The Bad Thing is a comic about a dog who feels morally conflicted over killing birds
“I found the image of a dog attempting to apologise to a dead bird both a bit tragic and, from the perspective of the bird, so ridiculously hollow and coming far too late.”
- Liz Gorny
- 3 January 2023
Illustrator Maisie Cowell isn’t one for drawing hard and fast lines between the good guys and the bad ones. In her comics – of which, we have seen a few and gotten a taste for her tragic-comic stories – people lash out, manipulate others and get themselves stuck into ruts. But they often want more too; gripped by existential dread, characters try to reach for new ways of being or doing things, albeit clumsily. “I like characters that you aren’t sure whether to root for or not, or whether you should feel sorry for them or not,” the London-based comic artist describes. In Maisie’s world, these characters often happen to be animals. In the case of The Bad Thing, we meet a dog who can’t stop killing birds – and he feels really really guilty about it.
Maisie is also hilarious. So, the best way to start with The Bad Thing, unusually, is at the back page, where you’ll find a “terrible apology (from a dog to a dead bird)”, written by the artist. (An excerpt reads: “anyway, I really hope we can move past this, but you can be rest assured in the knowledge that I am so extremely sorry.”) The comic then opens on the story of a dog who has killed again. He proceeds to slip deep into a moral crisis – “I was really interested in exploring guilt and shame in the narrative”, says Maisie. Haunted by the faces of deceased pigeons and with only the family of goldfish to confide in, the dog plans his getaway, to live “the life [he’s] always longed for”.
It’s easy to read the comic as a detective-gone-bad noir or psychological thriller – though, trade out the dog for a middle-aged man and we get a very different story. This air of melancholy, grimy streets and a punch of humour, can be traced back to some of Maisie’s influences. There’s elements of the absurd à la Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse in there, for example. Maisie adds: “There's a 1999 animated short by Jim Trainor called The Bats which left a huge impression on me when I first saw it a few years ago.” She explains: “The film followed a young bat describing his upbringing in a cave with his family – it has this really deadpan narration that describes life from an animal perspective, which at times feels shocking and deeply sad.”
We experience The Bad Thing through a mesh of “oppressive landscapes” – “I wanted the book to feel like it was sort of closing in on itself,” Maisie says – but also through a haze of lighter Riso textures. Get obsessive about the comics (like we did) and you’ll also spot real-life photographs in some of the cells, showing men holding up freshly caught trout in frames throughout the dog’s family home. “I’ve always kind of loved and been a bit fascinated by the photos that men take posing with fish that they have killed, it always seemed like such a morbid thing to me, and I think I liked the idea of contrasting that with the dog agonising over his misdeed.”
The Bad Thing has a lot going for it, but at its core, it’s really simple. It’s about universal stuff like right and wrong and bad apologies. “I feel like everyone has had this kind of experience at some point – a really half-hearted apology after the fact, or someone trying to shift the blame onto you as they apologise.”
GalleryMaisie Cowell: The Bad Thing (Copyright © Maisie Cowell, 2022)
Maisie Cowell: The Bad Thing (Copyright © Maisie Cowell, 2022)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.