How furries resist a commercialized fandom (Part 1)

by Patch O'Furr

Furry fandom often has DIY ethics (intentional or not). That can mean nonprofit volunteer-led events, and directly supporting each other’s art instead of just consuming corporate products. A Daily Beast reporter asked about it and I shared lots of info that didn’t all make the news — so here’s a followup in 3 parts.

Why is commercialism a topic for an often disparaged subculture? Compare furry fandom today to its roots. Times change, and hindsight can help to see why. Let’s look at how industry and media influenced the American roots in the 1970’s, how it grew, and changes that come with bigger scale than ever.

The 1970’s could be a hungry time for fans with a taste for comics and animation of the 1940’s-50’s Golden Age. As it faded, funny-animal comics died off while the business suffered under the Comics Code. In movies, the fall of the studio system contributed to a dark age of animation. Hanna-Barbera reigned on TV with cheap formulaic product. Disney’s feature studio almost went bankrupt with barely any new artists hired for a generation. Robin Hood (1973) spread the furry virus before it had a name, but the movie wasn’t well loved by the studio. Then a new wave of artists (such as Tim Burton and Don Bluth) came out of Disney while it had a rebirth, peaking with The Lion King (1994), which launched a thousand furry projects. But by the early 90’s the furry fandom was already fully fledged to take off on its own. It happened under the influence of the ups and downs of industry, but also in spite of it.

First, alternatives to mainstream media developed. Hungry 1970’s fans found new ways to feed themselves. Golden Age inspiration fed an underground comix scene for raw, mature, countercultural expression. It even coincided with Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat (1972), based on the underground comic by Robert Crumb. It was the first successful dirty cartoon movie, while “porn chic” hit the mainstream, exploitation movies broke restrictions and there was a midnight movie movement. People wanted comics to break out from low culture, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-91) carried art aspirations to a Pulitzer prize. A 1980’s independent comics boom (and bust) made mainstream hits like TMNT, and there was a genre reappraisal with Watchmen. Besides comics-as-literature, regular literature had important novels like Watership Down (1972) which became a darkly fascinating animated movie (1978).

These roots coincided with a broader change in the 1970’s Hollywood movie industry (a whole topic itself), contributing to nerd fandom becoming majorly commercial. President Reagan’s early 1980’s deregulation of children’s TV led a wave of fresh (if not great) animated shows. VCR’s brought media home. These were the changing times for artists and fans who grew up with mass media talking-animal stories, and wanted more to enjoy as adults too.

Fandom roots were growing independently. Influential fans of these times included Fred Patten, who helped import anime to America, founding a fandom for it, mingling it with science fiction fans and their conventions. Anime was a breath of fresh air with robots, monsters, science fiction and serious adult stories. Patten was also a bridge for funny animal artists with self-published APA’s and zines. In the early 80’s, Steve Gallaci put furries in military science fiction illustration that energized these artists.

At conventions, there was a certain social split among artists and fans. Serious-minded artists wanted to launch respectable careers, while orbiting ones hoped to ride along. But others looked to themselves as sources for fandom for its own sake — and respectability to outsiders wasn’t the main point. While other fandoms took different paths, this one branched off towards a subculture.

At 1980’s sci-fi conventions like Baycon in the San Francisco Bay area, the split was felt with separate room parties (separated by elitism or even cliquish mocking at “skunkfuckers”). It eventually spun off into the first furry con, ConFurence 0 in 1989, a test put together by fans in Southern California. (Mark Merlino, cofounder of Confurence, told me about the fan split in a long email exchange in 2017.) Others spun off from Chicago (Duckon), Philadelphia (Philcon) and elsewhere when furry fans wanted cons of their own.

Fandoms that develop in isolation or otherwise non-traditional ways fascinate me, and furry fandom operates on a wavelength that owes more to old-school science fiction fandom than contemporary media fandom. It’s a creator-centric fandom that places more value on generating original material than fanworks, and it can extend into a lifestyle in a way that media fandom can’t.

At first, the internet was a minor presence in the growth (although there were furry BBS’s as early as 1983). This changed with MUCKs made by users for social role-play, who could soon meet face to face at cons.

At ConFurence 3 in 1993, furries got early mainstream notice with a SyFy TV special. It’s a rare outsider look for the time, that seems to put a sizeable chunk of the fandom in the same place together – something you couldn’t see now. One of those fans, Dwight Dutton, comments on Youtube: “I spotted myself in the background. The way to put this in perspective is that this was the LAST “Pre-Internet” furry convention.  AOL opened the floodgates a few months after this event.

The floodgates opened in the 90’s. In fandom, now it seems like everyone has a fursona on social media, and there’s a con every weekend somewhere in the world. Con attendance surged in the late 2000’s. But from around 2000, there was a decade of feeling stigma from the mainstream. Unfair reporting in Vanity Fair, a sensationalized MTV documentary, and an episode of CSI treated furries as nothing more than a freakshow. (There’s a lot more to love about freaks, of course — freaks are also fans, artists and interesting people too — and despite revisionist efforts to distance them, they’ve always been here. More about that in Part 2.)

Conventions succeeded against the negativity. It even came from within the fandom around 2000 from the reactionary Burned Furs and their anti “perversion” crusade. They craved respectability from people who would never care to give it, or simply had bad faith and grudges about people they didn’t approve of invading “their” group. They were quickly rejected and fizzled out. Undermining and stigma shows how fandom didn’t just follow the path of least resistance; it broke out under pressure and actively carved its own niche. That sense of outsiderness and self determination has stayed ever since.

At Midwest Furfest 2018, furry con attendance rose past a record 10,000. It beat the highest-attended Worldcon (the premiere science fiction event since 1939). There was little notice for the significance. It could be because furry cons aren’t dedicated to growth for its own sake — they’re typically not for profit.

A certain DIY nature has held true through all of this influence, change, and growth. Even with success by the numbers, the “WE built this” spirit can be stronger than dog-eat-dog urges to capitalize on it.

Tomorrow, Part 2 will look more at how fandom grows with free expression, its own cottage industry and independent media, while making a certain fandom identity. Then Part 3 will look at how fandom can work like counterculture (or even punk) and how commercialism creeps in and complicates it.

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