With Veterans Day fresh in our minds, let’s take a minute to give tribute to some heroes who are largely forgotten: the animals who served in war.
In the recently released graphic novel Dogs of War, the stories of three-such dogs are told as they fought alongside the men and women of the U.S. and British armed forces in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. Penned by Sheila Keenan, author of the non-fiction book Animals In the House: A History of Pets and People and illustrated by comics artist Nathan Fox, the three fiction stories in Dogs of War takes the kinship between man and man’s best friend beyond the tropes of Lassie and into three heartwarming and harrowing stories of war and the men (and dogs) who fought it.
Newsarama: How did you two come together to do Dogs of War?
Sheila Keenan: Props go to Phil Falco, Associate Art Director at Scholastic, for this. Phil suggested Nathan for the gig; I was familiar with his excellent work in DMZ and Pigeons from Hell. David Saylor, Creative Director of Scholastic Graphix, my editor, Lisa Sandell, and I all agreed: Nathan was the man.
Nathan Fox: Phil is the man. He pitched the idea of working on the book after we met and once I read a working draft of Sheila’s script I knew I was hooked and down for the project. Phil brought me into Scholastic and the rest is history.
Nrama: How many stories are in Dogs Of War, and through what eras do they take place?
Keenan: There are three stories in this volume of Dogs of War:
- “Boots” takes place December 1914, during World War I in the midst of an unofficial Christmas truce between opposing armies in the trenches. The protagonist is a young British medic’s aide and his “mercy” dog.
- “Loki” is a World War II canine search-and-rescue story, but with an unusual location: a U.S. Army Air Force base in Greenland, Spring 1942.
- “Sheba” juxtaposes a young soldier’s tour on K-9 scout patrol in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 with his life when he’s “back in the world”—a trailer park in North Carolina, where he begrudgingly interacts with the boy next door and his unruly puppy.
Nrama: I know this will be like asking your parent to pick a favorite child, but if you can pick out one story and tell us about it in-depth?
Keenan: The Vietnam War was the messy, controversial war of my youth, which I guess makes me feel closest to the “Sheba” story. While many dogs that served in World War II were demobilized, most of the K-9s of Vietnam, who had saved thousands of lives, were officially classified as equipment and left behind when their soldier-handlers rotated out and then when the war ended. Gut-wrenching for these young grunts who were already returning home to a nation in wild upheaval over Vietnam. To me, this was so symbolic of the war and it’s what inspired Sheba.
“Sheba” is narrated by Henry, a young African-American kid who just moved to a trailer park in North Carolina in the summer of 1968. Henry’s bored and lonely until his working mother brings him a puppy to keep him company. Meanwhile, in what had seemed like an empty trailer next door, somebody’s now having some mighty loud nightmares. Henry’s rambunctious dog, Bouncer, brings the boy into crash collision with the guy making the nocturnal noise: Lanford, a young African-American soldier back from Vietnam . . . well, sort of back.
In slow, halting steps Henry and Lanford form a bond over Bouncer. Lanford gruffly offers Henry a few dog training tips. And the vet can’t help playing with Bouncer a bit now and then. But Henry quickly senses he’s got to tread lightly around this guy and no real breakthrough happens until Bouncer charges into Lanford’s trailer with Henry in pursuit.
The trailer is covered with drawings — of helicopters, soldiers, jungles, and a beautiful German shepherd… all Lanford’s, all sketched in Vietnam. Henry’s innocent question about what he’s seeing instantly devolves into an argument, which ends with Lanford angrily asking Henry if he’s ever been spit on and the boy quietly answering yes. (Panels show both incidents: Lanford is spit on when he first arrives back in a U.S. airport; Henry by a white kid at a water fountain.) Anger and pain just brought them a little closer.
The rest of the story of Lanford’s tour in Vietnam with Sheba his beloved scout dog, and with his best buddy Hado, unfolds through flashbacks that segue seamlessly from Lanford’s interaction with Henry and Bouncer and also through the vet slowly opening up as he shares his sketchbook with the boy. And Henry is struggling, too. He’s a young kid living with only his mother and trying to learn how to “converse man to man”; he “looks into this Vietnam thing” to help him figure out why Lanford’s so bad-tempered and then grapples with what it means to “be friends with someone who might have killed somebody.”
Meanwhile, the crisis of Lanford’s nightmares and flashbacks remains unresolved, he never gets to the end of that one patrol . . . until one night he does. And, of course, Bouncer and Henry play a role. No spoilers on the ending, but like the war itself, it’s complicated.
Fox: Oh, man. I have to pick?!... Well, if Sheila snagged “Sheba,” I’ll have to take “Loki.” I loved working on “Boots” as well, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the P-38 among other things…will have to go with “Loki.”
Nrama: Dogs Of War isn’t some poetic Lassie trope, I read you really get into the war aspect and down in the trenches – literally with in at least one story. Can you tell us about telling these realistic and sometimes bloody stories without going over the edge?
Keenan: Well, I know I went over the edge at one point! Reading, watching, listening to all war, all the time, researching for more than a year became pretty grim, especially when you see patterns from one war to another. (Just this summer, I picked up a book at a local book sale about the last letters of military men and women killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—sadly, I had the exact same book, right down to look, layout, and heartbreakingly youthful photos . . . about the Vietnam War.)
I definitely had a “who needs another book about war?” moment in the midst of writing Dogs of War; but what kept me going is the need to understand and creatively discuss what happens to people at war. What’s lost? What’s really won? Who survives and at what cost? What’s it like to look through the crosshairs and be in the crosshairs? Now think about figuring all that out with a beloved dog at your side, a completely loyal, dependent animal who didn’t ask to be there and has absolutely no idea what the fighting is all about, who is your protector, but also in the same danger as you. I thought that relationship was a good set-up for exploring questions about courage and conflict.
Dogs are social creatures like ourselves and we often treat them as quasi-human. They’re super-intuitive and highly responsive to verbal, visual, and emotional cues from us. Plus dogs can hear and smell hundreds of times better than we can—they’re walking sense-o-meters. All of this makes a dog an interesting character to work with, one that readers will really respond to on a deep emotional level. Plus we’re always the head of the pack and we’re responsible for our dogs, it’s part of the bond. The soldier-handlers in Dogs of War feel this very keenly; it’s this relationship between a young man and his dog that lets me work through some of the harsh and terrible realities of war in ways that kids can understand, empathize with, and weigh the consequences of.
Fox: Art wise, I did a bit of the same research and reference gathering, but probably not to the extent Sheila did in writing the book. There was a lot more reference and approximate if not exact location, uniform and image research on my end. I have a lot of research books, documentaries, YouTube videos, and image collections/contact sheets I made for production. To not go overboard on a ton of details, especially working in brush I took a bit of liberties with the uniforms and exact details for each story in an attempt to focus on the story and not have it feel or read overly researched. The liberties I took hopefully read as subtle (if not just flat out non-existent) when reading the work, but still holds true for each story, their time and place in history, and now our based on historical fact graphic novel.
As for going overboard on the war/blood and gore aspect we made a wholehearted effort to tone it down a bit without hiding anything from the viewer. It is war and what that entails and requires carries its own weight and baggage that we hopefully present as poignant and visually engaging to what actually happened. On my end it was really hard to draw some of these scenes, not just as an artist trying to not go full on war/blood and guts, but on an equally thought out emotional level. There are a few heavy realities in the book still. My hope is that we brought what happened to light and presented it respectfully and in such a way that the reader is impacted and informed as well as engaged and entertained (without being hit over the head with violence, academia or being preachy—these are stories about war and as a non-military civilian, I hope we did the men, wars, efforts, and service justice in the process respectfully).
Nrama: Some might expect this to lean too far into the whimsical or over to the academic side of this. How would you describe your approach to these stories?
Keenan: In a word: careful. Throughout the process I was well aware that I was a civilian writing about battle, a female author creating military men and boy characters, some from different cultures and race than mine, and a self-identified pacifist exploring the nature of war. I did my homework on the history of each war and the life experiences of the soldiers who fought them in order to create the three fictional stories in Dogs of War. I’m honored that two of the authors who kindly gave blurbs to the book, Walter Dean Myers, author of Invasion, and our award-winning National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and Trent Reedy, author of Words in the Dust, were both also military men and felt I got it right.
I had outlined the three stories in Dogs of War when I sent the initial book proposal to Scholastic, so I had a good idea of where I wanted to go with each one. Dogs of War itself was inspired by a found photograph. One day, I was killing time at the elevator, thumbing through an old Life magazine on the recycling pile in the hall. I came across this amazing photo of a French messenger dog in WWI. Wow! Dogs? Who knew? And how they’d get this dog to do that? I was hooked.
I read history books, memoirs, novels, and dog training manuals. I watched war movies and documentaries and read fascinating veterans’ diaries and blogs. (In an Author’s Note at the back of my book, I give a brief overview of the history of dogs at war.)
While I was researching and before I started writing each story, I looked at photos of individual dogs and soldiers from a given war. I printed out the ones I found most compelling and hung those photos up around my office. Sometimes I’d just stare into the eyes of the soldiers or wonder what it would be like to pet the dog in the picture. Then I’d start thinking about names, I can’t really get a fix on my characters until they have names, especially the dogs. Sometimes I’d look at the photos and call them by name out loud, see if it sounded right. Once that all clicked, I could start writing.
For me, a story really unfolds as I write it; for example, I had read that British soldiers in WWI received Christmas tins from Princess Mary, which inspired the resolution of a scene with a shell-shocked soldier. I also read about what happens in the Arctic if something as small as a keyhole isn’t covered in a storm, which gave me another great couple of panels of character development in the World War II story. The whole conceit of having the soldier in the Vietnam story also be an artist came as I was figuring out how to present his tour of ’Nam as more than just a traditional flashback.
Dogs of War is my first graphic novel. In my other life as an editor, I’ve had the pleasure of working with extraordinary artists on wonderful graphic novels, which is good training for writing your own. Still, it’s hard! As a wordsmith, you have to be ever watchful for over-writing or asking for more panels than could ever fit on a page. (I still remember looking over Nathan’s shoulder at my comments on a sketch page where he had scribbled “Seriously?”—and he was so right!) But I feel Nathan brilliantly captured the stories I saw in my head as I was writing and transformed them in all the right places. He’s so spot-on when it comes to the compositions of each panel and page and his powerful artwork makes the characters feel so genuine, the landscapes look so amazing, and gives the dogs such personality! (And thanks also to Rico Renzi and Guy Major for cool coloring and John Green for clear lettering, and of course, Lisa Sandell’s fine editing and Phil Falco’s great book design.)
Nrama: Although these stories are fictional, you two seem very intent on making it as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Nathan, how’d you go about doing that from the art side of things?
Fox: On the visual side of that question, though they are not based on true stories specifically, I did manage to find a lot of personal photos online when published books and visuals were hard to find or locate with any clarity. Some accounts and descriptions for visuals I executed came from documentaries and books without visuals, but others came from found visual documentation from sources like Life magazine, veteran blogs, copyright free image sites, and history books. I collected and researched for each story, put it all up in front of me or on my desk, near the pages, and let the work and my imagination do all the rest. But at the core of it all, the story, script and soldiers/dogs remained king.
Nrama: Last question – are you two dog people? Do you own dogs?
Keenan: I’m really interested in the intersection of people and other species and as a result have researched and written about dogs and other animals in two previous books: a nonfiction work, Animals in the House: A History of Pets and People and a picture book, As the Crow Flies and I’m working on another about a whale. I’ve also got ideas for a second volume of Dogs of War, so we’ll see where that goes.
Meanwhile, I pretty much stop to pet dogs everywhere; I’m a sucker for any mutt taller than a Chihuahua (not counting Pit Bulls and Rottweilers). Alas, none of them are mine… but if we ever move out of the Big Apple, I’m getting a dog, two cats, and a goat.
Fox: I grew up with dogs, cats, birds, lizards, fish, guinea pigs, and a gecko (sisters). The dogs were among my favorites. So this book was a great opportunity to get back to those memories in a way. As a kid I literally grew up with a collie named Stormy. My parents got him when I was born and he was more of a member of the family than a pet. I used to ride him like horse and he took more than his share of youthful play and abuse. Loving and protective to say the least. We had a few other dogs along the way as I got older but Stormy was hands down my favorite.
Now living and working in New York City and dogless for many, many years, we now happily have “Mr. Truffles Nemo” (I have two small girls. They chipped in equally naming him and there you have it.) Mr. T is a Bisha-poo and the only other man in the house. (Good to have a companion in a house full of strong women and personalities.) It’s great to have a dog again.
I’ve always loved German Shepherds too. If we ever move out of NYC, maybe Mr. T, the ladies, and I will look into getting one.
Illustration(s) from Dogs of War copyright 2013 written by Sheila Keenan, illustration by Nathan Fox. Used with permission from Graphix/Scholastic.