Sophie is a shy, easily frightened little dog who’s terrified of the world and doesn’t know why. When her rescuer brings her home to a big house with big windows, a huge backyard, and a pack of friendly dogs who recognize her savior as their beloved Master, that should be the start of her healing from whatever terrible trauma she survived, right? Right?
The pieces do not add up. Sophie did not need rescuing. She had a lady. A lady who loved her. A lady who is missing.
The Master may be more of a “rescuer” than a rescuer. And he might be something far, far worse.
Sophie, terrified though she is, needs answers. What is it that she cannot remember? What happened to her lady? Who is her “rescuer?”
The answers are out there, in the big house’s long corridors and locked rooms. The answers, and peril. Grave peril.
Stray Dogs, a new miniseries drawn by Trish Forstner, written by Tony Fleecs, colored by Brad Simpson, with layouts by Tone Rodriguez and flatter work by Lauren Perry, is built on a really neat idea: it’s a suspense thriller from a dog’s point of view. Dogs do not see the world the way their humans do, nor do their memories work the way humans’ memories work — Sophie won’t necessarily be able to work the case from start to murderer the way Clarice Starling or Will Graham could.
Trish Forstner’s expression work is strong, taking full advantage of the malleable nature of cartoon faces to emphasize Sophie’s terror and the gamut of moods her fellow dogs move in. Simpson’s colors are terrific, turning a bright day and a room full of happy dogs unsettling, and the book’s darker moments full-on sinister.
This is a comic built on an intriguing premise, one that has moments of solid craft. I take no pleasure in writing that it largely fails its mission. Fleecs’ script is awkwardly, oddly syncopated and its characters are thinly conceived. The strong expression work in Forstner’s illustrations is countered by stiff body language and jumpy motion. And much like They Fell From The Sky or the film Archenemy, Stray Dogs pales in the shadow of the works it’s paying homage to — in this case the films of Don Bluth and the assorted adaptations of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal books (particularly The Silence of the Lambs and the much-missed Hannibal television series).
This first issue opens with Sophie at the vet with her Lady before jumping to her arrival at The Master’s house. The jump aims to be disorienting, and to an extent it is. But it is disorienting because so little has been established about Sophie rather than because the audience is thrown out of their equilibrium alongside her. We know that she scares very easily, but she’s so out of sorts at the vet that her being out of sorts when she arrives at The Master’s house does not register as a noticeable difference.
Sophie is a cipher, a problem compounded by a narrative complication introduced in Stray Dogs‘ last pages. Given time, this complication could become a compelling hook — something that makes the book unique amongst suspense thrillers in addition to its starring cartooned-but-not-fully-anthropomorphized dogs. As it stands in this first issue though, it undoes a major piece of Sophie’s development and leaves her right back where she was at the start of the issue.
And while Sophie’s a cipher, she’s also by far the best developed character in Stray Dogs. The Master and Sophie’s Lady go mostly unseen. The other dogs have distinct looks thanks to Forstner’s strong design work, but at the moment they have traits rather than character. Rusty, their leader, could become more, but what character he does get to show off is a familiar, lovable rapscallion. Everyone else is just sort of hanging around and barking.
Forstner’s design work is strong, but her body language is often awkward and stiff. This, combined with the sometimes abrupt jumps from location to location in Rodriguez’s panels, makes the reading experience a bit like watching a reel of film that has frames missing. It’s jumpy, distractingly so.
“Distractingly jumpy” really is the best description for the book as of this first issue. It bounces around haphazardly, brushing over some moments and lingering on others, but never quite gets into a rhythm. It invokes Bluth and Harris, Demme and Fuller, but neither fully captures the feelings and mood that drew so many folks to their works nor uses them as a springboard to build a mood of its own. It calls upon imagery from its inspirations but does not do anything with it beyond conjuring up the memory of stronger creative work.
There is potential in Stray Dogs, potential that it may yet realize. But this first issue is a disappointing, hollow comic that spends too much time chasing its own tail.
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