115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Glimpses of the Human in Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer

Lucas Tromly, University of Manitoba

My paper examines Elmer, a 2009 graphic novel by diasporic Filipino American Gerry Alanguilan, in which chickens inexplicably gain human intelligence. Elmer draws upon the cartoon animal tradition to represent groups to whom the status of full humanity has been withheld, or granted only partially.

Proposal: 

My paper examines Elmer, a 2009 graphic novel by diasporic Filipino American inker Gerry Alanguilan. Elmer draws upon the cartoon animal tradition to represent groups to whom the status of full humanity has been withheld, or granted only partially. In Elmer, chickens suddenly and inexplicably gain the cognitive function and emotional range possessed by humans. The narrative focuses on Jake, a chicken whose father—the titular Elmer—has recently died.

In the process of learning about his father’s life, Jake reflects on the difficult relationship between humans and chickens, and he comes to understand the larger history behind his own unhappiness.

In its scenes of inter-species hostility, Elmer figures a range of historical instances of discrimination and dehumanization. For example, Elmer captures important aspects of the immigrant experience. Despite their intelligence and acculturation, chickens are discriminated against socially and in the job market for being indelibly other. More specifically, the graphic novel engages the diasporic Filipino experience. (In Hawai’ian pidgin, Filipinos are sometimes called ‘bokboks,’ a slang term meant to replicate the clucking of a chicken.) In Jake’s trip to the family home to mourn his father, Elmer can be understood in the context of the return narrative, or balikbayan, which is central to the Filipino literary imagination.

The experience of the chicken population in Elmer also takes on postcolonial implications. Paradoxically, chickens’ sudden immersion into human consciousness smacks of both colonial ideology and the coming-to-consciousness that accompanies decolonization. Finally, Elmer extends the use of the “animal” graphic novel to render the extreme dehumanization on which genocide is predicated, especially in a scene in which millions of chickens are “culled” during a panic over a global chicken flu pandemic.

The difficult juxtaposition and blurring of the human and non-human is often expressed visually. In Elmer, when Jake and other chickens are most sympathetic, their representation is often grotesquely animalistic. This is a visual attempt to force readers to process the reconciliation of a human-equivalent subjectivity with an avian body.

Elmer also presents a fascinating paradox about the elasticity of the category of the human. On one hand, the text invests chickens with the qualities of dignity, compassion, and a full range of emotions. Their “humanity” often stands in contrast with the brutish behavior of humans. In this sense, Elmer separates “human” virtues from species. On the other hand, Elmer presents a narrative of Jake’s shift from resentful alienation to inner peace, and this peace is aligned with fuller assimilation in a narrowly human world (Jake dates a human woman, writes a best-selling memoir that brings him human recognition, etc.). Elmer’s expansion of the category of the human is exclusive in its own way, not least of which is its lack of interest in life forms other than chickens and humans. Ultimately, my paper will demonstrate the dense and compelling politics in Alanguilan’s largely neglected graphic novel.