Cartoonist Tony Fleecs is probably best known as the artist of My Little Pony comics for IDW, but he’s been steadily building up his writing credentials over the last several years with projects like Tell Them Johnny Wadd Is Here and Time Shopper. His latest book, Stray Dogs, has the potential to be his biggest breakout hit as a writer yet.
Stray Dogs, written by Tony Fleecs and illustrated by Trish Forstner follows a group of canine friends that wouldn’t be out of place in a G-rated movie. But instead of discovering the power of friendship, they use their limited detective skills to uncover that their new owner is, in fact, a serial killer. The Image Comics miniseries balances levity and the macabre seemingly with ease, creating an unpredictable atmosphere that keeps readers on their toes.
Interested to learn how he pulled off something so unlike any other comic I’ve ever read, I was pleased to get to interview Tony Fleecs about Stray Dogs. Read what he had to say about writing animal protagonists, balancing the light and dark moments of the story, and writing for artists with similar sensibilities to his own.
After years of drawing My Little Pony, what drove you to pitch another cute animal comic, albeit one with a more sinister tone?
My Little Pony actually had a lot to do with it. Before I worked on Ponies and for a few years into it even, any idea that I had would be an idea about human people. If it’s a sci-fi idea or a comedy idea or whatever– I never considered anything but humans as the characters in it. But living and breathing Ponies for a few years, I spent literally thousands of hours drawing stories where there were no people at all. And then without me really noticing it, animals started creeping into my new story ideas.
It was great because I’m always trying to do stuff that feels original. It’s a similar conversation people have about representation in stories, I’m not saying this is super important like that is, but the result is the same: As soon as you change the POV from the same old thing to something different, it opens up a million new possibilities. In this case, these dogs are in danger and they’re locked in a house. They can’t just get out– they don’t have fingers. They can’t call the police– they can’t talk to people.
All that is sort of extrapolated from me getting scripts where it says, “Fluttershy sweeps up her kitchen.” and I’d be like– “how? She doesn’t have hands!”
The more important thing that came from MLP though is Trish Forstner, my co-creator and the artist of the book. I met Trish at MLP conventions. She was an artist who would set up and sell Pony fanart and she’d work for the conventions, drawing stuff for the program books and signage and websites and stuff. At that point, she’d done one or two covers for the IDW comics too. Her work was so alive and emotional– she would always tell a story in a single drawing. When I had the idea for this book– I thought of her immediately.
What did you learn from MLP about writing animal protagonists and giving them distinct personalities?
The distinct personalities thing, I kind of already knew. That just comes from me reminding myself to not write every character in my own voice/from my own perspective.
What was different about writing these dogs from writing MLP is, the ponies– for all intents and purposes in the MLP show and the comics– are basically just four-legged people. They read books, they have houses and jobs, they travel all over the world, etc. In Stray Dogs, these dogs are definitely dogs. They only know what they’ve seen or heard and even then, they forget stuff– get distracted by a stick they want to chew on or a hole they want to dig. Their world is very contained. I tried to keep that in mind whenever I wrote them.
Their memories play an important role in the story. Was that in part inspired by Memento and other noir stories that involve amnesia and memory loss?
Not specifically. I was deep into writing this thing before I was like, “Oh shit… Memento.” I know that’s ironic but I can’t remember if it’s regular ironic or Alanis ironic.
The memory thing mostly came from my own dogs. I have a running conversation with them when we go on walks. It’s a one-sided conversation and it’s mostly just me saying, “No. We don’t go in that yard, remember?” And they never remember.
Did more of your dogs’ personalities find their way into the book?
Yeah, they did. There’s a dog that sleeps through the whole book– I had a dog like that. The way they play with stuff, the way they’re loyal, the way they’re easily distracted. All of that.
The thing that I took from them that was the most fun in the plotting of this thing is just that they do stuff unexpectedly. One day my dog just started barking at the washing machine. It wasn’t even running. This isn’t in the comic but imagine you’re sneaking away from a crazed murderer and… for reasons beyond your control, you can’t help but just start barking at a powered down washing machine.
That kind of wild card element is fun to play with.
There’s some dark subject matter, but a lot of the scenes are very cute and wholesome. How do you balance between the two very different tones?
That’s how we intended it– the dark stuff should hopefully seem more frightening if you’re really in love with these characters who are in danger. And people innately love dogs.
As far as balancing the tone, that just comes from setting up the rules of your world. There are all kinds of cartoon animals. There’s Bugs Bunny, who can talk to people and has a house. Then there’s your Rover Dangerfields who can only talk to other animals but still wears a tie and smokes a cigar and play craps. And then you have Bambi, where animals can talk to other animals, can’t talk to humans, and don’t do human stuff. They don’t wear clothes; they don’t use their hooves or paws like hands to pick things up… And in those stories, you can sort of slide from cute and funny to danger a little more smoothly because you’re playing it mostly real. Thumper is hilarious, Flower and Bambi are adorable and Bambi’s mother gets killed all in the same story. (Spoilers. Sorry.)
Those are the rules we’re playing by in Stray Dogs. The Bambi/Balto/Land Before Time rules.
It’s really impressive how seamless the tonal shifts are, which is definitely aided by Trish’s art. Her art is very expressive and can sell very different emotions from one panel to the next. What other ways did you play to her strengths?
Trish Forstner is a master at drawing cartoon emotions. Her training is in animation and when she designs characters, she’ll do just sketches on sketches of: Happy dog, sad dog, embarrassed dog, scared dog, etc etc. And she doesn’t just act with their faces– she acts with their whole body. Posture. What’s their tail doing? How are their ears laying? I’ve been drawing My Little Pony forever but on those, I feel like I’m sometimes constrained to the range of emotions that the TV show created for the characters. Trish is totally unconstrained on this book. And you’re right, she can go from making you laugh to breaking your heart from one panel to the next.
Both Trish and Christian Meesey’s art styles bear a resemblance to yours (at least in my opinion.) Do you naturally gravitate towards working with artists with similar sensibilities to yours?
We’re all cartoony– that’s the kind of thing I’m drawn too, for sure. In both cases, Christian and Trish, I think they’re better than me at the thing that we made. In Trish’s case, she’s just SO zeroed in on how to draw dogs. Like she can just do it. It seems like they just flow right out of her. When we were designing the dogs originally, I sent over a list of the kinds of dogs I was thinking about using and she just immediately started texting me, “Here’s a Chinese Crested. Here’s a Pug, Here’s a Papillon, Poodle, etc.” And they were pretty much perfect.
So I guess I do sort of naturally gravitate towards artists with similar sensibilities– Just as long as they’re also better than me.
What have you learned about comics storytelling writing for other artists?
That’s an interesting one because our process is super collaborative. I’ve had that experience that I heard writers talk about for years where you get to the lettering and realize you don’t need as much because the artist has done all that work for you with the acting & the mood.
Otherwise though, It’s pretty similar to writing for myself– just more descriptive & more conversational. My scripts for myself are more of a shorthand to remind myself what I need to draw. I’d feel like a total psycho writing something like, “Tony, what we’re trying to get across here is…”
I haven’t really done a project where I’m writing a script that I just pass off to an editor and they give it to an artist and we don’t talk. I don’t know if that’s for me. The closest I got to that was 5 pages of an MLP I wrote that Sara Richard drew– but even that, I know her & wrote it for her.
Do you know the direction you want your career to go from here, or is it an ever-shifting target?
The ultimate goal is to just do stuff like this all the time. Create my own stuff and hopefully people dig it enough that I can live off of it. My first goal was just to make comics. And after that it was– get HIRED to make comics. And now that I have that figured out, it’s back to just make comics again. Figure out a way to just make my comics. Tell my stories. Please go buy this one so I can eat these Stray Dogs-funded groceries while I make the next thing. And then Rinse. Repeat.
Follow Tony Fleecs on Twitter @TonyFleecs. The first issue of Stray Dogs arrives in comic shops on February 17.