By Jeff Lemire
If I had to choose one word to encapsulate Jeff Lemire’s debut, Lost Dogs, it would be raw. Raw in art, raw in power and raw in impact. It may be a trite comment, but you can’t imagine more polished artwork packing the emotional punch that the rough, visceral nature of Lemire’s early work does. Lost Dogs was Lemire’s third attempt in trying to get his comics published via a Xeric Grant and whilst his early entries are not available to judge, you can see why this one won.
It opens with a man making his way home after a day’s work ploughing the fields. Atop a hill rests his house, where his wife and daughter eagerly await his return. The man is unremarkable, except that he is huge in size- tall, wide and strong. As he walks up the hill, his daughter runs to him and he lifts her onto his shoulders. Inside, over dinner, the family discuss plans to visit the town. Their dog sniffs around the table, prompting the little girl to ask her father if he will feed him some scraps. His wife is gently disapproving, but after a beat, he does so nyway and they all smile at each other in that knowing, loving, silent communication way. They go to sleep in front of the fire, with the man’s wife and daughter ensconced safely in his arms. Even as you are reading, you know the reason you are being shown this simple idyll: it is to be shattered.
The next day sees the trip to town and as evening begins to fall, unable to refuse his daughter, the man takes her to the docks to see the boats. It is here that disaster strikes. Senselessly, and without reason, a group of men attack him and his family. In trying to protect them, he is beaten and battered and then dumped into the ocean. A fishing boat pulls him out and he is sold to a man on shore, who takes him home and tends to his wounds. His rescuer’s name is Jack, who promises the man that his wife is still alive and he will take him to her in exchange for one favour.
Lost Dogs is a story of judgement and, as grandiose as it may sound, the nature of men. Lemire’s nameless protagonist is a giant- huge and imposing, but a man nonetheless. However, this isn’t how other men see him. In their eyes, his figurement is something that dehumanises him and makes him less than a man- an animal, to be put to use for fighting and base jobs. They view his size as something to challenge, to be overcome, or a tool to be put to use by those who equate strength with power- power they want to harness and wield to inspire fear. At three different points, it is men who literally chain and cage him, without even attempting to speak to him first. Even Jack, his supposed saviour, uses him for his own ends. It is the women in the story who treat him without bias and with understanding- his wife, his daughter, the nurses at the hospital all see beyond his physicality and provide him with an identity- of father, husband, human. It is the women who recognise his patience and compassion and see in him a different kind of strength.
It’s a story imbued with sadness and resignation on the one hand, and dignity and hope on the other. Unlike Jack, who has grown old waiting for an opportunity to get revenge against those who wronged him, and unlike the men who would master him for blood sports and other purposes, the man doesn’t give in to despair, anger or futility. He understands all too well how easy it is to be sucked in by a seemingly indifferent world, and so despite losing everything, he refuses to capitulate and lose himself: his strength lies in his conviction and his principles. In the end, he proves himself more of a man than any of those around him.