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Dog Man (review)

Creator: Dav Pilkey

Scholastic, 2016-2023

Usually, when a purportedly serious website such as this one talks about Dog Man, the focus is on its enormous commercial success, and the sheer brilliance in finding and filling a niche with a simple idea. This review has a more profound take on what most parents think is just a silly comic.

Dog Man is a children’s comic written by Dav Pilkey. There are eleven Dog Man volumes, with a twelfth due for publication next year. As the title suggests, the comic is about the adventures of Dog Man, an animorphic dog (with a surprisingly gruesome origin akin to Frankenstein’s monster – a dog’s decapitated head has been stitched onto the body of a deceased police officer).

Unlike his fellow characters, Dog Man cannot talk. Dog Man does however bark and whine. The supporting characters in the title can understand what he is barking – it is only the readers who cannot understand him. We think Dog Man’s dog-like traits would have been diminished if he was depicted as some sort of Scooby-Doo clone. Instead, a dog’s wordless, emotional traits of loyalty and devotion which shine through.

Dog Man has a very metaphysical twist. Two characters from Mr Pilkey’s other best-selling comic entitled Captain Underpants, named George and Harold, are described as Dog Man’s co-creators. George and Harold are irascible elementary school students, writing a comic about what is described as their own creation. A comic within a comic.  “George and Harold have created a new breed of justice—one that is part dog, part man, and ALL HERO!” exclaims a very short promotional blurb on My Pilkey’s website: Dog Man | Dav Pilkey

Dog Man is in law enforcement, and reports to his boss, Chief. Petey is Dog Man’s arch-enemy, at least for the first nine volumes, at which stage Petey reforms. Petey is a large orange cat (who does speak): a cunning thief who before he went straight repeatedly tried to defeat Dog Man using dastardly tactics. These are all surreal, silly, and featuring large dollops of poetic justice: Petey makes a giant vacuum cleaner, knowing dogs are afraid of them, and chases Dog Man with it. Dog Man takes refuge at the beach, only to be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner – along with so much water that the bag splits, releasing Dog Man from his prison. Petey (as a cat) cannot swim, and so is saved by Dog Man and promptly arrested. Schadenfreude is something small children readily understand.

Petey’s reformation is to a very significant extent driven by his desire to be a good father to his young and happy clone, Lil Petey. The story communicates to children that parenting does not come effortlessly. Petey needs to try to be a good dad. And he is plainly a rank amateur at it. But the young readership perceives is that he is trying, and Lil Petey is patient as his (sort of) father tries to navigate an uncertain role.

Dog Man was originally Lil Petey’s guardian, and when Petey comes to take Lil Petey into his custody, Mr Pilkey explains to his readership that no one is happy about how things are turning out. Lil Petey wants to spend time with his dad and with Dog Man. Dog Man is positively miserable. But Petey is Lil Petey’s dad. Eventually Lil Petey communicates his preference, that his custody should be shared. Mr Pilkey empowers his readership to express themselves in issues around joint parenting between adversarial parents.

One of the stories serves a singularly important purpose, which all parents to young children struggle with. When we lose our parents, we grieve. As Mr Pikey explores Petey’s motives, we find out that Petey lost his mother when he was young. Petey initially does not want to talk about his mother with Lil Petey.

And, at the very end of the story, we see Petey quietly visiting his mother’s grave. Your critic’s personal experience is that addressing the inevitability of death with children is very tough. Dog Man introduces death in a quiet way, telling children that it is ok to be angry and upset about the death of a parent.

In our view, Dog Man is not just a distraction for kids. It is an extremely useful tool for gently teaching children about very big issues.