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Chaffee Lets “Good Dog” Off the Leash

by  in Comic News Comment
Chaffee Lets “Good Dog” Off the Leash

If the yellow mutt on the cover of “Good Dog” brings back distant memories of the early 1990s, there’s good reason. The Fantagraphics release, out in June, marks the long-awaited return of Graham Chaffee’s clean, eye-catching art. Chaffee first entered the indie comics scene in ’93 with the release of “The Big Wheels” and followed it up two years later with “The Most Important Thing and Other Stories” before leaving comics to become a full-time tattoo artist.

Although canines have made prominent cover appearances on each of Chaffee’s books, “Good Dog” digs deep into a dog’s life, putting a stray named Ivan at the center of the story. In between dreams of chasing rabbits, Chaffee tells a fable-like tale of a slightly neurotic dog wandering into misadventures around town, including trying to steal chickens and joining up with a street-smart pack of strays.

Chaffee talked to Comic Book Resources about his return to comics and his appreciation for telling stories with talking animals — especially dogs.

CBR News: Graham, you emerged on the indie comics scene in the early ’90s and disappeared shortly after to focus on tattooing — now you’re back after all that time with “Good Dog.” Why wait so long to return to comics?

Graham Chaffee: I didn’t mean to be gone so long. I think I just got distracted by other things and lost touch with comics, like you do with friends from college. You don’t call for a month or two and then boom, suddenly 15 years have gone by…

As for getting started again, I’m pretty sure it’s my girlfriend’s fault; she’s super-creative and got me all inspired to get back into writing and drawing.  She jump-started the process by scripting a couple of very short pieces for me to ink and it just gathered momentum from there.

Where did the story of “Good Dog” come from?

“Good Dog’s” genesis was a casual conversation about the nature of dogs; how they are born followers and need direction, how lost and purposeless a stray must feel, how neurotic he might become.

Originally, it was meant to be a short story, but it grew into this extended meditation on social behavior; the need for direction, the price of obedience, the power-dynamics of different relationships.

Where did the inspiration for Ivan, the lead dog, come from?

The first dog character I wrote was named Ivan — more appropriately, as he was a Russian fellow. He’s one of a trio of animal spirit-messengers from “The Most Important Thing.” In that story, Ivan is sort of the conscience of the group, and that basic decency informs the character of the Ivan from “Good Dog.”  He’s meant to be sort of an everyman, I guess; a little lost, ever hopeful.

What’s the appeal of using dogs in your work, from “The Most Important Thing” and as the focus here in “Good Dog?” What do you like most about working in the talking-animal genre?

I think an animal book allows for, potentially, a greater identification with the characters by the reader.  In a weird way, it may sometimes be easier to relate to a generic dog than a specific man. A human character would, necessarily, be more of an individual, have features and traits that may set him apart from the reader, whereas a dog can be more of an everyman. Bridging the species gap sets up this sense of commonality. You can look at Ivan and say, “This dog has the same kind of problems that people do — I myself have felt this way from time to time…”

As for the specific appeal of dogs, in this context, I think dogs are probably the most human-like of animals to many of us, even more so than apes because we rarely encounter apes in our day-to-day lives.  Bridging that species-gap is much easier with dogs than cats, say — on the other hand, “Charlotte’s Web” pulled it off pretty handily with a whole mess of different creatures, so maybe dogs just work best for me because I love dogs and the rest is just hot air.

Which other stories influenced “Good Dog,” if any? The dogs still act like dogs, but they can talk to each other, and have a sort of shared mythology, similar to the rabbits in “Watership Down.”

There are a number of influences at work here. “Watership Down” definitely helped direct my attitude towards my treatment of dog society.  When you’re writing a talking-animal book, you [have] to make some rules about how human everyone is or isn’t — the dogs can talk to each other, but can they talk to cats? Do they understand human speech? Which animal behaviors can survive the transition to talking-dog society and which cannot?  All this stuff. “Watership Down” covers a lot of this ground and served as a kind of blueprint for these sorts of rules, I think.

There’s a French movie, “Baxter” that touches on some of the themes in “Good Dog.” It’s about this brutally philosophic bull-terrier and his search for the perfect master. Highly recommended.

Sasha [the leader of the pack] is an epic hero from ancient myth, Achilles, basically. I wanted him to be a little larger-than-life and then contrast that to the more prosaic realities of day-to-day living. Most of the other dogs are recognizable character-types; the buddy, the soldier, the aesthete, the malcontent. Merry is lifted from a pirate of the same name in “Treasure Island.”

I have no idea where the chicken and rabbit dreams came from. I guess I thought that a neurotic dog might have inadequacy issues and what better way to express that than by having classic prey animals push him around?

Tattooing and comics are presumably two very different artistic itches that you’re scratching. Has tattooing informed your comics work or vice versa?

I’d have to say that my comics work has influenced my tattooing more than the other way around.  I suppose comics may have contributed to the graphic sensibility that I apply to my tattooing. The two disciplines have crossed over, recently, when I tattooed the bulldog, Kirby, on a buddy’s arm.

Are you still reading comics? What artists have you been checking out recently or been keeping tabs on?

Artists — I like so many!  Particular favorites would include: David B., Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, Julie Doucet, Sammy Harkham, Jason, Ben Katchor, David Lapham, Tony Millionaire, James Sturm, Jim Woodring — the list goes on and on.

You did a mini-comic, “Bad Dog,” focusing on Kirby the bulldog. Are there any of the other dogs here that you’d want to revisit in the future?

“Bad Dog” was a fun little follow-up, to give Kirby more screen-time, but I doubt I’ll be coming back to dogs anytime soon.  My next book is a crime-story and full of people doing people-things, like cheating on their spouses and robbing banks and driving cars and other activities dogs don’t do so much.

“Good Dog” goes on sale June 15.

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