Bait and Switch
By Austen Crowder
Anthropomorphic Dreams Publishing
Anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows that those years are full of awkward changes, and not just in a “Peter on The Brady Bunch” way. You’re starting to become an adult, but you’re not there yet. Your relationship with your family starts to warp dramatically. You have a really tough time figuring out what you do and don’t want.
Some of us have even more drastic changes that we go through. In Bait and Switch, our protagonist Fenton Cobbler has to cope with the fact that he’s turning into a cartoon fox.
This isn’t your typical furry book set in a world populated by animal-human hybrids; instead, this is a world where humans live alongside actual cartoons (picture Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and you have exactly the right idea). The twist: the whole toon thing is a fairly recent development, and the toons themselves don’t just spring out of nowhere—regular people turn into them.
The whole toon thing is the story’s obvious LGBT parallel (and admittedly so). A few years back, Fenton’s best friend Benny turned into a cartoon rabbit, and while the rest of their crowd all turned their backs on him, he and Fenton are still good friends. There’s the worry, of course, that continuing to hang around with Benny will cause him to turn into a toon, as well, leading into the societal debate as to whether becoming a toon is something that’s an innate part of you, or just a choice that you make.
To further complicate things, Fenton’s father is spearheading the anti-toon movement. A whole lot of people are riled up by toons flaunting their antics in public (and, much like the real world anti-gay movement, most of the reasons they cite are unfounded B.S.), whereas other people find the whole toon thing charming and harmless. There’s even a subculture of people called “painters,” who paint themselves up to look like cartoons and hang with the toon crowd, resulting in something that’s equal part fursuiter and fag-hag.
The story itself is fairly straightforward coming-out material: Fenton in slowly becoming a fox, he’s in denial about how much he truly wants it, and he’s afraid of disappointing his anti-toon father. A small number of friends try to convince him to just give in and be himself, while the rest adopt an attitude of, “It’s cool if you are, but it still weirds me out.” Also, a close family friend runs a program that attempts to “Realize” toons back into humans, though the results are less than reassuring.
For the most part, the whole “toon” thing works pretty well from a narrative standpoint, though the analogy isn’t a perfect one, and the way it fits in with the setting isn’t completely flawless. Even as far as a third of the way into the book, the details on how Toon and Real interact are still subject to further explanation, and in the end, it’s still not completely clear if the toon world exists alongside the real world, or in its own pocket dimension, or possibly both. It is pretty fun, however, and it’s clear that the author has a lot of passion for “old-fashioned” cartooning, which isn’t something that you see much anymore.
Perhaps the most glaring thing is the way that toon antics are handled. The book makes it blatantly clear that toon-style “gags” are both their equivalent and substitute for sex. Sometimes it’s played off innocently, but even the characters still maintain that that’s what it is. This leads to the occasional disconnect, such as in one scene where two toons force each other to (harmlessly) swallow grenades in the living room in front of their human friend, and are then completely surprised by his shocked and disgusted reaction at their having effectively having had sex right in front of him, after it’s already been established that that’s basically what they just did. Also, the main point raised by the anti-toon brigade isn’t that they want to ban toons altogether, just that they don’t want them to be performing gags in public—I still can’t tell if that’s an unflattering portrayal of gay pride, or a brilliant bit of social satire about homophobic fears.
(Also, for some reason, whenever an example of a gag is brought up, nine times out of ten, it involves grenades, which makes me wonder if there are people with a grenade fetish out there.)
Still, in the end, the narrative is a solid one, and the logical inconsistencies that are bound to arise from such a fantastical premise don’t detract much from a pretty poignant story. In particular, the resolution of the main plot is quite satisfying in its non-cheesiness. Folks looking for a unique take on a coming-out story could do worse than to pick up Bait and Switch, especially anyone who might currently be dealing with sexuality or gender-identity issues in their own life.