Article by Greg Mannix
Garth Ennis is no stranger to the apocalypse. His legendary Vertigo series Preacher put him on the map in the early 90s, and his late 00’s pseudo-zombie epic Crossed has inspired half a dozen spinoff series and a successful weekly web comic. While Crossed has gone onto become a staple title in the Avatar Press register, Ennis has since been dabbling in several other original, darkly graphic series for the Midwestern publisher. The strangest and best of the lot is his latest miniseries Rover Red Charlie with artist Michael DiPascale. This 6-issue limited series follows three dogs as they attempt to survive in a grim world where almost all humans (or “Feeders,” as the dogs call them) have suddenly gone insane with violent, suicidal rage. As bloody chaos reigns in Manhattan, the canine crew attempts to navigate themselves out of the inferno, and into the alleged safety of the countryside.
“The story of three best friends at the end of the world” is no regurgitation of played-out apocalyptic tropes. It is not the type of story whose central drawing points are graphic, inventive kill scenes or bizarre genocide. Rover Red Charlie is a meditation on what it means to be a dog in a world where there are no masters; where all those that designed, controlled, and sustained their environment have disappeared. The apocalypse serves as an appropriate and colorful backdrop to explore how domesticized animals react to newfound, absolute freedom. In this brave new world full of conniving cats and bloodthirsty bulldogs, it quickly becomes evident that this small band of dogs must grow wiser fast– or else die.
The story is told from the perspective of the Seeing Eye dog, Charlie. Because of Charlie’s unique disposition in this world, all other dogs view him as singularly clever. They notice that Charlie’s feeder relies on him, instead of the other way around. Because of this advantage, the responsibility falls on Charlie to navigate the band to safety. Along with Charlie are his pals Rover, a Bassett Hound from “across the big splash” (“Bloody Hell, lads!”), and the large and naive Red Setter, appropriately named “Red.” As our three heroes find their way through the madness and viscera that constitutes the new world, they come across many colorful tribes. Among them are: ravenous kittens, self-centered Chihuahuas, disgruntled chickens, domesticized humans, and murderous bands of schoolchildren. If that description isn’t enough to make hardcore Ennis fans rejoice, audiences familiar with his work will be happy to know that the series’ central villain is introduced in one of the most disgusting panels of the writer’s career (and this is from the guy who, in Preacher, had a small man make love to a giant idol made of meat).
And, of course, there are the rumors. Every once in a while, the dogs hear whispers of “Feeders” who never changed into killing machines, who live and thrive in an oasis far away, near “the big splash,” where madness and disease never touched down. The question of where these good “Feeders” can be found soon turns into a more important question: should they even go looking for them? The dilemma of embracing the newfound freedoms of self-sustaining life vs. returning to the known comforts of domestication soon becomes one of the series’ central conflicts.
Beautifully illustrated by painter Michael DiPascale, the comic almost reads as if Ennis somehow swindled a professional animal artist into painting exceedingly adorable dogs in a world full of disgusting and obscenely horrifying scenarios. It proves to be a perfect match, however, as the level of sincerity that permeates the script is evidenced superbly in DiPascale’s poignant artwork. The facial expressions of the animals are executed perfectly: realistically captured without coming off as too cartoony– no small feat. Although the art is lush and gorgeous, it is also eerie and downright unsettling at times. The three titular characters, as well as the entire animal cast, are largely illustrated anthropomorphically. Conversely, the “Feeders” of the tale are drawn with nearly inhuman characterization. They are glowing, foreign, and terrifying to behold. Instead of focusing on distinctive detail, DiPascale has many of the humans in the story look similar. This effect was undoubtedly created to defamiliarize readers with their fellow kin, to view humanity through an alien lens, much as a dog might. Speaking in incomprehensible gibberish (“Nak Nak Kiz Tubbah Gorbedah!”), the humans pretty much appear as blurry visual representations of the adults from Peanuts strips.
Given the story’s outrageous subject matter, it is reasonable to expect the comic falling flat in the hands of another comic artist. Three dogs navigating a post-apocalyptic world— this isn’t exactly familiar territory. Even phenomenal Avatar powerhouse artists like Jacen Burrows couldn’t pull the comic off the way it needed to be. A major element of why this comic succeeds so grandly is the unique and absolute stunning look of it. It’s not merely drawn, but also painted. The level of realism in the visuals is surprising, and the deft way in which this is mixed with the fantastic truly makes for one of the most surreal reads of the year. What really makes Rover Red Charlie work so well, is it looks and feels like it just stepped out of your dreams.
With Rover Red Charlie, Ennis has returned to the apocalyptic roots that helped launch his career. Instead of merely cashing in on another apocalyptic tale full of humans vs. sadomasochistic monsters, Ennis and DiPascale have delivered something much different: a meditation on the nature of loyalty, friendship, and the fluidity of identity. Here is a story of not only what it means to be a dog, but more importantly, to not know what it means to be human. Although the comic is filled with its fair share of graphic and disturbing content, it is unlike anything else on the Avatar register. It is a story full of contrasts, both darkly grim and bitingly funny.
Published by Avatar Press, Rover Red Charlie #5 is set for release on April 30th, 2014.