As anyone familiar with my ramblings will probably know, I am a huge fan of Jeff Lemire. I first became aware of the Canadian cartoonist with the launch of his Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, which continues to be one of the best titles on the shelves each month. Animal Man is one of the crown jewels of DC’s New 52. Underwater Welder is perhaps my most anticipated upcoming book of this year. And Essex County, Lemire’s masterpiece, stands as one of my all-time favourite comics. So I was very excited to hear the news that Top Shelf would also be re-releasing Lost Dogs, Jeff Lemire’s earliest published work, originally circulated through a small press run and then discontinued, never to be seen again for years. I had heard of this graphic novel, but never thought I’d have the chance to read it. But here it is, repackaged with a snazzy new cover and relettered by Chris Ross, all for a bargain price. If, like me, you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, this is surely an essential purchase.
Reading Lost Dogs, I was put in mind of Following, Christopher Nolan’s first film. Not because the narrative is remotely similar, but both are an example of a beginner’s effort, rough around the edges and nowhere near as polished and refined as their creator’s later work, but with flashes of the brilliance and that unique authorial vision that would flourish in later projects with the benefit of greater experience. Arguably the most fascinating part of the whole book is Lemire’s foreword, which eloquently explains how Lost Dogs stands as a document of Lemire’s life at that particular moment in time.
As far as the graphic novel itself goes, it’s very raw. The art, while still recognisable as Lemire’s style, is not so refined. It appears as if Lemire eschewed pencils altogether in favour of thick inks, and the result is a muddy, messy aesthetic. But that perhaps works out nicely, as this is a muddy, messy story. It does play out a bit like a fable, and the abstract style gives everything a dreamlike quality, albeit a terrifying fever dream.
But the visuals here are very much a crude work-in-progress, and Lemire does stumble in places while trying to find his artistic voice. For example, there are some points where the 12-16 panel grids often employed in the story work very well, such as when our nameless protagonist’s memories torment him in a bombardment of snapshots of happier times, interlaced with a bleaker present. But there are other moments – such as during a fight scene – where they just leave the page feeling cramped and unclear. But even amidst these early growing pains, there are some splash pages where Lemire crafts images of haunting, ethereal beauty, the kind of moments Lemire’s art now has a reputation for capturing masterfully.
The story, what there is, revolves around a hulking giant of a man whose life is racked with tragedy, who finds himself forced to reinvent himself as a bare-kuckle boxer to help a desperate old man. It’s a simple story and a quick read, but it’s packed with raw emotion. Though he says very little, with most of his dialogue saved for the end of the story, the gentle giant at the heart of the story could be one of Lemire’s finest creations, challenging our expectations of what a character like him is going to be, and giving the narrative heart. This is a bleak, tragic tale, and not in the bittersweet sense of Essex County. It takes some doing to make one of the most beautifully melancholy comics ever feel upbeat by comparison, but the unrelenting nastiness and misery depicted here just about does it. It’s not an easy read, but get to the end and you’ll find that the story will stick with you long after you’ve closed the book.
I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire. But I’ve also become a big fan of creator-owned comics, and discovering some of the emerging talent of tomorrow. It was a fascinating experience getting to go back and read Lost Dogs, and see one of the best in the industry right now at a stage when he was still learning his craft. It made me think that right now, the likes of Mark Bertolini, Paul Allor, Magnus Aspli, Gordon McLean, Iain Laurie, Fabian Rangel Jr et al are creating their Lost Dogs, finding their voice, and in the not so distant future we could see them break out. There’s something exciting about seeing a creator’s first steps to greatness. And so I’m very grateful that I finally got the opporunity to read Lost Dogs.
Lost Dogs is available now in all good comic book shops.