Pug is a seemingly simple and straightforward story, made thoroughly compelling by wonderful writing by Derek McCulloch and dexterous artwork by Greg Espinoza that obliterates any clichés that seem to exist in the story.
The plot of Pug seems like something we’ve seen many times before. On the surface Pug is the familiar story of a boxer on his way up in the ranks who is paid to throw a fight by a gangster. But familiar stories sometimes are the most interesting because they allow the creators to make old ideas seem fresh. Familiarity allows creators to breathe life into characters who seem on the surface like clichés. In fact, the familiarity of a plot can often help a skillful writer to find the space to tell more interesting stories. There’s less need for scene-setting, so more attention can be paid to character beats and to the kinds of small twists and turns that help to make a story memorable.
Also making this story memorable is that McCulloch and Espinoza tell their story in a unique format. Their story unfolds in a way that echoes the pattern of a boxing match: three pages tell the story of Mahoney’s life in an indistinct ’50s or ’60s small city, while the alternating page tells the story of the evening that changed the pug’s life.
This distinctive format gives McCulloch and Espinoza’s story a unique sort of rhythm. The segments are “rounds” and “rest periods” that do an intriguing job of keeping the reader deeply involved in the story while also giving the story an interesting sort of cadence – there’s a kind of relentless drumbeat to the pattern of pages in this book that reinforces and makes inevitable the eventual fate of our protagonist.
I really found myself caught up in the life of boxer Jake Mahoney and his complicated sense of morality. Jake makes bad choices in his life, but the choices don’t compromise his strong sense of his inner humanity. Mahoney has an inner moral compass, a compass that seems even more important to the boxer after his retirement and he has to face the consequences of his mistakes.
He’s a fighter through and through, but not all his fights are physical. Jake’s strongest battles are with his own inner demons. Some of the most compelling scenes in this book come when Jake is spending time with his sweetheart, stripper “Kitten KaBoodle” or with his son Andy.
“Kitten”, a.k.a. Grace Louise Tinker, is a special woman. She’s loving towards her beloved Jake, but Jake seems to always feel he doesn’t deserve a partner as wonderful as her. He’s troubled by a deep sense of inferiority and self-loathing that prevent him from deeply engaging with the woman who loves him. Grace is studying to become a real estate agent and move away from stripping, and striving for a better life. She literally tries to put Jake into a state of grace, which he resists with all his considerable might.
Jake seems to never feel worthy of Grace’s love and attention; as he says, “I know you think I’m someone you can fix up, like an old house. I’m not. You can paint the walls and patch the roof and I’m still gonna be a busted down pug who had his chance and blew it. The Darlinger fight? Half the world thinks I took a dive, the other half thinks I couldn’t stand up. Either way… I’m a loser. You need something better.”
Those lines should give you a sense of the complexity of the story that McCulloch and Espinoza tell. The thrown fight has destroyed Jake’s life on several levels, but the most important way that his life is destroyed is in Jake’s lack of self-worth. The most painful aspect of the book for a reader is the realization that when Jack stops thinking, he proves himself to be a man who deserves respect. Jack has a clear and distinct sense of morality. He’s an admirable man. who can’t bring himself to be cruel to children and war veterans, and round 15 shows the ultimate triumph and tragedy of Jake’s moral sensibility.
It all seems so straightforward on the surface, but the more you go below the surface, the more you realize that there’s a lot of interesting subtext in the story.
That’s why Greg Espinoza is a good choice for artist on this book. His style seems very straightforward at first glance. It’s not flashy, but it tells the story well, and the more you look at the work, the more you see the kinds of small details that give this book its power.
There’s the elegant way that Jake’s face ages from scene to scene, and the way that the gangsters’ eyes are hidden beneath their glasses. There’s the charmingly innocent excitement of youth, and the utter squalor of the life of the inveterate gambler. Not to mention that the boxing scenes are exciting to follow. The artwork emphasizes the drama of the story in subtle but interesting ways that make the story much more compelling.
I found myself deeply engrossed in the rather sad life that Jake Mahoney made for himself. Life isn’t easy for Jake. It’s very hard. And it’s fascinating watching Jake struggle through his life. This is one pug who I enjoyed watching fight for fifteen rounds.
Pug ships in June and is available in the current Diamond Comics catalog.