Written by Tony Fleecs
Art by Trish Forstner
Don’t let the cute dog illustrations in this comic fool you into thinking this is a children’s story. Using anthropomorphic dogs as its main characters, the first issue of Stray Dogs introduces a suspenseful plot full of twists and turns. Tony Fleecs’s writing is subtle and hides its nuance well at first glance, which combined with Trish Forstner’s vivid and dramatic art, makes for lovely duality. This duality is intriguing and adds to the horror aspect that the story is building up. As a horror genre, the first issue is not graphic, but it does contain psychological-thriller elements that keep the reader feeling uneasy and suspenseful. However, it also feels like a children’s story which somehow both relaxes and adds tension. Knowing the genre beforehand immediately causes expectations for the dark storyline, but with the childlike framework, there is the instinct to relax, especially because of the art style.
The art is reminiscent of Disney’s older two-dimensional animation. This is because of the characters’ big doe-y eyes and soft rounded out facial features, giving an innocent look to the characters. Despite most of the main characters being dogs, they each have a distinct look making it easy to differentiate them from one another. Additionally, each of their character designs appear to say something about their individual personalities. This is a useful tool for a first issue that has yet to flesh out all of its characters. The color scheme contains soft and varied light overtones with a washed-out tint, which gives the comic a classic feel. If it wasn’t for the appearance of modern cars, I would wonder about the time period the story takes place in. Especially since the main setting is a very isolated house, so the appearance of technology is scarce. I have a feeling the isolated setting is going to play a role in future issues.
The protagonist is a newly adopted dog that acts very aloof because of their apparent anxiety. Her consistent uneasiness is marvelously illustrated; especially since most of the time she does not have dialogue, so the art does most of her character work. She doesn’t do much to advance the plot, rather the plot is driving her. This causes the story to unfold in a cloudy and slow pace. Normally, this would be a negative, but the comic cleverly justifies the protagonist’s passivity. This works really well and gives it a psychological-thriller element. The use of dog physiology, especially smell and memory, brilliantly plays into the psychological part of the story, whether it’s in a character interaction or a plot point.
The rest of the characters, despite having more dialogue, can fall a little flat, but that’s because as a first issue, it needs to get the plot rolling, which it does successfully. Together, the group dynamic of the anthropomorphic dog characters is lively and charming. There is also a goofiness to the group that adds a really fun dialogue exchange between them. The dialogue is simple, yet effective at hinting at the sinister undertones without losing the childlike tone. In fact, if one were to randomly open a page where the group dynamic is on display, one would think it was a children’s comic book from how jovial their interactions are.
The tone is, most of the time, deceptively innocent, even though the pervasive feeling that something is wrong is ever-present. It is a similar feeling to watching an obscure ‘80s cartoon (The Last Unicorn and The Brave Little Toaster come to mind) that would never pass for child-friendly media today. Personally, disturbing childhood movies are one of my favorite types of stories. Usually this particular niche allows for subtler themes to be presented in a far more elegant manner. Meanwhile adult-oriented media usually tends to focus on the highest selling plot point rather than nuance.
While not everyone may appreciate the slow pace, this is the type of story in which it is necessary and works best. As a thriller, the slow pace builds up the horror element in a clever way. As stated above, the plot is driving the protagonist, but her reactions to events happening around her are in themselves important. Her passive anxiety is what adds the sinister undertones that something in general is off. For a thriller, this type of character reaction is key for the story to function. It works together with the slow pace by showing rather than telling. This is where the art shines. As stated above, the protagonist’s character is shown primarily through illustration than dialogue and is therefore showing and not telling her story.
Even with the slow pace, following the plot can get confusing at a first read which undercuts the flow of the narrative. However, once you reach the end, the previous events make a lot more sense and the slow pace is appropriate. I highly recommend going back and reading the comic more than once because there are subtle hints you don’t notice unless you know the ending. Once it all comes together, the comic leaves the readers wondering what’s going to happen next. This is especially important because as a thriller, suspense is key.
All in all, Stray Dogs #1 is a great read that, while initially slow and confusing, hooks you with its underlying sense of dread in the middle of a wonderfully deceptive, cute demeanor.