Gene Catlow; Digger v. 1 & 2; Tails of the City; Curious Lives; Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw; and Cat Breaking Free

reviewed by Fred Patten
©2006 Fred Patten

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Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Title: Gene Catlow
Creator: Albert Temple
Publisher: Plan Nine Publishing (High Point, NC), Jun 2006
ISBN: none
Trade paperback, 146 pages, USD $14.95

   New book collections of the best Internet Furry comic strips are picking up speed. Now it is Albert Temple’s Gene Catlow that has just had its first volume published. The full-page adventures of Gene Catlow and his friends have been appearing three times a week regularly since July 2000, so this first ‘dead tree’ volume is way overdue!
   Gene Catlow (cat) and Cotton Taylor (rabbit) were introduced six years ago as just a couple of computer/electronics techies working at Caged Electronic Data in the city of Furriston. Creator Temple explains in his foreword that Gene Catlow began “as a little filler comic for an in-house newsletter at the company where I worked years ago”, so the first few strips were necessarily work-related. Once publication moved to the Internet, there were no story limitations.
   This first volume is really the story of Cotton Taylor. Gene’s happy-go-lucky, impulsive bunny companion, a rabid coffeeholic, tries a new brew developed at nearby Furriston City College. This ‘Coffee2’ awakens psychic abilities in Cotton, which leads to his involvement in political intrigue, attempted assassination, terrorism, romance, and more. Frankly, Cotton seems unpleasantly hot-headed as the strip begins, but he quickly mellows as he learns to use “the Sight of the Soul”. Gene and his girlfriend Catswhisker, who become the main characters later in the strip, are really only supporting here. Other continuing cast members introduced are owner/waitress Bev Brune (bear) of Bev & Dev’s Cafeteria; Furriston’s mayor Donald Clydesdale; the mayor’s aides/troubleshooters Martin ‘Big Dog’ Kanine, I’Brolent (reptile), Joleen Lynxen (lynx), and Ted (hawk); former Canovian Premier-in-exile Tavatiana; and major human villain Michael Alan Avariss.
   The intriguing background of this strip’s world expands as the story goes along, although it remains frustratingly incomplete. Furriston seems to combine attributes of an American city and an independent state, since it can grant ex- (and future-) Premier Tavatiana political asylum by itself. The historical tour of Furriston that Cotton gives Tavatiana establishes that it used to be the human city of Grandville during the 1930s; it was the locale of an unsuccessful “‘grand experiment’ to see if humans and furries really could live peacefully side-by-side”; and later it was “the site upon which the last great battle between furries and humans was ended”, before becoming the modern animal city of Furriston. There is also mention of “that ugly period in our past […] way back when it wasn’t considered murder when a human killed one of us … back when we were legal to hunt… !” This last great battle took place recently enough that some of the furries and humans who participated in it are still alive. This sounds as though furries won their equality with humans only recently. Contrariwise, Canovia appears to be an entirely furry Eastern European or Middle Eastern nation whose animal-culture is thousands of years old. The next Gene Catlow collection should cover current human-furry prejudices and political tensions around Furriston and its nearest human cities, but the whole historical background of this world still needs to be clarified.
   This 146-page volume contains all the Gene Catlow strips (with one exception) from the first on July 17, 2000 to May 11, 2001, with a new 14-page sequence added between the strips of May 9th and 11th. Completists may want to print the missing strip for December 4, 2000 from the online archives and add it to the book between pages 64 and 65. The strips have been changed only by removing the individual copyright statements and publication dates from each one. (Personally, I wish that Temple had left the publication dates on the pages.) The adventures in this book break off at a reasonable stopping place, with the traitors in Canovia unmasked, Tavatiana recalled to resume leading her nation, Cotton’s decision to leave Furriston to follow her, and the escape of the furries’ powerful human enemy promising more trouble for Gene and his friends in Furriston.
   Gene Catlow is unlike most Internet comic strips that are being collected in book form in that it is a full-page strip rather than the usual single row of three or four panels; and that there is no need to wait a year between collections since the strip already has a large archive going back several years. This first collection does not say ‘Volume One’ in its title, but it needs to be followed up since there are already five more years of strips ready and waiting. Certainly there is no need to wait a whole year for the second collection.

GENE CATLOW strip for 9 Aug 2000

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Cover of DIGGER, VOL. 1
Title: Digger, Vol. 1
Creator: Ursula Vernon
Publisher: Sofawolf Press (St. Paul, MN), Jul 2005
ISBN: 0-9769212-2-7
Trade paperback, 132 pages, USD $18.95

Cover of DIGGER, VOL. 2

Title: Digger, Vol. 2
Creator: Ursula Vernon
Publisher: Sofawolf Press (St. Paul, MN), Jul 2006
ISBN: 0-9769212-6-X
Trade paperback, 128 pages, USD $18.95

Editor’s note: In addition to being available from, you can also buy Digger, Vol. 1 directly from the publisher, Sofawolf Press.

   A lot of so-called graphic novels, especially when they are collections of comic strips, are just compendiums of those rambling strips. Digger is a true graphic novel. At least, Ursula Vernon says that her popular vest-wearing wandering wombat’s adventures have a definite end in sight, although it may take her five or six volumes to get there.
   Of course, Digger is not only about Digger’s (full name: Digger-Of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels, a 25-year-old wombat of the Quartzclaw Clan) efforts to find her way home. It is also about the whole world, both above- and below-ground, that she finds while searching for her mining-community Warren. It is about the ancient temple ruled by a living statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, with its devoted acolytes (notably the friendly and helpful Second Librarian Vo) and its overly-authoritarian theocratic guards, the Veiled, commanded by paranoid Captain Jhalm. It is about the neighboring Balkan peasant village of Rath, unofficially run by the youngest Hag in the world. (Any world.) It is about a tribe of matriarchal hyena warriors (including Ed, the exiled cave-wall artist who becomes Digger’s first friend) whose hunting parties are determined to eat Digger. It is about the sinister yet innocent Shadowchild who materializes to question Digger (“Am I a demon? What is evil?”) at random yet always helpful moments. It is about vast subterranean caverns inhabited by Skin Lizards (“We like purple. Yes.”), at least one Dead God, and the ominous birdlike Cold Things that worship/torture it. It is about oracular slugs, vampire squash, and much more.
   Above all, Digger is about top-quality art and storytelling. Ursula Vernon was already a successful graphic and fine artist when she created the Internet strip, rather than the usual young amateur learning “on the job”. As such, Digger shows a professional artistic polish from its first page. Vernon explains in her Introduction to Vol. 1 that Digger began as doodled experiments in a new black-&-white graphic style. She had posted the first few pages on her homepage on the Deviant art/Yerf website when she met (at a convention) the cartoonist who was creating the new Graphic Smash website. He invited her to turn Digger into a regular strip for it. Digger began appearing on Graphic Smash in September 2003, and has appeared there reliably every Tuesday and Thursday since then.
   Digger is a full-page strip whose often scratchy pen-&-ink work is reminiscent of the 1920s and ’30s wood-engraving novels of Lynd Ward like Gods’ Man and Mad Man’s Drum, or the linoleum-block etched prints of countless high-school art classes. Vernon has perfected this to an incredible degree of versatility, to the point where it is hard to guess whether she is drawing in black ink on white backgrounds or in white ink on black. Look at the fine progression of daylight from dawn to dusk at the cave mouth on Vol. 1, page 25, or the lighting from the glowstick in Digger’s fist as she and Murai descend into the subterranean world on Vol. 2, page 77. Another Vernon specialty is pseudo-Australian aboriginal art. Look at Ed, the hyena-artist’s paintings (and the creation-myth that he tells) in Vol. 2, pages 29-36.
   Digger wanders from the confusion of being lost underground, to the weirdness of confronting a talking statue of a God, to the menace of being threatened by a theocratic police force, to the violence of being shot with a crossbow, to the whimsy of being attacked (or possibly romanced) by a vampire squash, to the terror of being discovered by a dead God’s Cold Servants, and more. What keeps the story flowing smoothly and with a steady mood of sardonic wit is Digger’s down-to-Earth (no pun intended) personality, her refusal to get ruffled under pressure, and her ability to find humor in bizarre situations. As Digger’s adventures begin, her getting lost underground while burrowing seem like mere bad luck. “Unfortunately, I hit a patch of bad earth at some point. You get that sometimes, in spots where there’s gases and old pockets of dead air. It bubbles up through the dirt and sends you loopy, so you don’t know what’s going on. You get giddy and confused and you can even tunnel in circles until you drop dead. It’s nasty stuff.” (Vol. 1, pg. 5) By Volume 2, it appears that some unknown subterranean force has been deliberately manipulating Digger (which causes her to lose her cool for the first time), and her search for her home takes on the form of a mythic quest. “A month or two. First it had been a day or two. Then a week or two. Pretty soon, Ganesh would find a way back that would take me a season or two, and then someone would have a method that took a year or two, and by the time I got back to the Warren, my fur would be white and all the good engineering jobs of my generation would be taken.” (Vol. 2, pg. 9) Digger (and the reader) never know what to expect next, but it is guaranteed to be fascinating, highly imaginative, and graphically spectacular.
   The volumes end at planned story breaks; Chapters 1 and 2 are in Volume One, and Chapters 3 and 4 in Volume 2. Each also has a bonus feature. Volume One has a seven-page story telling where the talking statue of the God Ganesh came from. Volume Two has a five-page ‘Illustrated Guide to Moles’ detailing the breeds of the domesticated riding, earthmoving, fishing, and pet moles that the wombats have bred.
   Unfortunately, these collections are not perfectly complete. The book format lacks the flexibility of the Internet to contain the chatty footnotes of varying lengths that Vernon often adds to her pages on the Graphic Smash website. Their omission may be minor, but is not insignificant since they are all such witty gems as “… there are plenty of uses for glowsticks such as a light source that won’t ignite coal gas, and thus plenty of reasons for a wombat to carry them. Digger is not on the way to a rave, damnit.” (Graphic Smash archive, page 11/1) The loss is ours.
   Digger has been receiving testimonials almost since it began. It was named one of the best Internet comics of 2004 by The Webcomics Examiner. It was nominated in three categories for the 2005 Web Cartoonists Choice Awards, winning in the Outstanding Black and White Art category. The Volume One collection was a 2005 Ursa Major Award finalist, and Vernon was a 2006 Eisner Award nominee as “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition”. Digger has been mentioned favorably in articles on Internet comics in publications ranging from The Onion to The New York Times. If you have not met Digger yet, these two Sofawolf Press volumes offer an ideal opportunity to do so.

Digger (Chapter 1, page 11-2)

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Title: Tails of the City
Author: R. S. Pylman
Illustrator: D. C. ‘Rain’ Simpson
Publisher: The author (Flagstaff, AZ), Nov 2005; new edition, Sep 2006
ISBN: none
Hardcover, vi + 206 + vi pages, USD $22.64
Trade paperback, $11.54, $2.50

   Thanks to, one of the great “lost Furry classics of the Internet” is available once more. As Regan Pylman explains in her Foreword, she was going to college in mid-1997 when she was inspired by the BBC dramatization of Maupin’s Tales of the City to begin this Furry pastiche for serialization on the Internet. Every Friday for about a year, she posted a new chapter on her website until there were fifty of them. It received considerable favorable attention at the time. Another college student, D. C. Simpson (who was just beginning his Ozy and Millie campus comic strip) drew sketches of the main cast. Other Furry artists asked permission to draw it as a comic book, and an early Furry publisher talked about collecting it into a novel. It became one of the most read stories linked to Mia’s Index of Anthro Stories. But years passed, none of the interest developed into anything, and the serial eventually disappeared from the Internet and was forgotten…

   “Until I discovered Now I have a chance to present the book to those individuals who would like to have a copy. Going through, I’ve rediscovered what I already knew… there are continuity errors that can’t be reconciled without major rewrites. […] I’ve resisted the temptation to fix the problems, because they would require presenting Tails of the City in a significantly different way than it was originally presented. As you read it, I ask your indulgence. I ask you to remember that it was written an episode a week, over a period of about a year.” (pg. v)

   “Write what you know” is basic advice to every beginning writer. For a college student, a ‘slice of life’ human-interest story about college students and their neighbors can’t go wrong. Avalon is a Furry college town where Michelle Singer (coyote) and Stacie Hansen (mountain lion) meet in a market. Michelle invites Stacie to a Saturday morning gathering of TV cartoon and anime fans at a local student commune, and the soap opera is off and running.
   The reader is quickly introduced to the other cartoon fans who live in the neighborhood and gather at the old house at 13 Encinal Street. David Hunter, another coyote who is renting the house, is a young ex-commando who has just lost his job when his computer programming company goes out of business. He is forced to take a lowly stock clerk job to pay the rent. Tim Kern is a portly red wolf photo-artist who is always trying to talk the girls into posing for him. Stephanie, David’s lover, is a gregarious lop-eared rabbit girl with three other boy friends. Mirrium Dare, one of the roomers at 13 Encinal, is an insecure hyena girl who works nights as a security guard in a modern yet creepy office building, where she daydreams of being as brave as such pop-fictional heroes as Green Lantern or her favorite, Biker Vixen.
   The cast expands further through Michelle’s job as a clerk at Pale Moon Books, a New Age/Wiccan shop owned by her cousin Azrael Coyotesdaughter whose female (and mostly lesbian) clientele is heavily into Earth Mother paganism with a cheerful mother-&-daughter Samhain ritual on Halloween night. (The coven includes such members as Lumiere Drakonulf, a teenaged wolf, and Seven, “a tall, handsome pantheress”. Several of them are foster parents for young orphans as well as their own children. These include a red fox kit orphan, Millicent Mudd, and a young gray wolf, Ozymandias, showing the influence of Pylman’s 1997 novel and D. C. Simpson’s just-starting comic strip on each other.) Some incidental characters are minor, while others will become very important: Several red wolf fraternity jocks; Jeff (tiger), one of Stephi’s other lovers; Ellen Daniels, the ‘Queen of Avalon’, a mentally-disturbed old lioness; Jack Davidson, lawyer (horse); Bob, a raccoon waiter; and Inspector Pinkus (elephant) of the Avalon police.
   Tails of the City covers a year in the lives and relationships of these people. There is love, both hetero- and homosexual, of different kinds among them—true love, selfish love, and love that cannot surmount fear. There is violence and murder. The novel ends as it begins, with Michelle and Stacie together in a market. Much has changed during this year, for the better for some and for the worse for others. Some are drawn closer together while others drift away from their friends. But this is what real life is like among a college group.
   As a believable slice-of-life novel featuring mostly likeable personalities, Tails of the City is an admirable success. It is easy to understand why it won such a large following when it was being serialized during 1997-1998. As an anthropomorphic story, there is no real reason for the cast to be talking animals rather than humans. The ’morphic ambience is weakened by references to real human-world artifacts such as the Green Lantern comic book, the Grave of the Fireflies anime video, and Simon & Garfunkel songs. Contrariwise, ’morphism is omnipresent in Avalon’s cityscape and in background details. There are several references to different species being non-fertile, so if a couple from differing species marry and want children, they must adopt orphans or the wife must have sex with someone of her species. Melissa, a skunk member of the coven, dyes her fur blue. Mirrium, the girl hyena (in which species the genders look almost identical), is insultingly called a she-male. Characters comment on the similarities between themselves and the non-intelligent members of their species:

   Rusty, David’s dog, came and curled up next to his legs.
   “Doesn’t that give you the creeps?” Steph ran her fingers through the fur on his chest, slowly.
   “The dog. Doesn’t it make you feel weird looking at him?”
   Not as weird as knowing that you were sleeping with another man last night, David thought, but his mouth answered, “You mean because I’m a canid, too?”
   She nodded, and he shook his head. “Nah. I’m more like you than like him. The shape of our skulls is similar, but that’s about it.” And, he thought, our genitals. Maybe that was what bothered her, he thought, sardonically. Maybe she finds herself wanting to sleep with someone who can’t talk back.
   Steph nodded, her long ears rubbing the side of his neck.
   He looked out the window, watching the dark mass of the trees out there moving in front of the moon. “Kinda odd, though. We look so similar, but I couldn’t get you pregnant if I tried.”
   She kissed his shoulder, softly. “We’ll have children, someday,” she whispered, and he nodded.
   They’d have to find another rabbit, of course. Just one more person for her to sleep with. He sighed, looking out the window, and wondered who the children would call dad.
(pg. 14)

   Extras at the back of the book include Pylman’s original 1998 Internet Afterword, a review by Watts Martin from the Funny Animal Liberation Front e.zine while the serial was in progress, and an ‘outtake’ sequence that many readers complained about. The bibliographic statement that Tails of the City was first published by in November 2005 and revised in September 2006 is actually overly simplistic, because Pylman has made several changes since the book went on sale. The first copies were not illustrated, and had the jarring ‘breaking the fourth wall’ sequence midway through the story. Simpson’s character illustrations were added some time ago, and the outtake sequence was moved to the back of the book where it does not interrupt the flow of the story. The September 2006 change of a new and far better cover illustration by Christopher Goodwin is hopefully the final revision. The lives of Michelle, Stacie, David, Mirrium, Steph, Azrael, and most of the others will go on, but Tails of the City is finally finished. If you missed it in 1997-98, be sure to read it now.

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Cover of ITEM 3
Title: Curious Lives: Adventures from the Ferret Chronicles
Author: Richard Bach
Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company (Charlottesburg, VA), Oct 2005
ISBN: 1-57174-457-6
Trade paperback, x + 371 pages, USD $15.95

   Richard Bach’s five Ferret Chronicles books were originally published between June 2002 and October 2003. In an interview in Ferrets magazine (July-August 2002, pgs. 20-23), Bach claimed that he was not writing fiction; he was transcribing the ferrets’ own stories which they were telepathically dictating to him from “the parallel world of the ferrets, existing on a dimension close alongside our own”. He had received over fifty stories, which he was writing down as fast as he could. Scribner announced that the first was a best-seller (probably due to Bach’s popularity as the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), but sales of the following novels declined so sharply that Scribner stopped publishing them after the fifth.
   Now Bach has revised all five short novels into a one-volume edition. He has condensed them from their approximately 130-page original versions to 70 to 80 pages each, rearranged their order, and packaged them neatly into this comprehensive edition. Unless you happen to like Curious Lives so much that you want to seek out the separate novels to read their complete stories, this should give you all that you need to fully appreciate the Ferret Chronicles.
   “Shamrock” (originally the fifth novel, The Last War: Detective Ferrets and the Case of the Golden Deed) is Shamrock Ferret, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective who cannot resist solving mysteries, even ancient ones. She learns that ferrets did not originate on this parallel Earth; they came from their own planet of Ferra a hundred centuries earlier. “Budgeron and Danielle” (the third novel, Writer Ferrets: Chasing the Muse) is about Budgeron Ferret and his wife Danielle who want to become writers—but should they aspire to write serious literature or popular fiction? “Bethany” (the first novel, Rescue Ferrets at Sea) tells of the Ferret Rescue Service which rescues animals at sea in distress. “Monty and Cheyenne” (the fourth novel, Rancher Ferrets on the Range) follows Montgomery and Cheyenne Ferret, two friends in Little Paw, Montana, over several decades after they separate during their youth when Cheyenne goes to Hollywood to become a movie star while Monty remains on the sheep ranch that he loves. “Stormy and Strobe” (the second novel, Air Ferrets Aloft) are two aviators, one flying a lumbering cargo plane while the other is the chief pilot for the biggest ferret corporation in the world.
   The five stories are interlinked. Budgeron is introduced to his future wife by his sister Willow, an inspirational teacher who is a friend of Stilton Ferret, the chairman of corporate giant MusTelCo who is the boss (and also a friend) of Strobe Ferret. Several know each other because they spent a summer working together as kits at Monty Ferret’s ranch. Budgeron and Strobe mention offhandedly a mutual friend, Alla, who became an archaeologist and has just “found the lost city of Pheretima”. (pg. 131) Two of the more than fifty titles that Bach listed in his Ferrets interview as forthcoming were Archaeologist Ferrets at the Dig and Teacher Ferrets in the Classroom, so apparently he intended to feature Willow, Alla, and many others in their own stories before poor sales cut short the Ferret Chronicles.
   With ferret movie studios like Silver Mask in Hollywood, major ferret publishers with names like Sleekwhisker Books and Ferret House Press in New York, vast ferret ranches in the American West, a ferret automobile industry making cars like the (British) Austin-Furet, and the ferret kingdom of Mustelania in Europe, it would be easy to assume that the Ferret Chronicles are set on an Earth inhabited by ferrets alone. But there are frequent comments about how the ferrets share their world with humans:

   Not many humans know. On the edges of every sea, the Ferret Rescue Service stands with the Coast Guard and the Coastal Patrol of every country that claims an ocean shore. It is the job of humans to rescue humans at risk in storm and shipboard disaster; it is the job of the ferrets to rescue seagoing animals in distress. (pg. 163)

   Consider this scene at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport:

   Midnight-thirty on the dot. A Trans-World Cargo Express wide-body jet, bound for Tokyo, released its brakes and pushed into the night, two hundred tons of fuel and steel and human crew accelerating into the dark, the runway trembling in the crackle and thunder of its engines.
   Next in line for takeoff, four miniature radial engines cowled in aluminum, Air Ferrets painted crimson and yellow down its side, taxied an FDC-4 transport, wingspan 121 paws, twenty paws from the bottom of its wheels to the tip of its rudder. Its full gross weight was less than a single tire of the humans’ monster jet, but in the air traffic system it was not an ounce less important than other aircraft.
   On the flight deck within, Captain Janine Ferret reached a snowy paw and touched the flight control lever to Takeoff.
   “Air Ferret Three-Five,” called the tower operator, a specialist ferret working the late shift alongside human traffic controllers, “cleared into position and hold.” (pg. 315)

   This seems similar to the scene in the Stuart Little 2 movie of Stuart driving his toy car in human traffic; a realistically smooth CGI composite, but one wonders how long a mouse in a toy car would survive amidst real human traffic. To complicate this civilization further, there are references to Parisian artist mice and rat sailors, and the sheep on Monty Ferret’s ranch contract to sell their own rainbow-colored wool. Just how many intelligent animal species share civilization with humans on this parallel Earth, anyway?
   One major difference from our Earth is that all animals, including humans, are peaceful. There is no war, only brotherhood. This has been the legacy taught by the ferrets for over a hundred centuries, since they fled their war-destroyed planet and came to Earth vowing to henceforth practice the Courtesies, their version of the Golden Rule. It is not from a lack of imagination that all the ferrets have the same last name. One of the Courtesies is that “I take the name Ferret […] to declare always that I am not rival or enemy, but of one family…”. (pg. 43) (Hmmm; do all humans have the same last name of Human?)
   Curious Lives is meant to be an inspirational read. The physical dramas of a deadly ranch stampede, sea rescue during a frightening storm, and more are secondary to the psychological and moral dramas faced by the ferrets. Should they give up, or keep working towards their dreams and ideals? Bach’s uplifting optimism is most explicit in the “Stormy and Strobe” sequence, in which tiny ‘angel ferret fairies’ (the souls of deceased ferrets) in invisible helicopters must manipulate the two pilots in their separate airplanes into meeting to start a romance literally “made in Heaven”. The description of the angel fairy pilots’ aerodrome inside a cloud is stylistically similar to the depictions of Paradise in 1940s movies like Stairway to Heaven, but Bach is a skilled enough author that the sweetness & light never get in the way of the suspense of Janine ‘Stormy’ Ferret flying her old FDC-4 SkyFreighter from Seattle to Salinas through an unexpected storm that has every sensible pilot diverting to safer airports; growing increasingly stubborn as her autopilot fails, the wing de-icers cannot keep ahead of the ice buildup, cargo pallets break loose in the hold, the number four engine starts sputtering...
   Bach, a former pilot himself, has a veteran’s knowledge of the air turbulence patterns and weather conditions along the Pacific Northwest, and his pilots’ and air controllers’ radio conversations are detailed and convincing. Bach also served in the Coast Guard, and his description of sea rescues off the Washington state coast is equally convincing—as is his picture of would-be writers’ struggles to become successful authors. It is a pity that Bach is unlikely to get to write all those additional Ferret Chronicles that he had planned, but at least Curious Lives should keep the best parts of these five tales in print.

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Title: Varjak Paw [UK] [US]
Author: S. F. Said
Illustrator: Dave McKean

Publisher: David Fickling Books (Oxford), Jan 2003
ISBN: 0-385-60415-7
Hardcover, 254 + [2] pages, UK £10.99

Publisher: David Fickling Books (Oxford/NYC), May 2003
ISBN: 0-385-75019-6
Hardcover, 254 + [2] pages, USD $16.95


Title: The Outlaw Varjak Paw [UK] [US]
Author: S. F. Said
Illustrator: Dave McKean

Publisher: David Fickling Books (Oxford), Nov 2005
ISBN: 0-385-60755-5
Hardcover, 264 + [2] pages, UK £10.99

Publisher: David Fickling Books (Oxford/NYC), Jan 2006
ISBN: 0-385-75044-7
Hardcover, 264 + [2] pages, USD $16.95

   Plotwise, these two British juvenile novels (for ages 9 to 12) are anthropomorphic feline versions of the formula of an ancient martial-arts master teaching a callow student (Master Po and ‘Grasshopper’ Caine in the Kung-Fu TV series; Yoda and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back; the ‘Old One’ and Daniel in The Karate Kid). Where they really stand out for originality is in their illustrations by Dave McKean, probably best-known in America for his artistically avant-garde comic book work for DC/Vertigo Comics. Varjak Paw is a must-read for its graphics alone—and the story isn’t bad, either.
   Varjak Paw is a young cat in a family of rare Mesopotamian Blues, living a regal but naïvely sheltered life at the estate of the Contessa. Their ancestor, Jalal the Paw, came to live with the Contessa almost a hundred years earlier. So many cat-generations have passed that Varjak Paw’s parents and siblings have lost all knowledge of—or interest in—life outside the Contessa’s mansion, even to their own garden:

   “Sweetheart,” said Mother, coming over and straightening his collar, “the garden is a nasty, dirty place. You’re a pedigree cat. A pure-bred Mesopotamian Blue. What do you want out there?”
   “Jalal was a long, long time ago,” said Mother, smoothing and grooming Varjak’s silver-blue fur, until he wriggled away. “Anyway, Jalal came to live in the Contessa’s house for a good reason. The tales also say there are monsters Outside, huge monsters called dogs, so fierce that even people fear them.” She shuddered. “No, we’re lucky that the Contessa loves us, and lets us live here.” (VP, pgs. 9 and 10)

   But the now-elderly Contessa is finally dying. Their house is suddenly entered by an ominous ‘Gentleman with shiny shoes’ accompanied by two deadly black cats. The Gentleman’s first act, after having the Contessa’s body removed, is to ingratiate himself with the Mesopotamian Blues:

   “That’s caviare,” whispered Mother. “The rarest, most expensive food in the world.”
   “Treats like this are only given to the finest pedigree cats,” purred Father. “The Gentleman knows how important we are.” (pg. 22)

   Only Varjak and his grandfather consider this suspicious. Just before the black cats murderously attack them, the Elder Paw tells Varjak of the forgotten Seven Skills which the other Blues have no interest in learning. He instructs Varjak to go Outside to rediscover the Seven Skills, and to bring back a Dog (whatever they may really be) to defeat the Gentleman:

   “There are Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal,” whispered the Elder Paw. His breath was warm in the cold night air. “We know only three of them. Their names are these: Slow-Time. Moving Circles. Shadow-Walking.” He recited the Skills slowly, in rhythm, like poetry. “Learn these words, and pass them on in turn.” (pg. 38)

   Most of the first book relates Varjak Paw’s adventures in the grimy alleys and grungy rooftops of an unnamed British industrial city. He is completely unprepared for such a contrast with his pampered life within the Contessa’s home. But he befriends two alley cats, Holly and Tam, who fill him in on the cat gangs which run the city; Ginger’s gang on the East and Sally Bones’ on the West. More importantly, every night Varjak dreams. In his dreams he is transported to Mesopotamia where his ancestor, Jalal, instructs him in the Seven Skills of feline martial-arts:

   The old cat combed his whiskers. “Am I too quick for you?” he challenged. “Is this the Way of Jalal? I think you know nothing, little kitten. Strike me again!” (pg. 56)
   “Believe something is impossible,” said his ancestor calmly, “and you will surely fail. But believe in yourself and you can do anything.” (pg. 179)

   Jalal emphasizes the difference between real cats and the indolent pets that the Mesopotamian Blues have become, while Varjak becomes involved with the mysterious Vanishings of friendly and hostile cats of the streets as he searches for a dog to save his family. After learning the sinister truth behind the Vanishings, Varjak returns with the friends he has made to the Contessa’s mansion, where the Gentleman with shiny shoes and his living robotic cats are defeated. But Varjak has become too much a true cat to return to his former soft ways, and he goes back into the streets to live with his real friends, Molly and Tam and Cludge the dog.
   In The Outlaw Varjak Paw, Varjak and his friends discover that the balance of power is shifting among the street cats. Sally Bones has wiped out all other gangs, and her lieutenants Razor, Luger, and Uzi are brutally forcing the cats to accept her rule. Varjak is willing to live as a lone stray, but Sally Bones will not allow any independent cats.

   “Let me say it again,” said Luger, “so there’s no doubt. Varjak Paw is an outlaw. We will find him, we will hunt him down, and we will bring him to justice. The same goes for anyone who helps him or hides him. They will be hunted down in the same way, and taken before Sally Bones for punishment. Do you understand?” (OVP, pg. 65)

   Varjak becomes a rallying point for, and leader of a new gang of, Free Cats determined to resist Sally Bones. These include the Scratch Sisters, three lean Siamese who “never, ever back down” from a fight; “Omar and Ozzie, the Orrible Twins”, two jovially burly scrappers who briefly joined Sally Bones until they could no longer accept her sadistic orders to bully other cats; Mrs. Moggs, the grandmotherly marmalade cat who insists she knows where a secret city for cats is hidden—“It’s the most wonderful place,” she was saying, her bright blue eyes gleaming. “It’s always warm, and there’s more mice than you can eat.” (pg. 53)—Jessie, an eager kitten who hero-worships Varjak; and Old Buckley, a cowardly complainer who nevertheless has enough gumption to side with the Free Cats when they are forced to search for Mrs. Moggs’ lost haven for cats. But Sally Bones’ gang is right behind them. Worse, the one-eyed white killer from the North also knows the Seven Skills, and she is a much more experienced and merciless fighter than is Varjak.
   Newspaper journalist S. F. Said (born in Beirut in 1967, but a resident of London since he was two years old) has attributed his fascination for pictorial fantasies for young adults to having grown up in the flat above that of Quentin Blake, the popular illustrator of Roald Dahl’s juvenile novels. Dave McKean’s stylized artwork for the two Varjak Paw novels seems less like Blake’s than the angular surrealism of Joe Mugnaini’s art for Ray Bradbury’s classic early fantasy collections. It is so striking that one can confidently predict it will remain the definitive art for these books, the way that one cannot imagine Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by anyone other than Jules Pfeiffer, or Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia depicted by anyone besides Pauline Baines.
   McKean has done more than just drawings to be dropped into Said’s text. He has made his graphics an integral part of the story. This is most evident in the dream chapters. The rest of the books are printed in black-&-white, but in Varjak Paw all the dream chapters are in amber: the color of Mesopotamian sun and sand, “the colour of danger”, and the color of Varjak’s eyes. Either the artwork is printed in amber, or there is a solid amber background behind the text. In the sequel, where Jalal takes Varjak into the high mountains, the dream chapters are a pale blue, the color of glacial ice and of the sky overhead.
   Look at Varjak Paw, page 13, the first depiction of the Gentleman with shiny shoes, from Varjak’s viewpoint; two huge shoes in the foreground, tapering up in perspective to a tiny head. Many illustrations are so thoroughly integrated into the text as to have required a collaboration with the publisher’s book designers. See the approach of the “monster car” spread over pages 90-95 in the first novel; or the fight between Varjak and Razor on pages 21 through 29 in the second. Look at page 47 of the first book, showing Varjak atop the wall around the Contessa’s estate, looking out into city: a solid black wall with Varjak in silhouette at the top, and the text—“Outside! For the first time since Jalal, a Paw stood on the edge of the world.”—in white on the black wall.
   The two Varjak Paw novels are highly imaginative examples of book design that should not be missed; and the story is enjoyable reading, as well. The novels each stand on their own, although they should definitely be read in the proper order. Said has referred to Outlaw on his Varjak Paw website as “the second book in the Varjak series”, so there may be more to come. (The reader is certainly left wondering what has happened to the other Mesopotamian Blues after the end of the first novel, presumably alone with nobody to feed them in the Contessa’s now-deserted mansion.)

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Title: Cat Breaking Free: A Joe Grey Mystery
Author: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers (NYC), Dec 2005
ISBN: 0-06-057809-2
Hardcover, 335 pages, USD $24.95

   This 11th Joe Grey ‘cat detective’ novel is notable for considerably upping the number of talking cats in picturesque tourist-mecca Molena Point (a thinly-disguised Carmel), California. Otherwise, it is the formula as usual. Human criminals come to town to steal and murder, and intelligent cats Joe Grey, Dulcie and Kit gather evidence that humans could never find and give it anonymously to the police:

   [Joe] searched the closet among her few clothes and shoes, searched the top closet shelf, leaping up stubbornly forcing open three suitcases and badly bruising his paws. All were empty. The latches weren’t as bad, though, as zippers, which were hell on the claws. He searched under the bed and in between the mattresses as far as his paw would reach, then as far as he could crawl without smothering. He’d hate like hell for her to catch him in that position. (pg. 146)

   Joe Grey and his lady friend Dulcie, both pampered human pets, gained intelligence and speech in the first novel, Cat on the Edge, back in 1996. Kit appeared in the fifth novel in 2000 as a kitten that had attached herself to a clowder (Murphy uses the technical collective term for a group of feral cats) of cats living a harsh wild life in the northern California scrub hills above Molena Point. She is befriended by Joe and Dulcie, and joins them for an easier life in the resort town in subsequent novels. This left unanswered the questions of how Kit was able to talk, and whether any of the other feral cats could, too. Now the clowder has returned, and it turns out that at least four of them can.
   Joe, Dulcie, and Kit gradually become aware that a criminal gang from Los Angeles has moved into Molena Point, and is planning to rob the wealthiest tourist jewelry and antique shops in a one-night crime spree. They do not know that while the unknown gang leaders plot their strategy, one of the less-disciplined hoodlums has discovered that the feral cats roaming the hills can talk. He traps three of them, planning to make a fortune on TV, before the savage clowder leader kills him. The three caged cats are left to his brutal brother, Luis, who is not sure they can really talk, and whether it is safe to let them if they can since the three know about the gang’s crimes. Luis ominously wavers between not wanting to throw away a potential fortune by killing them, and feeling that it will be safer to get rid of them. Since he enjoys brutalizing helpless people and animals, the cats are in danger of dying of his mistreatment anyway. This is a subplot, so the main story follows Joe, Dulcie and Kit’s investigation of the gang’s activities in town while occasional asides remind the reader of the increasing desperation of the caged feral cats. The two groups of talking cats do not meet until late in the novel:

   Slipping under, [Joe and Dulcie] hit the floor as softly as they could, and leaped to the table that held the cage. They stood nose to nose with the three captives.
   For a long time, the three feral cats stood silently assessing Joe and Dulcie, taking their measure. The look in their eyes was a hunger for freedom, as powerful as that of three convicts on death row. It was Joe who spoke.
   “Where is the key?” he said softly. “Tell me quickly.” They could hear the two women talking out in the kitchen, could hear their cups clink on their saucers.
   “He keeps the key in his pocket,” the white tom said. “I am Cotton. I would kill him, if I could get my claws on him. The key is always there in his pocket. Maria says he puts his pants under his pillow when he goes to bed,” The cat sneezed in disgust. “Can you get the key? Or get the lock open?” Intently, he studied Joe. “Would you dare to free us?”
   The tabby tom said, “I hear them talking late at night, Maria and the old woman. They would free us, if Maria wasn’t so afraid of her brother,” (pgs. 195-196)

   The back cover quotes a review praising Murphy for her “captur[ing] the essence of feline behavior in Joe Grey and Dulcie”. Actually, they seem to become more humanlike in their attitudes as the series progresses. Joe’s human companion, Clyde Damen, has had several dogs and cats besides Joe, including Rube, an elderly Labrador retriever. Rube has been growing increasingly infirm and pain-racked, and in this novel he finally must be put to sleep:

   Joe had dreaded going home. He felt in every bone that old Rube was gone. […] he was already mourning for his old pal, was sure that Rube was gone or close to it. […] He needed to be with Clyde, needed to comfort him and to be comforted. (pg. 103)

   Humans may grieve when a beloved animal companion dies, but do normal cats? There are a couple more problems with reconciling talking-cat fantasy with reality. A standard ruse of the cats to get both information and yummies has been to hang around humans at restaurants and eavesdrop while begging food:

   Whiskers twitching with greedy anticipation, [Joe] sailed across the open chasm of a narrow alley and headed fast for the dining patio of Lupe’s Playa. It was green corn tamale night at Lupe’s. (pg. 37)

   Possibly readers have been calling Murphy’s attention to the fact that some of the dishes that have had her cats licking their whiskers are not part of a healthy feline diet. She has suddenly started to emphasize the difference, which I do not recall her doing before:

   Set apart so singularly from their feline cousins, these three had, along with human perceptions and human speech, stomachs as versatile as those of their human friends. Cast-iron stomachs, Joe’s housemate said. Clyde told Joe often enough that their veterinarian would be shocked at what Joe ate. (ibid.)

   This is fine as far as explaining away the speaking cats’ fondness for non-feline human foods goes, but it seems an inconsistency in story logic if the cats are trying to pass as normal cats to everyone (except the handful of human friends who know their secret). Either all the other humans of Molena Point are awfully ignorant about cats’ diets, or someone should have noticed the three cats’ fondness for unnatural foods by now.
   Another inconsistency, although possibly an unavoidable one, is a passing reference to Kit’s age on page 125: “Kit had been in Molena Point for nearly two years.” Kit was introduced in 2000, so she is technically six years old now. But even accepting “nearly two years”, a cute little kitten does not remain a cute little kitten for that long. Realistically, a non-ageing kitten should have become a scientific marvel whether or not Murphy gives her cats a human life span as well. But let’s not worry about injecting too much reality into a talking-cat fantasy series. My recommendation is again to start with one of the earlier novels if you are not already familiar with the Joe Grey series. If you are, you have probably already read Cat Breaking Free by now. Novel #12, Cat Pay the Devil, is scheduled for a March 2007 release.

Gene Catlow Digger v. 1 & 2 Tails of the City Curious Lives Varjak Paw & Outlaw Varjak Paw Cat Breaking Free

Anthropomorphic books for review should be sent to Fred Patten, at:
Golden State Colonial Convalescent Hospital, 10830 Oxnard Street, North Hollywood, CA, 91606

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