Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dark Funny Animals

Disney's Zootopia is one of the best animated movies they've ever done, which is quite an achievement compared to their last 3-D attempt at drawing attention away from the Pixar club, Chicken Little.  (Anybody remember that stinker?)  It tackled multiple serious topics addressing sexism and racism in an entertaining manner without managing to sound preachy in it's message.  It served a strong feminist message that was made possible by flipping the viewpoint of the original script.

The original premise for Zootopia was much darker.  The way that predators was kept in check was not out of equality, but by their wearing shock collars that would activate if they grew too excited.  One deleted scene was a young bear joyfully accepting his rite of passage of having said collar wrapped around his neck, much to his father's sad reluctance.  Then, once the procedure is complete, he starts gleefully bounding about, only to receive a shock... to which he looks back at his father with a new sense of betrayed understanding.

Funnily enough, despite the soul-crushing rejected script, it's inspired Zistopia (a pun on dystopia), an AMAZING fancomic based on this rejected premise that's FAR more ambitious than the original script.

In this universe, Nick Wilde is a formerly jailed conman who's been assigned to help a hardboiled workaholic Judy Hopps who's been on the force for several years, in tracking down a serial feral killer.
The roles are familiar, but the development is Very different, and we get to see a LOT MORE of Judy's inner family of 275 relatives, of which we only saw her mother and father.  There are also cameo appearances of other characters in alternate roles, and rejected characters that were never used, such as Honey the Conspiracy Badger, Mob Boss Kozlov and his Massage Angels.

Some of the more memorable scenes involve a chasing game at an underground "pleasure" park, to dialogue in the "Cud Club", the herbivore corporate businessfolk, making witty observations among their bantering, and Judy visiting pregnant predators at the Hospital.

If there's a fault, its that due to the draft nature of the panels, sometimes it's not always clear where dialogue balloon starts and ends.  Sometimes it'll be from the right hand side instead of the left.  Othertimes it'll be from the lower middle, arching upwards and then bending backwards into itself.  Still, if a panel doesn't make immediate sense, just try again until it does.  This slows the pace down somewhat, and sometimes requires rereading, but it's worth it, and there's only a few instances when it happens, so it's not entirely detrimental.  Some of the later artwork has been taken up by guest artists willing to pick up the slack, so the main artist doesn't wind up overwhelmed, and they get a chance to show off their skills along the way.

Then there's MisterMead's wonderfully depressing Judy is Dead series, where despite the Women in Refrigerators suggestion, actually deals with an older cynical Nick trying to cope with July Hops, a cousin who's a dead ringer for Judy.  Much of Chief Nick's reactions towards July are direct parallels to Chief Bogo in the movie.

Somewhat surprising is the popularity of the early dark draft, which had much less comedic elements that could've threatened to spoil the mood of the movie overall.  Or maybe it's not that surprising after all.  One thing that comics - anthropomorphic comics - do well is tackling the element of mature themes by dressing them up in easy-to-digest bites of condensed information.  Maus, anybody?

Tim Hurting's quasi-autobiographical essay on Donald Duck (that I based one of my recent entries on), compared Donald Duck to acting like a man who just happens to look like a duck.  His stories wouldn't be as nearly amusing or identifiable if he were an actual human.  The deceptive nature of Funny Animal comics is that they look easy to make, but can be surprisingly difficult to do well.  It's a delicate balancing act between making the material family-friendly or risque, depending on the audience the author's writing for.  The fact that so many artists are emboldened to follow down the dark path of Zootopia as a way of testing their strengths is encouraging for their willingness to experiment beyond relative safety norms.

It's also a sign that audiences are better equipped to handle mature themes filtered throughout so-called childish mediums.  Adults wouldn't have been able to handle a faithful adaption of the actual Fox & the Hound book back then, but chances are they'd be more open to the idea now.  They might still feel scandalized, but the overall shock of wholesome animals engaging in despicable acts would've lost most of its power.  Of course, an actual faithful adaption with the nuances of internal thoughts and no dialogue would be extremely difficult, and the extremely depressing ending wouldn't guarantee multiple re-readings, making engaging such a project a tricky proposition.

Of course, that's if we limit ourselves to American sensibilities.  European artists such as Lewis Trondenheim (Dungeon) and Jason (I Killed Adolf Hitler) are more popular for their use of anthromorphic animals, possibly because their roles are less emphasized or detailed than the competition.  European comics act on a different wavelength, and the closest they come to emulating American genres is through their Noir comics such as Blacksad and Inspector Canardo.  Incidentally, these pages above and below come from the silent comic, Fox Bunny Funny, which could be a metaphor for being born in the wrong body.  In Furry circles, this is called "Otherkin"; though in my punny universe, it would be considered Fur-Play.

Now, the following is just my personal interpretation, and shouldn't be considered Gospel.  Anthropomorphic Funny Animals was seen as an attempt to try to emulate the kind of cartoonish seriousness that was mainly seen in European comics and Manga... with variable results, ranging from Shanda the Panda to Fred Perry's works, to more forgettable fare.

One could say that the rise of sudden maturity (or immaturity) in Furry comics was out of a desire to tackle issues that wouldn't normally fit in a typical punch-up Superhero comic.  While the childish world of Superheroes managed to make themselves relevant by tackling relevant issues of today, Funny Animal comics were looked down for appearing to be too appealing towards children.  In the same way that Manga managed to tackle mature themes and disturbing imagery within the confines of uber-cute protagonists and casts, so too did Furry comics attempt such ambitious stories along similar lines.

And when attempting to branch out into a new field that people don't have much experience with, there's bound to be some missteps along the way.  There's a sense of trying too hard when compared to others who've matured the craft beyond pure shock and schlock.  This leads to failed attempts such as adapting Fritz the Cat and Howard the Duck, with scriptwriters and directors grossly misunderstanding their satirical elements.  (Watership Down and Plague Dogs didn't suffer from adaption distillation, presumably because they were novels)  And there's the webcomic Scurry, which is the mouse version of humans surviving in a post-apocalyptic world.

As long as we're talking about Funny animals in adult situations, we're going to have to veer into the uncomfortable realm of sex.  And indeed, a fair amount of the popularity of Furries deals with porn.  Somehow, the aspect of nudity becomes more attractive if human flesh is substituted for animal skin, instead of hiding nipples over skin-tight spandex costumes.  (At least they're being honest about what they want to draw, and not covering up behind flimsy excuses)  After all, when you have cute-looking athletic characters interacting, the compulsion to corrupt them is practically irresistible.  But really, is it all that different from wanting to see other familiar childhood characters fans'd been attracted to for years, such as Supergirl and Batgirl, put into erotic situations?  Playing fantasy scenarios out is just another extension of playing with familiar story elements.  Who wouldn't want to pair up characters with magnetic personalities and good chemistry?

Of course, when dealing with repressed sexual outlets, that pent-up frustration can lead to all kinds of weird subcategories of fetishes, including (and not limited) to

  • Vore
  • Growth
  • Shrinkage
  • Unbirth
  • Gender-reversals

And others that haven't become popular enough to garner their own fetish subgroups yet.  So, it's welcome that we have TG Weaver's wonderfully cute attraction between Zootopia's main characters conveyed through crayon-border art, and Zootermission's unspoken sexual tension just bubbling beneath the surface.

I'm willfully ignorant about Furry culture as a whole, preferring instead to enjoy their output through their stories and drawings instead, not caring much about the motive and rationale in creating such things in the first place.  Dig deep enough behind any creative process, and you're bound to find all kinds of salacious details you may not agree with.  I don't have much of a barometer for what is and isn't considered normal in ways of social thinking, not having acclimated myself with the community as large.  I read a wide range of stories not as a way of confirming deeply held beliefs (though those can be reassuring once you've got the formula down pat) but also as a way of understanding other viewpoints that may not have been obvious to me.

American comics existed within only two extremes - childish cartoon comics aimed exclusively at children, or realistically drawn comics... ALSO aimed at children.  Soon enough, the two genres would split, fragment and divide even further when the serious art comics would start exploring adult themes, while still proclaiming to advocate for being "safe for children".  Even Feiffer had trouble with selling his product, because his works were considered too serious for children, but too tame for adults.  Only MAD Magazine helped bridge the divide, having various artstyles in it's anthology humour collection.  It wouldn't be until Bloom County came that the possibility was that there could be a natural progressive point between two extremes.  And even then, the reason Hollywood wouldn't finance a Bloom County project (according to Breathed) was because they couldn't comprehend of a world composed of talking animals existing among humans.
The 4th Album of Inspector Canardo, The Return of Rasputin,
was the last appearance of humans in its books.
Just as the concept of a Teenager (and later, Tween) came to revolutionize the growth process of a child into an adult, did it occur that maybe comics could benefit from gradual reading levels.  Sadly, these were mainly reduced to Superhero comics, since Independent comics were seen as little more than failed cash grabs of the latest hip fad, and wouldn't reach mainstream appeal without wider recognition.

Not everybody can be an Alan Moore, and this was clearly evident in Mark Millar's appropriately titled Unfunnies, which goes for immediate shock value,  without ever trying to tie these taboo-breaking conventions into something meaningful.  It's as if, being broken free of the Comic's Code Authority, their first instinct was to delve into all manners of depravity just to see if they could.  It's one thing to create things of bad taste.  It's another to expect audiences to be attracted to unpolished garbage.

It's why I could never get into ElephantMen, because all the women are objectified waifs where the men are strong powerhouses.  As a commentor said, "(The) concept looks kinda cool, but is ruined by the idealized and objectified women. SO cliched. I mean, hey, you've got your Blonde, your Asian, and your African 'Hot Chicks' (and she of course has to be the 'unwanted daughter of an African crime lord'. Gag.) one for each fetish! How sexist and boring. Are there no female 'Elephant Women' and the human men who love them? No... of course not. I won't be picking this up any time soon."

The story is told through dribs and drabs, where hardly anything of substance happens, and is told more through narrative boxes than outright dialogue.  There's flashbacks to events that happened during the war, contrasting these wild soldiers now having to live in a society that fears and persecutes them, but that's hardly enough to garner my attention.

Even though updates have been rather sporadic with unexpected hiatuses and there seem to be server problems, Jack is still a webcomic that I keep coming back to, simply because of the compelling artwork, capturing nuances and dialogue.  The first two stories deal with the perspective of an aborted fetus and a recreation of Columbine.  That alone should give you an idea that this isn't exactly appropriate material for children.  Yet, for all it's gore and hysteria, it manages to accomplish a level of realism and humanity with the characters and stories.  For as much as it deals with life after death, there's an astounding amount of time spent in the "living" world, even though the fantasy element never quite goes away.

The basic concept is that there's a reaper from hell who's the pure embodiment of the sin Wrath, who was a domestic terrorist in his former life.  Pretty much all the other sins are extremists who died doing what they wanted, and became representations of the sins they emulated.  (For chuckles, I'd like to see somebody do a physical representation of the Seven Virtues someday)  It is for these reasons I considered Jack the Furry equivalent of Sandman.  Indeed, the latest conclusion to it's latest storyline which was put on indefinite hiatus has a line quoted from The Devil that seems deliberately lifted from Gaiman's Magnum Opus.

For a comic that had its namesake protagonist as being the viewpoint of a sympathetic Reaper, there were varying complaints that it oftentimes went off into tangents that had nothing to do with the overall story,
and a disturbing focus on Drip, the personification of Lust.  At the time, I didn't think much of these criticisms, seeing these as minor nitpoints, since likewise in Sandman, the titular figure was less the controlling focus of the narrative, and more the vehicle around which stories orbited around.

So I was confused about why something I enjoyed so much was constantly criticized for an extremely nihilistic viewpoint and called "one of the worst webcomics", only because the overall disturbing crapsackworld was a reflection of the author's filibuster tracts.  There's a website devoted to nit-picking all the specific things that are wrong about Jack.  Especially when those visions of Hell were offset with brief moments of heartwarming scenarios amidst all the darkness and depravity.

I wasn't aware of the unfortunate history of Dave Hopkins, which involved threats of rape and abuse towards his wife, who he'd had a falling out with.  It wasn't until it was pointed out that a large portion of his Jack stories focused exclusively on Drip, the incarnation of Lust, and that the majority of his sympathetic viewpoints is towards rapists.  That, and his avatar was represented as a blue skunk, who also just happened to be the Devil in his stories.  In that sense, Dave Hopkins is among problematic authors alongside H.P. LoveCraft and Dave Sim who are revered, despite their views.

To anyone who hasn't been scared off yet, and is feeling intimidated at catching up the entire exploits of the comic, there's a handy-dandy arc viewer for ease of catching up.  Though for some reason, some of the pages in Two For You are all mixed up, causing no small amount of confusion.  But that's not the only arc that's messed with - one of the early stories, Games we Play in Hell is left out, because it's implicitly aimed at someone, and some of the homosexual implications regarding Drip's backstory is left out, though both can be found in the directory, if you know where to look.

But for sheer outright dystopian depression, very little surpasses the mind-blowing experience that is Ptiluc's world of Pacush Blues.

Pacush Blues is a series of self-contained stories involving rats that started out as a series of short black humour comics in greyscale.  But starting from the fourth album, was done in colour with progressively longer stories with increasingly disturbing content, issues and gore.

The fourth and fifth volumes is a satire on organized religion involving a Rubik's Cube and a Gumball machine.  The sixth volume is a savage journey across sea, land and air.  (In that order)  The seventh volume involves a struggling homeless rat trying to find solace inside a research lab, and failing.
Imagine not being outside the Bunny testing lab in Bloom County,
but actively living and surviving inside it.
And this is just the first testing level.
The others are just as bad, or worse.
For me, the most traumatizing comic I ever saw was the 8th album of Pacush Blues, "Logic of the Worst", or "Worst Case Scenario", where philosophical rats traverse a frozen landscape, get mutilated, randomly killed off (one mistakes the snow for cocaine, and keeps snorting it up, freezing his nose off), resort to cannibalism, and the lone survivor gets roped into a capitalism scheme he can't begin to comprehend.  Even predators like cats and crows don't even bother preying on them, since they're too terrified by their surroundings to bother.  A botched lobotomy is the closest it comes to approaching a happy ending.

If I could've understood what was going on, I'd probably be even more traumatized.  As such, it's one of my pipe dream scanlation projects, since people either find undertaking the task as being understandably intimidating, either in terms of subject material, translation hurdles or emotional fatigue.  But we shouldn't feel scared about wanting to explore groundbreaking material, no matter how much the truth may hurt us.  It's only by testing the boundaries of our knowledge that we learn how to grow.

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