'Zoophobia': Fear of an animal planet

Vivienne Medrano's Zoophobia stars a young woman named Cameron who's desperate for a job and will take any available position in her field of counseling. She's basically duped. When she hears there's a job that it involves relocation, she expects, quite reasonably, that the students will be of the human persuasion. To her surprise, she's whisked away to Zoo Phoenix Academy in Safe Haven, a land full of anthropomorphic creatures. That's not ideal because, as the title suggests, animals give Cameron the heebie-jeebies.

When you get down to it, Cameron's journey is not unlike Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. A bold statement, I know, but think about it: Cameron gets suckered into counseling animals, while Ms. Eyre is duped into a teaching job at a spooky manor house inhabited by a creepy ghost woman or something. Shoot, there's even a supernatural element established early on. It turns out that Cameron's recruiter ... is a warlock of some sort? What's got her so interested in a clueless educator who just happens to have strange dreams at night?

Fortunately, it turns out that many of Safe Haven's citizens are very understanding and super-accommodating ... even when Cameron is basically guilty of assault. Also exacerbating matters somewhat: talking animals are the least of Cameron's problems. Safe Haven exists at some sort of pandimensional crossroads. This world also home to shape-shifters vampires, and the Son of Satan himself.

Also not helping matters much: Everyone is drawn to look like they have no skeletons, thanks to Medrano's artistic style. Characters slink around, to and fro, as if they were made of particularly soft blankets. They also have a tendency to sidle up close to other characters, with their big bug eyes almost touching the pupils of the other characters and uncomfortably breaching personal space. It's an unconventional style that's loose and rubbery like a John Kricfalusi cartoon. Yet it's something that totally works in the context of Zoophobia's themes. The characters who inhabit Safe Haven might not be conventionally frightening, but they are otherworldly. Also visually appealing: how Medrano's style works well with Cameron's facial expressions, which are often bristling with uneasiness. Eventually, though, Cameron finally sees her comrades less as snarling monster animals and more like the friendly animal creatures they are.

Zoophobia also acts a little like an anthology series, following different students and their own adventures in anthropomorphic Hogwarts. The Son of Satan character, for example, must face his overprotective father (which, if you weren't following, is basically Satan), as he's sneaking out to Safe Haven because he feels lonely and out of place in Hell. (Hell: literally Hell for teenagers looking for a social life.) It's a decent storytelling approach, but it has its weaknesses. First of all, I thought the story of Cameron overcoming her fears of the animal planet was a little rushed, because she disappears for long stretches of the comic.

Secondly, though, all of these animal characters tend to look the same. Most of the time, they resemble catlike creatures covered in a dripping fur coat. They don't stand out much as individuals, and their adventures don't leave much of an impact. I think there was some sort of a vampire creature who attacks the school and is then placed in a cage in the Dean's office. It was a pretty major storyline, yet the vampire creature doesn't leave much of an impact -- either positive or negative. He was just ... there, appearing for a bright moment and then fading into the background like wallpaper.

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