When Stray Dogs was introduced back in November, many readers were shocked by the art style: eerily similar to Golden Age animation. Written by Tony Fleecs, and with art by Trish Forstner, the series has the look of Lady and the Tramp, but the plot is decidedly more nefarious. Set from the point of view of a dog named Sophie, the new Image Comics series puts a dynamic spin on the murder mystery thanks to the lack of agency of our adorable animal heroes in their search for justice. Or is that just a red herring?
I had the opportunity to ask both Fleecs and Forstner a few questions about the new series, and we delved into the development process, the unique nature of dogs as first-person protagonists, and how to pull off a good suspense thriller, among many other topics.
AIPT: Tony, Trish, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. How long has Stray Dogs been percolating and did it build from any iterations not related to pets/dogs?
Tony Fleecs: We’ve been working on it for just over two years. I had the initial idea for it in early 2018. It was always dogs. I feel like working on My Little Pony for so long really opened my mind up to all these possibilities of telling stories about animals but this isn’t like an MLP pitch that we shaved the serial numbers off of. It was dogs from the beginning.
Trish Forstner: We worked on this a little at a time in between my day job and other projects. I will tell you that I did something for this book every single day in that time. I am drawing the last issue now.
AIPT: Many will liken this series to the Disney films of old, but what they’ll find is something that feels totally unique and fresh. How did the idea of this work start?
Tony: Most of my best ideas come from seeing something and wishing it would’ve been something else. Like– having a cooler idea. In this case, I was watching a show about a killer and I left the room and when I came back, the killer had a dog with him. And I asked my studio mates, “Hey, did he kill somebody and take their dog?” He did not. But right then I started thinking about a serial killer who takes his victim’s dogs.
Trish: For me, this idea started when Tony pitched this to me. He totally left any twist out at first. We sat down at a busy My Little Pony Convention, and Tony gave me the pitch. It even sounded like it would look good in that gritty, hand-drawn, Golden Era animation style. Then he laid the serial killer twist on me and after I recovered from the shock of it, I had an immediate need to be involved.
AIPT: Trish, the dogs are beautiful and realistic, yet expressive and cartoony. How did you decide on the design of these dogs? I imagine the type of dog is a factor in character building!
Trish: When Tony and I were talking about how this book should look, immediately my mind went to these flashes of 80s and 90s animated animal movies. I am a self-trained artist and have a passion for animation of that era. I have always been fascinated by creating characters that look like they can move. I have watched my favorite animators over the years, studied techniques and applied principles I picked from an online boot-camp site run by Don Bluth. I was able to draw from that experience to make these characters believable and charming enough that you’d feel for them if they were in danger. Sophie, for instance, when you think of a “Good Girl” trope in a horror movie, but in dog form you may think of a cute, smallish dog, a little shy, but sweet. I went for light colors to further add to the light/dark contrast with the Master character. The main characters were designed very quickly after that. A lot of the dogs are homages to our own dogs and dogs of friends, so they really helped in the design process.
AIPT: There’s a bit of mystery to the narrative, when formulating the plot and story where did you start to unplug the ball of yarn (so to speak)?
Tony: It was an interesting challenge but the 2 things that I always kept in mind were:
- It’s all from the dog’s POV. We don’t know anything that the dogs don’t know. And then,
- Dog brains are different than human brains.
In our story we lean into the idea that dogs don’t always remember everything. And that they use their senses much more than people do. So, we get to do stuff like have them not remember something important — and then smell or see something that brings everything rushing back to them.
AIPT: What do you think every suspense thriller needs?
Trish: I think every story needs interesting conflict. Your main characters need to overcome something. In this case our main characters are dogs. They must overcome their own shortness of memory to realize what is going on and figure out how to deal with that. Tony does a great job with that aspect, and each issue has a sort of hook that keeps the reader needing to turn that next page to see what happens next.
Tony: They need danger and surprises. The danger in this book almost feels like we’re cheating because people love dogs more than they love people. So right away, when we tell people the premise of this book, usually they go, “Oh no! Are the dogs going to be ok?” So, it’s easier from there to build suspense. And then in comics, there’s a bunch of ways you can hide surprises but the main one is in the page turns. We always put the big reveals on a page turn. Always end a page with a question or a noise or something that propels the reader into the turn. We’re working on the finale right now and it’s just a big bang every time you turn the page.
AIPT: The look of this work is so clean and appealing. Trish, can you speak a little bit about working with layout artist Tone Rodriguez?
Trish: Simply put: TONE IS AMAZING. His layouts, in the beginning, were so tied down, I was a little intimidated by them. The characters were a little stiff at first because I did not want to take too much away from his wonderfully detailed layouts. As we progressed through the first issue, I began to simplify some of the details down and I gained more confidence in the acting of the characters. Overall Tone’s work made me better and more mindful of where the characters were going panel to panel.
AIPT: What is the main takeaway you’d like readers to come away with from Stray Dogs?
Trish: Dogs are fantastic. We don’t deserve them. I want readers to remember that this is not your typical story of adorable cartoon animal adventures. This series is so much more.
Tony: Yeah, we want people to read this thing and then just go hug their dogs. Take them for a long walk. Rescue a dog if you don’t have one.
Stray Dogs #1 is out now.
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