There really isn’t anything that I won’t buy from Garth Ennis. When you’ve been writing good comics for as long as he has, the expectation that I’ll be disappointed by one of them is close to nil. I’d even read “Spawn” if he were to become the next writer on it. (Which is to say “Sorry, Brian Wood.” I’ll consider picking up his “E.V.E.: Valkyrie” series, though.) With that in mind, when he says that his new series will be about talking dogs and the end of the world, my only question is “When is the trade paperback coming out?” Now that it’s here, I can say that it’s an interesting failure. “Rover Red Charlie” is the result of the writer trying to work outside his usual comfort zone with mixed results.
For the three title characters, the end of the world comes when the Feeders start acting strange and begin to hurt themselves, each other, and everything else around them. (Though this is an Ennis comic from Avatar, it’s not an outbreak of “Crossed” -- the humans just go insane.) Left to fend for themselves are three friends: Charlie, a helper dog who lived with a blind Feeder; Red, a big, dumb mutt whose thinker always needs a little extra time to work; and Rover, the sarcastic one whose Feeders brought him across the Big Splash. Though their first instinct is to go and find out if there are any Feeders around to still give them orders, the three friends adapt quickly to a world where they can do anything they please. The three aren’t the only other dogs out there, as they encounter plenty of others who can only conceive of a world driven by the rules of the Feeders.
“Rover Red Charlie” is a “talking animal” comic in the sense that we can see what they’re all saying, but any human speech is rendered as incomprehensible gibberish. All of the animals are portrayed as being smart enough to know that something has happened to change the Feeders, but not enough to suss out exactly how this has happened. They are sharp enough to carry on conversations with each other about the things around them, and that’s where my issues with this series begin.
Ennis finds an uneasy middle ground here as he wants to try and convey the “otherness” of animal speech and thought, but still allow his characters to have real conversations about the world around them. Things like having barks come out as “I’m a dog!” are clever, yet feel incongruous when they start talking about what’s happened to the Feeders. I’m reminded of how Grant Morrison made the limited speech of the animals in “We3” come off as creepy and tragic, and illustrative of the dangers of pushing technology too far. Here, it feels like Ennis is trying to have his cake, eat it too, and being not quite able to pull it off.
If you can get past this issue, there’s still a decent if on-the-nose story about about breaking out of the patterns that are defined for and by yourself. At first Rover, Red, and Charlie only want to find more Feeders to tell them what to do so they can get back to the way things were. As they trek across America, the three dogs find examples of canines still shackled to the Feeder’s world. They range from the benign, a military guard dog still watching over the remnants of his command, to the vicious, one big bulldog who was brutalized by the Feeders and has somehow managed to train one to do his bidding. It’s this big one, Hermann, who has carried over the worst parts of the Feeders’ nature into this new world. That he has to be overcome before our protagonists can finally be at peace here… Well, I said the story was kind of on-the-nose.
Even so, Ennis does enough to make the title characters’ journey into a generally involving experience. Nobody demonstrates how entertaining the camaraderie between males can be better than the writer, and this proves that his skill here isn’t limited to one species. Rover, Red, and Charlie’s personalities may have their stock elements, but they’re still well-defined and play off each other well. The only hitches come when they’re made to be too much like humans, as it’s doubtful that real dogs would experience the kind of falling-out Charlie and Red have in the final issue. Ennis’ tendencies towards shocking violence and gross-out humor are also present here, though in a toned-down fashion compared to his other work at Avatar. It’s telling, however, that the worst bits are instigated by the Feeders and not the animals.
This comic also features work from an artist I wasn’t familiar with before reading it. Michael DiPascale may have been unknown to me before, but I’d certainly like to see more work from him either with Ennis or another creator afterwards. His painted style doesn’t feel heavily photo-referenced, and he’s able to get a great deal of expressiveness from his depictions of the animals in this story while also keeping their look grounded in the real world. Well, mostly grounded. Hermann’s design does extend a bit into caricature, but DiPascale’s still presents impressive work that’s in sync with the writer’s script and its emotional content.
“Rover Red Charlie” won’t make it on to my “Best of” list for this year in the way that other Ennis works like the first volume of “Crossed” and “Fury: My War Gone By” have. The way the writer has anthropomorphized the animals in this comic has significant flaws in its logic, while the story and its moral are pretty familiar. It does have some very likeable characters rendered in some appealing art. Regardless of what Alan Moore says in his breathlessly effusive introduction, I feel safe in saying that this is more for established Ennis fans than any casual observers.
Then again, I have always been a cat person…