Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Trade Waiting - Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire

How far would you go for revenge? What are the things that would have to be done to you before you became more animal than human? More importantly, what would you do to protect your family? All these are common tropes in fiction, but in the genre starved medium of comics these are themes rarely touched on outside of street level super heroics. Luckily, there is already a book out there that serves these needs and it was created by one of the newest darlings of the mainstream, Jeff Lemire. Lemire is now in the big pond but what started him on that road to relative stardom? And is it good enough to warrant his lofty position at DC? Find out after the jump.

Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire
Published by Top Shelf Productions.

Jeff Lemire is the man of the moment. Currently delivering consistent work for DC on multiple titles, there is little doubt that Lemire is due a run on an A-list character at some point in the near future. There is good reason for this; Lemire is a Rumpelstiltskin of comics, spinning storytelling hay into gold, (obviously without the promises to eat the miller’s daughter’s first born.) Lemire has arguably had the most critical acclaim of all the writers of the new DC, both with his interpretations of Animal Man and of Frankenstein, and the creator owned dystopian Sweet Tooth. Before this he was gaining plaudits for his Vertigo graphic novel, The Nobody, and for what is still arguably his best work, (and possibly one of this reviewers favourite books of the last decade,) Essex County. Before even all of this, Lemire was given a Xeric Grant to self publish Lost Dogs, something that partly due to the stratospheric nature of his climb in the mainstream comic industry and partly due to the impending release of his next graphic novel The Underwater Welder, Top Shelf have re-released in soft cover format.

Lost Dogs tells the tale of an unnamed gentle giant who decides to take his wife and daughter to the big city. They stumble into the wrong part of town and it doesn’t end well for the family. What follows is the giants’ quest for revenge against the frankly terrible human beings that have wrong him and his family. Along the way he meets a man named Ol’ Jack who promises to help him on his quest for revenge in return for a favour. As is the case with all revenge tales, there is a price to be paid. Bare knuckle boxing tournaments and collisions with gangsters follow as the unnamed giant finds himself in a life he doesn’t want to be in but has found himself a part of for all the wrong reasons, regardless of the noble intentions.

For a work that is closing in on being a decade old, Lost Dogs is incredibly fresh. There is no doubt that it is a little rough around the edges, but bear in mind that, at the time, this was a self published effort with a tiny print run of seven hundred and fifty copies. Rather than detract form the product, the roughness adds to the sense of dread that is felt throughout the comic.

Lemire’s writing in Lost Dogs can be seen as a good companion piece to his work on Essex County. It can be argued that the comic is a quick read, being so light on dialogue. More panels than not are silent, yet Lemire has an uncanny knack of letting the emotions on the characters faces do all the heavy lifting. Also, the lack of a mass of dialogue makes sense when the main character is almost a giant, hell bent on defending his family’s honour and getting revenge off those who have wronged him. Lost Dogs also continues Lemire’s ability to deceive readers by hiding a very adult book that deals with complex characters and emotions behind what initially seems to be a slice of life, potentially family friendly fare.

Part of this is down to Lemire’s wonderfully soft and always wonky line. Being his first published work, the art isn’t even half as defined as we came to see later in Essex County and Sweet Tooth. The ink lines are incredibly thick, even when depicting characters rather than places. Whether this was intentional or not, it works as a good contrast to Essex County. Essex County was full of white, making the barren landscapes feel even more melancholic, whereas Lost Dogs is full of heavy blacks, making you feel the main characters sense of claustrophobia and isolation from all the awful things that have happened to him. Even the panel borders are black, and with Lemire depicting the main character as a hulk of a man, it adds to the sense of confinement that the man feels. The use of red is fantastic; seen only on the striped shirt of the main character or when a bit of blood is needed, it stands out in a book that is so heavy in its use of black.

Lost Dogs isn’t perfect. There is a lack of consistency in the anatomy of the characters and the subject matter is as old as storytelling itself. Where it succeeds though is down to the way that Lemire leaves his personality on the page. A cartoonist in the truest sense, everything feels like it has come directly out of Lemire’s head and straight onto the page. Something that is incredibly refreshing in the world of artistic short cuts, parlour tricks, and light boxes. One other thing must be said; do not buy this yet if you haven’t been exposed to any of Lemire’s non super hero work. Your first port of call in that regard would be Essex County, which still remains as Lemire’s finest achievement and one of the modern age of comics greatest reads. That is not to say that this book lacks any quality, far from it, more that you can see where this was the testing ground artistically for what would become Lemire’s more complete, defined style.

Top Shelf has packaged the product to their usual high standards. The book is slightly larger than digest format and the matt black paper works incredibly well with the content of the book. Finally, and this point is for binding nerds only, the spine is stitched, something that is amazing for people who have had books with glue binding fall apart on them.

Verdict – Buy It

Admittedly it is short and a little rough around the edges, yet Lost Dogs gives you a glimpse into the minds of one of the best cartoonists working in the industry today whilst he was still in the chrysalis of his career. The storytelling may be blunt and the art may be wild but it still holds the essence of what makes Jeff Lemire’s work so popular and affecting; a keen sense of penetrating into the souls of his characters in an uncompromising and unflinching fashion. Lost Dogs is like a muscle car from the fifties; it may look a little beat up, yet under the hood there is still a great engine to be found. A must buy for any fans of Lemire’s work, particularly his work for Top Shelf, and one of the better ways to spend ten dollars in your local comic shop.

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Anonymous said...

Agree with the complimentary tone of the review. The only thing I would say is that at no time in the book did he ever contemplate revenge. That was not mentioned once. He just wanted to find his wife and go home. No plans for revenge were ever mentioned.

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