Dogs Of War
Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox
Dogs have always gone to war with us, loyally following into some of the most horrific battles, bravery proven time and again to not be a uniquely human quality. In Dogs Of War we see three tales, three wars, three canine heroes. It’s powerful all-ages material that pulls few punches.
There’s something quite remarkable about canine soldiers, about the loyalty and courage they show, in the face of something they can’t totally understand, yet keeping on despite everything, and Dogs Of War does an excellent job of communicating all that. Inside we get stories of canine bravery and loyalty from World War I, World War II and Vietnam. Each tale different, each inventive and interesting in its own way. Dog Of War is, without doubt, a very, very good book.
There’s always a risk of these types of stories becoming the sentimental mush of Lassie et al, but thankfully Keenan and Fox steer each tale well away from this area. Instead we get three tales of war-time working dogs and the young men thrown into three wars across the last Century.
Each tale has something to recommend it, each is different enough to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I particularly enjoyed the tale of WWI mercy dog Boots and his Scots handler, who get themselves lost during one of their night missions. Mercy dogs were used extensively in WWI to go out into no-man’s land at night and sniff out survivors for medics to treat, and on one of these night ventures the chaos of artillary lands Boots and his handler in with the Royal Irish Fusiliers where we’re given a near guided tour of the conditions of the trenches and the horrors the men had to put up with. Clever stuff by both authors, as the educational aspects of Dogs Of War are tucked away neatly in such a thrilling tale.
More than anything else though I adored noticing on subsequent reads just how integral artist Nathan Fox makes Boots here, perhaps more so than any other chapter, we see the dog involved in so many panels, often tangentially, but always there, nuzzling in, working, aware, and most touchingly, most heartbreakingly, comforting a shell-shocked private…
See, every panel that Boots is in, Fox’s artwork gives you all the character you need. Beautiful stuff.
Second tale is the weakest of the three really (at least to me), something about it simply didn’t click, despite its premise being the best. I’d never considered the idea of the US being secretly at war, shoring up entry points to the US way before Pearl Harbour and their official entry. Fascinating and educational. Here we find ourselves in Greenland where the army and its teams of dog sleds are vital for search and rescue missions and we’re going to venture out with difficult dog Loki for an unexpected adventure.
Finally, the third tale deviates slightly from the pattern of simple retelling of a wartime event with a dog involved. Here we’re in ’68 and the shadow of Vietnam is haunting the US, so many things done wrong, so many failures, so many shameful moments. But here, in context, we learn of just one more; the dog soldiers, K-9 units, so valuable to the troops on the ground, sensing the snipers, the booby traps, the tripwires, saving so many lives in partnership with their handlers, were considered mere equipment by the military, left behind when their handlers rotated home, reassigned, and eventually, shamefully, just left in country at the end of the war.
The story switches between the US and Vietnam, a tortured Vietnam veteran the link, missing his dog Sheba who he had to leave behind, forging a bond with a young kid living next to him in his trailer-park with his own new puppy in the US. Wounds are addressed and perhaps healed in a tale that’s relatively formulaic, but still effective and rather moving in the end. The tale is told through Henry’s eyes in the US and in brutal flashbacks to Lanford’s Nam experience, it’s all a little bit heartbreaking to be honest. Yes, there was snuffling and a couple of tears.
As great as the overall experience of Dogs Of War proves, it’s Nathan Fox’s art that pulls this one out as something truly great. There’s simply so much going on here, emotions, character, movement, emotion, all captured on the comic page so well, realistic without being gruesome, setting a tone that makes this such a hard-hitting book yet still manages to remain all-ages. The colouring needs particular mention as well, Rico Renzi and Guy Major choosing distinct palettes for each tale, dark muddy browns fr the trenches, bright whites and sun-soaked colours for Greenland, and sumptuous, steamy greens in the jungles of Vietnam and back home in the USA. Lovingly done, great additions to the artwork.
This may be a graphic novel suitable for young readers but it certainly doesn’t pull any punches, with both the horrors of war and the tragic repercussions all vividly and honestly portrayed. I’ll have no compunctions about putting it in the primary school library to be viewed by our children, but I sincerely hope the all-ages tag doesn’t put anyone off. There’s simply too much of interest and education going ton in here, this is all-ages in the best possible sense, offering something for all, a great graphic novel of wartime heroism from an unexpected quarter.