Buy This Book: Jake Lawrence’s ‘Teen Dog’ #1 [Review]
Here's the thing about reviewing Teen Dog, the new comic from cartoonist Jake Lawrence: Doing so is almost completely unnecessary. Not only is it one of those beautiful high concept books where the entire premise is summed up in the title, but let's be honest here. If you are the kind of person who doesn't already want to buy a comic called "Teen Dog," then I doubt there's anything anyone could say that would make you change your mind. You already know, deep in your heart of hearts, whether Teen Dog is for you.
That said, if you are the kind of person who's going to pick up Teen Dog when it hits comic shop shelves this week, you are in for a treat, because it is every bit as radical as the title makes it sound.
Even before its release, Teen Dog is already being compared to its Boom! Box sister title Lumberjanes, and I actually think there's something to that. It's not that the books are actually alike at all in terms of subject matter; Lumberjanes is about a group of friends at summer camp investigating strange, mystical happenings and triumphing through the power of friendship, while Teen Dog is about a teen dog. It's not even about how the books look, although there are certain similarities in the art that make them feel like they belong together on the shelf. Instead, I think it's about the feeling.
The thing that Lumberjanes and Teen Dog have going for them is that they're both books where there really isn't anything else like them out on the stands today. For Teen Dog, that all comes down to how well Lawrence blends the idea of this weird concept of a talking dog with a denm vest and occasional flashes of cosmic awareness and subtle, slice-of-life style comedy. I'll be the first to admit that the latter isn't really my thing, but when you combine it with the former, it seems to be exactly my jam. Especially when it involves skateboards.
As you may already be aware, I'm something of a fan of the art of thrashing.
Structurally, Teen Dog #1 (of eight, although I can only imagine that a limited series will leave us with so many unanswered questions about Teen Dog and his world) is built as a series of vignettes. It feels like the print version of a webcomic, to the point where I actually had to go and check to make sure that it wasn't while I was reading. Rather than focusing on a single throughline, it puts the focus on more character-based humor, sometimes getting to the point of just flat-out saying "this is this character's name and what their role is."
So just who are we introduced to? Well, there's Teen Dog, of course, who is essentially Poochie from The Simpsons taken 100% seriously, right down to the skateboard and the perpetual shades, worn in what I can only assume is sheer defiance of Tantamount High School's dress code. (Quick sidenote: I once asked why they wouldn't let us wear sunglasses in school when I was in the seventh grade and the actual answer I got from a teacher was that they would make us think we were "too cool for school.")
Alongside Teen Dog is his best friend Mariella, a punk with an undercut and a heart of gold, friendly jock Sara Sato: Star Quarterback, grumpy history teacher Mr. McGuffin, Jennifer the nerd, Jim, and Thug Pug, Teen Dog's scruffy rival. Incidentally, out of everyone in the book, it's Thug Pug who might actually have the lock on being the Sensational Character Find of 2014, if only for his frustrated graffiti art and his frantic disbelief of Teen Dog's chillness.
Really, though, it's your standard cast of teenage archetypes that you could find in virtually any story set in school. Other than, you know, the part where one of them is a talking humanoid dog, but I imagine that goes without saying. In the same way that the introductions are blunt, the character archetypes are too, with an intentional callback to '90s sitcoms, a quick shorthand that lets you know exactly where we're all standing here. It's a very easy thing to get into, because most of the work in understanding these dynamics has already been done.
And that's not really a bad thing. It works very well here, partly because it moves things along as fast as they can go so that you never really have time to wonder exactly why there's a dog wearing pants and attending a (mostly human) high school, and partly because it's all just really well-done. The weird thing is that while I wouldn't hesitate for a second to call this book funny, there aren't actually a whole lot of jokes. More often than not, the punchlines either land before the end of the strip, leading to the comic book equivalent of an awkward pause, or they hit with a sort of intentional anti-comedy.
The end result is that more than anything else, the whole thing reminds me of reading Azumanga Daioh. And again, that's not something I've ever really said about another comic. Even Kiyohiko Azuma's own later work, Yotsuba&!, isn't actually much like Azumanga, but Teen Dog captures that weird quirkiness and character driven humor better than anything else I can think of. And much like Azumanga, it's a book where the characters are so immediately engaging that I want to read more immediately.
At the top of the review, I mentioned that this is exactly the book that you think it's going to be based on the title, but the flipside to that is that it's also exactly the book that you want it to be, too. It's clever, fun, weird and interesting, and while it feels like a retro throwback in parts, it feels like a retro throwback in a way that couldn't possibly be more 2014. It's a fantastic new start and the kind of comic we really need more of -- and by that I specifically mean comics about skateboards -- but fair warning: It's going to make you want a pizza, too.
Assuming you don't want a pizza all the time already, I mean.
Teen Dog #1 goes on sale this week from finer comics shops and digitally from ComiXology.