Review: 'Housepets! Are Naked All The Time', by Rick Griffin
Griffin (b. 1986; not the underground artist of 1960s-1970s comix and psychedelic posters who died in 1991) says he and his brother have been cartooning since their childhood; he got the rough idea for Housepets! in 2006, posted his first test strips on Fur Affinity during 2007, and the strip went online June 2, 2008. This collection is unretouched, so the reader can see its evolution from a simple black-&-white, two character strip to a complex full-color strip with over a dozen characters, and the maturing of Griffin’s art style during its first year.
The Housepets! website includes a Discussion section, and right from the start readers have been calling Griffin’s animals “cute” and “adorable”. He draws his animal characters full-figure, while humans are usually shown from the lower half of the face down, to emphasize the animals. In a discussion of his animals’ larger-than-natural sizes, he says, “…I decided that they should at least be tall enough to make the human in the frame recognizable as a human.”
One of the most popular aspects of Griffin’s art style has emphasized his animals’ humorous facial expressions, which fans have praised as Just Right for whatever emotions are called for in each strip. There are also lots of ingroup gags; in one strip, Peanut is shown reading a book whose tiny title can be made out as [The] Architect of Sleep (a controversial 1986 Furry novel by Steven R. Boyett). Further, Griffin swiftly grew into a master of shading and, in his color strips, subtle lighting-&-shadow shifts. Housepets! won the Ursa Major Award for Best Anthropomorphic Comic Strip in 2009 and 2010; it is easy to see why.
The first introduced, and most popular, characters are the dog Peanut Butter and the cat Grape Jelly, the pets of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Sandwich of Babylon Gardens, a modern urban residential community. Peanut’s and Grape’s friends and associates appear, one by one, until by the end of this first year a large cast has been built up: the dogs Bino, Fox, Rex, Joey, Tiger, Sasha, Tarot, Daisy, K-9 Sergeant Ralph and Officers Fido and Kevin; the cats Maxwell, Sabrina, Marvin, Fiddler and Keys, Mr. Bigglesworth (ten Siamese cats with the same name); the humans Mr. & Mrs. Sandwich, the various dads/owners of the other pets; and other pet, feral, and zoo animals such as Zach the rabbit, Spo the mouse, and the trash-raiding raccoons. That’s in this first year/book alone. There is also the first glimpse of Pete the giant griffin, the first of the magical superbeings that will become important later on. By today, 2011, the cast has grown so large that Peanut and Grape are no longer the predominant characters, but during this first year they are.
One of the most appealing and intriguing aspects of Housepets! has been Griffin’s worldview, which is still being revealed. In this world, animals are bipedal and can talk; in one strip, Grape says to her humans, “We have THUMBS, you know.” Animals are sort of second-class humans. Pets commonly call their owners “Pop” and “Mom”, and use their family names. The dogs and cats of a neighborhood have their own social groups; Peanut’s is the Good Ol’ Dogs Club. Cats and dogs publicly maintain the traditional dog-and-cat rivalry, but there are also clandestine cross-species romances. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are very popular among the pets. Babylon Gardens’ police force has a K-9 Unit, whose dogs are authorized to arrest humans and read them their Miranda rights. Peanut draws his own (very) amateur comic strip, The Adventures of Spot (Superdog). Cats have their own favorite fantasy book series, the Pridelands (which many dogs read too, but they won’t admit it). A Chinese otter in the zoo speaks in untranslated Chinese (which the strip’s Discussion has translated and verified as accurate). A human sales clerk says that they aren’t allowed to sell catnip to pets. This rich story evolution (Grape is not revealed as a female until two months into the strip) has gone on past this first year, but there is plenty here to make the casual reader a confirmed fan.
Although Housepets! is a humor strip, it is not unconnected gag-a-day laughs. Griffin has presented nineteen separate story arcs during this first year, of from two to fifteen strips, not counting numerous “one-off” strips between the arcs. There is a continuity progression: characters are introduced and later reappear; situations such as the K-9 Unit are built upon. The last story arc of this first year, “A Sinister Shadow”, is the longest and only one that might be called serious: a human PETA extremist kidnaps one of the pet dogs and insists on “freeing” him into the wild. (This has dramatically humorous consequences in the second year.)
This Book 1 will leave the reader wanting more, and fortunately Griffin already has enough strips for the next two annuals; not to mention that Housepets! is piling on new ones every Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Get it; you won’t be disappointed.
Well, while this is worth the price as a collection of the beginning of the Housepets! comic strip, it is disappointing as a book. It is an oversized (8 ½” x 11”) trade paperback, awfully tall but awfully thin, with the strips four tiers per page. There is NO title page (which I insist that all “real” books must have). With the exception of a list of characters, it just starts with the first strip. Aside from three new drawings to fill out pages and a one-page preview of Book 2, there is nothing here that’s not on the website. Most “dead tree” collections of comic strips contain an introduction or an afterword, author biographical information, preliminary sketches of characters, outtakes, model sheets, or SOMETHING new.
While it’s understandable that Griffin doesn’t include any of his readers’ Discussions of the strips, that would have really helped in a few cases, notably that of the Chinese otter’s untranslated speech. The coloring on this book-paper is as good as could be asked for, but it’s not as vibrant as in the online strip, especially in the purples or night scenes which are so dark that the line drawing over them is slightly obscured. These are minor nitpickings compared to the brilliance of Griffin’s strip itself, but they do leave the reader a bit disappointed. It’s still well worth the $11.99.