The story of writer/artist Graham Chaffee may be as interesting as anything he’s set to page. A budding star in the early 90s indie comics thanks to an innovative publishing effort by imprint Fantagraphics, he largely left the industry after the publication of two well-received books to pursue a career as a tattoo artist in Hollywood.
Good Dog, Chaffee’s first graphic novel in nearly two decades, makes it clear he’s lost none of his spark or clarity during his too-long absence.
Ivan is a good dog, at least he hopes so. Left for dead after surviving being tossed into a river as a pup, his nights are haunted by unsettling dreams and loneliness, he now trots the mean streets of his small town, aimless and without a home and “boss” (human) to call his own.
On one of these travels Ivan answers the cry of his friend Kirby, a neighborhood bulldog, helping untangle him from a tree. Ivan asks him why his ‘boss’ didn’t come to help. “You came”, he says, offering Ivan a bone to gnaw on.
Ivan lets him about the bad dreams, wondering if maybe having his own ‘boss’ will help make them stop. Kirby tells him about the one time he managed to ‘get out’ and see the world, making him somewhat of a stray. “I got in so much trouble!” he says excitedly. “I had a policeman chasing me and everything!” Of course, his boss was super mad. He sort of always is.
Why stay, asks Ivan, if he’s always mad? “Semper Fi,” says the loyal bulldog. “Besides, there’s all this food here…”
A chance encounter with Sawney, a tough, yet kind Scottish Terrier, leads him to join a traveling motley crew of fellow strays, led by Sasha, the pack’s top-dog and proud descendant of arctic wolves, born warriors from a place where even man was just another game animal to be hunted. “Mere prey,” he says.
Ivan’s dreamscapes hint at a more psychologically complex fable hidden just below the surface, though in execution is far more straightforward, offering little more than a sequential peek into a lonely canine’s journey for acceptance in this dichotomous world of animals and men.
His time with the pack is both enlightening and troublesome, leading him to question the world and his place in it, and whether he even needs a ‘boss’ to find contentment. “The only true place for a dog is with his own kind,” Sawney tells him. “You’ll know it too, before you’re much older.”
There are no illustrative pyrotechnics on display here, apart from a welcome return to hatch shading. Chaffee renders his story with strong, clean black lines that spill smoothly across the page, with easy to read lettering that helps put the focus where it belongs. I especially love the way he renders the central black characters, both human and canine, fusing gothic shadowing and white space to create a striking mix of forgotten 20th Century Americana.
Generally, Good Dog is a welcome return for Graham Chaffee, one that should please fans of mainstream and indie comics alike. Dog lovers may wince at some of the cast’s monologues, some less than flattering, and the sharp tonal shifts keep it from being a true classic. There’s sharp imagery here, no doubt, but apart from the odd swear there’s nothing here that wouldn’t keep sensible parents from sharing the story with impressionable younger readers. Overall, a solid recommendation. Let’s hope he doesn’t take another twenty years for the next one.
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