Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dogs of War

Written by Sheila Keenan
Art by Nathan Fox

I'm kind of indifferent to pets, but I love a good war comic, and am a fan of Nathan Fox's art, so when I saw this graphic novel, I knew I wanted to read it, despite the fact that it's published by Scholastic, and is geared towards younger readers.

That's not entirely the case though, because like a rare subsection of young adult fiction, there's enough going on in these three stories, especially the last one, to keep an adult reader sufficiently engaged.

Dogs of War examines the role played by active service dogs in the military, across three conflicts: the two World Wars, and Vietnam.  The first story is about a young orphan who travels with the doctor who has taken him in, and his dog, to Belgium, where he assists the doctor in retrieving wounded and dying soldiers.  They are separated one night, and the boy (and his dog) end up staying with a group of Irish soldiers in the trenches, where the boy learns about trench life, and gets to participate in the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914.  This story is probably the most typically YA of any in the book, as we follow the time-honoured tradition of following boys who have snuck into areas they shouldn't be, where they have adventures, and grow as people.  It goes without saying that the dog is instrumental in keeping the soldiers alive.  Still, Nathan Fox's kinetic and rough art is perfect for showing the reality of trench warfare, so I loved this story.

The second story is set in Greenland, where a soldier from Maine is expected to put his dog-sledding experiences (I didn't know that was a Maine thing) to good use in helping run a rescue team.  The Americans are gearing up for war, and are building air bases on the ice.  When the soldier and his Sergeant go on a patrol to look for Nazis, the soldier and the unruly dog he's been trying to train end up alone and outnumbered.  Again, Fox's wonderful art really elevates the story, as the reader is really able to feel the confusion that a snowstorm whips up.

The final story is by far the best in the book.  It is narrated by a young boy who lives in a trailer park in North Carolina in 1968, where his only friend is a puppy that was found and given to him.  Slowly, the boy gets to know the man in the trailer next door, a haunted vet just returned from Vietnam, where he worked with a dog as a scout.  The two slowly begin to bond, and the man begins to open up to the boy, mostly because of the healing presence of Bouncer, the slightly wild pup.  This story works well in contrast to the other two, as the soldier's story is only slowly revealed, instead of being the only thing in the narrative.  Again, Fox does a terrific job of showing the chaos of that conflict.

In all, this was a very good collection of stories, and while it stuck pretty closely to the standard tropes of war comics, you can't really hold that against it.

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