The World Has Gone to the Dogs – Rover Red Charlie

Rover Red Charlie #1

Garth Ennis, Michael Dipascale

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It’s the end of the world – but from the perspective of Man’s Best Friend. Everything has suddenly, irrevocably gone wrong with the human world, and like the canine protagonists in this tale we have no idea why, but it has and the people are turning on each other and on themselves, while the poor dogs look on, terrified, upset, uncomprehending as the world falls apart all around them, blood, violence, fire, as their former “feeders” (as the dogs refer to the humans) go insane and destroy themselves.

Ennis and Dipascale drop us right into this, with Charlie, a Collie and a Guide Dog (or Seeing Eye Dog as they call them in America), desperately trying to free himself – his former owner is now a burning corpse on a smashed underground station, others are in a similar conditions nearby, and he is still attached by his lead to the hand of his now dead owner. “I’m a dog! I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” he howls in despair – yes, the dogs here ‘talk’, although it seems only they understand one another (and obviously we understand their speech bubbles). Charlie’s shrieks of “I’m a dog!” are clearly, to any human in the story, barks, not words. Once you understand that the rhythm of the dog’s ‘speech’ becomes quite clear to anyone who’s spent time around our four legged friends.

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Suddenly through the flames comes Red, perhaps not the brightest canine in the pack (as his friend notes later, he sometimes has to sit and let this ‘thinks’ fill up a bit first) but loyal in that wonderful way that so many dogs are, charging in, leading his friends Rover and Max to help Charlie. Max, a rather up-himself pedigree German Shepherd decides Charlie is doomed and runs off to save himself, while Red and Rover strain with Charlie to bite through the lead and rescue their friend. Fleeing the burning remains of the station the dogs pause on their flight to safety as Red is very worried about his bottom and absolutely has to stop for a few seconds while a reluctant Charlie has to sniff it and make sure it is okay.

This piece of doggy etiquette out of the way they emerge onto the city streets, wondering what is going on, only to find the big picture is worse than they thought, the entire city aflame, humans everywhere going mad (save one who in a desperate last act tries to save the dogs, knowing he himself is as doomed as the other humans). A human confronted with this sudden destructive madness wouldn’t comprehend what was going on, so imagine the mind of a dog trying to grasp what’s going on… The poor animals are desperate to find a friendly ‘feeder’ who hasn’t gone mad, they will look after them, tell them what to do…

This could be a very cheesy, schmaltzy tale, but actually, given it focuses on ‘talking’ animals (well, we understand their ‘speech’, as I said it’s clear they aren’t actually talking in English) and has a buddy-movie feel to it, it is actually fairly light on the cheese. This is not one of those Disney ‘incredible journey’ stories. The decision to let us understand the dogs’ growls and barks via speech bubbles works well, allowing us to share their point of view of events, but it also works because Ennis nails the rhythms and structure so well, not to mention focusing on what you expect would be a domestic dog’s concerns (friendly owner to look after them, feed them, pet them, tell them when it is time to go somewhere) that you find yourself thinking yep, this is pretty much how I’d expect a dog to be thinking.

Of course that reminds me of the talking dog in Morrison and Quitely’s superb We3 (“bad dog, bad dog…”) but there the comparison ends with that story.  This is an unusual take on the end of the world, seen from the perspective of three dogs who are best friends – a buddy movie at the end of the world, but with canines (and what better friends can anyone, human or dog, have than a good dog?). The three main dogs are all clearly defined with their own characteristics, while Dipascale’s art manages the tricky combination of having to show human violence and mass destruction on city streets with believable dog poses and movements, and he manages this very well. The animals comes across very believably – the movements, the little stances with the eyes opened up big and head titled just so are familiar to anyone who has been around dogs, and of course to any animal lover it evokes that response that just makes you want to take care of them, and this digs us further into the story emotionally – the scene where a mad human attacks another dog is especially heartbreaking, somehow more shocking and sadder than the human on human violence, especially as Charlie barks “Feeders don’t hurt dogs! Feeders don’t hurt dogs!” as it happens, unable to understand how their friendly feeders have become suddenly crazed and violent.

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In some ways it is like a child’s perspective if the adult population went into destructive madness like this but young children didn’t, what would they make of it, how could they begin to comprehend what would confuse and terrify a full adult mind? They seem so vulnerable having to suddenly cope not only on their own but in a world gone so dangerously insane, and again this ties us even more emotionally to the story and characters. Non animal lovers probably won’t get the same levels of emotional investment in it, but those sorts of people clearly need to go out and stroke more warm, furry tummies anyway. I really didn’t know what to expect from this at all when I picked it up and here I found a rather charming, engaging read. One of the more unusual new comics releases.

New Dan Dare

This weekend I sat down with a mixture of excitement and trepidation to read the latest attempt to resurrect one of the most famous characters in British comics history (and also a lifelong favourite of both me and my dad, incidentally), Dan Dare. Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s first issue of the new Dan Dare from Virgin Comics just came out and I had to read it. Then I had to write a bit about it and ended up doing a review for the Forbidden Planet International blog, which I am also going to reproduce below:Dan Dare #1
Written by Garth Ennis, art by Gary Erskine

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As regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of the original Dan Dare; back in 1977 it was the then-new kid on the block, 2000 AD, which introduced me to the character (along with Massimo Belardinelli’s stunning artwork). My dad, reading my progs after me, mentioned reading the original Dan Dare when he was a boy and how much better it had been (he was right, it was). Original Dan Dare? What was this Eagle comic he spoke of to my young ears? What was this radio series of the Pilot of the Future he used to listen to? I didn’t know it then, but I was slowly becoming aware of a piece of British comics history and a character that would go on to be one of my favourites of all time, Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare (and getting to share it with my dad makes it more special). I remember buying the over-sized Hawk Books reprints in the 90s for my dad and I’ve got a shelf full of the handsome Titan Classic Dan Dare volumes myself (a great range, which I always recommend).

So you can imagine I’ve been suffering a mixture of excitement for the latest attempt to resurrect Dan Dare along with a nagging worry that it will fall flat on its face. Much as I want to see Dan brought back with new adventures there are always two main problems to be faced: if you make it too similar to the original then you are being faithful to the characters but you run the risk of offering reheated leftovers with nothing new. On the other hand if you offer something new and different then fans (like me) will ask why you put Dan’s name on it since it has very little to do with him. So with these ambivalent feelings I picked up the first issue of Virgin’s Dan Dare – naturally the fine Bryan Talbot cover version which uses elements of the classic, including Dan’s helmet (Greg Horn is an artist I like but his style is totally unsuited to Dan; my advice, avoid the variant cover). And here’s the thing: I liked it.

In fact I really, really liked it. I enjoyed it; I liked Ennis’ take on him, I like the way he has set it years after Dan and Digby’s ‘glory days’ as the prime minister refers to them so we can maintain links to the original but still have something new, I like the space opera set-up of old-fashioned space battle cruisers, the promise of a threat from the past and a call to an old Hero which comes right out of Joseph Campbell. And no matter how sophisticated and postmodern we like to think our tastes have become, at the end of the day pretty much everyone of us at some point just wants a Hero; we want someone who will stand up and do the Right Thing, not for personal gain, not for political gain, not for glory, but because it is the Right Thing. The more troubled our times, the more we yearn for such a Hero and Ennis handles this especially well in my opinion.

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(opening page of Garth Ennis new Dan Dare issue 1, art by Gary Erskine, published Virgin Comics)

We have the British prime minister visiting Dan in his retirement; prior to this the chaps’ old sidekick and their scientific advisor Professor Jocelyn Peabody is seen meeting a retired Digby in orbit at Space Fleet’s Gibraltar station, where we pick up a few details of the way the world has changed from the classic era and find that Britain is the leading power following a Chinese-American conflict (the panel showing modern America from orbit was simple but highly effective). We’re also clued in to the fact that the prime minister may not be the best man in the world; not actually malignant or evil, but a man who can make decisions he thinks are for the Greater Good regardless of actual morality. Something that sounds awfully familiar to anyone who follows contemporary British politics, as does references to him having been in power too long and never resigning despite often saying he plans to (gee, who could Garth be referring to?).

So by the time the meeting of the prime minister and Dan arrives we’ve already had some insights into his character and recent history (and in well-handled small bursts, no huge ‘info dump’ to bring us up to speed). And if we’re in any doubt then his interaction with Dan reinforces the earlier impressions – the prime minister admires the pictures on Dan’s wall and remarks on a particularly pretty aircraft.

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(the present meets the past; the prime minister calls on a retired Dan Dare)

A Spitfire,” replies Dan, “my grandfather flew one in the Battle of Britain.”

I wasn’t aware there’d been a battle of…”

Small matter of saving the country and Western civilisation along with it. Why don’t you have a seat?

Its one of those exchanges which conveys simply but effectively contempt for much of political ‘leadership’ and the way in which our leaders are happy to associate themselves with our Great History and our Heroic Armed Forces for media-friendly appearances, yet they often have a complete ignorance of our actual history and they end up committing similar mistakes to the past because of it. They represent spin and image, all surface, while Dan, for all his quietness, represents that which they pretend to. It isn’t as biting as Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ Thatcher-era Dan Dare (reproduced recently in the splendid Yesterday’s Tomorrows) and yet it clearly tips its hat to that tale while also serving to establish the current set-up of Dan’s world in this new version.

It isn’t all just a slightly melancholic, wistful longing for the Good Old Days when things were simpler and men were Real Men though, we’re treated to big space cruisers, gloriously old-fashioned, right down to gun turrets like an old naval warship and a crew who use terms like ‘fish in the water’ when they detect incoming fire. Cue a sudden attack and we’re treated to dirty, big spaceships blasting away at each other; it is wonderfully old-fashioned, pure space opera stuff and gods but its great! Older Digby, Jocelyn and Dan re-introduced, small but sufficient glimpses of the way the world has changed since Dan’s original day with the promise of more to come, a threat hinted at – could it be the Mekon, back again? – then sudden, awful confirmation with a spectacular space battle (Gary’s art is clear and unfussy throughout, quite suitable to Dan I thought) and Dan’s call back to action and that’s just the first issue. Will I be picking up the second issue now? Oh, hell, yes!

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(it isn’t just juxtaposing old values against the modern, we also get some cracking, old-fashioned space battles)

You can enjoy the allusions to our contemporary world, the parallels and comments on politics and national leaders, the seeming lack of a moral compass in modern society, the rose-tinted view of the Good Old Days and references to the original Frank Hampson work (who I am glad to see name-checked inside) and the Morrison-Hughes Dare, or you can laugh at the back page advert for Virgin Galactic. But mostly you can also just simply allow yourself to indulge in a really enjoyable read and look forward to the promise of good, old-fashioned, square-jawed British heroics, and god knows with all that’s going on in our troubled world it feels good to have that kind of real Hero again, even if he is fictional. it’s a form of heroism the prime minister clearly doesn’t get, even as he appeals to it, but the readers get it and they love Dan for it:

There’s one thing that puzzles me, Mister Dare.”

What’s that?

Well, not to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but you obviously want no part of what Britain is today or you wouldn’t be living all the way out here, would you? So I simply don’t understand why you’re still willing to fight for it…”

No, prime minister, I don’t imagine you do.

There’s the proper Dan Dare in a nutshell and that’s what I want; I’m looking forward to Ennis and Erskine building on this first issue.