From long-running soap operas to comedy-drama slices of life to daily gag strips, the digital comics scene has exploded over the last decade and readers have never had more options. Feeling overwhelmed?
Jen Overstreet and Joe Stando Guest-columnist Yen Nguyen is here to take you on an expedition through the webcomics wilderness and show you the best specimens in our monthly Deadshirt Webcomics Field Guide.
Successful webcomics seem to be long-running and expansive by definition. The most revered narrative webcomics stay eternally fresh by rotating through an ever-increasing cast of characters and taking us on new adventures at the edge of a meticulously defined world, filling out yet more of the setting we love. Seeing a story unfold as it is drawn page-by-page and seeing the evolution of technique across years of storytelling are some of the greatest things that webcomics have given us as an emerging form. Much praise is heaped upon these titles—and rightfully so—but celebration of the succinct or the complete seems conspicuously absent from popular discourse.
Short stories seem to come and go in a relative blink when set alongside the towering archives of the great webcomic monoliths. Completed stories fade from view as the ones around them just keep going. As such, I’d like to bring attention to a webcomic that is both short (100+ pages in two years) and complete—one that deserves much more love and recognition—because while webcomics have cultivated a set of unique qualities that make the form truly special, there should still be space to discuss and love the webcomics that are merely comics on the web.
Bonne Fête Job Dog by Alexander Swenson is about the anthropomorphic Job Dog, his birthday, and the recent death of his father. Drawn with thick lines and edge-to-edge application of gentle, washed out watercolors, Swenson’s world of animals with human jobs and tangents into storybook whimsy feels like a grown up version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Everything’s a little odd, a little cute, but now concerned with some heavier feelings. That’s not to say that Job Dog is a “dark twist on” anything—the story earns its maturity by communicating the feeling of friendship and love as universal antidotes to sadness and loss.
The thematic concerns of Job Dog match well with Swenson’s character designs and his almost unrestrained impulse to abstract everything. If cute anthropomorphized animals appeal to the kid in us, cute anthropomorphized animals in suits appeal to the adult we are without denying our nostalgia for the child-like or the silly. Job Dog’s birthday is tempered by his father’s death, but that doesn’t prevent its celebration or the therapeutic effects of joy. The comic deftly mixes those feelings of life and mortality, elation and mourning, in dream sequences, flashbacks, and other expressions of the fantastic. Job Dog is adamant that adulthood does not require the cynical abandonment of fantasy. The imagery only gets more vague as our lives get more complicated, but wonder is still a powerful feeling and something we can always reclaim.
Visually, it is obvious that Swenson loves his story and his characters, varying the formal presentation of his work from page-to-page. He frequently dissolves his panel borders or jumps to a splash page to give his wonderful imagination the room it deserves. Job Dog’s morning routine becomes a dense and detailed cross-section of his house. The drive to work quickly falls into an Expressionist landscape. A meal turns into a montage of abstracted and even monstrous dog snouts going at their food like the animals they are. There’s visual inventiveness at every turn.
When Swenson has to fall back on more typical panel layouts, he does so to give us the most information possible, cataloguing every beat of a motion or social interaction. He effectively defines his characters through nice, natural dialogue and subtle behavior that humanize the weirdness of Job Dog’s world. There’s nary a visual ellipsis in sight as Swenson wants us present for every step of Job Dog’s bittersweet birthday.
There is an importance to the creation of things—anything—of life, art, or happiness, in Job Dog. Job Dog works at the St. Henry Crumpler Paper Hat Factory & Children’s Hospital, and several splash pages are devoted to full instructions for making origami. His half-sister, Grunge Puppy, is an artist currently working on a book of cloud pictures. Even the ramen Job Dog cooks at the end is homemade. It raises questions of legacy and the meaning of life but, as with everything else, does so with an optimistic curiosity. As the final theme voiced in dialogue, it ends the story with a fittingly philosophical conclusion and gracefully ties together the story’s through-lines.
And that’s it. A good, modest ending to a short, modest story done with love and care. Swenson has done a bit of work since Job Dog ended in 2013, but it’s still the .com he links to as his main website. I contacted him through his deviantArt (the only social network on which he seems to have a presence) and he told me that he was still trying here and there to get Bonne Fête Job Dog printed. I wish him good luck. Webcomics are fertile ground for voices of astounding quality and remarkable earnestness; here’s to the small dogs among the big ones who have created something all the same.