Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs is a graphic novel first published in 2006. It is a dark, terrifying and immersive piece of Victoriana, drawn in a loose, destructive, style and coloured only in black, white and red. The red is used a lot, as the stripes on the T-shirt of the Sailor who is the protagonist, and as the blood that riddles the pages of this violent, harrowing book.
The Sailor is a huge, giant of a man, who has a happy family life in the countryside with a wife, a daughter and a dog. In a rural idyll, he is self-sufficient and their small home is full of love and affection. Then they go to the city where, after a day at the theatre, some dock-thugs kill the Sailor’s daughter, attack and rape his wife and beat him – despite his giant size – to a pulp and throw him in the sea. He floats like driftwood and is picked up by some fishermen who sell him as a slave to a depressed boxing promoter. More happens after this, but it is even darker and even scarier and, though not unexpected in a bad way, is sufficiently surprising to convince me that I should respect the nuances of plot and not detail what happens here.
For anyone who reads this blog regularly, they will already be able to tell that I liked Lost Dogs. If I do not discuss in detail the implications and weaknesses of the plot in a plot-strong piece*, it means that I think people should read the text.This graphic novel is great.
Lost Dogs is very dark – not just in the plotted horrors that befall The Sailor, but in terms of its aesthetic. Lemire has drawn a scummy, coastal city filled with smog and smoke and dirt and aggression. There is a lot of violence, there is very little hope, and there is a lot of selfishness and greed. I don’t think it is meant as a parable, I think it is meant as what it is – a small tragedy about a physically strong, mentally unpowerful but deeply loving man who loses all of the something that he had. He is poor, but outside of the city he is safe.
Maybe I’m wrong and Lemire is a rapant anti-urbanist, and this is how he expects every trip into the city to pan out. I don’t know.
The images are all created with ink, and smudges and scratches abound. The paper – though it obviously isn’t, it’s a mass-produced paperback – feels like a touched surface, the images are “painterly” – the material, the ink, has been physically affected by Lemire and it looks great, it matches the dirty, smudgy, subject matter.
The Sailor is a sad figure, the victim of much violence, both to his body and to his mind through the violence done to those he cares about. His wife and daughter are not – to critique somewhat – properly rounded characters, but the boxing promoter who “buys” the sailor is. The text moves from scene to scene, raining horror, with moments of respite swiftly destroyed, and a heartbreaking ending that had me in tears.
Anything, essentially, that makes me cry I’m a fan of. And this made me cry.
If you’re looking for a dark, edgy, moving and short graphic novel, I highly recommend Lost Dogs. I will definitely be sourcing myself a copy of Essex County soon, Lemire’s later, highly acclaimed, novel.
* The texts I like the most have little to no plot at all.