Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wanting More Out of Wild Dog

Like any number of grown-up comicbook fans, I was introduced to the medium as a kid through my dad. Though I didn't become a "serious collector" until college (by which I mean I started using bags, boards, and longboxes), when I was younger one of my favorite things to do was dig through my dad's old comics in their boxes in the garage. Often this was so I could create homemade action figures by cutting out individual characters and gluing them to cardboard, but sometimes it was actually for reading. Though there were plenty of stray issues to explore from a variety of titles, he also had decent runs of Grell's Green Arrow, old Batman and Detective Comics issues from the late 80's (like from "Year One" on), and a sizable pile of Action Comics Weekly. Earlier this year, in full-on "serious collector" mode, I finally went through all of his old boxes again, this time deciding which of his comics I wanted to permanently inherit. The Action Comics Weekly issues all made the cut, but more because they were in order and had very few gaps than because of any enthusiastic interest I had. They looked like they'd be fun reads, and I'm always game for an anthology series, but I wasn't excited to dive into them for any particular reason.
     In the months that followed I gradually made my way through ACW #'s 601-623 (#601 was the first issue to make the change from monthly to weekly), and it was pretty much what I expected. Unspectacular stories told with strange pacing due to their eight-page-per-week limit (or fewer, in some cases) but still with a lot of fun ideas, cool characters, and talented creators involved. Nothing that wowed me, but lots of sturdy comicbook superheroism.
     There was one character, though, who stood out to me for several reasons. Firstly, unlike any of the other characters or teams, I'd never heard of him before. He was seemingly unpowered, just a guy with some guns and rage issues doling out justice vigilante-style. And it was apparent that this character had been established in a series of his own, a series I very much wanted to read, because I saw a lot of potential in the cast and concepts involved, but in the limited spacing of ACW, it all felt rushed. And maybe a little diluted. Of course, I'm talking about Wild Dog, and once I'd completed my ACW reading, I set out to find the original four-issue mini-series that marked his creation. It was not difficult.
     Written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Terry Beatty, Wild Dog has some strong ideas and artwork, but ultimately falls just as short of its potential as the ACW stories did. The elevator pitch for the series might go something like: A slightly higher-tech Punisher, but operating in small-town middle America, and with a secret identity. Though it's not the world's most original idea, there's some definite room for compelling, fresh storytelling there, particularly when you get into the details of it. The story revolves around the sudden appearance and subsequent search for the true identity of this violent, masked crime fighter (or, more accurately, terrorism fighter). There are four possibilities presented for the man behind the hockey mask, all of whom are close friends and teammates from college, and still living and working in the Quad Cities where they went to school. There's a cop, a journalist, a spy (he claims to work for the "Internal Security Agency" but it's heavily implied that what that means is the CIA), and an auto mechanic who, as the least obvious choice, of course ends up being Wild Dog. In theory, the title character's three best friends all having motives and means to "out" him should heighten the tension and emotional weight of the narrative. But what happens instead is that this aspect of the story is shunted to the side in favor of over-emphasizing the setting and, more than anything, the excessive violence. These kinds of poor choices in focus, as well as similar missteps when it comes to pacing and structure, plague this title from start to finish.
     For three issues, Wild Dog is a non-character. We don't know who he is at first, and even when the clues point to everyday auto mechanic Jack Wheeler, we have no way of understanding his motivations, and therefore no reason to sympathize with or root for him. Each issue, a group of homegrown terrorists makes some kind of misguided attack, and Wild Dog always shows up to single-handedly defeat them despite their impressive arsenal and overbearing numbers. These battles are always well-drawn by Beatty, very clear and well-choreographed and cinematic, but the trade off is that they take up a lot of page space, meaning any real plot or character development has to wait for the violence to subside. And watching a "hero" with no background, no story, no real character at all continually whomp on his enemies with little difficulty becomes very boring very quickly. If Wild Dog's history was given to us earlier, or just more seamlessly woven into all the gun-blazing action somehow, it'd be easier to get invested in these fights. But Collins holds off on even definitively naming Wheeler as Wild Dog until the final issue, at which point we get a rushed info dump of an origin story, followed by an abrupt and anticlimactic conclusion to the series. Wheeler's story itself actually could've been interesting and hard-hitting, had it been handled differently. As a marine, he watched terrorists kill the rest of his squad, and when he came home from the war he fell in love with a girl who turned out to secretly be the daughter of a mob boss. A fact Jack only discovers after she's gunned down in the street in front of him. Now, had I gotten to actually spend some time seeing their relationship, maybe her murder would've had an impact on me. Also seeing Wheeler as a marine, watching him deal with losing his friends in the present tense and not through flashbacks narrated by his friends---yes, someone else tells his story for him, and they're not even talking to him about being Wild Dog, just rehashing their old friend's life story despite the fact that they already know it so why the hell would they even have this conversation but whatever I'm getting sidetracked---might very well have allowed me to understand and perhaps even support the violent hatred of terrorism that drives him to start taking justice into his own hands. As it stands, the structure of the series makes Wild Dog seem as much an out-of-control maniac as any of the people he fights against, if not more so, until the poorly-paced fourth issue offers a halfhearted and overly-expository explanation as to why I'm meant to see him as a hero. It's too little and far too late.
     There's a lot of telling instead of showing throughout the series, not just when it comes to Wild Dog's origin. We keep getting told that police lieutenant Andy Flint, one of Wheeler's friends and another of the men suspected of being Wild Dog, absolutely hates terrorists for his own reasons, but he never does or says anything to support this. And the supposedly deep, long-established friendships between all four of the Wild Dog candidates is discussed very matter-of-factly by all of them, but doesn't actually show in their interactions with one another. I see no obvious love, respect, or even concern between these characters. They speak whatever lines are required of them to fill the time before the combat commences, and are then ignored while Wild Dog kicks ass, takes names, and is generally unstoppable. So it's not just the titular hero, but in fact the majority of the cast who're weak and two-dimensional (or one-dimensional), with very little in the way of personal details to make me care about or even distinguish between them. Maybe if the book was longer or the cast was smaller or the violence was taken down a notch, Collins would've had the room to make everyone into a fully-realized human being. But now they're not even archetypes, they're just empty paper figures, puppets with little or no personality going through the motions of the featherweight story that surrounds them.
     Look, it's not, strictly speaking, a bad comicbook. It's not without any redeeming qualities. There's a very strong argument to be made that all it wants to be is a wham-bam action romp, a sort of anti-terrorist propaganda story with no need for the kinds of personal, emotional depth I'm looking for. If that's the lens you use to view it, Wild Dog is a definite triumph. As I said, Beatty's art is consistently easy to understand, and he can draw the hell out of a good gun fight or brutal, fatal hand-to-hand brawl. And while Collins' script is lacking in the areas of character and structure, he writes convincingly self-deluded and fanatical terrorists, spitting out half-meaningless rhetoric about change and tearing down the old ways as an excuse to blow shit up and shoot people. So as hard as it is to get behind the good guy, the villains are easy to hate right away. I fully acknowledge that what I want is a completely different book, a series that prioritizes my way and emphasizes entirely different aspects of the narrative. Perhaps that's unfair, but it is what it is. I went into Wild Dog excited to get the full story behind the only character to pique my interest in a 23-issue run of Action Comics Weekly, and I still had to slog through three full issues of shoot-em-ups and awkward dialogue to get it, at which point is was delivered in the least satisfying fashion possible.What I thought was a watered-down version of the character in ACW turned out to be exactly the same as the guy from the eponymous series, because despite the massive increase in total pages, Wild Dog is no fuller a story. It was a frustrating and disappointing read, and though deep down I still think there is a ton of potential in some of the foundational ideas, it's hard for me to imagine a world where I ever get the Wild Dog I was hoping for. 25 years later and he's still a character no one else has ever bothered to revisit in any significant way. And why would they? So little is offered in this initial four-issue mini or the ACW short stories that follow, I'm not surprised that the character hasn't inspired other creators to try their hand. What we're left with is a strange, saddening failure from 1980's DC that no one seems to miss and was barely ever there to begin with.

1 comment:

  1. I remember seeing this comic but never reading an issue of it. Great character design. I'm a sucker for costumes that look like a normal dude could put it together.