Alex Graham’s comic series, Dog Biscuits, began in June of 2020 and ended in January of 2021 as an online comic borne out of the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In summer 2020, Graham found herself doodling away inside the empty restaurant where she worked.
With Charles Bukowski’s 1975 Factotum fresh on her mind, Graham drew six boxes and a dog biscuits bakery in the first panel. After 20-minutes of drawing, Graham had the first six panels of what would become Dog Biscuits. She took pictures of the page and uploaded them to her Instagram account, which had been idle for a while until then.
To Graham’s surprise, the response to that first installment of her Instagram comic was met with enthusiasm and praise by her followers. It caught the attention and encouragement of cartoonist Simon Hanselmann. Dog Biscuits’ spontaneous birth in the midst of the pandemic continued to riff on that same spontaneous energy. As Graham put it in our conversation, she “was totally improvising for the first quarter of the story.”
In those early moments of Dog Biscuits’ life, Graham was not considering what would happen in the next post and only thinking about each story when she began to draw. Eventually, a story emerged in her mind as the comic progressed and the characters took on lives of their own. She described these moments as “flashes” of the story’s future, and in some ways, the comic began “writing itself”. Furloughed from her job for a second time during the pandemic, Dog Biscuits became her full-time endeavor.
Dog Biscuits tells the story of a love triangle between characters Rosie, Gussy, and Hissy, and unfolds over the course of just a few days. The title of the comic refers to the dog biscuit bakery that Gussy owns and Rosie works at in Seattle. Hissy, a child of a Hollywood celebrity and roommate of Rosie’s, acts as a wrench in the romantic plans Rosie and Gussy have for each other, despite their considerable age gap and their employer-employee relationship. Over the course of the story, we see the characters negotiate their attractions and love for one another under lockdown and amidst the racial justice protests in Seattle.
Graham’s first comic was not Dog Biscuits, self-published in book format this year, but another self-published comic called Angloid (2018), which draws heavily from Graham’s personal life. This auto-biographical quality persists in Dog Biscuits. Dating an older man, living in Seattle, the effects of COVID-19 socially and personally, and dealing with customer service were all generated by her past and present, which endows the comic with a level of verisimilitude that we sometimes get, yet rarely expect from comics—especially ones featuring anthropomorphic characters. The story takes place over just a few days, but if you read the comic during its initial release on Instagram in real-time, the story’s temporal aspects feel elongated, as if the story is taking place over months.
However, reading it in its physical format as a “graphic novel” brings into relief the short time frame in which Dog Biscuits unfolds. The story’s complex emotional, psychological, and social dynamics give it layers and a sense of density that can make the temporal contours feel longer than they are. Each page of the comic has six panels, which represent one Instagram post. The comic is not overly verbose, yet at times we get extended monologues that do much of the story’s heavy lifting in terms of character development. There’s a regularity and consistent cadence to Dog Biscuits that’s evocative of the daily newspaper strips. This cadence is underscored by the fact that Graham never breaks away from the six-panel page structure and, in doing so, creates a reading experience that is fluid and fast-moving. The preface of the comic calls this its “episodic rhythm”.
Despite the narrative organically surfacing after working on the comic for months, Graham eventually found herself in a position where she considered ending the comic altogether based on comments that were beginning to appear on her Instagram post. These comments attacked both the characters of Dog Biscuits and Graham herself. The harsh judgment that some of Graham’s readership leveled against the characters began to affect the trajectory of Dog Biscuits‘ story in a way that led to scenes in which the comic indicts seemingly “woke” gender dynamics and social media culture.
Graham noticed an unforgiving tone and attitude towards some of the male characters, notably Gussy, for having what she called “normal human emotions”. In response, she began to invert characters’ decisions in unplanned ways. She intentionally began having Rosie—the main female character at the center of a love triangle involving males characters Gussy and Hissy—act questionably. Where Gussy was condemned for some of his actions in the early portions of Dog Biscuits, Graham found Rosie was praised and cheered on by a part of her readership for behaving in similar ways.
Graham’s efforts to engage her readers through the comic’s narrative were provocative; it held a mirror up to them. Put differently, there’s a level of interaction and dialogue conducive to how Dog Biscuits unfolds and ends. Some of the most striking moments of the comic’s narrative are when characters ruminate on their decisions and the effects they have on people. This introspection leads characters to change and develop for the better.
Dog Biscuits does a lot to reassert that people are complicated and that moral development is an ongoing process without offering narrative commentary or judgment on them and their decisions. The omission of a narrator places readers in a position that demands a negotiation of the plot and story world that seems more immersive or perhaps authentic; it also opens up the text to a level of relatability. There’s no narrator to guide us when Rosie or Gussy make problematic choices, and we begin to think we understand and know them.
The ending seems underwhelming since it lacks a climax. It also leaves some things unresolved. However, the conclusion may speak to the overall ethic and the most powerful thrust of the story: its substantiation of the nature of human development in all its messiness and complication. How else should a tale about poor decisions, good faith, forgiveness, and love end if not with opening possibilities for new beginnings?
The art in Dog Biscuits is where the comic truly shines. It highlights the nature of the medium in its plainest terms: it reinstates that the word “comic” actually means “funny”. The images of characters are cartooned in a way that belies their complexity. They are seemingly two-dimensional and flatly drawn in simple lines. However, Graham’s figuration does a lot of work in evoking the subtleties of bodily gestures and facial expressions. I found myself often laughing at how faces were drawn, particularly Rosie’s, as she reacted to awkward and humorous situations.
Character’s eyes pop out of their heads when they are staring. Other times, eyes take on hypnotic swirls during sex, underscoring the libidinal energy’s power over our brains and ways of seeing. Cops’ faces are drawn phallically. Insufferable self-important bakery customers are presented as human (the only non-anthropomorphic characters except Sklur) and White. These aesthetics work in tandem to produce hilarity and abjection of things that plague Millennials like Rosie.
Dog Biscuits is a foundational text of what we can call pandemic comics, COVID comics, or quarantine comics. Dog Biscuits—diegetically speaking—intersects with social justice issues, “woke” culture, social media, gender dynamics, ambivalence, and the complications of making mistakes. It reads strangely familiar in its most vital moments. Yet, it may be overburden at times with spiraling monologues that advance character development while also seeming cumbersome, rather than parsed out.
The comic hooked me early in my reading because it’s funny and relatable, and I kept reading it because I needed to know where it was headed. Despite feeling underwhelmed by the ending, Dog Biscuits works in that it carries forth an ethos that suggests that the comic, like people, are unending projects of moral, psychological, and cultural development and that we would all be better off recognizing that in each other.