find expression in many turn-of-the-21st-century discourses. The Russian author Viktor Pelevin’s short story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia” (first published in 1991), posits a protagonist who transforms into a wolf; the heightened awareness brought on by the change makes him dread ever returning to human form (Pelevin 1998, pp. 15–16). See also “Words of Prey” by Jonathan Menjivar, a 2014 segment on the radio program This American Life, which chronicles the intensely anthropocentric reactions of viewers to an “osprey cam” at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts (Menjivar 2015). See also Herman’s contribution to the Humanities special issue on Animal Narratology (Herman 2016).
Other episodes in The Puma Blues saga imaginatively re-enflesh the reader as animal. See Murphy and Bissette’s short story “Pause,” told from the point of view of a dog, in The Puma Blues (Murphy and Zulli 1986–1989, #20, September 1988).
A philosophical conundrum, variants of which have been attributed to the British philosopher George Berkeley and others. A 2011 National Public Radio report complicates the question for the modern age (Messenger 2011).
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