You know something’s up when someone grabs your arm and says, “have you seen the book at the AdHouse table?” I had just walked onto the exhibition floor of the Small Press Expo, a highly regarded indie comics festival held in the DC area in September, and that was my introduction to Adam Hines and his new book Duncan the Wonder Dog, a 400 page graphic novel of such eye-popping visual intricacy and invention, narrative complexity and deep, persuasive characterization that it’s hard to believe it’s the young author’s first published work.
Everything about the book throws you for a loop. Duncan the Wonder Dog is set in a world where animals can talk. But they don’t just talk; they argue, debate, ponder and, ultimately, force the world of humans—from household’s with pets to farmers and live stock and animals in the circus—to negotiate their relationships with the sentient animals in their midst. Hines has created a work of speculative fiction, set in an otherwise naturalistic world, where animals can verbally assert a sense of agency (or babble in small talk about the weirdness of humans) and can deliver moral arguments expressly intended to force humans to reflect on their treatment of animals. No, it’s not a PETA-driven screed for animals rights, though there is a clear narrative strand focused on brutality and even bigotry towards animals. The book seems to use the relationship of animals and humans as a canvas of moral culpability—how one life, no matter the species, defines another by the historical power relationships between them—and provides a constantly shifting but coherent point of view as it surveys a variety of characters central to Hines’ narrative. And as we meet each of these characters, their personalities and their acts enlarge our understanding of this unusual but totally familiar world.
There’s Voltaire, a shockingly intelligent orangatang that runs a major coporation; Tivona, a TV journalist in an ambiguous relationship with Voltaire; Jack, an FBI agent assigned to investigate a series of terrorist bombings; Aaron Vollman, a government bureaucrat who directs an agency that oversees animal control; and Pompeii, a psychotic simian murderer politicized by rage and human arrogance. These are just a few but these characters and many others bring this powerful and imaginative narrative to life in a book that is both vividly narrated and rich in illustration, drawing and composition.
Although the work is rendered in a moody gray-scale, Hines uses awkward but emotional figurative drawing and a multimedia technique that features collage, type, dense cross hatchings and photos as well as a densely cluttered panel grid—his tiered and clustered panel compositions are clearly influenced by the work of cartoonist Chris Ware—to give this work impressive visual depth, atmosphere and variety. Although it is an experimentalist work that seems to randomly drop the reader into a sucession of complex and ambiguous events, the book is also serious about presenting a lively and sharply delivered philosophical dialogue as well as the sometimes violent consequences of that debate. Yes, it’s a comic book and a talking animal comic book, to boot—a kind of ironic reflection on the comics medium’s legacy of talking animals—but Pompeii ain’t Magilla the Gorilla and this book ain’t for the kids. Don’t take my word for it. The book will be published this month by AdHouse Books. Buy a copy and see for yourself.