More from the society of animals.

Fox Bunny Funny

This one’s from Top Shelf. It’s 104 pages for $10.00, out today.

The other day, Tom Spurgeon posted an interview with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock, on the occasion of the publisher’s 10th anniversary. Spurgeon made mention of “a specific kind of wistful funny animal comic” as a specific genus of book the company seems to have found particular success with. Warnock replied that wistful funny animal comics are actually in the minority of the Top Shelf line. Still, I instantly knew just the type of book Spurgeon was referring to among Top Shelf titles.

You might make the mistake of presuming that Fox Bunny Funny, from writer/artist Andy Hartzell (a 1995 Xeric Grant recipient and co-founder of the Global Hobo minicomics distributor), is that sort of book. But there’s just not a lot that’s ‘wistful’ about its wordless pages - there’s plenty of paranoia, constant outbreaks of violence, and the hidden threat of social upheaval, but little that straddles the line between adult concerns and children’s entertainment, unless you count the simple use of ‘cute’ anthropomorphic animal characters as players in a broad allegorical melodrama. I see the foxes and the bunnies as pure icons, meant to inhabit a story that could suggest all sorts of social conflict, but is best described as a broad presentation about the Other.

In the world of Fox Bunny Funny, foxes eat bunnies. Both walk upright on two legs, both seem capable of human-like emotion, and both have constructed buildings and begun businesses and all that. And yet, foxes still eat bunnies. Fox society is awash in bunny-eating media. The popular culture reinforces the conflict between foxes and bunnies - you eat them, or they’ll eat you. The bunnies have even fashioned a religion around a savior that’ll descend from above to free them from the jaws of the foxes, but He has not come.

The book’s young protagonist, who has no name (nobody does), is a fox. But his shameful secret is that he wants to be a bunny. He even keeps a secret bunny costume stashed away for private hopping sessions. Yet he’s always paranoid he’ll be found out, and he desperately wants to fit in the rest of his foxy peers, who think nothing of devouring for fun. Hartzell’s book chronicles scenes from his life, from riding his bike through dangerous obstacles just to impress the other foxes, to his forced enlistment in a boy scouts-type outdoors society that conducts murderous drives through bunny territory (here, violence and peril is always linked to a boy proving his worth as a man), to his final struggle against his personal issues, and the discovery that maybe even his conflicted liberal’s worldview has been a bit too constrained.

It’s a brisk thing, and Hartzell makes good use of his pages, many of which are plastered with uniform six-panel grids. This allows for tight control over pacing, and a definite rhythm to the many sequences of flight and pursuit. Early bits (like the bike ride) are reflected in later sequences (the boy scout murder spree) through similar action beats, emphasizing the lead character’s recurring desire to push himself too far in order to prove himself to be a real adult.

And Hartzell is also fine with alterations to his scheme - when the scouting trip enters bunny territory and switches into killing mode, the gutters switch from white to black, only for black to later dominate the whole page when the lead character has a vision of religious vengeance, and then for white to return in a moment of false peace. The book’s final movement upsets the grid system entirely, as a fine means of shattering the preconceptions of the lead character, and exploding the possibilities of the world as we’ve been introduced to it.

But it’s the authenticity of that world’s particulars that really draws you in. Hartzell skillfully inserts tiny, telling details into his characters’ environment that deepen it - the use of ‘hopping’ as a cultural/spiritual ritual for bunnies, the elaborate steel-jawed gripping contraptions the foxes fire as guns to bite into soft bunny flesh, the militaristic salutes that dot the murder sprees. As such, there's enough of a specific quality to Hartzell's world that it doesn't break apart or float away, as is often possible in parables so broad as to demand the reader insert their own experiences merely to solidify it.

The genuine drive of the artist's belief in the destructive capability of a prejudiced society is enough to keep it powered so as to suggest a satisfactory alternative in its concluding pages, and one that's smartly filled with little broken taboos that play off what's gone before, so as to focus on the lead character's anxiety about leaving the place that's ruined him. As a result, it's the sort of book where a concluding splash-page incision in the flesh believably causes an observing crowd to writhe with ecstasy, but its deep cut remains obviously painful.