Kennel Block Blues, the Weirdest Prison Drama You Didn’t Know You Wanted
Okay, imagine The Shawshank Redemption, except instead of the titular prison, it’s Jackson animal shelter. You with me so far? Alright. And instead of Andy Defresne as played by Tim Robbins, we follow a scrappy Boston terrier named Oliver, and instead of being locked up in the slammer after being convicted of murdering his philandering wife, he’s locked up after he accidentally escapes his home and loving family. Are you on board so far? Good, because that’s the basic premise of Kennel Block Blues, the newest offering from the folks over at Boom! Studios. Kennel Block Blues is a weird mix-em-up mashing together Shawshank Redemption with 101 Dalmatians with a little Bugs Bunny added in for good measure. It’s a batshit insane combo that probably ought to not work, except it somehow — almost inexplicably — does. For the most part, anyway.
Just to give you a quick primer: the story opens as Oliver arrives at Jackson, in the process making friends with a burly pitbul named Cosmo. Oliver seems to be coping well enough in his new digs, with the one exception that he bursts into song every time he’s nervous, a habit he says he picked up from watching Saturday morning cartoons with his family. In short time, Oliver is tossed in the middle of a pending feud with The Cats, the gang that controls the inside, and his roommate, a tough-as-nails chihuahua named Sugar. I can’t believe how ridiculous this sounds when I write it out like this, but trust me, once you get your wheels moving, it’s a lot less obtuse.
The first few pages are a little rough around the edges; the book doesn’t really pick up until halfway through, but once you finish it, you’ll be glad you had. The artwork, bleeding in and out of the bright-hued pastel tints of common cartoons and the rugged dirtiness of contemporary comics, is immediately satisfying. The juxtaposition set between the two is at times startling but always a small wonder to look at. The true pleasure in this established duality, though, is the character designs and how they compare and contrast from each presentation. While Oliver mainly stays the same, in the course of one panel the characters will shift from rabid-eyed canine monsters brandishing shivs to pot-bellied cartoon mutts in overalls waving paintbrushes, depending on whether Oliver his hiding behind his song to shield him from his rough new reality. Artist Daniel Bayliss doesn’t have this concept fully fleshed out, nor does he have its application down to a science, but it is one of the most interesting works-in-progress I’ve seen lately from similar comics.
While the initial strangeness of the premise is enough to get anyone to walk through the door, it’s the intrigue of the plot that’ll keep people in the room. The animal and pet puns scattered throughout the first issue are so blatant and uninteresting that they’re groan-inducing, but once you move past them, you’ll be able to have a lot of fun with the story as it unfolds. The characters all immediately stand out, recognizable against a typical prison motif but made interesting by the choices taken to cast them as animals. Writer Ryan Ferrier (his name, itself, just one consonant away from an animal pun) takes great care to ensure that his characters are accurately represented by the pets they are portrayed as. The weakest part of the comic, by far — the part where the reader’s eyes will wander and get bored — are Oliver’s song. The song escapes all musical rhyme and reason. There’s no immediate cadence to sing along and most of the time, the damn thing doesn’t even rhyme. If you keep your eyes trained on the artistic shifts throughout these bouts, though, you should be okay.