It is almost impossible to describe Duncan the Wonder Dog. This ambitious, nearly 400-page work by first-time graphic novelist Adam Hines presents a visionary, nonlinear story that is both challenging and fascinating to follow. It is set in a world much like ours, with the exception that all animals can speak human languages (at least English) and are capable of comprehending (to varying degrees) human social constructs and philosophical concepts. This leads some of them—as explained in the promotional blurb—to “form a militant group in reaction to how humans treat them.”
From the opening pages, the black and white images and innovative iconography drew me into a world that was both alien and familiar. One of the first scenes is a series of establishing panels of New York City circa 1954 that takes the reader from the Statue of Liberty to the June 17 boxing match at Yankee Stadium between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles. Passersby in the background speak in word balloons containing muted gray symbols that give a sense of conversations without the unnecessary distraction of actual words. From the ringside announcer describing the boxing match we eventually transition to a group of circus workers listening to the fight on the radio and from there to the caged animals living in captivity as the circus’ forced performers.
This is where the fantastic nature of this world is revealed. A monkey is reading Metaphysics, by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who was a vegetarian), and discussing the book with a tiger in a nearby cage. This scene establishes that animals in this version of reality have a very different mental life than in our world and shows that this has very little impact on the similar ways they are exploited by humans. This scene also reveals the artistic imagination of Hines, who uses different art styles (the tiger is drawn much more realistically than the monkey) and multi-layered and multi-print media collages to tell his story. (My words and these reproductions don’t do this scene justice. Fortunately, you can download a free sample of the first 28 pages from publisher Adhouse Books.)
This opening scene also highlights my twin fascinations with this book: Hines’ creative approach to storytelling and his insights into human/animal relations.
The length of this volume is one of its great strengths. Hines has the room to take things slow, and the many silent moments inserted into conversations and simple actions create a sense of realism that helps make the fantastical elements of the story ring true. In one scene, one of the story’s main characters rows wordlessly across a lake for several panels, exchanges “Hellos” with a Canada goose as he glides past a rock the bird is standing on, then continues rowing wordlessly to shore over several more panels. The encounter is so familiar and mundane that it seems totally believable.
The vast array of characters that move in and out of the book is also well suited to a work of this epic scope. There are so many memorable personalities, both human and animal, that I anxiously awaited each ones return to the story and to find out what ultimate role they play in the grand scheme of things (which I’m still not sure of). Some of the supporting characters lead to Arabian Nights-like stories within stories that are just as compelling as the main plot. In fact, probably my favorite part of the entire book is a 32-page sequence of diary entries relating, among other things, the relation between a human family and their beagle, Bundle.
Hines’ also makes Lost-like jumps from present to past and possibly to glimpses of the future that can illuminate the meaning of some plot element while simultaneously making the story more mystifying. The more surreal and metaphysical digressions in the book, usually involving the use of collages and seemingly random images, feel like unanswered riddles that I trusted would eventually make sense (not all of them did).
I have only two complaints about the technical execution of book. Although I think the black and white artwork enhances the storytelling, some of the darker panels seemed a little too dark. Also, the flow of the story is sometimes difficult to follow, although Hines provides assistance by numbering some of the panels.
For the most part, whenever I found myself baffled by a particular scene or image I got the impression it wasn’t due so much to Hines’ failure as a storyteller as to my inability to keep up with him.
Hines handled the subject matter of his story as masterfully as he did its artistic execution.
Although the animals certainly speak and behave more anthropomorphically than the protagonists of my other favorite animal rights comics story, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3, they still seem to maintain their essential animal character. On one page, eight witnesses shown in separate panels describe a terrorist bombing. The first seven witnesses are human and the last is a dog. The effect seemed both jarring and natural, as did the dog referring to his human owner as his “mom.”
Hines takes it for granted that most people understand the non-status of animals in our society and the price they pay for it, and doesn’t subject the reader to graphic images of animal cruelty to belabor the point. In addition to the circus scene mentioned above, there is a heartbreaking scene involving a crippled cow—called a “downer” in the meat industry—being taken to slaughter. But for the most part, the oppression of animals by humans is depicted in much subtler terms. In the sidebar story I mentioned above, the family cat delivers a scathing rebuke of her human owner, who has been volunteering at a human shelter rather than spending time with her sick dog, Bundle.
But one of Hines’ most masterful strokes is his portrayal of animal terrorism, by which I mean animals committing acts of terrorism in the cause of ending the human oppression of other species. And I don’t mean the types of nonviolent acts often described as “terrorism” by the media such as breaking into laboratories, factory farms or fur farms to liberate animals, destroy the instruments used to torture them, or remove evidence of their abuse. I mean real, Al-Qaida-type terrorism in which many innocent people are killed. Although showing humans committing such acts would obviously cause most readers, including vegan animal rights activists like myself, to recoil in horror, I thought having animals carrying out these acts on their own behalf might seem slightly more understandable (perhaps like the difference between Nat Turner and John Brown). But the psychotic fanaticism of one of the terrorist leaders, a macaque monkey named Pompeii (fittingly prone to sudden eruptions of uncontrolled violence) makes it clear that terrorism can never be justified. It also helped create one of the most frightening and disturbing literary villains I’ve ever encountered.
Of course, despite some of Hines’ too human depictions of his nonhuman characters, it suddenly occurred to me while reading this story that the premise is not as fantastical as it seems.
Animals already can talk to humans, as anyone who’s ever shared their lives with a dog or a cat (or a hamster or a rat or a horse or a chicken or a pig, etc.,) can tell you.
It’s just that humans don’t usually listen.
“It is just like man’s [sic] vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.”
Hopefully Duncan the Wonder Dog will help sharpen some of those perceptions.