Dog Man has been kicked off the force … and who's this mysterious, slightly slobbery cat here to replace him? Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame has returned with another installment of his Dog Man comic series in Dog Man: Grime and Punishment.
Written and Illustrated by Dav Pilkey
Colors by Jose Garibaldi and Aaron Polk (color flats) Published by Scholastic/Graphix
'Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
For long time readers of the Captain Underpants and Dog Man series, Dog Man: Grime and Punishment will be a familiar and delightful continuation of Pilkey's long-running universe. Even if you're new, though, and looking for a light and breezy read or trying to find something for the younger readers in your life, Dog Man: Grime and Punishment will offer as enthusiastic welcome to you as the titular hero does to all he meets.
Dog Man: Grime and Punishment is aimed towards earlier readers in grades 2-4 and it's a top-tier example of how to use the medium to create graphic novels that are accessible and encouraging for kids. The panel layouts are straightforward and every page is easy to follow, with bold, large lettering that will help avoid putting too much strain on developing eyes (as it did with my fully developed and very near-sighted ones). The framing device of the slightly older, middle school-aged Harold and George as the creators of the comic is perfect, giving Pilkey room to give the books a slightly more challenging vocabulary that is clearly explained through context clues in the dialogue and panel artwork.
The hands-on elements are fun as well -- though I had trouble wrapping my brain around the mechanics of the two-page flip-o-rama sequences at first, where Pilkey diagrams where readers can put their hands to allow them to flip a page quickly for an animated/flip-book effect. It's a fun concept though, and laid out in a way that would probably be straightforward and much more effective for the intended readers. There are notes explaining specific influences or references for particular scenes and delightful instructions for drawing some of the stars of the book, and it's very clear Pilkey wants kids to both feel comfortable reading, and especially reading graphic novels, and encourage them to pursue creative endeavors on their own.
This energy is part of what makes Dog Man: Grime and Punishment a delight to read. From the design to the dialogue to the backmatter, Dog Man is crafted to be a fun experience for young readers without patronizing them. The straightforward character designs are easy to emulate, and Pilkey and colorist Jose Garibaldi deliver eye-popping sequences of action and outlandish comedy that show off what the medium can offer to aspiring creators. Amidst the backdrop of the absurdity of Harold and George's premise, Pilkey guides readers through tough topics - the death of a loved one, and how to navigate your feelings about someone who harmed you.
The latter is particularly moving here. In Petey, Lil Petey, and their Grampa, Pilkey explores the ramifications of an emotionally abusive family member and attempting to escape perpetuating that cycle of abuse. It's easy for children's media to center on the lesson that if you ignore or you're kind enough to people who hurt you, it will work out for the best, or if you can get the upper hand on them, they'll leave you alone. Explorations of these themes often get hung up on the idea of taking the moral high ground - being better than the person who's hurting you, or that you should love them enough to help them overcome the things they've done. Dog Man: Grime and Punishment offers a gentle alternative: it's okay to not like people who have hurt you, and forgiveness can be more about giving yourself permission to disengage from them than it is about absolving someone of the harm they've caused.
It's weighty material for anybody, particularly kids, and Pilkey threads it through the entire book and wraps it up in a way that still feels tonally consistent with the rest of the narrative. Dog Man is about friendship, fun, and doing the right thing in a very silly world, and part of that is doing the right thing to keep yourself safe and healthy in tough circumstances. Sometimes that means accepting that you don't know how to like or love somebody you're supposed to and choosing to direct that energy into caring for the people you do like instead. Though Dog Man: Grime and Punishment is a young reader book, there's plenty of lessons for older readers to learn here as well.