Two can play
Local duo makes children's books and mobile games
The name of the business is ZebraFox Games. It’s a simple pairing of the nicknames of its co-creators—two men who are not as different from one another as are their animal soubriquets. In fact, long before they began creating children’s books and games together, David (Zebra) and Russell (Fox) Dorn were just twin brothers who shared a love for scary stories.
“We’ve always loved the horror genre,” Russell said. “We liked animated shows when we were kids. We liked Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Beetlejuice—”
“Mysteries, Scooby Doo, a lot of Tim Burton’s early work as well,” David added.
As children, the brothers also shared a passion for drawing. And this pastime served as an introduction to the kind of work they do now.
“We used to spend our weekends making knock-off Pokémon cards,” David recalled. “We called it Dokémon, because our last name is Dorn, with a D.”
During their teenage years, David and Russell tried their hand at filmmaking—in the horror genre, of course. But eventually, their interests began to diverge. While David remained a steadfast visual artist, Russell moved into writing.
“In late high school, I got into poetry, just to express myself,” Russell said. “I kind of wanted—as a twin—to set myself apart. So I started going toward the poetry way, and that led into prose eventually, later in college.”
At the University of Nevada, Reno, Russell pursued a degree in psychology and continued his writing on the side. David studied digital media and began focusing his time on game design. The pair’s work together was put on hold for several years. But when David decided to leave his job designing games for a slot machine company to teach English in South Korea a few years ago, he and Russell saw an opportunity to begin collaborating again.
ZebraFox Games was born.Fun and games
Russell and David designed their new venture to play to the strengths they developed independently, but the spirit of ZebraFox Games is rooted in their mutual appreciation for all things scary. With Russell providing the stories and David the illustrations, they hope to pass that fondness on to today’s kids.
“We decided to team up to make games, and so we wanted to do games that were more like educational,” David said.
“[It was] right before David was going to South Korea to teach,” Russell explained. “So, yeah, we wanted to do something that maybe he could use. I mean, he didn’t end up using it, I don’t believe, but we wanted to focus on kids that way. We really fell in love with the horror-comedy genre … So we wanted to make that [palatable] for children, tone it down, make it not scary but use the theme of Halloween, monsters—classic monsters.”
The first monster they came up with was Felipe Femur—a skeleton in a sombrero, who’s the star of several of the brothers’ games and is also featured in the books they’ve branched out into.
“Once we had Felipe, the skeleton, we thought, ’What other classic horror monsters are there?’” David said. “So we made a list of them, like werewolves, vampires, witches—and then just decided to make different characters based on those, but they’re all kind of ironic in some way.”
Felipe’s cohort of ghoulish friends includes Gummy, a toothless werewolf; Sunny, a sun-loving vampire; and Runny, a witch who is perpetually sick. It’s a cast of characters whose quirks are absurdly sweet—and made all the more endearing by how ludicrously adorable they look. The illustration is something, David said, that took a lot of work.
“The first drafts of what they looked like were more human-like,” he said. “It was not as cute. It was kind of creepy, so we tried to make it more cute as we went on. So this is like the third draft of what [Felipe] looks like, and it finally stuck.”
The brothers have created five Felipe Femur books in total. They also have two young adult books, a handful of other books and almost a dozen games. The games are free to download in the GooglePlay store, and the books are regularly offered for free during promotional weeks on Amazon. On the Felipe Femur website, there’s a host of related content, including printable coloring pages and instructions for crafting projects.
David recently returned home from South Korea, and the brothers are busy working on new material, including an upcoming Felipe Femur: Choice Adventures book (think Choose Your Own Adventure for little kids), YouTube content and new games.
“We even have a new [character]—Frankenstein, but like the monster,” David said. “He’s actually the coach of the school, but on his mug it’s going to say ’Number one coach.’ And it says, ’p.s., not a doctor.’”
“Everybody confuses it—in reality—thinking that the monster was Frankenstein, when it was the doctor, so in this world everybody’s thinking he’s the doctor,” Russell added.
With so many winning characters rooted in the monsters they loved as kids, one has to wonder if the brothers have arrived at favorites of their own.
For David, the answer was easy—Gummy, the werewolf. Russell was not so forthcoming.
“I don’t play favorites,” he said. “But if I had to say, I’d say either Felipe Femur, because he’s the original, or Joe Miller, the average down-to-earth-guy, who’s totally not an alien.