Every week Graphic Detail reviews a new graphic novel or trade paperback.
Jeff Lemire is awesome. This much is obvious if you've read his award-winning Essex County Trilogy (named one of the best five Canadian novels in the 2000s!), his fascinating Vertigo monthly series Sweet Tooth, or his critically-acclaimed exploration of the dark side of the DC Universe in Animal Man. Yet despite his impressive credits, despite the fact that in five years he's gone from "relatively unknown" to "architect of the DC Universe," only a few hundred people have read his debut comic, Lost Dogs. That is, until now.
Yesterday, Top Shelf Productions—the company that published Essex County and who will be releasing another graphic novel of Jeff's in August—put out this new printing of Lemire's 2005 debut, which initially had a print run of only 700. If you read Lemire's new forward to this volume (you should), it explains that Lost Dogs originally came about as an attempt to complete Scott McCloud's 24-Hour Comic Challenge. Although Lemire only completed 12 pages in those 24 hours, he fell in love with those pages and decided to turn them into his first complete work. In the spring of 2005 he won a Xeric Grant that gave him $5000 to finance the book's publication, and here we are.
In a way, it seems crazy that this is Lemire's story—when he sat down to create Lost Dogs around seven years ago, he was working as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant and didn't think his comics would ever be worth showing anybody. Jump ahead a few years, and the book he made AFTER Lost Dogs made him an indie cartoonist you couldn't ignore. That means that this book is a crucial window into Lemire's development, and it's required reading for any of his fans.
"Development," in fact, is a key word here. In his forward, Lemire himself is quick to admit that the art in Lost Dogs is very, very raw. He uses a thick brush to draw quick lines; when you realize that the first 12 of these pages came out of a day's worth of work, it all makes sense. Additionally, the only color Lemire employs here is swaths of red to accent the pages. His hulking main character, in fact, wears a striped red-and-white red shirt; this is the most consistent visual element in the book. Yet despite its wild feel, this art is unmistakably Lemire; you could put this next to Sweet Tooth or Essex County and have zero problems imagining that it's the same person.
That means, of course, that the art here's amazing. Even finding his feet, even relatively undisciplined, Lemire includes such an emotive, human feel in his drawings that you can't help but connect with his characters. There's maybe no one better at drawing characters that you care for instantly, even if they're hard, rugged people that in real life you wouldn't give a second glance to. This skill for visual sympathy has served Lemire well throughout his career, and it's probably the best thing about this book.
And what about the story? It, too, is unmistakably Lemire. An eight-foot-tall muscled-up farmer lives perfectly contently with his wife, daughter, and dog, until one day when a trip into a nearby port town proves disastrous for them all. There, his family's attacked by a gang of thugs, which leaves his daughter dead, his wife raped and beaten, and himself left for dead adrift in the ocean. A series of events conspire to bring him back to town, though, and maybe even to find his wife. This is a cold, stark plot that perfectly matches the drawings; as always, Lemire's best when he's working with families that are pushed to breaking (this is true even in Animal Man; it's nice that his magic touch survived when he made the jump to mainstream comics). Without any spoilers, we'll say that you usually shouldn't expect a happy ending from Lemire, but you can expect a compelling portrait of an individual searching for any scrap of meaning in life. Lost Dogs is a hard book, and not necessarily a fun read, but it's great.
For people who already love Lemire, there probably isn't much convincing about Lost Dogs that need to be done. If you've never read a Lemire book before, this may not be the best place to start—the aforementioned Essex County or Sweet Tooth are probably your best bets. But once you've been reading his stuff for awhile, you've got to come back and pick this book up. Yes, it's raw, yes, it's wild, but it's still incredibly emotive, and it's still a significant piece of work from one of comics' best creators. A-