The continuing adventures of a teen who’s also a dog, a teen dog, if you will, his best pals Mariella (cool girl) and Sara (quarterback), and his nemeses Maya (the psychic queen of chess) and Thug Pug (a thug who’s a pug). We had big dreams for Teen Dog. Is it as good as we hoped?
Megan: Okay, so Teen Dog isn’t everything I hoped for and more, but it’s a lot of what I hoped for…and more. It’s rad, obviously, not obnoxious, and very of the social now. There’s all the irony, time-warped fashion, and pop culture you’d expect from a comic called Teen Dog that looks, at first glance, like it was inspired by Poochie. And there’s the expected funny. Two for two.
And for a nice bonus? There are no white people in this comic. Maybe one or two in the background. Teen Dog’s grumpy teacher, maybe? Some of his fans? I can say with confidence that there are no white lead characters in this comic. Two of the guys are dogs (yes, actually) and the other is a black football hero. The female lead is a brown girl with pink hair. Platonic friendships and bisexuality are both a-okay. It’s just nice.
Claire: I also felt like there was sort of…less than I expected. I don’t really understand why I expected a more solidified narrative, when it’s clear that Teen Dog is the sort of concept that a lot of cartoonists are going to come up with and only one or two will actually professionally run with, right place right time, and that’s mostly going to run on the radness gimmick. But I was surprised to find the issue’s broken up into one or two-page strips, at times without warning. The reader’s expected to notice in time and avoid confusion on their own, which isn’t exactly unfair, but I wouldn’t call it a great move either.
Megan: The disappointment kicked in the moment I saw that it was going to be a series of strips. Maybe that’s not fair, but I really was hoping that the Teen Dog concept had been developed into a serial with a defined plot, rather than the episodic gags it turned out to be. But after pushing through (the pain), I found myself enjoying them anyway. But with that said, the page design could do so much more for readers. Like you say, the reader is expected to notice immediately that they’re reading a collection of strips and pace themselves accordingly. The titles of the strips are teeny tiny and exiled up in the top left corner. The visual cues could stand to be more apparent to help readers find their pace quicker.
I also have mixed feelings about the art. It’s charming and expressive and the colours are doing all the heavy lifting that inks usually do. It’s tapping the same well that Steven Universe and Bee and Pupppycat do: pretty, cute, and offbeat. But some panels and designs lack depth. Others are so detailed and imaginative that the shift made me glum. I’m not just talking linework—that’s quite consistent. I’m talking backgrounds and colouring. The aesthetic tends toward matte to begin with; the occasional lack of colour depth saps the life out of it.
Claire: I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice that. I’ve only read through each issue once, and I read them all at once, so perhaps that helped? Creating a larger visual continuity that smoothed out the bumps, maybe?
Megan: Same colour on same colour designs, especially during the chess club confrontations between Maya and Teen Dog, bugged me: black on black with tiny tiny white lines to differentiate between hair and cool sunglasses. I don’t know, maybe my eyes are tired! Gimme some shades of gray (fifty or otherwise). And occasional empty skylines — my kingdom for a cloud.
Anyway! Scott Pilgrim. Rate the Scott Pilgriminess of Teen Dog: too influenced? Just influenced enough? Thank all the gods there’s no Scott?
Claire: The name of The Water Temple was a good level of influenced. But there was a bit with a skateboard achievement I think? That made me a little embarrassed. And then I was like, “Oh, Scott Pilgrim, I remember that,” and then I felt strange about having moved on so definitively.
Megan: I’m pretty grateful there weren’t extended video game inspired fight scenes. One donut level up was enough for me. The less Pilgrimish parts were the ones I liked best: the void inside his locker, touching infinity through skin-to-skin contact with Teen Dog, and the friendships. So cute. So uncynical and, I think, devoid of ironic distance? Maybe?
Claire: I didn’t even connect the locker void to Scott Pilgrim at all! Or the infinity touch.
Megan: Yeah, I’m saying that’s why I liked it maybe. Because it was past the Pilgrim thing and doing its own thing.
Claire: Ohhh right right, I thought you meant those were Pilgrimy, but not TOO Pilgrimy.
Megan: I guess they’re Pilgrimy insofar as Pilgrimness is basically ironic pop culture nostalgia soup and MOST of what’s going on in Teen Dog plays into that, but is the void in the locker as much ABOUT pop culture as the skateboarding bits and stuff? It’s more running with ha ha awful locker jokes and doing something interesting with them. It’s like fucking Fraggle Rock in there the first time. Can we say that Teen Dog is at its best when it’s not like Scott Pilgrim?
Claire: Yes, we can.
Claire: I definitely didn’t, because I am allergic to dogs and I haven’t sneezed once today. I think my favourite part of the pop culture idolatry aesthetic in Teen Dog is when they poke at cosmic elements. It doesn’t seem like that should be called “pop culture,” but stick around on Tumblr for ten minutes and you will see: galaxy images. New age crystals and triangles and eyes. Things like that. Shrines made of succulents and marble pyramids (also available to see in: my house). So I would call it pop in almost a more organic way than the Scott Pilgrim school of reference?
Megan: That’s my favourite part too, and that’s a good point—it’s from a different branch of pop culture, but it’s pop culture all the same. The strips are really playful when it comes to time travel and various cosmic esoterica, much less self-consciously so.
Claire: Which is almost being true to Poochie, as a space traveler. Never 4get ur roots, Teen Dog!
Megan: Though it needs to be said: Teen Dog is much less of an asshole than Poochie was. Even given that he’s not warping an established world with kickflips, he’s got all the chill Poochie doesn’t. Is Dark Teen Dog actually Poochie?
Claire: If he is, then I hope this is a reboot, because Poochie dies and that would be sad for Teen Dog’s mother.
Megan: It’s okay, Poochie dies after returning to his home planet, which is super far away. She’d never know—radio waves travel sloooowly in space.
But moving on. Who are your favourite characters? What are your favourite character moments? As much as we’ve talked about how jarring we found the comic’s structure (of short strips) and our mixed feelings about its pop culture references, we haven’t talked much about the actual goings on of Teen Dog, which are pretty cute.
Claire: My favourite character is Thug Pug, which is embarrassing because it feels so obvious, but also nice in that it’s obvious but ALSO TRUE. I feel catered for I guess?
Megan: Thug Pug is great. Great name, great character design, and a great foil for Teen Dog. Like, he’s not just a mean dog bully—he’s a mean dog bully who needs friends and hugs and for someone to laugh at his terrible jokes once in awhile. He needs love. Teen Dog’s love.
I also like Chess Queen Maya, who, along with Sara the football star, are two of the least typical characters in the comic. Or at least, they’re typical characters with interesting twists. First off, they’re both female. The sinister nerd king is now a sinister nerd queen, and the amiable football star is now a girl, who’s totally comfortable “expressing her feminine side” and pushing for sisterhood. On those merits alone they’d be cool, but I really like Jake Lawrence’s approach—this is a comic about the typical American teenage experience, or rather, about the pop culture construction of it, and he’s got all the usual suspects (pizza, mean teachers, petty rebellions, jocks, nerds, etc.), but they’re never quite what you expect. I’ve got “tongue-in-cheek-innocence” floating around head—does that work for you, Claire?
Claire: Yeah, I think it does! And there are never any ~wry nods~ to the unexpectedness of, essentially, the diversity in the characters. It’s not “oh how hilarious and surprising! And, secondarily, nice. That these characters are not obvious cut-outs.” We’re just given a set of people and told what they like and what they’re like. Much more genuine and…artless? Which is quite an achievement, if it’s done on purpose, as Teen Dog is a piece of art.
Megan: I do get the feeling that it’s deliberate. As chill as the comic is, and as off the cuff as some of the gags feel, I don’t think anything in it is off the cuff or artless. The linework is so good, the character designs so clearly designed, that I get the impression the whole thing is deliberate. I mean, I don’t picture Jake Lawrence cooking up these issues in a Teen Dog bunker with turnarounds and plans for world domination tacked up around him, but…he definitely put some thought into this comic.
Claire: Yeah, I’m with you. If comics can let people feel like “of course I can,” then comics should be widely recommended. Like Mariella changing her hair all the time. Sometimes people need to see a hairstyle on a character before they can make it their own! The more we discuss Teen Dog the fonder I feel of it.
Megan: Mariella’s everything is great! I love that she has different hairstyles throughout the comic, not just for fun (but definitely for fun), but also to indicate things like passage of time, leisure versus school Mariella, and other bits of characterization.
Megan: I’m also liking Teen Dog more, the more we talk about it. So Claire, who do you think Teen Dog is for?
Claire: This is a very hard question! I don’t know. I am twenty-eight this year, and I like it a lot; it feels like it speaks to my pop cultural experience. But it’s called “Teen” Dog; is it for teens? It should be, but on the other hand, do teens still hate things that are offered to them directly? Probably a lot do. But on the OTHER hand, “Teen Dog” has the tang of irony about it, which is always enticing. In my LCS, the first issue (I don’t go there as often as I’d like) was shelved with the kids’ comics. My Little Pony, Adventure Time, and other definitively child-friendly titles. But of course, a whole lot of teenagers and adults read these, and these titles have jokes and allusions for the older audience! So, everybody? Or the answer is a mystery.
Megan: I don’t know where Teen Dog is shelved in my local because I haven’t been there in ages. I’m a terrible person. But let’s see…it’s published by BOOM! through their BoomBox imprint, which isn’t aimed specifically at any one age, I don’t think, and the press releases have been kind of ambiguous in terms of audience. I’d say, yeah, everybody. Teen Dog is for everybody who thinks it sounds cool.
Claire: DO YOU THINK IT SOUNDS COOL, READER???