In theory this couldn’t be more down my alley: Graphically and narratively ambitious funny-animal allegory set in a world where animals can read, write, and talk, dealing unflinchingly with animal rights and animal cruelty. So why did it never fully get me on board?
Several reasons. First and foremost is the decision to eschew black and white for graytone, casting a smoky haze over every panel and turning me off on a visual level right from the get-go. I actually double-checked to make sure I wasn’t accidentally reading a galley, that’s how odd and dreary it looks. The bitch of it is that the shading and backgrounds are frequently nuanced and complex enough to conjure in your mind what this would look like in color, even just spot color or duotone, and the comparison isn’t flattering — it obscures more than it reveals. Meanwhile, for all of Duncan‘s substantial visual ambition and formal play, I never found writer-artist Adam Hines’s actual cartooning convincing. His characters seem not quite fully formed to me, the figurework just a little flaccid and unfinished, their dot-eyed cuteness recalling a webcomic that’s pleasant enough to look at but not anything that feels like a unique vision of how to construct a person or a world.
Hines’s real chops come in the artcomix elements of the book — flashes of photorealism utilized in Dave McKean-style abstract-comics fashion, extensive formal tomfoolery with text and graphics, and a plethora of narrative approaches that includes radio broadcasts, diaries, fourth-wall-breaking Q&As, streams of consciousness, textbooks, dreams and flashbacks, fairy tales, and straightforward storytelling. But there are problems here as well. Much of the text-heavy material comes across as overly verbose, overselling the points being made not just by the characters but by Hines himself in switching to whatever particular new format he’s using at the time. The dialogue in particular can get downright Bendisian at times, too in love with the sound of its own voice to truly evoke the naturalism it’s going for. Not always, mind you — sometimes it works great, usually when characters at cross-purposes must talk to each other as opposed to when people are sounding off monologue-style. But often those conversations are followed by a too on-the-nose journey into one of the participants’ heads via captions, and the verbal overload begins anew. Similarly, the visual flourishes swing for the fences, but they feel disconnected from the simple cartooning and character designs and thus took me out of the story rather than suggesting a world of transcendence and mystery beyond the frequently sad and unpleasant actions of the actual characters.
Those characters are undoubtedly Duncan‘s strong point. The asshole bigot politician who’s actually ruthlessly intelligent and self-aware as well as ambitious, the activist gibbon who through sheer will has gotten a seat at the table of power but will never really be welcome there, his human wife and the front of jovial “so-what” strength she must maintain, the anti-terror agent who sees his job as just a job yet has somehow found himself in the arch-nemesis slot for the animal kingdom’s Manson/Bin Laden figure, and that figure herself, a gratuitously cruel and hyperactive monkey whom the genuine injustices faced by animals in this world have literally driven insane. Just in writing that recap down I’m struck by how…well, to use a phrase I used earlier, fully formed these characters are. They’re fun to spend time around, however flat the logistics of their depiction may leave me, and I’m quite excited by the notion that Hines apparently has nine volumes of their lives planned out.
But here’s the thing: If I had their lives, any of their lives, I’d be a whole lot angrier. And maybe that’s my most fundamental, and surely my most personal, problem with Duncan the Wonder Dog: It just doesn’t come across as apocalyptically angry, which let’s be frank is how I feel when I think about animal rights. Reason-destroyingly, misanthropy-generatingly angry. Rooting for the terrorist monkey as she blows up colleges and shoots people in the face angry. I can’t really elaborate on this very much; it would degenerate into a barely coherent lecture and make me look ugly and foolish and hateful. But if I were to make art about animal rights — specifically, if I were to make a graphic novel about a world in which animals and animals have always been able to speak to one another and be understood, yet in which virtually nothing about the way we torture and slaughter countless millions of animals every day is any different from the way it is on this world — I want ugly and foolish and hateful. Duncan‘s ambition leaves it very little time for any of those things, and that’s a shame.