Full disclosure here – I‘m a dog person. Make that a Major Dog Person. So if you think I’m recommending Good Dog on account of my love of all things canine, you’re right— sort of. Good Dog is an engaging, beautifully drawn, heartfelt story, even if you leave the doggie angle out altogether. (But why would you? Are you insane?)
The protagonist is Ivan, a genuinely good dog in want of a master. He actually may have had one once, but his memories are vague. Dogs are never truly happy without a pack, so this poor Everydog wanders about an unnamed town searching for his place in the world. He’s plagued with anxious nightmares of monstrous chickens and tormenting rabbits. He scavenges for food and interacts with people, always hoping to meet the right person who might claim him as their own. Eventually he happens upon a pack of strays who take him in. In this mini-society he meets Sasha, the fearless pack leader; Sawney, the tough-minded but wise and watchful Scottish Terrier; Oliver and Jack, the faithful followers; and Merry, the suspicious, foul-mouthed malcontent and second alpha male, who naturally covets Sasha’s status as Top Dog. Although Ivan’s need to belong is in his DNA, he’s hesitant to fully commit to this motley crew. He listens attentively to their stories of life on the streets and bides his time. Eventually the pack goes a’hunting at a chicken coop but things come to a dramatic head when they are confronted by the coop’s owners, an African American family who also run a pool hall, Ray’s 8 Ball.
I confess unfamiliarity with Graham Chaffee’s prior work. According to his bio he authored a 2003 comics collection, The Most Important Thing and Other Stories, then took a detour into tattoo art before completing this comeback effort. His drawings are appealing throughout Good Dog. He may not have the instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic style of a Theo Ellsworth or a Michael DeForge, being more of a solid craftsman along the lines of say, Dean Haspiel or Josh Neufeld, but his skills are undeniable. His dog drawings particularly shine. He deftly captures their body language and emotional states without undue anthropomorphizing; dog-loving readers will recognize that he clearly gets the whole dog thing—from the scratching of an itch to the quizzical cock of an ear, to the forlorn, tentative quality of a stray meeting a seemingly kind stranger. His human characters are also finely rendered, especially his more stylized drawings of the pool hall owners. Chaffee is also adept at using the art of comics to create some beautiful scene transitions and character arcs; at the peak of the story, one character greets his destiny in a grandly executed, poetic sequence that left me with a lump in my throat.
The narrative is simple but not without complexity. Ivan’s rudderless plight is contrasted with that of his friend Kirby, a bulldog who does have an owner. But Kirby’s owner is not particularly nice. (“The boss was super mad,” Kirby relates anecdotally. “He sort of always is.”) Kirby spends his days leashed to a tree and he manages get tangled up every so often. Though he gets his meals at regular intervals, his situation isn’t one that Ivan envies. Ivan at least has his autonomy, while domesticated Kirby passively accepts his often rough treatment. In a small but beautifully observed moment, Ivan and the pack on an escapade pass by Kirby’s fenced yard. The little bulldog catches Ivan’s scent and calls out to him but is not acknowledged. Chaffee subtly contrasts Ivan’s lonely freedom—with all its inherent dangers and thrilling possibilities—with the stability of Kirby’s kept status, often stifling and isolating. As the story nears its conclusion, Ivan the Good Dog is granted the chance to decide for himself what the next chapter of his life will be. That’s satisfying for readers and extra-satisfying for dog-loving readers. Of which I am one. In case I have not made that clear.