A Graphic Novel by Ian Densford
Continuing my delve into the stack of World War I books that I have purchased in the last year, I figured it was time for another comic to decompress since I just finished reading a HUGE book on the Belgian relief effort in 1914. The subject of this review is a book by Dead Reckoning, the comics imprint of The US naval Institute Press, called Trench Dogs. Written and illustrated by Ian Densford, this is somewhat unlike anything I’ve read by this publisher as one could almost characterize this as a horror comic in many ways. Created with war stories the author curated, this book takes a look at the absolute worst parts of “The Great War” all rolled into one fast-paced page-turner.
“Inspired from assorted first-hand accounts, this fictional story of World War I is an anthropomorphic retelling of that global conflict and the soldiers who experienced the horrors of the front lines and high seas. While horse drawn carts and trains were ordinary sights, automobiles, tanks, submarines, and airplanes made their wartime debuts alongside machine guns, poison gas, and flame throwers. While the nightmares of World War I and the aftermath are sometimes forgotten, this book asks the reader to look again and remember the dead, and to weigh their number against those who would choose war. Conceived as a long, continuous camera pan through the trenches and beyond, the reader is soon buried in mud, corpses, and ruin, emerging on the other side with blurred recollections of lost comrades and a nagging sense of pointless destruction. Ian Densford’s graphic watercolors paired with a spattering of onomatopoeic utterings create an unforgiving tale of the ‘war to end all wars.'”
One of the first things that struck me from this book was how realistically the war was depicted here. We see the off juxtaposition of machine guns and horseback cavalry, armored cars and near medieval lance charges, and many weird near anachronisms that often appear on snappy Facebook historical posts. Some people forget that 1914 wasn’t too far from The Victorian era and not everything was modernized yet. Hell, a lot of Western films take place AFTER WWI during the Mexican Border Wars, and that fact is lost on many. You can tell Ian Densford did a lot of research on various “war stories” to feature in his panoramic series of interlocked vignettes. I recognized a few things from a couple of books and even Dan Carlin, so that was pretty cool.
Much in the same way Art Spiegelman used animals as human stand-ins in MAUS, the author has decided to depict different nations as various creatures so that one can easily tell them apart and cause an uncomfortable feeling in the reader. In his own words, “it’s interesting to juxtapose something cute and fun with something horrible and disturbing, and it connects to a motif that runs through all of cartoon history”. We see dogs as Britain, cats as the United States, some sort of bird for France, pigs for Germany, and raccoons for Austria Hungary, just to name a few.
The artwork is chaotic and sometimes hard to read, but once you get rolling with the plot it gets easier and that much more unsettling. This book is pretty brutal, and pulls no punches whatsoever. For Example, I think one of the more shocking scenes in the book was a German gas attack on French soldiers where one man realized his gasmask had a hole in it. Out of desperation, he attacks another soldier and steals his mask only to watch him vomit and gasp for breath at his feet.
For those that read this book, It was cool to see that the author put together a study guide as some sort of citation page or index and posted it for FREE on his website. It’s about twenty pages long and shows where some of the book’s gruesome imagery comes from with side-by-side comparisons. I would have preferred this in IN the book itself, but it’s a cool idea for have extra material available for those that want it.
Overall, this book definitely takes the horrific aspects of the war, ones that that are often overlooked to present tales of heroism that are palatable for the general public, and puts them front and center. Due to its graphic nature, this really is not for everyone, and could upset someone that gets it based on their being animals on the cover (I used to work retail, people due make dumb mistakes like this). The art is interesting, and the book is VERY action-packed. It makes you think about some of the social issues of the time, and paints the war as the most inhumane meat-grinder of it’s time that we should think of it as. Not everyone is a hero here, and it really makes you think about what man is capable of when backed into a corner. This is quite the feat to have such a profound story with nearly no dialogue at all. Trench Dogs is a great World War I book, and should be more well known than it is.
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