Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind by Ryan Pagelow

This strip isn't exactly new to me - I've seen a bunch of Buni cartoons over the years, all over the place - but it's not one I ever made an effort to read regularly. So I'm coming at it as a mostly-uninformed reader: I know it's wordless, that the title character is happy and positive in a world that very much tends to the opposite direction, and a vague bit about the other characters.

But if there's a serious Buni discourse going on, I'm unfamiliar with it. So, as I often do, I need to signpost here that I could be wrong, and that I know it.

Buni has been running - I think consistently three days a week - since 2010, written and drawn by Ryan Pagelow. Buni: Happiness Is a State of Mind is the first, and I think only, collection of the strip so far: it came out in 2018. 

Buni is the main character - that happy-go-lucky guy on the cover. He's a bunny - hence the name - in a world mostly of teddy bears. He's also a happy, positive person in a world where pretty much everyone else hates and attacks and eats each other. (This is not the kind of world where sentients avoid predating on each other - rather the opposite, actually.) His main character notes are that he is almost always sunny, and that he has a unreciprocated (and never will be) crush on BuniGirl, who has a boyfriend.

(Here I might note that all names, besides Buni himself, need to be discovered outside of the comic itself, because of the whole "wordless" thing.)

This seems to collect the strip from the beginning, so we start with Buni himself, see him crushing on BuniGirl (and her instead spending time with the hulking fellow I guess we should call BuniBoyfriend or BuniRival?), see his father (BuniDad) arrive by breaking out of prison and immediately become a ray of gloom and nastiness in Buni's world, and the two bunnies adopt a crippled dog, whom I understand is called either Dogi or BuniDog.

Most of the strips are one-offs, though, in which Buni finds happiness in an unusual way (imagining he's riding a unicorn in a fantasyland while actually on a kiddie ride in a horrible alley), Buni finds his world is sadder and creepier than expected (the sushi restaurant serves body parts of the staff), or - and, as I noted before, this is more common than I expected - someone tries (and often succeeds) to eat another clearly-sentient person in the strip.

There's a fun one, about halfway in, where BuniDad and the next-door neighbor (a bull) hate-eat members of each other's species at each other, which is a pretty emblematic Buni strip. It's about spite, and performative nastiness, on that level, with the title character himself floating above that like a visitor from some happier, sunnier, massively-licensed strip.

It's an interesting combination, and making Buni central is really important: the world would be too much of a one-joke premise for a long-running strip otherwise. It sets up a gigantic, very central conflict that gives Pagelow a lot of room to work with, while also allowing strips that are just quirky odd bits about either Buni or other characters - this world is dark, but it's cartoony dark, and not dark all the time everywhere.

So this is fun, and there's more depth than you might expect for a wordless strip - or that you might realize, seeing one random strip once in a while float across your social feed. (That's how I previously saw Buni: I'm not saying you are me, but I'm assuming it's typical.) And if you're looking for a comic strip way more centrally about cannibalism than you suspected was possible, it's really your only choice.

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