This article was originally written in 2006 and posted at sequart.com.
One of my favorite finds of SPX was by an artist I was only a bit familiar with: Andy Hartzell. Meeting him at the Global Hobo table, I was immediately astounded by the intricacy and stark beauty of Fox Bunny Funny. The first thing one notices about it is how elaborate its packaging is. This work is actually three separate minicomics, held in a silkscreened, pressboard slipcover. The book's design reflects its theme: identity and how it's created. With leather straps tying the book together, the book is a beautiful art object.
Now, there are certainly a lot of minis where the author spends most of their effort on the cover and not enough on the actual narrative. This is not the case here. Hartzell makes the most of the format to create a story that is alternately hilarious and horrifying, manipulating familiar images and taking that familiarity to subvert reader expectations. Each of the three minicomics has a surprise ending. The first has a big reveal that explains the odd behavior of our protagonist, the second contains a moment of horror that signals the character's transformation, and the last comes at the end of a series of two page spreads that are a visual tour-de-force.
This is a silent set of comics, and the protagonists are classic funny animals. They're anthropomorphic foxes and rabbits, living in cities and acting like humans in most ways. Hartzell takes this to its logical conclusion, down to using paw-prints to create a pictorial written language. What creates the tension in this comic is that the relationship between foxes and rabbits is the same here as it is in reality: predator and prey. Not only do foxes eat rabbits, hunting them is considered a macho rite of passage. Hunting parties are organized by the fox equivalent of the Boy Scouts in order to raid rabbit villages. The rabbits are used to this sort of thing and have well-organized hiding places and monuments erected mourning the carnage the foxes wreak on them. Their religion and its iconography is a huge focus point in the book, with a scene in a church containing a key transition point.
The stories focus on a male teenaged fox. Without giving away the reveals, the first mini focuses on a particular secret transgression of his. The second details the ramifications of that transgression and the steps his family takes to correct it. Those steps eventually lead to a scene that starts off joyfully and ends in horror. In the last mini, we move to the future as the boy has become a man--and he receives some painful but ultimately liberating lessons.
Hartzell uses a thick, firm black line. There's a liveliness and energy to his line that occasionally borders on the frenetic when he's trying to depict disorientation. He slowly builds on this energy, starting with more background backs and building to more and more detail. He skillfully creates a world that simultaneously evokes the funny animal milieu and a naturalistic world. That balance and tension makes the violence in this book all the more shocking. That's especially true since that visceral quality is in the background at first; the book initially starts with a mystery and sight gags.
The tagline of the book is "Strength Weakness Faith Fear Pride Shame Fox Bunny Funny". That sums up the subthemes of the book, but the overriding theme is that of identity and how it's formed. What is the role of genetics vs environment? How do cultural & religious forces warp one's true nature? The last mini, where a very different world is revealed to our hero, opens up the possibilities of a society where all of these opposites can be embraced and celebrated.