To many animal lovers, there’s not much difference between an animal shelter and a prison. That’s a concept that’s on full display in writer Ryan Ferrier and artist Daniel Bayliss’s Kennel Block Blues, a comic book that takes the funny animal genre and turns it into a prison drama.
But along with the inherent darkness of prison life, Kennel Block Blues will explore main character Oliver’s coping mechanism – a device that turns the entire cellblock into a cartoon, complete with musical numbers.
Newsarama spoke to Ferrier and Bayliss ahead of the book’s February 2016 release, exploring the unique device at the heart of Kennel Block Blues, and learning exactly why anthropomorphic animals are the best characters to explore such potentially dark subject matter.
Newsarama: Ryan, Daniel, what can you tell us about Kennel Block Blues?
Ryan Ferrier: Kennel Block Blues is a story that’s very close to my heart for a number of reasons. On the surface, it’s a classic survival-escape adventure set in Jackson Kennel, which is inhabited solely by animals. The story centers on Oliver, who enters the first issue as the “fresh fish” and soon realizes just what he’s in store for on the inside. Along the way he’ll meet friends, enemies, and will have to go down some really dark paths. But it’s also a story that examines the horrific realities—and cruel similarities—that exist in real-life animal shelters and our vastly broken prison systems. At its heart (of which we think there is a lot) it’s an exploration of love and loss; when something is taken away from us, or we are removed from the most pure of emotions.
It’s not at all completely dark though, it’s actually quite the opposite. Kennel Block Blues is so much fun, and we’re diving head-first into so many little adventures, with bright, bold characters. Daniel, colorist Adam Metcalfe, letterer Colin Bell, and our editors Eric Harburn and Mary Gumport and I are all pushing this book as far as we possibly can. We’re really pulling all the stops in every way to make the most visually stunning, hilarious, character-soaked book we’ve ever made. We want you to feel the love that’s going to this book, and the love that inspired it.
Daniel Bayliss: I think Kennel Block Blues is more than it appears at first glance, what Ryan did here is quite amazing! Readers will be surprised at the many layers and emotions this story deals with, so I’m sure people will love it too. But there is this other element Ryan added to the story that it’s so awesome and that I think is what make this book so unique.
Nrama: The lead character is a dog named Oliver. What’s he like?
Ferrier: Oliver is the sweetest, friendliest, happiest dog you’ll ever meet. So naturally we’re putting him (and others) through absolute hell. His heart is pure, and he’s completely undeserving of his situation (as most are). But there’s a lot going on with Oliver. He’s a very complicated, very afflicted soul. What you will learn immediately in issue #1 is that Oliver has a very unique way of seeing the world, and a very distinct filter that he channels his emotions through. We will quite literally see the world through his eyes frequently throughout the story, and we’re transported into a Fleischer Brothers, Disney-styled cartoon. Take the wildest parts of a Betty Boop cartoon and mix it in with classic Disney, then toss in a handful of acid and caffeine, and you might come close to living in Oliver’s head for a day. Suffice to say, Oliver is in the one place he’s least prepared for, and it will change every cell in him.
Bayliss: Oliver is such a good hearted guy and came in so innocent to Jackson that some times it’s just down painfully sad to see the other characters give him the stink eye.
Nrama: And what’s Jackson Kennel like?
Ferrier: Jackson Kennel is more prison than animal shelter, but the comparison and depiction is apt. Prison - and shelters - are absolutely nightmarish, and we’re keeping that element of reality. Jackson itself is ever-present and looming, and becomes its own character. Daniel’s incredible design of the prison itself is equally beautiful and horrific. And it’s logically sound—throughout the book, we explore all parts of the prison, and that is something that is very important to give a sense of understanding to the audience. How things work, where things are, where our characters are; these elements tie into the politics and the landscape of life inside Jackson. This isn’t a paint-by-numbers prison at all; we’re calculating its every bone. Daniel has to moonlight as an architect, he’s brilliant.
Bayliss: Yeah, no joke, we had to go through actual architectonical prison plans, all to make Jackson Kennel the perfect hell for its inmates. As Ryan said, the approach to Jackson Kennel is more of a prison rather than a animal shelter, this opens up lots of options to play with, or should I said better to mess with poor Oliver’s soul.
Nrama: Is there a face, a character, behind Oliver’s incarceration?
Ferrier: Without answering that too plainly, we learn very early how Oliver got to Jackson, and that fuels his journey from that moment on. But, like most of the inmates inside, we don’t tackle too much of the why. It’s irrelevant, and just like in reality, the punishment often does not fit the crime by a long-shot. Most of the inmates in Jackson are there simply because of who they are, and the conditions of a broken system that keeps forcing them back. But things on the inside are much, much worse, and the real meat of the characters’ journeys is what they do once the doors slam shut.
Nrama: Who else is involved in the story?
Ferrier: The wonderful thing about the microcosm of Jackson is the array of characters we’re weaving into the world. There are distinct factions, if you will, but there are also uneasy alliances and betrayals, and everything in-between. Kennel Block Blues touches distinctly on the age-old feud between cats and dogs, but we’re not stopping quite there. In the forefront of the cast, is Sugar, a “rough and tumble” chihuahua who’s vying for the undeclared alpha dog spot. She’s a huge, huge part of this story, and her story is just as important as Oliver’s. On the flip-side is Pickles the cat and his band of felines, who have a stronghold on Jackson and will do anything to keep it in their claws. We’re also really excited about a group of inmates who exist outside the prison politics—they’re the misfits of Jackson, whom Oliver finds himself gravitating towards. They’re a quirky bunch and include one of my favorite characters, Fluppers, the former-test-lab-rabbit-turned-inmate.
Bayliss: The misfits are just the best! Such a lovely bunch of rejects. There’s also Cosmo, a muscled pit-bull who’s processed into Jackson as the same time as Oliver, and although he’s a little embarrassed at Oliver’s way to cope with prison, he kind of looks after him.
Nrama: The announcement pitched this as a prison drama, but then mentioned “a musical number”. Is this a cover of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Cop Rock,” or something else?
Ferrier: This is something totally different, and I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like it. It is certainly part musical, and not in a tonal way—in a very genuine way. When we experience Jackson through Oliver’s unique filter, that “cartoon-vision” kicks in and suddenly we’re in this outrageous, fantasy-turned-nightmare, and a big element of that is in song. There is a lot of singing involved, and a heavy lyrical aspect to Oliver’s means of coping.
Bayliss: That’s what I love about this book! I mean, Ryan is writing songs for every issue! That’s insane, I love it! That’s the kind of thing that just inspires you as an artist. Funny thing is, most of the time I find myself reading the script and trying to figure out the melody to Oliver’s song.
Nrama: Many anthropomorphic stories get the looks of animals down, but is anything being put into allude to any animal’s tendencies or actions without going too off-base?
Ferrier: We’re definitely never straying from the fact that our cast is entirely animal. That is inherent to their characters and their journeys, and plays a huge role in how we’re developing them. And Daniel is just bringing these animals to life in such a brilliant way, that the fact they are anthropomorphic doesn’t take away their species. We’re having a total blast playing around with their distinct personalities and tendencies. But at the same time, we want each character and their story to be totally relatable on a human level. It’s a delicate act, but I couldn’t be happier with how we’re all bringing everyone to life.
Bayliss: Yes it is a balance thing, you have to be careful. You want the reader to relate to the emotional and the fun moments, so a little bending on the ears of a dog or the back hair standing on a cat can help so much on the expressiveness of an anthropomorphic character. An anthropomorphic dog scratching his crotch—funny, but maybe awkward, right?
Nrama: What does doing this prison story anthropomorphically instead of with humans do for you both, as a writer and an artist?
Ferrier: I’ve always had an affinity for non-human characters, from writing D4VE to all the way back when I did Tiger Lawyer. Maybe it’s the luxury of having a completely clean slate to give life to the “lifeless” and connecting emotion and humanity to them in a big way. I do think there’s a charm to writing non-human characters that attracts me to them. Specifically with Kennel Block Blues, having them as animals is part of the story’s DNA, and crucial to the themes we’re exploring. For me personally, the love we can possess for animals is one of the most profound, inexplicable emotions ever—how can we possibly articulate that love to something that can’t quite comprehend it, or can’t communicate it back? I suppose, in a way, we write comics about it.
Bayliss: As an artist, I try to put as much expression and emotion as with any other kind of character. That part is just the goal of any artist. But I have to admit at first it’s a bit challenging when you’re figuring out how to work a certain face gesticulation on a non-human face, but once you crack the code in your mind it becomes easier, and what at first looked like a challenge becomes a major asset graphically.
Nrama: I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but this storyline also touches on the ethics of putting animals to sleep in shelters. Am I going too deep here, or can you talk about it?
Ferrier: Not too deep at all, and you’re quite right. We’re killing animals at a shocking rate, just as we’re killing humans at a shocking rate. But beyond that, we’re imprisoning living, breathing animals and humans in utter violations of ethics and rights. I can’t go two days without shedding a tear for what’s happening in our world just outside our doorsteps. When we’re talking specifically about shelters, there’s a huge disconnect in our minds—a total lack of sympathy, of empathy—that allows some truly nightmarish stuff to continue on a day-to-day basis. I’m also a big, huge softy, and I adore what animals do for our lives, and the vast helplessness and reliance they have on us.