"You really get hate mail?" he asked.
Considering that the adverse reaction of the furry community is one of the running gags in the strip, I figure I might as well tell the story here. This is where it came from:
When I first created the strip, I did a group of test strips just to see how the cast interacted and, most importantly, if I had the skills to pull off a comic strip. Writing one requires different muscles from other writing. Rule #1: the joke is king. Anything that distracts from the joke has to be removed. Some strips can have lots of detail and still do well (Doonesbury comes to mind), but strips are short, fast, and get across what they are trying to do, be it tell an adventure (strips like The Phantom are in the minority) or do jokes. It's telling that most web comic strips that go for adventure basically present their stuff in the format of a full comic book page rather than a strip.
The test strips seemed to be working okay, so I wrote and drew a full storyline. It was "Give 'Till It Hurts" (Holly originally had a different name. If you read the test strips, her name is "Erika". The name change is the subject of another post). I showed them around for feedback, and the response was uniformly positive. I showed it to people who read comics, who read strips (these groups are not mutually inclusive), people that read a lot, people that read rarely, etc. Things were looking really bright.
There was one group, however, that I hadn't tried it with, and that was the furries. At this point, I didn't know anything about the furry subculture. When I first got into comics, I collected a lot of funny animal comics, and I've always been an animation nut, but I never knew about the whole furry thing (because I don't watch CSI, I never saw THAT episode, either). So, I decided to go online through the chat channels. After doing some digging, I came up with seven people that seemed to be a representative sample of the furry community. I told them I was cooking up a comic strip and wanted feedback, and they said sure. So I sent them the test strips and storyline. One of them thought the strip was okay. Not great, not bad, just no great shakes.
The other six hated it.
Hated hated HATED it.
From their feedback, I learned that there was apparently an accepted...format, I guess, for furry comics. One of the biggest bones of contention was Holly herself. The very first comment I got back from the furries, in fact, was "Holly's breasts should be bigger." My disregard of sexuality was another problem. There's a furry FAQ on the Internet, where the writer says, "Personally, I don't like it when people ignore the sexual aspect of furry." I had two problems with this: 1) that should be my choice as to whether to include such themes or not, and 2) even if I wanted to, it's a corporate humor series. The characters' personal lives, including their sexuality, doesn't enter into it. Holly's character was also wrong, according to the sample group. Vixens in most furry works are stand-ins for the stereotypical blonde -- dumber than a bag of hammers and can't bring her knees within three feet of each other. Having her in control of her sexuality instead of volunteering it at the drop of a hat, not to mention her being CTO and a computer guru, flew in the face of established conventions in the subculture. It shocked me how unintentionally opposite I had made her. Oh, and did I mention that they felt her breasts should be bigger? I thought I was in trouble when that was the first comment I got back. When the quorum was established, I was sure of it.
Normally, people who didn't like the strip simply reacted with a shrug. This was the first truly negative reaction to it I had experienced. As I dug into the furry subculture, I learned enough to consider that maybe doing a strip with anthros wasn't such a good idea. I tried to draw a strip with the characters humanized instead of as funny animals. I only penciled two of the four panels and inked one before I tore it into pieces. It just wasn't working that way. Figuring it was anthros or nothing, I toyed with replacing Holly. I considered placing Dom the penguin down in the NOC, which was a good inside joke in my book as I am a Linux nut, and simply not feature Holly again. But by that point, Holly had become so fully realized in my head, that I couldn't see the strip without her. She played so well off Raff and helped move the plot along so well, that Dom stayed CEO and Holly remained CTO.
And when I made that decision, I bit the bullet. The changes to the strip that I had considered to avoid headaches from the fur community pretty much killed it. And I LIKED these characters. I liked writing them and drawing them and thinking of what they'd be doing and rereading their adventures. So I decided to do the strip as I felt was best. To paraphrase Adam Savage, "I reject your alternate reality and substitute my own." And that was why I started the running gag of the characters aware that furries don't like the strip -- it's a little way of saying, "Yeah, I know, don't tell me."
The idea was precient -- I have gotten approximately two positive e-mails from self-identified furries saying they loved the strip (they both identified Holly as their favorite character), but the other furry e-mails? It's not like my Inbox is filled with them, but when they do arrive, they invariably state they hate the strip. I couldn't tell you exactly why, and I'm not sure it's worth investigating. Stress Puppy has its following based on what my vision of the strip is. It's a vision that I'm happy with (the strip was always intended to be "just for fun" for me). Changing it makes a vision I'm unhappy with. So I stick with what works. And when the complaint letters show up, I just shrug them off. After all, what else can I do?