“I cannot live, I cannot die, trapped in myself”
I’ve been a big fan of the Fillbach brothers (Matt and Shawn) for many years, and they always produce quite good comics and never seem to quite the recognition they deserve. That’s probably not going to change with their latest graphic novel, Dog Soldiers, which comes to us from the fine folk at First Comics (with whom the brothers often work), but it’s still nice to check out a pretty keen book!
One of the cool things about Dog Soldiers, in fact, is that it doesn’t try to do too much. There’s no grand plot, no over-the-top characters, no huge moments. But that’s why it’s such a good read, because the Fillbachs, who can go weird and wild when they want to, can also turn small moments into devastating ones, as they tell a story that’s no less important because it’s so focused on a few people. There have been great stories about soldiers with PTSD before, and there will be again, but that doesn’t mean that this one isn’t worth your time or that it doesn’t have something interesting to say. The Fillbachs look at a certain aspect of PTSD treatment, that of pairing veterans with dogs, and that, naturally, drives the story. John Price is an Iraq veteran who gets a job at Sam’s Club, meets a nice young lady with whom he begins a relationship, and gets a dog, Sarge, to help him with his trauma. That’s the entire plot. I guess there’s the question of whether John will “get better,” but that’s not completely the point, and as with other people who have experienced trauma, it’s not exactly about “getting better” but learning to live with it. That’s not a bad question to ask, and the Fillbachs handle it well.
The Fillbachs keep things moving quietly along, as John secures his job, meets Maria, and gets Sarge. The plot of the book doesn’t matter all that much, but the details do. We first meet John when he’s getting his job, and then we cut to his trailer as he sobs into his hands, alcohol and prescription drugs close at hand. Then we immediately cut to his job, where a kid wanders into the warehouse (his parents are hippies, of course – stupid hippies!) and thinks his forklift is a Jeep. He gets the kid back to his parents, but John immediately has a panic attack and has to go into the freezer to calm down. He sees all kinds of people in his imagination, some dead and some just injured, and he doesn’t know what’s happening to him. Maria finds him there, but he brushes off his troubles and gets to charming her. His doctor then suggests he get a dog, because John says the pills aren’t working anymore. So that’s how he gets Sarge.
John and Maria begin their romance, but John still doesn’t quite know how to deal with his PTSD. Things seem to be going well, but he picks a fight in bar just because some dude didn’t like that his girlfriend was talking to John, and John gets beaten up but seems to enjoy it. His old commanding officer commits suicide, and John doesn’t know how to deal with that, because the dude seemed more together than John is. This leads to his own spiral, and the Fillbachs do an excellent job showing how quickly someone can lose hope and decide to kill themselves. John doesn’t go through with it, but it’s still an intense scene. The books wraps up a bit quickly, but I don’t see how it could otherwise without stretching a lot longer than it is, and it’s not that it’s a bad ending, just a bit too easy. I think it skips over too much, and I think it would have been a better ending if we could infer most of it, but that’s just me.
One thing the Fillbachs have always done very well is tell the story through the artwork. They’re good writers, to be sure, but part of that is because they’re such good artists, so they can tell the story very well without using too many words. Dog Soldiers is filled with silent full-page spreads of all sorts of things, heightening their importance and allowing their impact to sink in. Even early on, a seemingly random image of one of those bird toys that tips over and puts its beak in a glass of water has importance, as it sits on John’s boss’s desk during the subsequent interview and also foreshadows the futility of life for John outside of the service – until he finds a purpose, that is. The Fillbachs don’t comment on where John lives, but the fact that it’s a trailer in a trailer park is made important by the full-page splash of it – we go from a full-page splash of Sam’s Club to the sign of the trailer park to the trailer itself to John sobbing inside his trailer – four pages with very few words, but showing the hardscrabble life John is living and the financial straits he’s in. There’s nothing wrong with driving a forklift at Sam’s Club, of course, but it’s hard to make much of a living on it, and John is not doing well both mentally and financially, which can only add to his stress. There are good things in the splashes, too – John and Sarge meeting each other ends with a full-page splash of them looking at each other, and it’s a nice moment, but what makes it great is the hesitancy on John’s face and in his body language. He told his doctor he’s not much of a dog person, but he’s willing to give it a try, and now he’s confronted with the dog, and he’s trying to break through his own preconceived notions. As John and Sarge get closer, we get a nice splash of Sarge leaping into a lake to “rescue” John, even though Sarge himself isn’t a fan of the water. It’s what he was trained to do, and he does it. As John and Maria get closer, we get full-page splashes of them connecting in small ways, building a romance that is more than just mutual attraction (although that’s there, too). The best use of the single-page splashes is when John decides to commit suicide, as he rejects Maria (which the Fillbachs show by having them stand on either side of his door, hands against it at the same level, so they’re “touching” but still separated by the solid door, which just might be a metaphor) and then contemplates his life while Sarge looks on. We get John’s isolation in the full-page splashes, as Sarge is apart from him, but in between those pages we get more traditional panels, in which the Fillbachs focus on both John and Sarge, “shortening” the distance between them as Sarge tries to reach out to John, who’s trying to reject him. It’s a terrific scene, made better by the way the Fillbachs lay it out.
Obviously, the brothers are tugging at heartstrings in this book, but it’s not just to manipulate the reader. PTSD among veterans is a major health problem, and the Fillbachs do a good job incorporating it into a story without simply doing a PSA about it. They also show how different people deal with trauma. The book is focused on John and Sarge, of course, which means that Maria, who’s a fairly interesting character in her own right, gets a bit of the short shrift, but she was also in the military (the Air Force), and she fell out of a helicopter while on assignment as a photographer and broke her back. Her trauma isn’t as dramatic as John’s, naturally, but the Fillbachs put it in there so that Maria at least understands a little of what John is going through. The Fillbachs also try to remain understated about John’s problems – naturally, they can’t do that throughout, but the way they introduce it, the way they show John getting into the bar fight, the way he hides everything from everyone, is all nicely done, because we don’t get the big “Oscar speech” in which he lays out his problems. That wouldn’t work without a good actor giving the speech, and in a comic, the understated moments are often far more effective. The Fillbachs aren’t fancy when it comes to their art, but they use shadows extremely well, and their minimalist line work is always precise and stark. Their characters are just the slightest bit “cartoony,” but in this comic, their characters’ eyes are brilliantly done, showing far more emotions than their words do.
Dog Soldiers is a very good comic, as the Fillbachs focus on a story that doesn’t get a lot of attention in today’s world and show how a person could lose their way and how they can come back. Obviously, this is a very specific fictional story, but it feels true, which is never a bad thing. It’s a powerful book that will make you think about how this country treats its veterans, without being for or against the wars they might fight in. The United States fights in wars, and many veterans come home like this. The Fillbachs don’t make a big deal about what the country should do for them, which is nice, but just by focusing on one person and his issues, it highlights a problem in the country that, unfortunately, isn’t going away because we keep insisting on fighting in wars. If you’ve never read a book by the Fillbach brothers, this is an excellent place to begin.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆