When I mentioned I’d be revisiting Stargazing Dog, the most prominent response I got was “are you feeling too good about life?” Slice of life stories tend to present reality in the harshest way possible, effectively presenting the antithesis of sugar coating. Characters’ suffering is generally quite real, and they never seem to benefit from dramatic interventions, because that’s just not how life works most of the time. To say Stargazing Dog is about human suffering would be the wrong way to view this story. Although reading this comic is like being pepper sprayed, then handed onion-laced tissues to mop the tears up, you’re not left with a sense of overwhelming loss or hopelessness. The story is sad, but veiled beneath that mountain of sadness is an undeniable message of hope and optimism.
To get to that hope and optimism it takes a bit of digging through Daddy’s (the main character who is never given a proper name) situation. An average man, with an average job, and an average family, Daddy lives life day by day, taking everything in just like a responsible family man should. The scope of his vision at this stage is particularly narrow: Daddy is content with living a simple life, and even admits his apprehensions around shaking things up. But this easygoing, simple persona is just a cover. Daddy has dreams and aspirations that get forever overshadowed by his sense of responsibility to his work and family.
And then things take a turn for the worst. Daddy’s life falls apart, he’s diagnosed with a heart condition, and is left with nothing but his car, a few possessions, and Happie, the family dog and narrator. With nothing holding him back, and a death sentence looming over his head, Daddy is free to do as he likes, to pursue those dreams kept at bay. His choice is to live the rest of his days in absolute carefree bliss, enjoying the simple things until his very last breath. We never learn the exact reason why Daddy chooses to abandon life entirely, to not even make an attempt at rebuilding his life. He accepts the situation dealt to him and resigns to live with the memory of good times, without the burden of an otherwise horrible situation.
But Daddy’s situation is more complicated than a cut and dry resolution to die. During his last days Daddy shows no signs of depression or resignation, even a single moment of regret. He forges ahead fully aware of where the road ends. The knowledge of death presents itself to Daddy as a release from the mediocrity of life. It’s not as if life is a burden or Daddy has suicidal wishes, but life in its current form restricts him from reaching his dreams. Daddy has clearly led a satisfied life, one that has left him with no regrets, thus he feels free to indulge himself and live outside the edicts of responsibility. He has become one with his fate, reached a state of zen-like harmony, and is prepared to see what’s on the other side.
In a way this approach to ending his life is a display of extreme selfishness. Daddy still has the responsibility of caring for Happie, yet willingly embarks on a path of self destruction. But this new, carefree persona doesn’t mean all responsibilities are irrelevant. Happie is cared for just as well as if he were living in a legitimate home, and even given urgent medical care, leaving Daddy in an even further destitute state.
Happie’s relationship to Daddy contributes to the owner’s peace of mind, but also serves as a gentle release along the way to the inevitable end. Happie holds the hand of his owner to reassure and comfort on the strange journey. Beyond those comforts Happie provides an inexhaustible source of courage and consoles his owner throughout all their trials. With the companionship of Happie, Daddy is able to continually look ahead without the burden of fear.
It’s not often a gut-wrenchingly sad story has a silver lining, but Stargazing Dog pulls it off expertly. Certainly not an easy read, what it lacks in sugar coating it over compensates with insight and hope. We can all look into Daddy and Happie’s trials and find a little something to reflect on.
Stargazing Dog is available for emotionally mature readers from NBM.