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Invasion of the Furries

By Rob Staeger, Wayne Suburban, 07/26/01

Fans of anthropomorphic characters sometimes refer to themselves as 'furries.'

Centaurs, Werewolves, Mermaids. Every culture has legends that mix animal and human traits.

"Anthropomorphics really predates any other form of science fiction or fantasy," says Dr. Sam Conway. "It started the first time one of our ancestors looked at an animal and imbued it with the qualities he could understand."

Dr. Conway isn't an anthropologist. He's a Chester County chemist. But he's also a fan of anthropomorphics—animal characters with human traits.

In modern culture, they're not hard to find. Cartoons have Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Scooby Doo, DangerMouse and others.

"We have tigers telling us what cereal to eat. For a while, we had camels telling us what cigarettes to smoke," says Conway. "They're all around."

Within the fan community, Conway is known as the head of Anthrocon, the largest anthropomorphic convention on the East Coast. He's also an author and auctioneer. One of his stories was included in Flights of Fantasy, a paperback collection edited by noted fantasy author Mercedes Lackey. It's about a talking hawk, and Conway kept the science behind it as feasible as possible.

The Adam's Mark Hotel is overflowing this weekend. Many attendees are from abroad, including countries as far away as Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and Japan.

Fans of anthropomorphic characters sometimes refer to themselves as "furries."

"It's a playful term," says Conway. "Some like it, some don't."

Furry characters, sometimes difficult to describe in prose, often come to life on the comics page. Some popular anthropomorphic comics include Usagi Yojimbo, a samurai rabbit created by Stan Sakai, and Shanda the Panda, a modern single-girl panda by Mike Curtis.

Not all these stories are escapist fantasy. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a wrenching depiction of the Nazi holocaust, using mice to depict the Jews and cats as Nazis.

Anthrocon brings all types of furry creators and fans together. This year's guests of honor are two cartoonists: Dan DeCarlo and Bill Holbrook. Holbrook is the writer and artist of three popular comic strips --- Safe Havens, On the Fast Track, and Kevin and Kell.

Dan DeCarlo's creations are not quite anthropomorphic, but they are much better known. DeCarlo is the creator of Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. He also drew Archie comics for decades, before a legal battle over Josie ended their association. DeCarlo will be accompanied by his wife, Josie, who inspired the cat-eared singer.

DeCarlo will be available for autographs throughout Anthrocon. Due to a legal dispute with Archie comics, he's unable to draw most of the Archie gang. "I can sell all the work that I did, but I can't draw them." DeCarlo is still able to draw Josie, which will certainly be in big demand at Anthrocon.

Besides meeting its many guests, convention-goers can attend a variety of programming throughout the weekend. There are workshops and hands-on demonstrations for writers, artists, costumers, and puppeteers.

One of Conway's favorite features is the science programming. "I can roll up my sleeves and say, 'Let's talk genetic engineering,'" he says with a smile. There are also panels on animal spirituality, and plenty of entertainment. "We try to have something that appeals to everybody."

One of the highlights of Anthrocon is the auction. People donate art, collectibles, stuffed animals, and autographed copies of books. Conway auctions them all with fast-paced, friendly flair.

This year, the auction benefits Reins of Life, a Chester County service that provides horses as therapy for physically handicapped children.

Another favorite event is the costume show. Many conventions have a costume contest, but Conway has transformed it from a competition to a talent show. The emcee is a professional sports mascot named SK-1. "We get everything from the guy who put together a quick fursuit to professional costumers," Conway says.

As a whole, the convention is an incredible sight. "There are foxes and skunks and wolves interacting," says Conway. "That's kind of what the convention is all about."