Sunday, June 30, 2013

Half-price review: Space Dog

So, every so often I pick up graphic novels that catch my eye at the local half-price book store.

Space Dog by Hendrik Dorgathen. Published by  Gingko Press 2009; originally published 1993.

Part road movie, part sci-fi story, and part period piece, with just a little Flowers for Algernon thrown in, Space Dog is the picaresque tale of a little red puppy who leaves the farm to become a street hound, a jazz mascot, an astronaut, a global celebrity, and a contented family man - er, dog.

German illustrator Hendrik Dorgathen has crafted a wordless book. Most of the plot and character interactions are conveyed through strictly visual means, and the occasional 'word' balloons contain only symbols or pictograms to carry the ideas. Even diegetic text is obscured or incomplete in some way. Since the story is told mostly from the point-of-view of a dog, the device is inclined work in the first place (see Fraction and Aja's recent Hawkeye issue), and Dorgathen handles it so well that it eventually goes almost unnoticed - even when the characters are talking about talking, as the titular hero gains the power of speech.

In the absence of any words, the pictures of course have to carry all the weight of the narrative, and they do not fail. Dorgathen's illustrations are coarse and angular, almost like woodcuts with a hint of Crumb, but carry an enormous amount of detail. What carries the book over the top is the coloring: the book is filled with bright, full, saturated colors that can evoke a Harlem nightspot, a NASA lab, and a flying saucer with all the promise of plastic in 1950s America (© Tupperware). It is a visual delight, with one particularly stunning and effective two-page spread about 3/4 of the way through.

The story also succeeds, though perhaps not as well as the visuals. There is enough in details of the plot, the personalities of the supporting characters, and some throwaway bits to keep the narrative from becoming too formulaic, but the ending made me feel as if there were a page or two missing from the book. It wasn't exactly unresolved, but the coda needed a bit more to it.

For a formalist study of how comics work, it is fertile ground for inquiry or analysis. As a social satire on American values, it is not brilliantly insightful but does say what it says with some creativity and originality. And as the story of a red dog who has the kinds of adventures we all dream of, it worked for me. It's certainly worth picking up at half-price.

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