It's not just funny animals ...
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It's not just funny animals ...

It's not just funny animals ...

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Buckle up. Big, bumpy column ahead...

This week, I'm off (okay, when am I not?) to visit another fandom based event. This time it has a connection you should be interested in. If you've ever watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon and laughed, you're already there.

Consider this word: Anthropomorphic.

Truly, a three-dollar word. One not heard in everyday conversations. Right? So? What does it mean?

Well, trying the lovely dictionary provided by the folks at the borg-like cubes in Redmond, Washington, "anthropomorphic" comes up as "anthropomorphize" with the following description: "to give a nonhuman thing a human form or human characteristics".

I'll start slowly on this and say that it is not a new concept. Storytellers have given animals human or human-like characteristics since the dawn of time. Spirits appearing as animals communicating with humans were an essential element of many religious oral traditions.

Our own Disney and other animation favorites certainly can trace their lineage right back to those tales told at the campfires of our ancestors. Aesops Fables, the stories by the Brothers Grimm, Beatrix Potter and a whole lot more make heavy use of the practice of anthropomorphizing of their characters. Would you have found the tale of Peter Rabbit as interesting if it had been just another story about a little boy? Maybe not... But that one little story element has made it just that for generations - interesting. Perhaps just as important is the connection it makes with the audience, in this case, younger readers.

Again, back to the connection. But that is what really creates the difference between a story that just offers information and one that an audience can identify with. And that's just what anthropomorhpics is all about.

Now that you have learned a small lesson on the subject, let us take a look at a fan-based event known as "Further Confusion", held over the Superbowl weekend, at San Jose's Doubletree Hotel.

Further Confusion (or FC) is the project of an organization known as Anthropomorphic Arts and Education. This non-profit corporation (501c3 in case you're curious) supports educational and charitable activities of interest to fans of anthropomorphic art and animals in general.

They do good work in supporting a variety of community projects and FC has become their best way to do so. Over the last five years, they have donated thousands of dollars to a variety of charities including the Oakland Zoo, the Coyote Park Museum, the Barry R Kirshner Wildlife Foundation, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Tiger Touch and Therapy Pets.

This year, various events benefited two worthy organizations. PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) is a volunteer-based organization that helps improve the quality of life for people with AIDS and other disabling illnesses by offering the emotional and practical support to keep the love and companionship of pets.

The other organization was the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, at the Long Marine Laboratory. Part of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz, it is a research and education facility that serves as a base for field research in the Monterey Bay and oceans beyond.

So, I can hear you saying, "Who are the folks who attend FC?" Well, simply put, this tends to be the "Furry" crowd.

And before that turns you off, saying not for me, I consider myself part of that group, and you might be one of them and not know it. As I said up at the start of this effort, if have you ever watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon and laughed at it? Guess what? You're a fan of Anthropomorphics.

I don't draw funny animals, I don't write stories about them, nor do I own a fur suit. What I do have is an appreciation of the talents and dedications of some of the people who do. Some do it for fun, others do it for profit.

Just like any group at a fan-based convention, some folks like to dress up and play. Whether you talk about Trekkies, Deadheads, Civil War re-enactors, SCA (the Society for Create Anachronism), the Knights of Columbus or the Shriners, they all have this in common. These are people who take their interests genuinely enough to the point of wearing a costume and adopting a different personality to go along with it. It's the child in all of us trying to get out for a bit. And they all have their fringe elements, some people who take it a bit too earnestly.

The ugly truth is, shockingly, that the furry folks are all quite normal, for the most part - despite some media attention trying to be sensational and demonstrate the contrary.

Sorry, but that's the reality here. Just plain folks, odd in some ways, but aren't we all? These people come from a variety of backgrounds and professions, but all enjoy this fandom in their own special ways.

So... you are about to meet some of them.

Jeff Ferris is one of my closest friends. If anyone could be called my "big brother", I suppose he would be the one. I've known him for some twenty odd years, and this is only one of several interests I share with him. Among the others, there are trains (surprise!), Disneyland, comic books, a good Basque meal, and a wicked riposte or two. We have worked as volunteers at various science fiction and fantasy conventions, and driven a mile or two to some very interesting places. (More tales for more columns. One worth telling involves Ely, Nevada, just to tease...) Jeff acts as the CFO for AA&E.


Jeff Ferris and Dasha Clancey being interrupted by some mouse while enjoying lunch at Club 33.
Photo by Roger Colton

Over all those years, he has become the publisher of "Yarf! The Journal of Applied Anthropomorphics". Publishing a fanzine (fan produced magazine) isn't all that unusual but this one has legs. 66 issues have been produced since issue 0.1 in 1990 and that is extremely unusual.

The average fanzine lasts about two years. The person or persons behind it tend to move on to other interests or the readership drops off. I can think only think of one other fanzine that has kept publishing so long, and that is Jack and Leon Janzen's "E-Ticket".

So what's the secret to this success? Part of it has to be the enthusiasm of the staff for the fandom they are promoting with the publication. Another part has to be the more than occasional infusion of new talent, either in the content or in the editorial side. While I can't speak for Jack & Leon, I do know that Jeff has been lucky enough to get more than his fair share on both sides of the proverbial coin.

Content has run from stories in print and strip form, to some great stories that deserve the graphic novel treatment. And, yes, there are funny or cute animals in drawings in profusion. "Yarf!" has tended not to allow content of a decidedly graphic sexual nature, as other "furry" fanzines may have. That's not to say that passion does not become an element, but it tends to leave more to the imagination than to drag it out in front of the readers for display.

So why does Jeff and his crew keep doing it?

It's the contributors for one. As long as they keep sending in great things to share, he keeps publishing them. The quality tends to be quite good, and that helps keep subscribers coming back for more. Sales of single issues and back issues do well, again with the quality of the product as part of the process. An average year (one in which the publisher doesn't have quad bypass surgery...) tends to see four issues produced.

Nominally, black and white tends to be the format for the issues. Having used most of the Astrobright paper colors available for cover stock, there have been three full color covers, and Jeff says that will probably happen again. Over the lifespan of the zine, costs have come way down for color, as well as the quality of overall reproduction having improved. At an average cost of $6.00 an issue, that's not too expensive a way to enjoy this interest. YARF! has a web presence at http://yarf.furry.com

With a good crew on the production end to keep him honest, Jeff expects this year will see a full slate or better.

This interest is not limited to the male of the human species. Women represent a strong element of the "furry" crowd. One artist is Shannon Stuart. At twenty, she's not exactly new to all of this. At a young age, she became interested in drawing, having admired the anime style found in "Sailor Moon"

Her father had the furry interest, and that grew from attending various science fiction and fantasy conventions. After one event, he brought home a book of furry art. She discovered it and decided this was a style she wanted to explore. More anime such as Magic Knight Rayearth and others influenced her. As the result, the characters Shannon creates are based in the anime and manga styles - especially with big, very expressive eyes (even down to the shading and textures of the irises.


Art by Shannon Stuart

She's making her art pay by selling at school as well as conventions and online. Paintings and drawings are putting her through school, and getting her exposure. She is also a frequent contributor to fanzines such as YARF!

For her future, Shannon hope to progress to a sequential work, perhaps some story in strip form. If she has a challenge to face, it is to stick with one idea, and be consistent. She's got no problem coming up with new subjects, but it's trying to stick to one and finish it before something new comes along to inspire her. The pacing of stories and reaching a conclusion are areas she's looking to improve on.

She's twenty now and has five years of furry art behind her. Off at school, she's an art major. Classroom work such as illustration and landscapes are adding to her style. The use of textures is something she sees as helpful in adding her own touches to the usually flat anime styles.

I asked her if she had a piece she was especially proud of. An oil painting, titled "Himeko's World" offers a look into what might become that sequential story. The character takes the center of the painting and is circled by her friends and allies, including the spirits she summons for assistance. If persistence pays off, this might just be the starting point for that sequential work.

Shannon's web pages are located at http://www.minespot.com

Taking a momentary break, the Parade of Fur Suits just passed by, some fifty odd strong. Some great costumes including Pinky from "Pinky and the Brain", and Don Carnage from "Talespin"...

One of the two Guests of Honor for this year's FC was Toby Bluth. For Disney fans, he may be most well known as the Art Director for Disney's "Tigger Movie", and his brother Don has a legacy all his own.

One busy guy this weekend, with lots to do. During a workshop on watercolors, Toby produced a completed painting in about 90 minutes. Another panel discussion he participated in was "The State of Modern Animation". Joining him was John Nunamacher (who also worked on the "Tigger movie" as well as other projects at Disney).

Boiling down the 90 minutes... If the story isn't there, it doesn't matter how good it looks.

Business now seems to have become more the focus than story and animators. Today's Production Assistant is likely to become tomorrows Producer. Ironically, it was noted that when a project ended, there was more concern what the PA's would be assigned to next, rather than the artists.

There was also a brief discussion on Disney and it's focus being more on what fits the "Disney" mold, instead of looking to expand the horizon. That tends to be left more for studios like Pixar or Dreamworks.

Another comment was the incredible lack of synergy between marketing, merchandising, theme parks and production at Disney. A prominent example came up of how Disney Stores had merchandise for "Monsters Inc." some six weeks before the film opened. No one knew anything about the characters or story, so these items sat on shelves for five weeks, and mangers ordered a 50 percent clearance the week before the film opened. When demand did hit, the profit margin had already been torpedoed.

The opposite was noted for "Lilo & Stich", where merchandise was selling so well, that it was pulled from shelves at the World Of Disney in Anaheim for fear of not having anything on hand when the movie did open. Quality between the pre-opening products and those rushed to market after opening is somewhat noticeable.

The lack of merchandising for adult clothing also was discussed. No one could understand why. Toby did volunteer that he had managed to get his own personal pair of "Tigger" shorts, which he proudly wore around the office to many questions of "Where did you get those?"

Another topic of concern was the theme of how folks want to see Disney fall flat on its face with animation. Were that to happen, it might be catastrophic for the industry as a whole. If the premiere producer of animated films cannot make money in this medium, who else could?


Ain't technology grand? Jim Groat, right, shows Ken Mitchroney, center, and Toby Bluth, left, that he
actually has a life! His digital camera displayed pictures of his wife and children, safe at home.
Toby was this year's Artist Guest of Honor, and Ken had been FC's first Artist GOH five years ago.
Photo by Dasha Clancey

Another interesting fan is Jim Groat. In younger days, his interests were peaked by Disney's "Robin Hood" and the Rankin Bass "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" TV classic. Always a fan of horses in animation, he also was attracted to Hannah Barbera's "Quickdraw McGraw". A true "anthropomorphic" moment came when he first saw "Animalympics". Originally intended as segments for the NBC coverage 1988 Moscow Summer Olympics (which were boycotted by the US teams, after the Soviets had boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games) this project was assembled as a feature for theatrical release and is somewhat of a cult favorite on video today.

So it's a good bet to say that Jim is one of the old-timers of "Furry Fandom" as it exists today. He started drawing funny animals in high school, and that led him to a period of employment drawing a syndicated strip called "Mudd Flat" between 1979 and 1981. That came to an end after a major problem with a paper changing his dialog to fit it's own political agenda. He was so fed up with it all, that he literally burned all of his work on hand, and gave up drawing entirely for two years. He feels today that he lost a great deal of skill by taking that break, and that he will never draw as he did back then.

He was invited to resume his schooling at Cal Arts, but didn't feel he could burden his parents with expense, even then a healthy chunk of change each year at $8000. So he passed.

A big change for Jim came in 1983 when he met his partner in comics, Richard Konkle. He had gotten his start working at Marvel Comics. They shared interests in the Conan stories as well as the anthopomorphics. Along the way, they discovered an interesting pattern of elements to the Conan stories that boiled down to five steps.

Number One: Conan would discover some fantastic lost city or castle.

Number Two: Conan would hear of some lost treasure within guarded by either an evil demon or sorcerer.

Number Three: Conan would always discover a scantily clad, attractive woman in peril, thanks to the demon or sorcerer.

Number Four: Inevitably, Conan would defeat the demon or the wizard, rescue the girl and get the gold.

Number Five: Conan would lose the girl and the gold and start all over again at Number One.

So... Jim and Richard decided to take on the challenge and did a similar story, set in the furry world in their own comic book. And they did it all in one issue, called "Equine the Uncivilized". It was true success story for the summer of 1985. In ten days, they sold 20,000 copies of this black and white comic book with a color cover.

Jim is thankful to those days because the comics let him meet other fans like Steve Gallaci, who was kind enough to offer him table space at the San Diego Comicon, that led him to a much wider audience.

However, comics became simply too much of a good thing as the market became over saturated between 1985 and 1987. It was heady days for the independents like Jim. But eventually, the bottom fell out of comics as the major players like Marvel squeezed the dealers and distributors by forcing them to carry titles. In the end, there was simply no shelf space in comic shops for the small publishers. A good example from Marvel was one title where the same issue had multiple covers, which they hoped the drooling comic fans would need to buy a copy of each one to keep collections complete. (I understand that, as I was one of those fans who had to keep a complete set of issues on certain titles - most of which are rotting away in my storage locker today.)

Jim was only one of the casualties of that time, as not only comic publishers, but also distributors and dealers went out of business almost overnight.

Today, he's still drawing and sharing his interest. He sees the future of furry fandom as solid, but hopes that today's crop of young artists will try to remember that their actually is a life outside of fandom.

Jim's web presence is located at http://www.graphxpress.com and he'll have some artist jam pages from FC 2003 up soon...

Now we've looked over the people. What was the content of the convention all about? With a theme based on "Alice In Wonderland", you know to expect something unusual, right? A great piece of entertainment, or if you take the view of some, a fine piece of satire or allegory on society in Great Britain in it's day. Undeniably, Lewis Carroll anthropomorphized the characters to appeal to his readers, and it works extremely well. All in all, a great choice for a theme.

So it leads to all kinds of programming on a number of distinct tracks.

An artist track, a writers track, a gaming track, a costuming track, a puppeteering track, and a spirituality track provided more than enough content for five days, as the event ran Thursday through Monday. Throw in a main stage for special events and there was never a dull moment. A particular highlight on stage was the Iron Artist event in the method of the popular Fuji TV "Iron Chef" show. Last year, the competing artists found cake and frosting awaiting them. This year things were kicked up a notch with the theme ingredient: Sharpie Markers! The media for the artist to work upon was volunteers from the audience. Arms provided a great place for Sharpie tattoos.

With a time limit of 30 minutes, three Iron Artists took on three challengers in the categories of Cute, Spotty and Comics. John Nunamacher took up the last minute challenge as Iron Artist Cute. Guests of Honor Toby Bluth and Karen Anderson assisted other (impartial?) judges in scoring the works. Some great works resulted, complete with a tie in the Cute competition. That called for a five-minute tiebreaker on the other arm, with Iron Artist Cute winning with a classic cartoon red fox. In all the Iron Artists successfully defended their titles.

There were a variety of room parties, dances and other social events to keep everyone busy. That didn't stop folks from just pulling up a chair and making new friends, or enjoying good times with old ones.


Tigris relaxes after a long day with friends, Samantha and Stacy.
Photo by Jeff Ferris

A large dealers room offered all kinds of merchandise. Everything from videos to comics to specially created art was on sale. The Art show proved extremely popular as well with a good number of works going to auction.

FC is only one of a growing number of furry fan events across the world.

They are already planning for FC 2004, with one guest announced, author Larry Niven, and the theme of "The Great Outdoors" (curious for an event that takes place inside a hotel in urban San Jose...)

I'll probably be there again, and there are folks trying to get me to volunteer as the Guest of Honor liaison. We'll see how that goes.

For more info, visit http://www.furtherconfusion.org

Coming to the close of my longest column yet, I hope this has offered you a bit more of an insight into the world of furry fandom. Contrary to the multitude of horror stories, these are just regular people. As one Oakland Raider fan said on TV over the weekend, "Fan is just short for fanatic."

 

Roger's been a contributor to Yarf! off and on. Issues 4 and 5 featured book reviews of Warner and Disney character information. He and wife Michele, and cat Cruiser all have their own favored plush animals (although Roger and Michele's aren't filled with catnip). You read about Roger's fur suit experience in a previous column, and he has no plans to reprise that soon. Jeff reported that FC 2003 did top 1200 registrants and that the art show and charity auction topped estimates by a healthy margin. No word yet on who will be the Artist Guest of Honor for 2004.

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