Raine Dog: Legend of an unfinished comic

Rain Dog: a dog caught in the rain, with its whole trail washed away by the water so it can’t get back home. (Urban Dictionary)


So I don’t talk about it that much, these days, but after Ozy and Millie ended, and before I won the Comic Strip Superstar contest and began the process of developing what would become Phoebe and Her Unicorn, there was Raine Dog. The most maligned thing I’ve ever made.

It had its fans, and still does. People still sometimes tell me they miss it, and ask me if I’m ever going to finish it. The sad answer to that is: no, probably not. It was of a moment in my life, one that’s past now. Also, it went over really poorly with a lot of other people.

It’s still dragged out and mocked in certain corners of the web. The creators of Sandra and Woo, who are apparently fans of everything else I’ve done, called it “the biggest disappointment in webcomics history.” More bluntly, I’ve heard it referred to as “that dogf**ker comic.” Which…is not a correct description of it. But I’ll get to that.

The real seed was the comic Newshounds, by my friend Thomas K. Dye. That comic starred an ensemble cast of (highly anthropomorphized) dogs and cats, whose owner, Lorna, employs them as the staff of a TV station. One day, I asked Thomas, “so, does Lorna pay them?” He said “yes, but as their owner, she’s not obligated to.”

The strip had also revealed, in a flashback sequence, that most of the cast had come close to being euthanized by a shelter. That’s grim, man.

All of that got me thinking. About “pets” in that universe, and in cartoon universes generally. Heathcliff. Scooby Doo. Brian from “Family Guy.” It suddenly seemed weird, and dark, that in cartoons we routinely meet characters who are perfectly sentient, who are basically people, who are owned by other characters. And I wondered why that had never seemed weird before. I wondered about what that said, and what it could be made to say.

And then, one night not long after, I was lying in bed late at night. I was feverish, stoned on cold medicine, and sleeping only fitfully. And I had this idea for a story.

Newshounds takes place in an urban area, an analogue of San Francisco. A liberal place. So I wondered, what is life like outside those enclaves? More conservative for sure. And I imagined up a character, a dog from a rural area who has a happy puppyhood, but outgrows the constraints of that life, runs away, and ends up in an animal shelter, only to be adopted by a liberal city-dweller. In the end she winds up unwittingly at the center of an “animal rights” movement, something akin to any real life civil rights struggle: the fight against race discrimination, or sex discrimination, or anti-gay discrimination.

Or transphobia. You really can’t detach that from the whole thing. This was in the middle/late 2000s, and it’s weird to think about it now, but transgender issues weren’t on anybody’s radar, really. At least, nobody in the mainstream. These days, it’s becoming so mainstream that it’s possible to get called a trend follower for transitioning. That’s surreal to me.

I was in the midst of transitioning at the time, and when I had announced that fact, in 2006, a lot of people reacted as if I’d completely lost my mind. When people thought I was just some white guy, I could shoot my mouth off all I wanted. The moment I declared I was something else, the trolls descended. That was an eye-opener. These days, anyone who thinks they’re tolerant understands that they have to be nice to trans people; that was not true then, and I had a shortage of defenders.

For a few years, the Raine Dog project was sort of theoretical. I did some concept art of the characters, even attempted a sample chapter in which the title character unsuccessfully tries to convince a bunch of cows to escape their stockyard. (A metaphor, and not a very subtle one.) But I was doing Ozy and Millie (and my political comic, I Drew This).

But I always had it in my mind that Raine Dog (a title that was a reference to a Tom Waits song) would make a great graphic novel, some day. I sat on the idea until the beginning of 2009, when I made the decision to end both Ozy and Millie and I Drew This. I had been drawing comics online for a decade at that point. My dreams of syndication had gone unfulfilled, and I decided I’d best give up on them for the time being. I began putting together a portfolio, intending to get work as a children’s book illustrator.

But since I had no comic strip deadlines anymore, I decided it was time to do Raine Dog. It seemed like a way of keeping my work and my name in front of people, which seemed important at the time. I knew it wouldn’t be every Ozy and Millie fan’s cup of tea, but I figured some people would get into it, and those who didn’t were free not to read it. Whatever, right?

I had a publisher tentatively lined up, and Keenspot, which ran my other comics at the time, agreed to run this one too. I cracked my knuckles (metaphorically; I’ve never actually been able to do that) and got to work.

My first mistake was thinking I could do this without planning it out first. I didn’t have an outline, I didn’t do any kind of draft, I just started writing and drawing it. That’s how I had always approached comics before; writing a graphic novel is different enough that it required a different approach, but I didn’t know that at the time. As a result, the pacing is slow; frequently having the title character narrate, turning to the camera and just talking, slows the story down. It would have been stronger if I had just gotten to the point.

I think it was a mistake having the protagonist be too obviously a semi-self-portrait, too. All my protagonists tend to be based on me, because they’re my gateway into the story; Phoebe also looks a lot like me (in entirely different ways). Mainly I just gave Raine similar glasses to mine. And made her a first-person narrator. (Also, “Rain” was a name I had a history of using online.) It made the story read as more self-indulgent than I intended.

The part that drew the most criticism and mockery, though, was one I’m not entirely sure was a mistake. I mean, it seems to have been widely misunderstood, so maybe that’s my fault; or maybe the scene was destined to draw that reaction and shouldn’t have been in the story. If you’ve ever read Raine Dog, you know the chapter: as a puppy, Raine crawls into bed with the boy who owns her. In the morning they almost kiss; his parents walk in, freak out, and take her to get spayed. It’s meant to say something about boundaries and taboos, and to reinforce for Raine that there are lines a dog is not allowed to cross, something that, over the rest of the story, will come up over and over.

The page where they kiss has been posted, out of context, so many times; I most recently saw it today, on twitter (which got me started writing this). People have accused me of advocating bestiality, which is pretty far removed from what I was trying to do. I’ve had to explain many, many times that no one is having sex in that chapter, or trying to. It was supposed to be dramatic and attention-grabbing, even a bit unsettling, but I hoped that at least people would take it within the context of the rest of the story. Plenty of people did. Plenty of people didn’t, too, and they were loud about it.

I got letters. One called me “creepy.” Another told me to “rot in hell, furfag.” I didn’t bother responding to the second person, but I encouraged the first to read the whole thing rather than just making assumptions about one page seen out of context. He did, and afterward he apologized to me. (He still said “you must have included that for shock value.” I didn’t know it was THAT shocking. My bad.)

I guess at the very least, I handled that part inartfully. I do wish people wouldn’t act like that one page was the entire comic. I suppose, given that, including that event in the story, on camera, was a mistake. Whatever.

Frankly, I also think some people reacted differently than they would have if I had not been publicly transitioning, at the time. Fans get attached to a pretty specific idea of who you are and what you do, something I should really have known by then. Dropping the news that I was switching genders (which, again, was more shocking then than it is now) and then plunging ahead with a comic that was very, very different, and easy to misunderstand, probably set me up for a certain amount of “dude, WTF” from fans. I read, in numerous places, that I had gone out of my everloving mind.

I was about a third of the way done in the summer of 2009–I had basically finished act 1, at which point Raine, who has been wandering the wilderness, returns to civilization and is captured by animal control. (Act 2: animal shelter, being rescued, arriving in the city; act 3, accidentally starting a movement.) I wasn’t happy with the work I was doing. It felt…overlong. Directionless. Full of tangents. I became aware that I really should have been working from a solid story outline. (Write that down, kids.) I took some time off to plan out the story going forward.

And that was when someone told me about the Comic Strip Superstar contest, the prizes for which included a contract to develop a syndicated comic strip. I entered, and I won, and you kind of know where that wound up. (That is a very happy story.) For a couple years, when people asked me about it, I would tell them I’d return to it and finish, eventually, and I really did mean to, at least at first.

Because I was unhappy with what I’d done so far, I did, at one point, draw four pages of a rebooted version. The art style is different, there’s no narration, and it opens with Raine speaking at a rally, and being shot. The story, in my mind, always included her surviving an assassination attempt–it was originally going to be a kind of dramatic climax, but I figured why not lead with it and then build back to there? This prompted some witty person to dub her “Martin Woofer King,” which I seriously wish I had thought of. (Hey, I thought of another one. Harvey Milkbone.)

It’s sort of a shame the story will probably, at this point, never get finished. I know there are a bunch of people that will disappoint, because I still get asked, all the time, if I’m going to finish it. I still think it’s a good story. But it’s also a story about themes that were relevant to my life at the time (being lost, realizing the role you’ve been cast in doesn’t describe who you are, etc.) but are more peripheral now. And I think anything I have to say about that now, I want to say more directly–I’m writing a memoir graphic novel, now, and I’m applying a lot of what I learned making 1/3 of Raine Dog. It was an educational experience if nothing else.

Like I said, I have no plans to post the original version anywhere. Not all of it. It has too many flaws and has caused me too many headaches. I might repost parts of it; the chapter about Laika the space dog is still something I’m proud of having written. But I think, for the time being, I prefer that it remain lost.

Actually, I kind of like that there’s this lost Dana Simpson project that people wonder about but relatively few people, at this point, have actually read. It makes me feel all mysterious.

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