Horrible things happening to cute cartoon critters has become somewhat of a trope, from Happy Tree Friends to Mouse Guard to former Yerf artist Charla Trotman’s Timrous Beastie anthology.  So now add Image Comics’ Stray Dogs to that list. But this title rises above the others due to its outstanding art, which looks like a traditional Disney 2D animation feature in comic format.

Written by Tony Fleecs, with art by Trish Forstner and Tone Rodriguez, This comic is best described as a horror/thriller. Unlike Blacksad (which has superlative art burdened by dreary social commentary) Stray Dogs has no ambition other than to tell a gripping story. Little Pomeranian Sophie is brought into the house of a bachelor who really, really likes dogs, and already has a pack of ten, all of whom eagerly greet the ‘new dog.’

Frightened by all the strange dogs and newness, Sophie is taken under the wing of Rusty, a shepherd mix (?). She gets shown around the house, which includes a locked room where none of the dogs are allowed (Killer the Pug, constantly hungry, adds, “We think that’s where he keeps his treats.”) There’s a big back yard, and the other dogs seem happy and well taken care of. There are a few hints the Master might not be a lover of all animals—the house contains a lot of hunting trophies and guns, but overall it looks like a great place to live.  Sophie doesn’t quite understand her own fear, until the Master gives her a scarf.  The scent of it triggers a flashback of Sophie’s original owner being murdered by him, and she announces to everyone that The Master killed her Lady.

None of the other dogs believe her, especially Earl the old hound, who’s been there the longest. Rusty, probably just humoring her, agrees to help her investigate. Early on it’s made clear to the reader that the Master is indeed a serial killer, who trolls for victims in the dog park and then brings home their dogs after killing the owner. The other dogs gradually begin to believe Sophie as more clues are uncovered that trigger memories in them. Then tangible evidence appears--graves under the porch. As the Master’s activities are revealed over the course of the series, tension ratchets up (issue 4 is particularly horrifying) until the finale in #5.

The central premise of the story is the assumption that dogs don’t really have long-term memories. That means they almost instantly forget witnessing their previous owner being murdered by their present owner, and have no recollection of their earlier lives until the memory is triggered by the scent or sight of something from the past. So all the dogs are like the guy from Memento—unable to retain long-term memories. There are a lot of problems with that, not the least of which are the dogs inexplicably being able to recall things like what happens when you call 911 on the phone (one of the dogs was owned by a firefighter) or even knowing what a grave is.

But suspending disbelief for a while, this is still a highly entertaining, fast-paced story. As mentioned previously, the art is excellent. I was particularly impressed by the superb draftsmanship on the layouts and backgrounds by Tone Rodriguez, and the lively character art by Trish Forstner. All the human characters are portrayed with hidden faces, which reflects a dog’s view of humans as a larger-than life, omnipotent force. The clear, easy-to-follow art is a refreshing change from a lot of modern comics where it’s impossible to tell what’s happening without extended study (and sometimes not even then).

An A+ rating, and fingers crossed the next story arc, Dog Days, will be just as good.