Stray Dogs is a wickedly clever and charmingly unnerving graphic novel.
At first glance, it is all Secret Life of Pets meets 101 Dalmatians meets All Dogs Go to Heaven, a veritable warm hug of a love letter to humanity’s best friend and the selfless people who rescue them from terrible conditions and give them happy, loved-up new homes.
But as this brilliantly well-thought out story progresses, the adorable artwork which conjures up a Disney-Dreamworks-Pixar happy state of canine mind gives way to something far darker and more troubling as a disturbing sense develops that all is not well in the house into which Sophie is place with no memory of her life before that.
Essentially a suspense thriller wrapped in warm cuddly clothes, Stray Dogs relies on a raft of spoilers, none of which can be even hinted at or the slow-reveal of the narrative loses its substantial emotional impact and sense of gathering dread, but suffice to say that Sophie’s arrival heralds the unraveling of this paradise of dogs, such that every page eventually becomes a race to outwit something darkly diabolical.
It all begins with a disquieting sense Sophie has that something quite awful has happened.
She’s not sure what or to whom or even when, and though the other dogs such as the kindly inclusive Rusty, who gives her a tour of the house and becomes her best friend and advocate when she starts saying things the other dogs don’t want to hear, largely make her welcome, and the new owner seems the epitome of the kindly rescuer, Sophie can’t help feeling that something is wrong, very, very wrong.
With stunningly evocative artwork by Trish Forstner and colourist Brad Simpson, who capture the sunniness then nightmarish horror of the end of the tale perfectly, Stray Dogs builds the tension just-so each and every time, drawing on that time-honoured technique of the amnesiac who begins to have flashbacks of something terrible that become so prevalent they cannot be ignored.
The other dogs have a sweet thing going with their owner out on the edge of nowheresville, fed and looked after and give all the love and care in the world, including being allowed to sleep in the big bedroom with the master, and no one really wants to hear Sophie’s scattered memory remnants, all of which point to horrible acts being committed but without, initially at least, any damning evidence of what exactly.
A Cassandra sorts, though she is not prophesying so much as half-recounting horrific slivers of memory, Sophie is not given the time of day except by Rusty who begins to suspect that the new member of the family might just be telling the truth, after all.
Stray Dogs is simply, breathtakingly, heartbreakingly brilliant.
Looking for all the world like the sweetest dog story you could want, it has layer upon layer of darkness buried in it, and while there is hope and friendship and unconditional love seeded throughout, it also rips your heart to shreds little by little, reminding you that if something looks far too good to be true, it might just well be.
Sporting a healthy dose of Nordic Noir dread and gathering intent, Stray Dogs is one of those inventive stories that combines two very different genres and does it so well that you wonder how no one saw the two could go so well together before this.
It’s cuteness and nightmares in one heady package, and it will suck you into so completely that even as you’re recoiling in horror, you’re marvelling at the vivacity of the characters, the sharpness of the artwork which is never less than arrestingly evocative and endlessly immersive, expertly building a darkening sense of soul-sapping time and place, and the tight writing which reveals just what it needs to at any point and which throws piece after revelatory piece until the bonfire of the truth is well lit and raging towards our heroes.
Everything is told from the perspective of the dogs who begin to suspect something isn’t right but who simply want to be loved and cared for and given pets and scritches behind the ears and not worry about much more than that.
And honestly, you simply want that for them too, as does anyone who love dogs and has some of their own; but as Sophie, and then others remember more and more of their lives before this, you realise that while they’d love nothing more than full bowls and fulsome hugs that they’ll have to go to some terrible places first before that is their reality once again.
An inspired exercise in subverting expectations, and holding two quite different storytelling styles in perfect tension, Stray Dogs is one of those graphic novels that is a sharply on-point evocation of the form, as well as demonstrating what can be achieved by talented writing, gorgeously dark artwork and an abiding commitment to portraying life in all its glory and misery and keeping you guessing to the end which one will ultimately prevail.