Like a lot of people, I was fascinated by both the depth and detail of Flip's recently published guest article, The Beginnings of the Modern Furry Aesthetic. It feels like he has scratched the surface of something true, something that defines what "furry" actually is. He was kind enough to agree to an interview to give me an opportunity to explore some of the ideas he presented, as well as some background on his own unique furry experience.
Flip has been around furry since the late 1980s, starting with underground comics like "Omaha" the Cat Dancer as a teenager and eventually connecting with furry Usenet newsgroups in the early 1990s. He describes himself as an "uberfan", meaning that his interests extend into science fiction, gaming, anime - you name it. In the mid 1990s he started helping organize fan conventions and drifted away from furry, returning in 2004.
He kept touch with furry until 2012, when he met Kyell Gold at Gaylaxicon, sparking his interest in the way different fandoms crossover and interact with furry. It was this time that his local furry community in Minnesota started discussing running their own convention.
Nowadays Flip helps run Furry Migration, which is in its second year in 2015 (held August 28-30). The theme is "Back to the Future", and includes two artists at the forefront of furry's genesis in the late 1970s, Reed Waller and Ken Fletcher. Flip has been working with Reed and Ken in preparation for the convention, giving him access and insight into their works, ultimately leading to his [a][s] article.
Our interview was held over a Skype videocall the day after Flip's article was published. It involved about an hour of wide-ranging and fascinating topics. I took notes but did not record the call - accordingly please be aware that my transcript is far from complete, and can probably be considered a paraphrase of Flip's words. He talks fast! There will be errors; they are all my fault; please accept my apology in advance.
Firstly, what stands out in your article is your willingness to identify a very specific spark of furry: a 4-page minicomic titled Disguise Adroit de Plastique! in Vootie #4.
Disguise Adroit de Plastique!, or "Clever Plastic Disguise", is published in The Erotic Art of Reed Waller, as is the second piece I mentioned in my article, Somebody Here Says There Ain't Enuff Sex in Funny Animal Comics from Vootie #5.
Reed highlights both of these pieces as something new, foreshadows of "Omaha". The earlier editions of Vootie focussed on cartooning and funny animals, a divergence from the science fiction/fantasy oriented APA (amateur press) zine Rune.
All of these zines were published in a way that had the artists retain copyright over their own pieces, so it makes it difficult to publish them online. However scanning is underway but it's difficult to contact everyone involved after so many years.
The Minnesota furs have formed a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, to help run Furry Migration and other activities. We have talked about a possible archiving project or library. We are aware that we're running out of time to get everyone who is still alive together to decide how to capture everything, and how to store it. How or where that might happen is up for grabs.
At Furry Migration we're hoping to run events related to the process of creation and cartooning. Rather than just have guys sitting around in the dealer's den, we want to have events where we crate something at the convention itself, in a collaborative way.
All artists have biases towards their own work, and so its easy to think that Reed might be overstating the importance of his work in Vootie and, later, "Omaha". I own all the Omahas and my research, which is supported by a lot of common references, suggest that something special happened in Minnesota in the late 1970s. Vootie was just beginning, and Rowrbrazzle would become the first purely furry publication.
All the pieces were in place for furry to begin, the question is what was the trigger. I believe it was inevitable the furry would occur at this point.
Disguise Adroit de Plastique! stands out to me because it's playing a game. That's the furry trigger, the characters are not just a satire of human behaviour ala Fritz the Cat, the characters talk back to us. They tell us what to do, which is a different literary format. Before this the animal characters had just been satirical stand-ins for human beings.
I think this is part of the roleplaying tradition that is so strong in Minnesota - the birthplace of D&D via Gary Gygax and others. There is something that the characters are trying to say about themselves, something that's hard to express. Like a classic fantasy character, the characters in Disguise Adroit de Plastique! are like an alter ego.
Reed identifies something special about Disguise Adroit de Plastique! in his compilation (The Erotic Art of Reed Waller), and I saw it at a Minnesota Cartoonists' League (MNCL) gathering, which is a regular gathering of several likeminded cartoonists that still goes on today at O'Gara's Bar & Grill in St Pauls.
As the first step to identifying the first spark of furry, you of course had to define what the furry aesthetic actually is. It's not an easy question.
I thought to myself: if furry isn't science fiction, what is it?
Looking at the history, there was a lot cartooning happening around Minicon in Minnesota, and also in California around people like Fred Patten. By 1981, Vootie was having trouble getting published after (Californian) zines like Albedo Anthropomorphics and Critters started to prosper. California become the centre of the growth of furry as a stand-alone phenomenon because they have more people: they had critical mass.
I contend that furry was sparked earlier, in the late 1970s in Minnesota.
The furry aesthetic is about emotional honesty, as embodied in the ideas of sex, drugs and rock & roll. There is something defiant about furry, something that says "this is me". Regardless of whether you have a fursona, something about furry petitions a deep emotional core.
You can look at furry and see a range of expressions that are different from fandoms and from the rest of the world, in sexual behaviour, gender identification, sexual orientation, and a kind of eco-spirituality. These all tie into counterculture, and the way an artist sees the world, and rejects the world.
Furry uses tropes just like any art form, but it is different from the funny animal comics because the characters are personal. Funny animal comics, like Fritz or Disney's Robin Hood or something more recent like Animaniacs, are just a reflection, a parody or satire, of the real world. Furry ties into something deeper, something primal.
In the 1990s, as furry grew, we started to see furry diverge from fandoms. People started to think of themselves as lifestylers rather than fans, suggesting a focus on that personal element rather than just the art.
I'm sure I could put this more delicately, but the 1990s saw an influx of homosexuals into furry.
I believe this occurred because furry allowed an expression of something deeply personal, and that expressions of homosexuality operate on the same level as other furry expressions, like the adoption of fursonas.
Ken Fletcher feels that fursonas are about roleplaying, in the same way that someone might roleplay a D&D character, at least if they are roleplaying well. Minnesota of course has a long history of roleplaying, with D&D being big with the college crowd.
This means that fursonas aren't a new idea - they have always been around. Cartoonists would caricature themselves at conventions, and roleplayed as those characters. Reed Waller, for example, would sometimes draw himself as Reed Walrus.
This came from the roleplaying environment originally. The internet simply made it an obvious thing to do. Minnesota was also the home of early MUCKs, and people would play fantasy characters that were reflections of themselves, just as people do now with World of Warcraft. The idea of fursonas has a lineage.
Ken Fletcher talks about the old Californian furgroup, where there was an early schism between cartoonists that wanted to go Disney/commercial, and those with a more extreme artistic and countercultural bent. Part of that involved the use of fursona-like characters in Rowrbrazzle.
Different personalities were always going to do different things. It's hard to say that the internet drove the adoption of fursonas, or the adoption of fursonas helped drive uptake of the internet. There have always been personal elements about character creation, without those characters being formal fursonas. It's hard to identify where things changed.
When you returned to furry in 2004 after a few years away, did you notice that much had changed?
For starters, people assumed that I was gay. That was new! I'm bisexual and I didn't mind, but I didn't expect it.
The high profile comics were often explicitly homosexual, such as Associated Student Bodies, Genus Male, and Circles. This was something I tried to explain at Gaylaxicon but found difficult - it felt like furry had become a niche market of a niche market, i.e. homosexual funny animals. I know enough about marketing to know that no such market exists - it's something that nobody would ever attempt to 'capture'. So something else had to account for the popularity of furry.
It wasn't just a lot of LGBT people, it was also expressions of gender and eco-spirituality. By eco-sprituality I mean something that feels religious but not exactly animism or totemism, something that looks into gaining a deeper understanding of self and personality in the world.
It felt like these things, as well as the adoption of fursonas, were symptoms of the furry experience. Like furry was related to roleplaying, or wish fulfilment.
There is also the drama aspect of furry. Compared with other fandoms, furries wear their heart on their sleeve, as if interactions with furry has an unusually deep emotional element. It's easy for some social disagreements to be seen as attacks. It's not like a disagreement between two people who have opinions on red cars or on chocolate - disagreements between furries are personal, and there is a high level of emotional investment. Something about furry petitions a deep emotional core.
What about yourself, what are your favourites within furry?
I always loved Rocket Raccoon. Rocket started as just a funny animal, a satire. But he become something more personal in the film.
The Director of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn, must be aware of furry, and I think Rocket may be a deliberately furry character. There are animal aspects to his attack presentation, it's an animalistic response rather than a human one. His non-human features come to the fore—his teeth are bared—and that personality edging into animalism... if it's not deliberately furry then it's walking up to the line.
There is also an anime called Spice and Wolf from 2005 or so, which is owned by Funimation. The wolf has consumed so many humans that he has become aware. Spice and Wolf uses the idea of instinct, nature, primal forces - the animal point of view is arguably more insightful into the real world than the human perspective.
Your involvement with the anime fandom has given you a perspective on the Japanese kemono phenomenon as well.
The Japanese have different roots into furry, but there are a lot of similarities. The Hyper Police doujinshi series, similar to Thundarr the Barbarian, which ties back to Japanese animal-like folklore characters that act on instinct.
It's a uniquely Japanese point of view but a similar idea, and seems to influence a few people including an up-and-coming Miyazaki-like director named Mamoru Hosoda. He is responsible for Summer Wars, Wolf Children and the upcoming Boy & His Beast, although I'm not sure what the local title of that will eventually be. Hosoda is certainly aware of kemono. It might be better to call it an "animal aesthetic" rather than a "furry aesthetic".
How do you find today's furry?
I find furry to be a bit limited. There are norms to what a fursona or a fursuit "should" be. I feel like a suit is devalued when it's a character from a roleplaying game rather than an original.
In time, I expect to see the boundaries on what a furry "is" get broken down more and more. My concern is that furry is following a mould, but if we're being true to furry then we should follow it in whatever way makes sense to us.