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DC Comics is said to have discovered in the late 1950s that placing a gorilla on the cover, no matter in what context increased sales. I propose an addendum for the digital age: If your comic features an animal that’s larger than it’s supposed to be, it’s going to win awards.
Granted, I only have one point of reference for this highly scientific observation: Mike Norton’s Battlepug. In 2012, Battlepug took home the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic; a year later, it won the Harvey Award for Best Online Work.
Not bad for characters that started life as a T-shirt that Norton designed for iFanboy.com.
The story of Battlepug is told by Moll, a naked, tattooed woman who lounges around a lot, to a pair of talking tiny dogs. While the combination of the seductive and adorable panders a little, a nagging feeling starts to gnaw on you as the story progresses. Questions fill your mind. Why are these three in a tall tower? Why are there no doors? How is food mysteriously appearing here? Why is Moll even telling this story? I know it’s basically a framing device, but as the story progresses you get a feeling that this tale is eventually going to intersect with the one about the oversized dog and the shirtless, sword-wielding barbarian on his back.
Battlepug begins as a goofy stream-of-consciousness tale that feels like the slightly less sugar-addled brother of Axe Cop. By that, I mean it’s plausible that several of the ideas were invented by a 6-year-old and illustrated by someone with artistic chops. I mean, check it out! Giant animals! A warrior Santa with a bunch of elves at his bidding! A magic-wielding little girl with a foul mouth! If all of this were rendered in crayon on a loose-leaf paper, then displayed on a refrigerator door, the medium would be a truer fit for the thematic concepts.
Battlepug starts making sense as elements come together to form a story. Why are there “ridiculous giant animals” everywhere, for example? As explained in a very dialogue-heavy stretch of exposition (by a dude who should probably be called “The Exposition Monk”), it turns out that there’s a villainous beast mage named Catwulf who uses his monsters to destroy villages. And being a beast mage only turns out to be one option for magic. There are three divisions — The Root (plant magic), The Rock (rock magic), and The Claw (beast magic) — and they hold each other in check through what is known as the Balance. Catwulf is on a quest to destroy all other mages and to control all of reality. The Warrior — our nameless beefy guy riding astride the mighty Battlepug — has pledge to stop him. He also seeks revenge: Catwulf was the same villain responsible for the destruction of his village.
Despite all the serious world-building, however, Battlepug isn’t a webcomic to ever be taken seriously. When you get down to it, it’s about a Conan-like guy with a giant sword riding an oversized version of one of the goofiest-looking housepets. I mean, look at that fat belly and those tiny legs! And those silly eyes!
Norton’s art is really fun. Key to the humor, though, is how he takes his action sequences pretty seriously. The fight scenes are genuinely action-packed. His warriors, even the ones who look like Yvette Nicole Brown, look suitably mighty. When their stern demeanors are grimly juxtaposed with large, adorable animals, it never fails to look ridiculous. You have to admire, too, the sense of weight and volume about these immense creatures. Like, you can almost feel the ground shaking underneath them. The absurd humor and visuals reel you in, but the action and the world-building leaves you hungry for more.