You wouldn’t think dogs and post-apocalyptic horror comics would go together, but you’d be wrong. In Avatar Press’s six-issue series, Rover Red Charlie—now available in collected form—writer Garth Ennis and artist Michael DiPascale put our best friends in the worst of circumstances: at the end of the world. Well, the human world, anyway. Fortunately, these canines are more than up to the challenge. Rover Red Charlie offers an uncanny insight into dogs and what life must be like from their point of view.
The comic features three dogs—Rover, Red and Charlie—trying to survive in a world in which all the humans have gone crazy and become violent for unknown reasons. We’re immediately shown the terrible predicament of seeing-eye dog Charlie: his leash is wrapped tightly around his owner’s hands, and his owner is on fire. Charlie is rescued by Red and Rover, who chew through the leash.
Rover, a Bassett Hound from England, is the cynic of the bunch; this character allows Irish writer Ennis to utilize plenty of appropriate slang. Red (a Red Setter) is the dumb, sweet, brave one who is also obsessed with the smell of his butt. Charlie, a Collie, is ever-proud of his guide dog vest and, as the most trained of the three, least equipped for the chaotic new world. The three pooches band together to survive and explore this new environment, meeting a variety of dogs and other critters in a cross-county journey from (as the dogs put it) the big splash to the bigger splash.
In Bleeding Cool, Ennis—well-known for classic runs on Marvel’s The Punisher and creator-owned Preacher—explained that the story “was inspired by an old painting that used to hang on the wall of my grandparent’s kitchen and now hangs on the wall of my office. It’s just head shots of three dogs. I think it was called ‘Faithful Friends,’ and I guess I waited 40-odd years to send them on an adventure. The other inspiration was when I figured out what dogs were saying when they barked.”
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Ennis decided that barking means, “I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” This refrain is used powerfully throughout the book, with a few humorous variations, such as puppies yapping “I’m a pup! I’m a pup!” and an oddball Dachshund proclaiming “I’m a fish!” For Ennis, doglish is English plus these dogs’ own distinctive vocabulary, in which people are feeders, cats are hisspots, a heart is a thumper, the ocean is the big splash, fire is the burn, chickens are bork-borkers and Chihuahuas are me-dogs (because they bark “What about me? What about me?”). I’d buy a companion glossary to this comic in a second.
Our three heroes have differing views on the feeders and this changed world. Red and Rover are more accepting of the new state of affairs; Rover expresses a thought all dogs might have if they could put together a sentence: “Any time I got near anything interesting, I hardly had time for a sniff before I heard—Rover! No!” Charlie, the service dog, has more trouble letting go. He doesn’t want freedom, even when the three dogs pretty much have it made on a farm. The saddest words in the book might be Charlie’s plea: “I just want to be told what to do again.”
DiPascale’s art is naturalistic, kinetic and humane. You can tell he’s spent a lot of time around dogs because he nails not just the specific breeds, but dogs’ distinctive body language. Whether they’re feeling playful, confused, scared or defiant, DiPascale puts them in poses dog owners will recognize as true. There’s also a visual sense of humor to match Ennis’s wit: for example, the way he draws Rover running—flying folds of flapping flesh—is both true-to-life and funny. The real triumph of DiPascale’s beautiful painted art, however, is the faces, which are equally cartoony and realistic, expressing openness and honesty. Even if these dogs weren’t born charmers in terrible circumstances, you’d love them just for their mugs.
I asked Ennis by email why comics about dogs are so appealing, and he guessed anthropomorphism, adding, “…watching a dog sniffing around, frowning and shoving his nose in things, you can't help but attribute human motivation to him. Logically you know he's thinking—food, food, food, food, water, food, food, food—but your mind automatically comes up with thoughts that appear to match his expression and actions.”
A warning: This series isn’t going to work for squeamish readers. It is a horror story, and there is some gruesome violence, some of which happens to dogs. That’s usually a dealbreaker for me; I stopped watching the TV version of Fargo after a gratuitous dog death. But the violence in this comic is necessary for the horror genre, and without spoiling things too much, I can say the ending is far from a downer.
In fact, the ending is pretty damn inspiring: it makes you think that if we feeders were gone and the world literally went to the dogs, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.