Creator Ben Towles toes (no pun) a very tight line with Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat. How do you do a graphic novel about war animals in 2021? If I had to guess the target audience—like professionally, which is an odd flex for me but Animals is excellent for reluctant readers—but the target audience it’s ten-year-old boys who think both dogs, bugs, and war is cool. They’re not sure about books yet.
Towles does twelve stories, eleven chapters, plus the prologue and epilogue (which is where Towles goes so hard he took the air out of me and, wow, great job). The prologue’s about fireflies in the First World War. He’s going to do specific animals, general animals, then catalogs of particular animals. Cats on boats is an adorable one, ditto mascots, and a few of the others. But he establishes a few things right away in the opener about a Civil War dog named “Jack.”
First, and here’s one of the things you wouldn’t have seen twenty years ago—the Rebels suck. The strip is about a jackass Confederate secret agent who gets traded for a dog. One of the more endearing and hopefully historically accurate aspects of Animals is when humans appreciate the animals. It hits hardest in “Satan,” a dog at Verdun, but it’s present in a number of the stories.
Because after the cute cat chapter, Towle does a whole thing about the U.S. Navy and its shitty secret experiments on dolphins because they’re so intelligent. The other time the U.S. Army seems super shitty—Towle’s only vague chauvinist moment is D-Day, which is fine—is during the mine-detecting rats. Towle juxtaposes grunts in the Vietnam War against little kids going to school in the modern-day.
If the dog in Verdun was where I started tearing up, the rat chapter close to broke me. It’s such a good juxtaposition, so effectively done, contrasting fear and freedom. All with accompanying accurate, non-jingoistic narration. Towle’s narration is only ever effusive about the animals and the “positives” in the situations. The dolphin chapter, for example, at least has people trying to stop the Navy from abusing the dolphins.
Some of the chapters are more obviously affecting than others. There’s a great, mostly context-free Iranian bear adopted by Polish troops helping them fight Iraqis during World War II story. Towle emphasizes a lot of movement and timing—cartooning stuff—and leaves the history to the end. The least is the seagull chapter, only because it’s more trivia than even the trivia ones. The British navy trained gulls to spot submerged boats. Good bird art, but it’s slighter stuff.
The best bird art is on the last chapter, the carrier pigeon one. Something about the way the carrier pigeon interacts with its environment Towle gives it more agency and purpose. It’s the most exciting story.
So then the epilogue, which gut-punches the idea of exciting war, comes as a bit of a surprise. Only it shouldn’t be one. Not if Towle’s last quarter of stories hadn’t been so much lighter (relatively) than the rest of Animals.
It’s an excellent comic; accessible, even, and exquisite.