Well, at least the forest is okay.

I must apologize to all my non-American readers, Smokey the Bear will definitely not be familiar to you. I tried to give you the basic idea of what he’s about with that sign in panel 3 so it isn’t too confusing. Allow me to fill you in (briefly) on what he’s all about.

In the United States we’ve got some pretty nice forests. Not as many as we used to, and certainly not as many as we should, but there are some great National Parks and forest reserves around the country. Smokey, since the 1940’s when he was created, has been the poster child of the US Forestry Service’s initiative to curb and contain forest fires. He’s essentially just an anthropomorphic bear that wears a hat and pants and tells children that “only they can prevent forest fires”. He is, surprisingly, a very effective mascot and one that is pretty recognizable. We’ve had a lot of these sorts of things over the years, but Smokey has managed to stick around and remain relevant.

Anyway, that’s Smokey.

As for the Dragon, most of you should know what he’s all about. It’s kind of surprising that I haven’t done more strips about dragons…I’ll have to rectify that this year. It is, after all, the year of the Dragon in China in a few short weeks!

Dragons are one of those strange mythological creations that have been found all over the world. While there are differences in how each culture perceives them, many basic traits remain the same. Cultures across the world from Britain to China to Australia have all come up with their own dragons or dragon-like monsters. The destructive creature in today’s comic adheres more to the European tradition of the fire breathing, winged tyrant used so much in modern fantasy and medieval lore. The early versions of these particular beasts were often amalgamations of various animals considered inauspicious or just terrifying to medieval Europeans such as snakes and bats, though it has been posited that these myths grew out of the discovery of dinosaur bones in ancient times.

Europe has had a long tradition of dragon folklore from the Ancient Greeks to the Christian myth of St. George and the dragon. Where China and other Eastern countries have had a wider variation in the motivations of dragons, European countries have been fairly consistent in their depictions of these creatures as beings of pure destruction. When they aren’t killing people, they’re stealing maidens, poisoning or haunting precious sources of water, or destroying villages.

The modern conception of European dragons is probably best exemplified (and was first stabilized) by the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. After becoming king of the Geats, the aging hero Beowulf must combat a mighty dragon that has been brought to his kingdom when a slave steals a jewelled cup from its lair. The king and his thanes ride forth to defeat the monster, but when it rears its ugly head, all but the brave Wiglef flee in terror. Together, Beowulf and Wiglef defeat the dragon, but Beowulf’s life is lost in the process. In the tale, the dragon has all the modern elements we see in dragons today, wings, fire breath, a venomous bite, treasure hoarding, a curious and wrathful nature, a vengeful personality, and it also gives us the template for the enemy of these beasts: the brave dragonslayer. It’s a marvelous tale and if you’ve never read it before, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the story that got me interested in folklore and mythology and it has been an inspiration (whether they know it or not) to all modern fantasy writers.

Oh and hey, happy 2012 everybody!