Tofte’s Comic Pronks No. 1: Aesop’s Fables (Fantagraphics)
As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I’ve been on a bit of a comic bender this year, scouring every comic book shop within a 3-ish hour drive of Boston on the hunt for as many furry and furry-adjacent comics as I can find. Part of my goal has been to help build a base of print media for the Fang, Feather, and Fin archive, and the collection is around 4,000 issues at the moment, largely salvaged from bargain bins. But I’ve also just wanted to learn more about this fun, beautiful, and fascinating medium and to share what I find with you. To that end, I’ll be writing a monthly column here that spotlights a comic or series, gives a broad overview of it, highlights interesting details, and shares some thoughts about how it fits into broader literature, culture, and furry history. I’m calling these “Tofte’s Comic Pronks” (n.b., “pronk” is the term for the leaping gait that alpacas use to run playfully and express joy), and I hope they introduce you to some new series or shed some new light on old favorites.
Stay tuned for a post coming soon with some advice on how and where to find furry and other anthropomorphic animal comics, in case you want to follow along by getting your own copies (we hope eventually to have a lot of these issues available on the FF&F digital archive, provided we can get copyright permissions to share them, but that will take some time and likely be impossible in some cases). In the meantime, let’s start this series of pronks with a modern twist on a classic that’s familiar to a lot of furries (heck, it was even the theme of last year’s Anthrocon): Charles Santino’s three-issue comic book adaptation of Aesop’s fables!
Santino, C. et al. 1991. Aesop’s Fables. Fantagraphics Books. 3 Issues.
Ah, Aesop — almost everyone knows of him and he’s perennially popular, but he didn’t actually exist, so you can use his material and he can’t sue you for copyright infringement! Aesopic fables have long been a treasure trove for people in search of royalty-free source material to adapt into something new. To take one example, some of the earliest animated shorts were Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Film Fables (1921–1933), loosely inspired by the ancient genre and promoted as “sugar-coated pills of wisdom” to make people both laugh and think. As a bonus, Aesop had already had 2,600 years of advertising, so new adaptations of his fables practically sold themselves — at least, that’s what Terry wanted potential theater exhibitors to believe!
Advertisements for Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Film Fables from
The Film Daily (Aug. 20, 1922) and Exhibitors Herald (Oct. 22, 1921)
Terry’s Aesopic shorts in turn directly inspired Walt Disney to produce his earliest animated films: as Neal Gabler records in his Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006, p.87), Disney said that throughout the 1920s and 30s “my ambition was to be able to make cartoons as good as the Aesop’s Fables series,” and after coming to Los Angeles in 1923, he regularly hopped in a truck with all his animators to go watch Terry’s latest Aesop short at the Hill Street Theater to see what they could borrow from it. And one of Disney’s most famous takes on the fables, his 1935 Oscar-winning “The Tortoise and the Hare,” served as the blueprint for Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny. In fact, Michael Barrier notes in his Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (1999, p.361) that Tex Avery so closely drew on Disney’s character for his own 1940 short “A Wild Hare,” (Bugs’ official debut) that he later remarked, "I practically stole it [i.e., Max Hare’s design]. It's a wonder I wasn't sued."
Left: Max Hare from Disney’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” (1935)
Right: Robert Givens’ model sheet for Avery’s “A Wild Hare” (1940)
So Charles Santino’s three-issue comic series Aesop’s Fables, published in 1991 by Fantagraphics Books, was following a well-worn trail, and you have to admire his cheeky honesty about what he was doing in the preface to issue 1: “Once upon a time (to coin a phrase), I was looking for something in the public domain to turn into a comic book” (p.2). But a pragmatic approach to copyright and inspiration doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal or boring, and this comic series is a fun addition to the Aesopic tradition that simultaneously adheres to many of the ancient genre’s norms (often more closely than other modern adaptations, especially those aimed specifically at children) while adapting them creatively to the unique form of multi-panel comics.
Each issue presents an assortment of Aesopic fables by various artists in radically different styles. The variety is part of the series’ charm and fits the hodgepodge nature of Aesopic fable. Hilary Barta’s Disney-esque “The Wolf at the Cottage” (see below to compare his wolf with that from the 1933 Silly Symphony “Three Little Pigs”) and Gary Fields’ toony “Tortoise and the Hare” stand alongside pieces by early feminist and underground comic artists such as Roberta Gregory (“The Ox and the Frogs”) and Shary Flenniken (“The Cat and Aphrodite”).
Left: Barta’s “The Wolf at the Cottage” (1991)
Right: Disney's “The Three Little Pigs” (1933)
Before looking at the comics themselves, let’s lay out some background about the genre that will, I hope, be useful. What can we say about Aesop and his fables generally? Well first, as I mentioned above, he likely didn’t exist, at least in the sense that we often envision Aesop as a single person. Fable was folk literature — that is, it developed gradually over time as everyday people told and retold stories, adding to the collection until it acquired a roughly coherent shape — but Greeks and Romans loved having a single inventor to point to, so they developed the character of Aesop alongside these tales, and the two became inextricably linked with one another. This eventually led to a biography called “The Aesop Romance,” compiled by an anonymous author around the 2nd century CE, which tells the story of Aesop’s life, tracing his adventures from his start as an enslaved Phrygian who gains his freedom through his wisdom and storytelling to becoming advisor to King Croesus of Lydia and eventually being murdered by the citizens of Delphi because he made them feel foolish (if you'd like to read it yourself, you can find a good English translation in W. Hansen's Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature , which contains several other ancient works that anthro/TF fans might also enjoy). This is the only surviving biography from ancient Greece and Rome that’s written about an enslaved person, and his identity is significant for the genre that he’s said to have invented: fable is represented as a tool that gives power to people on the edges of society, such as the weak, those in the lower classes, and foreigners. Importantly, however, fable for the ancients is fundamentally not a genre of revolt. It’s about how to keep your head down, stay in your lane, and either avoid suffering or learn how to put up with it. Aesop offers few happily-ever-afters and lots of could’ve-been-worses. Grug’s approach to storytelling in DreamWorks’ 2013 The Croods is remarkably similar to a huge swath of ancient fables:
Santino’s comic series doesn’t shy away from this cynical worldview, and the fables chosen for it are representative of the Greek and Roman material, though their morals are left to the reader to decipher rather than stated explicitly, as is often the case. Santino states that Aesop didn’t use summary morals himself, but that these were added by later people, which is partly true. The usual ancient term for a “moral of the story” statement is either promythium if it’s at the beginning of the fable or epimythium if it comes at the end. We don’t know exactly when and why they started getting attached to fables: some scholars think they developed as different philosophical schools started adapting fables to their advice, while others think the morals were originally a kind of index to help writers quickly find relevant material (Need a fun way to teach someone not to lie? Just flip through your sample book for fables that start with “This story applies to people who don’t tell the truth and then die horribly”).
Wherever they come from, they are often a source of unintentional amusement for scholars, because they’re either ridiculously obvious (“Yeah, we get it, the moral of the story about the boy who lied and then died horribly is that lying is bad”) or barely applicable to the fable (“Did…did you read the same thing the rest of us did?”). Santino’s decision here to let the comic fables speak for themselves lets the visual humor shine through more clearly in some cases. Kuper’s “The Wasp and the Snake,” for instance, is more a variation on the “lol lmao” meme-fable than a real piece of advice, and the droll contrast between the jerk wasp’s terror and the final panel’s flowing script is darkly funny without any attempt to make it more meaningful.
Left: The Aesopic fable of the frog and the scroption in meme form
Right: The ending of Kuper’s “The Wasp and the Snake” (1991)
TF fans may especially enjoy Flenniken’s “The Cat and Aphrodite” and Hembeck’s “Why the Ant is a Thief,” two fables about divine intervention that turns humans into non-human animals or vice versa, though the moral in both is basically “your form may change, but who you are deep down cannot.” Rath’s “The Lion in Love” and Goldstein’s “The Eagle, the Jackdaw, and the Shepherd” offer a similar message more bluntly, basically saying, “If you try to change what you are, you’ll regret it.” Caldwell’s “The Dog at the Bridge,” Kuper’s “The Ape and the Fisherman,” and Gregory’s “The Ox and the Frogs” are all about knowing your limits and being satisfied with what you’ve got. Another common theme in ancient fable is “People suck and will try to scam you, so just don’t trust anyone,” and that idea is also well represented in this comic series. Jones’ “The Bear and the Travellers” and “The Snake and the Crab,” Goldstein’s “The Locust and the Fox,” and Rath’s “The Crow and the Mussel” each offer cynical takes about scoundrels who pretend to be your friends.
But even in their pessimistic views, both Aesop’s fables and this comic collection are continually enjoyable, and the art is consistently charming. The hapless ass in “The Miller, his Son, and the Donkey,” the Mr. Magoo-like fox in “The Locust and the Fox,” the flexing suitor in “The Lion in Love,” and the clever schemer in “The Lion and the Weasel” are personal favorites:
And it’s funny how many of the sentiments expressed in these fables continue to resonate today, even in unexpected places. “The Cat and Aphrodite” is about a man named Glaucon and his cat who are in love but separated by the barriers of species:
This comic shares its sentiment with a real gravestone in Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery, just a few miles south of my university:
A grave marker at Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery in Dedham, MA, one of the oldest burial grounds for non-human animals in the U.S., whose inscription reads: “Beneath this stone lies the love of my life. If she didn’t have a tail I would have made her my wife.”
This comic series isn't simply a "faithful" translation of a single version of Aesop, and Santino smartly points out in his preface that there is "no standard or 'official' version of the fables," a fact that gives him "literary license to adapt some of them beyond recognition if necessary, or even invent wholly original fables. This turns out to be a time-honored tradition started by the Greeks" (vol.1 p.2). When reading fables, it's especially fun to compare what details are preserved, what's modified, and what's cut out in each new adaptation and to think about why those choices were made. I won't spoil any more details, but if you'd like to try this yourself, below you'll find a list of all the fables in the three issues of this comic, along with links to ancient versions of each fable in their "Perry Index" numbers, all translated into English by Dr. Laura Gibbs, a fellow Classicist and friend of both FF&F and furries in general (her website is a phenomenal resource if you’re interested in animal stories, and you can find translations of hundreds of Aesopic fables both there and in her Oxford World’s Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables). The “Perry Index” is a scholarly tool created by classicist Ben Edwin Perry to make it easier to track different versions of the same essential fable; to find some of the various early versions of each fable, just follow the links below to the translation and then click the Perry number for a fuller listing. One fun exercise I often suggest to my students: note where animal species differs or the beginnings and endings depart from one another and think about how those changes affect your experience of the story. And if you’d like to see a detailed example of how versions of the same fable can differ meaningfully from each other, feel free to check out an article I wrote about the fable of the frogs who ask the god Jupiter for a king.
Hilary Barta, “The Wolf at the Cottage”: Perry Index 158
Rick Geary, “The Ant and the Dove”: Perry Index 235
Val Semeiks, “The Stag and the Lion”: Perry Index 74
Randy Jones, “The Bear and the Travellers”: Perry Index 65
Stanley Goldstein, “The Donkey’s Shadow”: Perry Index 460
Jay Rath, “The Lion in Love”: Perry Index 140
Shary Flenniken, “The Cat and Aphrodite”: Perry Index 50
George Trosley, “The Bear, the Beetle, and the Crow”: Perry Index 153 (combined with Perry Index 563)
John Caldwell, “The Dog at the Bridge”: Perry Index 133
Peter Kuper, “The Wasp and the Snake”: Perry Index 161
Fred Hembeck, “Why the Ant is a Thief”: Perry Index 166
S. Goldstein, “The Eagle, the Jackdaw, and the Shepherd”: Perry Index 2
George Trosley, “The Camel”: Perry Index 195
Werner Wejp-Olsen, “The Wind and the Sun”: Perry Index 46
Peter Kuper, “The Ape and the Fisherman”: Perry Index 203
Stanley Goldstein, “The Locust and the Fox”: Perry Index 241
Roberta Gregory, “The Miller, his Son, and the Donkey”: Perry Index 721
Jay Rath, “The Crow and the Mussel”: Perry Index 490
James Sturm, “The Lion and the Mouse”: Perry Index 150
Pat Moriarity, “The Man with Two Mistresses”: Perry Index 31
Werner Wejp-Olsen, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”: Perry Index 210
Stanley Goldstein, “The Lion and the Weasel”: Perry Index 336
Peter Kuper, “Mercury and the Sculptor”: Perry Index 88
Roberta Gregory, “The Ox and the Frogs”: Perry Index 376
Randy Jones, “The Snake and the Crab”: Perry Index 196
Gary Fields, “The Tortoise and the Hare”: Perry Index 226