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Dogs and Water
By Anders Nilsen
Published by Drawn and Quarterly; $9.95 USD

A boy wanders through a snowy wasteland in Dogs and Water, a dreamy little fable by the Xeric Awarded Anders Nilsen. Running away from something (we're never told what), a young man (whose name we're never told) walks through a vast expanse. If that sounds a little vague, it is, but the less we know about the details the more surreal and resonant the boy's story becomes. The vagueness with which the story is told imparts every scene and action with a haunting importance, and without it we might not slow down enough to appreciate the meanings and ideas that went into this work.

The boy sets off with nothing but a backpack and a stuffed bear, (it was apparently the bears idea to take the journey) and their only destination is adventure. The bear serves as something for the boy to talk and narrate to, and they occasionally get into arguments, although the bear himself never talks. This allows the boy to discuss his trek in a philosophical and almost mystical way. "Doesn't the whole idea of a journey become sort of meaningless if there's not a sense of destination?" This technique is used a bit in the first half of the book, but in the latter half the ideas are presented more with actions than words.

The sparse, thin lines float on the page without panel borders, and it looks as though the images are emerging from a fog. The backgrounds, which are mostly empty horizons, run into each other, creating the effect of enormous expanse and desolation. The art is as vague as the storytelling, but done with the same intentions of creating symbols rather than reality. Simple yet sketchy, the art looks a bit crude but certain flourishes reveal the extent of Nilsen's ability. There are a few elaborate set pieces, and they are both unexpected and wonderfully drawn. The actual storytelling is very quiet, and appropriately wanders through the story. When the violence/action occurs, its seems removed and distant, even frightening and surreal, which is truer to life than the stylish, fetishized violence seen in most other comic books.

Although it is not directly dealt with, the presence of a war is felt in the story. The boys interactions with the few humans he meets are influenced by this war, and the climactic occurrence rises from the war. The war is an ideal way for Nilsen to further his ruminations on the nature of life and death, and the boy must make an important decision at the end of the book. Dogs and Water portrays war not as series of epic battles nor as genocidal devastation, but as something inescapable that gives our lives meaning through struggle and conflict. Nilsen also deals with the idea of war as the great adventure and how our conflicts provide the ultimate tussle with death.

The entire piece has a very dreamy, unreal quality to it. The nameless, wandering character is as much a staple of dreams as it is of existential literature, and he does have some revelations, at the hands of a pack of dogs and a wounded man. There are many questions posed, and fewer answers given, but they are there to be found if you dig deep enough. Dogs and Water is an ultimately rewarding reading experience -- well worth your time and money.

-- Jef Harmatz



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