Let David Hine and Doug Braithwaite’s ‘Storm Dogs’ Take You For A Ride
The factors that make a comic appealing are an entirely subjective and strange thing. Sometimes the thrill of the unknown is what does it, and at other times, it’s seeing something familiar performed in a new or particularly efficient way. It’s tough to figure out what the appeal of the series is going to be before you read it. Our prejudgements are one thing, but reality often works out quite differently. Writer David Hine, artist Dougie Braithwaite, and colorist Ulises Arreola’s Storm Dogs is a great example. It’s got something old in the form of a murder mystery that quickly becomes more complicated than anyone ever expected. It’s got something familiar, too. It feels similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus in tone and approach to science fiction. Finally, it’s got something new, and that’s a hard focus on the way cultures interact and evolve. I expected to like the comic because David Hine and Dougie Braithwaite are seriously talented dudes. As it turns out, I like it for that reason and so many more.I don’t remember where I first saw Dougie Braithwaite’s artwork. It may have been one of those titles in the Earth X franchise. Regardless, I dug it on first sight, and I’ve tried to keep up with his work since. He has a style that splits the difference between Alex Ross-ian realism and traditional comic book caricature, creating something that feels both grounded and realistic, like a weary wrestler or comfortable, but aged, grandmother. His characters are solidly built and you can sense the gravity behind them. They aren’t just colorforms on a background. They move and you can see the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Braithwaite isn’t flashy, not in the sense of the Image founders or artists who are known for going full-on pop with their art, but he’s so talented that your standards for flashy are forced to change. Instead of tumbling end over end after a Kirby-esque impossible pseudo-judo flip, Braithwaite’s figures slump and bend and drop. The flashy moments are when he nails a moment of horror or exhaustion, when he depicts an emotion and shoots it directly into your brain. The flashy moments are when you see a man arguing and breaking up with his boyfriend or a woman pointedly looking out a window while others say goodbye to their loved ones and you pause in understanding. Braithwaite knows from pain. He has such sights to show you.
Storm Dogs gives Braithwaite a chance to do all that and more. It’s set on a mining settlement on an alien planet, and you know what that means: aliens and monsters. He’s designing an entire world, from landscapes to flora to fauna to architecture, and it’s cool to see where he goes with things. A brief sketchbook section in the back of the first chapter shows Braithwaite’s design sketches for a central character and the suits that the cast wears while out during the planet’s super storms. Everything, especially the fake things, feels grounded and real.
Arreola’s palette counts for a lot here, too. The bugs are bright and colorful, but beasts and structures that stay out in the harsh atmosphere are much more drab and basic. Arreola makes the future seem like something not too far removed from today, but still undeniably foreign. Recognizable, but still alien where it counts.
This isn’t the space-age plastic future of Star Trek. It’s Once Upon A Time In The West meets Alien, an incredible combination under Braithwaite’s pen. Men and women are rugged, dusty, and dirty. Technology is bulky, ugly, and functional when it isn’t completely hidden from sight.
Storm Dogs takes place in a future where most beings are connected to a service called The Weave. Think of it like a super-internet that you carry around in your brain. But, the native aliens on the planet the cast visits are primitive, more traditionally tribal than high-tech future aliens, and must be protected from contamination. So, after getting a narrow glimpse of the high tech future, that door is closed to us and the cast. It sets the stage a little bit. We understand that these people are used to having more than they currently have, and so are a little off-balance.
Off-balance is good in these stories. The resurrection of Sherlock Holmes in pop culture has reminded me how much of a bummer it is to have stories where a super-genius solves everything. Seeing feats of intellect played out is cool and all, but only for a little while. I much prefer seeing people struggle to get to their goal, doing the legwork and knocking on doors and digging ditches. Our cast is 1) on an alien planet 2) without what’s probably their greatest information resource and 3) unfamiliar with the vagaries of the planet. That sounds like a winner to me.
People are dying in this settlement and no one knows why. It’s owned by the Arcana Mining System, and the union sends out investigators to solve the problem and keep things running smoothly. The team isn’t composed of your standard hard-bitten cops and ragged detectives. They’re forensic scientists, culture experts, linguists, and, of course, specialists in special weapons and tactics. That’s a new mix for me, but one that makes sense, considering the setting. Solving crimes isn’t just a brute force job and hasn’t been for years. You need to do more, to consider more angles than just “Someone did something wrong,” to do it right.
This mix, and the setup, is cool. In fact, now I’m wondering where Hine and Braithwaite are going to take the cast. Nothing happens in fiction by accident. No one “just happens to be” anything, ever. Everything has a purpose and a point, and Hine’s too good of a writer to just throw things at us willy-nilly. I keep finding things in the first issue to latch onto and extrapolate plot twists from. A stray warning here, a loaded look there… there’s a secret lurking behind the murder mystery, sure, but there’s also something about the cast that screams trouble. There’s something we can’t see here, and I can’t see it resulting in anything but disaster.
That’s what makes Storm Dogs a good ride. Hine and Braithwaite are talented and they’ve built up a believable world for me to wander around in. They’ve also layered this world with traps and land mines for readers who are fond of speculation or mysteries, and they didn’t even do it in an obvious way. Just in thinking about the book and what I wanted to say about it, I came up with several different theories. They’ve baited the hook and left it sitting there for us, and before I realized it, I had it trapped in my jaws.
I’m obviously not going to let go of this hook until I see where it takes me. If I know Hine and Braithwaite’s work at all, then I know I’m headed somewhere good. It feels good to fall into a comic.