Imagine “The Littlest Hobo” written by Ted Hughes…
Marney the Fox was a two-page b&w comic strip featured in Buster from 1974-1976. It’s been collated and nicely reprinted by Rebellion comics, who did a similarly good job on The Beatles Story (and other lost UK comic serials).
Marney is a fox cub, orphaned in the very first episode, who spends the next two years¹ growing up in the Devon countryside. The wild Devon countryside. The bleak Devon countryside.
Wait: bleak? Think ‘Devon’ and you think lush green fields stretching across rounded hills that plunge into deep coombes. Well, there’s plenty of that, but for the wildlife it’s an unforgiving and utterly brutal place².
Marney travels from peril to peril, learning quickly to avoid “hated man” and to be wary of all other species – and even other foxes. By my reckoning Marney is shot, drowned, beaten, poisoned, trapped, betrayed, buried alive, frozen, cut, and hunted multiple times. Even when he escapes the present threat, the teaser for next week’s issue promises “even greater danger”. I worried that such escalation meant that by the end Marney would be scavaging in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Exeter following a Soviet nuclear strike.
The artwork by John Stokes is often beautiful³, even if the people look (and sound) very 70s. The wildlife is accurately portrayed, though Marney himself is slightly wide-eyed (not quite Disney levels of cuteness, but presumably necessary to inspire a connection with a readership that seems to have been bitterly divided over the strip). Stokes even includes what’s surely a nod to Breughel’s “Hunters in the Snow”:
For a long time we don’t see Marney hunt for food: he cunningly scavenges a Christmas turkey and in freezing water finds a moribund pike. I wonder if Goodall was being careful to avoid showing Marney as a carnivore, and if so this is about the only punch that’s pulled.
I like how Marney instinctively knows the (generic) name of all the animals – Daplok the moorhen; Flitter-nod the wagtail, and so on. Occasionally he’ll make a temporary alliance but he leads a solitary existence. Happily – mercifully, given what he goes through – anyone (human or animal) who gives him a hard time gets their comeuppance, so in that respect the story is slightly romanticised.
There’s no sign of industrialised agriculture: no pesticides and little in the way of technology used by “hated man” that didn’t exist 60 years ago. Certain attitudes are also dated: Gypsies are duplicitous, and the Irish navvies helping to build one of the few signs of modernity – the M5 – not only indulge in badger- and fox-baiting, but their speech is horribly “Oirish” (the strip was written during the IRA bombing campaign, but that’s no excuse).
The 1970s were also, of course, the era of folk horror and in the very last strip (spoiler alert) we even see an element of folk-belief. Marney has been blinded by poison, but a legendary spring helps him regain his sight (above). The tale wraps up quite quickly: there’s no story arc as such, and the (happy) ending could have come at almost any point along the way
I got Marney the Fox out of the library knowing nothing, but thinking my son – who likes animals, likes comics – would enjoy it. The bleakness and brutality shocked him and he’s yet to return to it. I enjoyed it (with reservations) but it’s a brave comic that portrays nature in a children’s comic as being quite so red in tooth & claw.
¹ The passage of seasons in the strip seems to map quite closely to the original publication dates.
² In the period that Marney was written Ted Hughes lived as a farmer in Devon, as documented in 1979’s Moortown.
³ Stokes, incidentally, is the illustrator of my favourite Alan Moore comic, the batshit-crazy Star Wars tale Tilotny Throws a Shape.
Goodall, Scott M. & Stokes, John – Marney the Fox (Rebellion, 2017)