The Beginnings of the Modern Furry Aesthetic

04 Jun 2015 | Guest Poster

Guest article by Flip. Flip has been involved with furry and other fandoms since the late 1980s, running conventions since the mid 90s, and generally being an uberfan. He is currently helping organize Furry Migration, which is held in Minneapolis August 28-30 this year.

This document started as a refinement of the Wikipedia definition to the nebulous “beginning of Furry” as a fan culture, but it quickly became apparent it would get bogged down in some nuanced specifics that, although really useful in understanding what started when historically, do not lend themselves to the brevity required by Wikis. In the end, this is more a thesis on specifically when furry started and what were the central galvanizing themes that set it apart from its sister fandoms/art forms. It may be useful to have both WikiFur and Wikipedia up as references for specific definitions and explanations. Warning: There is some graphic language due to specific quotes and citations, but general context is kept as PG-13 as possible.

The existing definition of the start of Modern Furry is somewhere around 1980-1985. It is the combination of funny animal comics and the use of anthropomorphism in science fiction into a form that is a sub-genre apart from both: Furry Fandom. WikiFur’s identification puts this point between the publications Vootie and Rowrbrazzle. Wikipedia tends to suggest Furry’s genesis as more a product of Science Fiction fandom and their corresponding conventions. Although Wikifur is more specifically correct in that furry fandom is a product of some particular underground comics, it is important to note that Wikipedia’s definition is still generally correct, but missing some nuance.

To understand all the pieces involved here, it is important to recognize what was happening during the 1970s, specifically in society and popular culture. It was a tremendous time of personal discovery, social expression and artistic experimentation. Specifically to pre-modern furry concerns, the use of anthropomorphism continued to be expanded in new ways across various media. Much of this is easily seen in the animation, science fiction and comic books of the time.

For animation, three examples of would be Disney pieces like Robin Hood (1973) in the mainstream, characters like Lieutenant M'Ress from Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-4) in Science Fiction fandom, and Fritz the Cat (1965-72) as an example from Underground Comics stemming from developments of counterculture in the 1960s. Although these forms were still “funny animal”, design and context was pushed from their previous use of referential comical parody/irony/satire that was indicative of the mid 20th century, to more direct serious introspection of the human condition, be that emotional reflection, cultural analysis, or scathing social commentary.

To be fair, a good deal of the expansion of the use of anthropomorphism was in works of Science Fiction, which for this article includes the major subgenres of Fantasy and Horror. Using anthropomorphic races, everything from alien races to modern updates of myths like werewolves or ents, was very common in the 1960s and 1970’s. Modern Science Fiction primarily used anthropomorphism as a literary device in stories. The most common device was to provide an “outside” perspective to the human condition, where a “near human” could ask questions about the somewhat arbitrary idiosyncrasies of humans while still having a coherent intelligence and emotional understanding of life as a “civilized” entity.

To draw back to the original thesis, Wikipedia’s citation of Science Fiction as the genesis of Furry is fair. Modern Furry, or something very similar to it, would likely have arisen in time given this environment. However, even though we can see the roots and building blocks of what would be Modern Furry here, it needed something else, some spark, to evolve into Furry. If shown examples of Robin Hood or M’Ress to fans of the Furry genre, those fans commonly comment, “They look Furry, yet somehow do not ‘feel’ Furry.” Fritz the Cat seems to come closer, but still not quite. True, Fritz has a “funny animal” design and adult content, but there seems to be an essential aspect that is missing. What needs to be identified here is the underlying Furry Aesthetic and the moment that came into being. Also, to list out some of the central themes and methods that typify this sub-genre. The fact that many fans of Modern Furry, comics, and Science Fiction see each other as “different” suggests that there are notable differences outside of whether or not anthropomorphism is used. In short, the Modern Furry Aesthetic is a blend of existing genres but in a unique way.

Comics, especially “funny animal” and Underground Comics of the 1960’s and 1970’s seem to be the key in understanding this transformation. Comics can use anthropomorphism in sharp relief to function as literary technique like parody, irony, satire and absurdist humor, usually referring to someone’s character or an aspect of the human condition. To feature a cowardly character as a chicken is an example. With the close of the Silver Age of Comic Books and the growth of counterculture in the 1960s, comics and comic books were rebranding themselves, trying to bring insightful humor to a new clientele. Some comics tried reimagining of “funny animal” characters in fantastic, cosmic new roles. Example: the original Rocket Raccoon was created and refined in this period. Other comics went darker and more into science fiction like 2000 AD, which created characters like Judge Dredd. Some also followed the counterculture, invoking a theme of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and a deep cynicism for “polite society”. Artist like Robert Crumb and Steve Gerber created new “funny animal” characters whose awareness, if not indulgence, of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, as well as cynicism and distrust of authority, was part of everyday life.

If we look at the Fritz the Cat comic, we are looking specifically at a satirical comic that depicted anthropomorphic characters smoking weed, having casual sex, and being violently anti-authoritarian. However, Fritz is ultimately NOT Furry because it is based in satire and the dynamic of a “dark mirror” on real society. The use of the various animal species is analogy to various races, jobs and/or social standings of people in human society. The characters exist to point at issues in society, but the use of anthropomorphic animals is more of a convenient and incidental label or trope in a broad character sense. Something about this seems insufficient in defining the Furry Aesthetic. The fact that Fritz was different in that it was adult oriented and had adult themes does separate it from earlier funny animal comics, but by itself does not make it Furry.

WikiFur identifies a major turning point somewhere between Vootie and Rowrbrazzle. Vootie was an amateur press association (APA) founded by Reed Waller and Ken Fletcher, who had worked previously on a more Science Fiction/Fantasy style APA named Rune. Both artists have identified multiple influences from the examples above. Influences also came from a close group of friends and artists in the Minneapolis area, a Science Fiction convention called Minicon, and book stores and print shops like Uncle Hugo’s and Dreamhaven. Many of these same local friends, like Timothy Fay, later worked on Rowrbrazzle. Looking at the individual issues of Vootie, the publication is a crossroads of Science Fiction and comics’ use of anthropomorphism in fun and new ways. If the “spark” of furry were to be identified, it would be in Vootie #3 in 1977. The name of the comic is “Disguise Adroit de Plastique”, or pidgin French for, “Clever Plastic Disguise”. The beginning of this comic is very much a satire with “funny animal” characters in a Fritz sort of way. A wolf is grumbling about the death of Underground Comics (and really the death of the counterculture as Reagan and the cleaning up of society that marked the 80’s were just around the corner), with a turkey and a sheep arguing that, “It’s not that bad, we accomplished so much.” They then point at sanitized versions of mainstream “underground” publications. The wolf starts to agree. The sad joke here is that, truth be told, the mainstreaming of these comics had extinguished the vibrant, defiant and artistic fire that made these comics important in first place.

But then the comic takes a novel turn. A sexy vixen shows up and tells them to stop moping and “act like animals,” claiming to the wolf he has been there so long he has forgotten what he is and thinks he is a person. She goads him, “You’re an animal, so act like it!” as she proudly presents a sexy, ample chest. A brief cloths ripping, foreplay scene later, the bear bartender demands, “What the hell are you doing?” This set the scene as a conflict between giving into primal urges versus following the rules of society.

The bear bartender in this scene can be seen as to represent “we” the reader, listening to the arguments and finally making a decision as to which is the “true” argument. The turkey and sheep stress that if we act all feral, we can’t be taken seriously. The vixen states if the animals don’t act feral, they are LYING to themselves. In a series of panels that encapsulates the Furry Aesthetic, she declares, “All that stuff about ideals might be okay if we were human, but we’re just Animals! All we understand is fucking, and mothering, and killing, and eating.” “Let’s fuck and feast and forget we ever knew that Disney shit!”

This is a new switch. This was not just a “near human” character simply observing an “odd behavior” of the human condition, but an outright rejection of some aspects of it. It also rejects some of the classic analogy/parody use of anthropomorphism and instead suggests a more alter ego or even idealized pure Form as per the philosophical concepts of the Theory of Forms. The argument here is that most of us are lying to ourselves, often not listening to our base instincts. We are far too worried about the dangers of hedonism or just “acting appropriately”, that we defy our “true” nature. In short, we see “funny animals” change from an allegory of humans to something specifically NOT “appropriately human,” and we should be more like the animal character if we wish to be instinctually honest with ourselves.

Combine this comic with the later and better known, “There Ain’t Enuff Sex in Funny Animal Comics” in Vootie #5, as well as everything in this vein afterwards, and we get an artistic aesthetic. An aesthetic, as a philosophical school, points to a truth. More importantly, from this point forward there is a schism in Funny Animal Comics/Science Fiction; where a group of artists and writers go in a new direction chasing this aesthetic where animal instinct provides insights to the human condition. The Truth being pursued is a sense that there is better self honesty in listening to our baser brain in some situations. This seems to be a recurring theme in Furry but not always funny animals from that point forward.

To clarify, this artistic aesthetic is not in all Furry works. But it seems to be a constant thematic base line for Furry. For instance, not all Star Trek episodes highlight its baseline aesthetic of the utopian society of fairness among equals. But it keeps coming back as a general theme in the series. Similarly, not all Furry needs to be adult or sexual in nature to be effective. In fact, Albedo Anthropomorphics, published in 1983, goes back more towards the Science Fiction roots. However, in it the Furry Aesthetic is alive and well. Characters are not just felines, canines, etc. for the sake of an analogue of job, social class, race, etc. like in Fritz. Being a feline fundamentally changes the way a character experiences the universe, and in many ways the “human” side of the equation is the analogous reference used in the perceptions of the character. Tangential as this may seem, we are still using story for analyzing the human condition. This is important to note, as the Furry Aesthetic assumes a sentience and active moral agency as part of its literary device, even when analyzing base and raw emotions and actions. This makes a clear distinction between Furry and Zoophilia.

There is a challenge that this aesthetic is, “Nothing new and we have seen it before.” This is correct, but ubiquitous use as we see in Furry had not been done in 20th Century culture, and this is the reason why I use the term Modern Furry. If we look at some of the older mythology and storytelling, we see a willingness to dwell in the dark feral domains of the human condition with anthropomorphic characters more often. We do see several instances in these older stories where an animal’s nature gives us insight to the human condition. However, many cultures, including western culture, have something like the concept of a “great chain of being.” In these systems, animals are considered “below” us and, effectively, offer nothing to teach us. The use of anthropomorphism shifted from instinctual/insightful to analogous/referential as a literary device where this paradigm is culturally prominent. Modern Furry denotes a subculture where that literary use shifts back.

Today, we clearly have fandom identified as Modern Furry with a fan base commonly using this Furry Aesthetic. They use former “funny animals” to be unapologetically honest about feelings and motivations. This can be as either alter ego (fursona) or idealized pure form. This creates a point of reflection for the human condition that can be viewed as a classic Id/Ego/Superego tension. Understanding this aspect of the Furry Aesthetic helps us understand why, although not focused on a gay community in its inception, Furry fandom found easy audience and was a great medium to aid in discovery, portrayal of, and dealing with specific challenges of the LGBT community that is indicative of 2nd generation Furry in the counterculture of the 1990’s. This is why the Furry Aesthetic continues to find an audience with people in the counterculture communities involved with BDSM, eco-spirituality and mysticism, emotional self development, alternative relationship systems, and gender identification, just to name a few.

In conclusion, if we are to understand what Modern Furry is, we need to understand it was developed in a mix from Science Fiction, counterculture and Comics. It is an artistic aesthetic that does have some separation from those genres, and it seemed to have an inception point in the middle issues of Vootie between 1977 and 1978. The Furry Aesthetic is the artistic use of anthropomorphism to put in sharp relief the tensions of our animal instincts and societal demands and how they both impact the human condition.