If you have elementary school aged kids at home, you’ve probably heard of Dog Man. Heck, if you’re a comic book fan, you’ve probably heard of Dog Man. The series, written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, currently has nine graphic novels (ten if you count the recently released Cat Kid Comic Club) with over 30 million copies in print in 38 different languages and a film adaptation on the way. It’s a worldwide phenomenon and for good reason.
At first you might look at Dog Man and think “This counts?” The artwork is pretty basic, but that’s by design. It’s a little meta in its origin as Dog Man is a comic book from George and Harold, the two main characters in the Captain Underpants novels, also written by Pilkey. You’ll quickly realize that not only does it count, but this is some of the most imaginative comics out there.
I’ve read all of the Dog Man books twice (once with each kid) and I have to say, it’s a fascinating journey. My kids love it because the adventures are fun and silly, but I’m getting a lot out of it too. The series explores some great topics like non-traditional families, redemption, and death. What struck me though was that the title character is not really the protagonist. Sure, he’s on the cover of every book, but the story isn’t really about Dog Man; it’s about Petey the cat.
You might think that this has to be about Dog Man. He’s the name in lights, isn’t he? Well, you’ll probably come into the series to read the adventures of a cop with the head of a dog (which is a whole other kind of body horror in and of itself), but he doesn’t really change as a character. Dog Man in book one is the same in book nine, Grime and Punishment. He might be a little more restrained about chasing balls or rolling around in dead fish, but he’s still the same excitable Dog Man.
In the first Dog Man graphic novel, Petey is the villain. He tries to take over the world and gets stopped by the canine-headed cop. Through the course of the series, Petey sees the error of his ways and starts to change, although he’d stop short of calling himself a “good guy.” This is mostly attributed to Lil’ Petey, a clone he makes to help in his crimes only to come out as a child. Lil’ Petey represents the purity he once had before the world turned him evil. It causes him to stop and reflect.
Over the course of the nine graphic novels, Petey grows and changes as a character. He learns to not only pay for the crimes he’s committed, but how he can make the world a better place. Again, much of this can be traced back to Lil’ Petey who constantly asks his papa “Why?” Why is he so angry? Why can’t he forgive? Why does he do these things? After getting exasperated with all the questions (something every parent can relate to), Petey finally realizes that he doesn’t have a reason for any of those evil deeds.
This is where the series really shines. In the same comics where buildings can come to life or a tiny alligator and gorilla can brainwash a cat into thinking he’s a super hero, you have these sage scenes of a father and son reflecting on the world and realizing things aren’t that bad. It’s beautiful.
Since the Dog Man comics are “written” by George and Harold, it says a lot about growing up as they have matured a bit over the course of the series. This is shown in some of the titles for the books and chapters referencing classic literature that they’re digging into in their higher grades. It’s a way for them to make sense of these stories as well as some of the things that might be happening to them in life, or in turn, what other kids in the real world are going through.
Pilkey presents these deep and meaningful thoughts through the eyes of Lil’ Petey, so everyone from any age can not only understand them, but appreciate them. A great example of this comes in the latest book, Grime and Punishment, where we learn about Petey’s mother. Her death was certainly a pivotal moment in Petey’s life, helping to set him down the path he was on, yet by sharing her life with Lil’ Petey, he’s able to appreciate it more and show how her memory lives on in both of them. Death is a hard thing to talk about with kids, yet this shows it in such a simple way that anyone can not only understand it, but appreciate it for what it means as part of life.
Petey becomes the unsung hero of Dog Man, not just in his actions, but in how we’re all rooting for him. He’s not a dastardly villain. He’s a guy that has been dealt a bad hand in life and he’s learning how to make the best of it, especially now that he’s a parent. As this is a series geared towards kids and parents will most likely be reading it with their children, this is a powerful theme.
It’s teaching kids that they should always try to do good, even if they’re angry or upset about something. There’s no good reason to be evil. Meanwhile, for parents, it’s a reminder that your kids are these innocent little sponges, soaking up anything around them, but especially everything you say and do. It’s easy to get frustrated and yell sometimes, just like Petey does when Lil’ Petey asks “Why?” for the millionth time, however realizing that the kid is asking that because they want to learn from you makes all the difference.
While Dog Man is certainly a book that kids can read on their own, I strongly encourage you to read them with your children. They are fun and silly, yet meaningful so it’s no wonder they’re so popular. If you stick with the series, you’ll witness Petey’s compelling journey, which features more growth and change than we’ve seen from decades of super hero comics.