Thursday, March 11, 2021

Forgotten Comics: Mad Dogs

Mad Dogs #1 - #3 (Eclipse Comics, Feb - April 1992)
Writer: Chuck Dixon
Artist: Victor Toppi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An Assistant District Attorney tasks a burned-out detective on the verge of suicide with assembling an off-the-books task force of violent, former law enforcement officers to go outside the rules to make cases against the city's most dangerous criminals. Their first target is a brutal drug lord who is seeking to expand his operation beyond Chinatown by crushing and coopting rival Jamaican gangs and through alliances with the Mafia.

"Mad Dogs" by Victor Toppi

"Mad Dogs" is a brutal, bloody cop story where the line between the heroes and villains is razor thin and the moral high ground upon which the heroes of our story stand is only inches above the cesspool that the drug dealers, murderers, and gangsters they are taking on wallow. The tone and pacing is very much like the gritty Italian and American cop dramas of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, it feels far more cinematic it its execution than most modern comics, despite the fact that many of those feel more like they're made up of storyboards than comic book panels and pages.

Writer Chuck Dixon takes a "show, don't tell" approach to almost every aspect of "Mad Dogs" as it unfolds across three action-and story-packed issues. The first issue is spent mostly introducing the soon-to-be team of former cops through flashbacks that reveal the violent incidents that got them cashiered and closes with an introduction of their soon-to-be target that illustrates exactly how vile he is. The dialog is well-crafted and, although sparse, gives each character a distinct voice. If you take the as the homage to "grindhouse" cop flicks that it is--and therefore accept the reality that governs those kinds of movies--this is an excellently done story. Heck, the script here would have made a better movie than most of the films it emulates.

Artist Victor Toppi has a style that very effectively captures the decaying urban landscape that "Mad Dogs" takes place in. He also great with action scenes, and he understands how to guide the reader's eye on a comics page with character positioning and panel layouts. He also fully understands how to use shadow and light when working in a pure pen-and-ink medium, and he is the perfect artist for the black-and-white presentation of this book. Unfortunately, Toppi is not good with faces; whenever he attempts to draw a face that isn't showing a neutral or a batshit-crazy enraged expression, he can't pull it off. When the situation calls for a character to be laughing or smiling, more often than not, the facial expression seems closer to blind, top-of-the-lungs screaming rage. It seems that Toppi is aware of this weakness and he tries to hide it with heavy shadows on the faces that are supposed to be smiling or showing amusement... which just makes them look creepy or maniacal. Over all though, the work here is excellent and it reminds me of the black-and-white comics I grew up reading while living in Europe. (Toppi was, near as I can determine, an Argentinian who worked extensively for Italian and British publishers during the late 1970s and well into the 1980s. "Mad Dogs" was his final published work before he passed away in 1992.)

Mad Dogs cover by Victor Toppi

According to the house ads in "Mad Dogs" #3, this series was the pilot project for several other mini-series that were going to take their cues from the "grindhouse"-type action movies and that would also be published in black-and-white. I find it interesting that Eclipse Comics would decide to start producing black-and-white materials at a time when other publishers were abandoning the format--Eclipse had been producing color books when black-and-whites were all the rage among the independent publishers. Personally, I prefer black-and-white comics over most color ones (which is partly why the NUELOW Games comics/rpg products are what they are), so I would have loved to see more high-quality b/w titles, but the follow-up titles never materialized: Eclipse ceased publishing in 1993 and were formally out of business by 1995.

Although "Mad Dogs" has its flaws, it's impressive due to the way it captures the pacing and tone--and the brutality--of the gritty cop dramas that were coming out of low-budget production houses in Italy and the United States during the 1970s and 1980. The series has never been reprinted in a collected edition.

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