D.B. Dowd '83

With help from Sam the Dog, D.B. Dowd '83 comments through cartoons

Sam the Dog fell to his death near Lake Michigan some time ago. But that wasn't the last of the cartoon character of that name, who first surfaced in the Kenyon Collegian in 1980, reappeared years later in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, jumped to the Internet, and now may be heading for television.

"The fact that I'm even doing anything with Sam the Dog now is bizarre to me," says D.B. Dowd, the character's creator, who drew the last panel in the Collegian series just before graduating in 1983.

Fourteen years later, Dowd was an art professor at Washington University in St. Louis when the daily newspaper there contacted him. A new opinion-page editor was looking for unusual talent. Would Dowd be interested in drawing something? Dowd had some ideas for a fictional society, but no hero. So Sam came back to life. "He was sort of in the closet, and I dusted him off and threw him in."

The weekly series, first called "Metro Trap" and later "Sam the Dog," landed on the pages of the Post-Dispatch in June 1997. It was an experiment that would seem more at home in an alternative news weekly than a newspaper of record: an illustrated novel set in a hierarchical society, with long-snouted pigs at the top and wretched goats at the bottom. Sam the Dog was framed for murder and spent much of the 108 weekly installments trying to clear his name. The series ended in the summer of 1999 with the storyline's conclusion.

The panels resembled pages from a children's book, with text written in a New York Times headline font surrounding illustrations that depicted (to give three examples) goat skeletons scooting around a graveyard in coffins on wheels, a man with a jack-o-lantern for a head conversing with a pig playing golf, and a ram walking through the snow, pulling a bust of Abraham Lincoln in a wheelbarrow.

The goat skeletons in coffins were a reference to a St. Louis issue: a series of airport expansion projects that involved the repeated reburial of hundreds of corpses at an adjacent black cemetery. Though some of the themes were local, Dowd also approached broader subjects, including mental illness, corporate greed, and religious conservatism.

"In St. Louis, I think it's fair to say [the cartoon] had a cult following," says Dowd. "But there were a lot of people who really hated it.

"I think, measured in a lot of important objective ways, it should probably be rightly judged a failure in the sense that it did not create the sort of audience that one would have hoped," he adds. "And I think it was the result of that failure that made me want to do animation. This stuff would be funnier if people heard it than if they had to read it."

Sam the Dog now has a voice--Dowd's. In July 1999, Dowd launched an Internet company, samthedog.com. The production team, which includes M. Terry Cawley '83, has produced several short films to date. Dowd's fellow Kokosinger alumnus Peter G. Lukidis '81 provided the voice of another character in a recent short.

At Kenyon, Dowd was a history major who frequently took courses in art and drama. He also sang bass with the Kokosingers. Art, drama, music, and a sense of history are all coming together now in the process of making animated films, he notes.

Dowd, a native of Massillon, Ohio, spent time in New York City after Kenyon before moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan. There he worked as a scriptwriter for a video production company and met his future wife, Lori. They now have two children, Daniel (twelve) and Andrew (ten).

In 1989, Dowd completed an M.F.A. in printmaking at the University of Nebraska. He began teaching at Washington University in 1992.

Dowd recalls falling in love with the public nature of printmaking in his first course in the subject at Kenyon. He says he takes a communicative approach to art and tries to give viewers "something they can use," whether the medium be a television cartoon, the illustrations he has produced for publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, or his limited-edition books in the permanent collections of museums including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

"You have to be prepared to evaluate what you do," Dowd says. "If the audience doesn't get it, maybe you didn't design it very well."

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