Friday, 30 May 2014

Rover Red Charlie Review (Garth Ennis, Michael DiPascale)


Garth Ennis returns to the world of Crossed to tell the story of what happened when humanity imploded only this time from the perspective of three dogs, Rover, Red and Charlie! 

If you’ve never read Crossed (and to be honest it’s not one of Ennis’ best), it’s a bit like the zombie apocalypse except rather than shuffling about mindlessly and rotting, humanity becomes deeply disturbing after their inhibitions switch off and they lose control of their actions, murdering and doing terrible things to everyone and everything. 

Rover, Red and Charlie see that the feeders (humans) have gone nuts and decide to leave New York City and head west to the big splash (the Pacific Ocean) where they hear things are more or less normal. So begins our trio of canine heroes’ trip across the North American continent - but things don’t go easily for them as they face dog-eating groups of cats and a giant evil dog called Hermann who wants them dead. 

The story is never dull and Ennis knows how to keep it lively and moving at a steady clip, but by far the standout reason to read this book is the character work - Rover Red Charlie is one of the best character books I’ve read in ages. You start the book not knowing who any of the dogs are but by the end - a mere six issues! - they’re so well-defined, you’ll swear they’ve been around as long as Batman and Superman. 

You’ve probably heard the writing mantra “show don’t tell” but if you want to see how that works in practice, check out this book. In the opening scene, Charlie, a helper dog, is trapped on the subway. His leash is caught and he can’t move, his owner has died, the other humans are dead or trying to kill one another, there’s fire everywhere and you think he’s doomed. Then Red and Rover appear, running down the steps to Charlie, along with another dog. Red, Rover and Charlie chew through the leash while the other dog runs off to save his own hide - Charlie is finally freed and they run to (relative) safety up to street level. 

Right away their relationships is established - you know Red, Rover and Charlie are friends, and true friends at that, willing to put their lives on the line to help one another, unlike the other dog who selfishly thought only of himself. If Ennis were a lesser writer he’d simply write a caption box that said “Red, Rover and Charlie were the best of pals”; instead we see exactly that in an exciting first scene. 

From then on, we see their individual personalities emerge. Red is the biggest and strongest of the three and also the dopiest, but he has the biggest heart, like when they encounter a dying dog who’s been infected with whatever got the humans, and he fills his mouth up with water, walks over to the dog, and dribbles the water into its mouth. It’s such a beautiful moment of compassion.

Rover’s the smallest and weakest dog but the smartest (and whose voice sounded to me like the late, great Bob Hoskins - RIP), while Charlie’s transformation over the course of the book from servant to the feeders to an independent dog is glorious. 

But Ennis goes even further than the great characters by establishing a canine lexicon that seems lived in and convincing. The dogs speak english to one another but with subtle differences like when they call their brains “thinkers” and their hearts “thumpers”; cats are “hisspots” while chickens are “bork borkers”, and my favourite description of them all is for lamp posts which are “light trees”. And when they bark, it isn’t “woof”, it’s “I’m a dog!” which feels closer to what dogs seem to be saying when they do bark. 

And that’s another thing - Ennis knows not to keep things too cerebral and make the dogs behave like dogs, so they have moments when they just have to play with one another, or roll around for no reason, and when lightning strikes, hide and whine because they don’t understand what’s happening. It’s a tremendous balancing act between keeping the characters true to themselves while also driving the story onwards and yet he pulls it off effortlessly. 

What’s surprising is how after a while you stop thinking of the dogs as dogs and rather like relatable characters, so when the story turns unexpectedly anti-human, you wind up actually thinking the world would be better off without humans to screw everything up, and it were all dogs instead! Like at the end when Charlie discovers Hermann’s sad past - why he became an evil dog - you realise you can’t really hate the villain, like you normally would, because you’re too busy hating humans for being the scumbags we can be, hurting animals for no reason and turning the Hermanns of the world into the monsters they become thanks to us. 

It is Garth Ennis so expect swearing and a lot of violence, much of it gory, and yes animals do get harmed, so prepare for that. 

Michael DiPascale’s painted art is gorgeous and emotive. Dogs don’t have the same facial muscles humans do so their expressions are limited - it’s a fantastical concept but DiPascale’s art is rooted in reality - yet he’s able to coax out exactly the right emotions from the characters with perfectly placed body language and the right look in the dogs’ eyes. It’s not a breathtaking art style but I think it’s simplicity is suited to the story and characters in a way that a more involved artist might end up making the pages look too cluttered and busy. 

If you’d told me that after The Boys, Fury MAX and Battlefields, that Garth Ennis would do a dog-focused story set in the Crossed world, I’d be unconvinced that it’d be worth reading; having read that book now though, I’m more surprised that I doubted Ennis could pull it off. Rover Red Charlie is a book that draws you in with its masterful character work and propulsive story and keeps you hooked right up until the end. It’s ambitious and, doggone it, it pays off!

Rover Red Charlie

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