Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Advance Review: Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox

Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan & Nathan Fox
Scholastic Graphix, November 2013
Dogs have played a role in human affairs for 150 centuries, so it is no surprise that as long as humans have been at war, dogs have been at our side. In modern military parlance, they are Military Working Dogs. Similar to the use of dogs in civilian life, they play roles in search and rescue, law enforcement and the like. But military dogs also serve other roles. They are advance scouts, can sniff out bombs and booby traps, and go places humans can't. And just like pets in our lives, they are part of the family, man's best friend and an honored part of the military unit. In Dogs of War, a new original graphic novel coming out this November from Scholastic Grafix, writer Sheila Keenan and artist Nathan Fox tackle three stories from recent military conflicts that involved man's best friend in some of man's darkest hours.

The first chapter takes place in the trenches of the Western Front at the end of 1914. Focusing on a Scottish medic and his dog (Boots) who get separated from their unit, we are witness to the unrelenting mud and muck of tench warfare. Boots has been trained to sniff out survivors in the no-mans-land of the hell between the trenches, allowing medics to treat the wounded. Getting progressively better, the second chapter involves a secret U.S. air base in Greenland and one soldier's attempt to turn an unruly sled dog, Loki, into a valuable member of the small force plugging away above the arctic circle in early 1942. There is a suspenseful sequence involving a downed American plane and a race against the clock between German and American soldiers in white-out conditions.

But the best chapter is the third. Opening up in a small town in North Carolina in August 1968, a young boy and his dog befriend a Vietnam veteran. But the veteran, Lanford is troubled. Troubled by the war, troubled by what happened to him when he returned, troubled by what he left behind. We get glimpses of what Lanford went through in Vietnam with his Dog, Sheeba, interspersed with vignettes of the boy and his puppy interacting with Lanford back in the World. Where the main humans in the first two chapters are largely blank slates off which to bounce the dogs' stories, the Sheba chapter is about a palpably real person and the effect that one dog has had in his life. There is no tidy bow at the end of Lanford's story - the boy and his puppy do not cure him of his nightmares, the scars of what he saw and did and experienced just run too deep. But there may be hope for him in the future, and wherever his path may take him has been eased by his brief encounters with dogs of war, and dogs of peace.

In a graphic novel intended for middle school-aged kids, there is only so much blood and gore you can show. But Keenan and Fox do not shy away from the realities of the situations the soldier's and the dogs find themselves in. They manage to vividly capture the horror of trench warfare without getting too graphic. And they do not shy away from the even deeper mental turmoil of PTSD felt by so many of our soldiers after the confusing nightmare of Vietnam and its aftermath.

Sheila Keenan's writing is clear and straightforward, rife with historical detail, and Nathan Fox's art is expectedly superb, emotive, stylish and accessible. So often with such efforts, the results can seem overly academic or too toned down for the work to stand on its own, and the book has that feel in parts of the first two chapters. But thanks to the closing chapter and largely overall, Dogs of War is an entertaining and very well-made graphic novel intended for general audiences that adults can enjoy and slightly older kids can read while learning new things about history that may be not be in their history books. 
PROCEDURAL NOTE: This is an advance review of an uncorrected proof of a graphic novel coming out in November October 16. What that means for me is that some parts weren't totally finished and it wasn't in color. What that means for you is... well, nothing. It's a good book, that's the important bit. Buy it now on Amazon here.

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