Comics Time: Duncan the Wonder Dog


Duncan the Wonder Dog
Adam Hines, writer/artist
AdHouse, September 2010
400 pages
$24.95
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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.

11 Responses to Comics Time: Duncan the Wonder Dog

  1. DerikB says:

    Thanks for this, Sean. I’ve been wondering about this book. It seems to have sold well (it’s out of print already), yet I’ve seen very little about it except for Wolk putting it at the top of his Techland list.

    I don’t think I fully grasped the concept of this as a kind of alternate present:

    “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”

    This seems like… an illogical bit of world building… not believable even.

  2. I really tried to dig into this book. It’s ambition is really charming. Yet, I really wonder about the grey tones. Is it the thin paper that makes it hard to read? I found my eyes straining to make out certain images – on every page. It was really disheartening. Did it look good on the computer and then just wash out in the printing? Was there some sort of printing error? It’s a shame because I liked the story and the scope of it all. It’s definitely worth a look if one hasn’t checked it out. Maybe if it’s reprinted they can correct the contrast or something.

  3. DerikB says:

    There’s a pdf preview here: http://www.adhousebooks.com/books/duncan.html

    I haven’t seen the print version, but the pdf is pretty gray and cloudy.

  4. Chris Pitzer says:

    Just as an fyi… the second printing will have some pages lightened. We lightened them the first time, but I guess it wasn’t enough.

  5. Tim O'Shea says:

    Sean, I almost jumped into the WAYR fray just to disagree with you, but realized it was more apt to address it here.

    You and I literally see the art differently, it works for me.

    But I am really flummoxed with this last bit:
    ” 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.”

    The story partially fails because the characters aren’t angry enough for you? Every critic brings bias/experience to the table when viewing a work, but your expectation is not commensurate to the situation for me. “Rooting for the terrorist monkey” Um, OK. That’s off the grid for me, like how some pro-lifers justify killing doctors that perform abortions. I’m not looking to debate animal rights for you, honestly. It’s your belief and I respect that. But I think someone like yourself who feels so passionately about an issue that it clouds their perception of a work, then honestly I have to dismiss the final analysis.

    • Tim, I didn’t mean I literally want animal rights activists in the real world to start murdering anyone. I don’t. I indulged in a bit of hyperbole to convey that I root for the monkey in the same way you might root for Magneto because he’s badass and Cyclops is boring. The monkey is the only character as pissed off as I would be. At any rate even if you put aside my feelings about animal rights, I still have a lot of problems with this book as comics that have nothing to do with that.

      • Tim O'Shea says:

        Sean, I may have misinterpreted your hyperbole, but I did not mean to say I thought you wanted “animal rights activists in the real world to start murdering anyone”.

        I think we can agree that we see the book completely differently, though.

        • 6161 says:

          I did not mean to say I thought you wanted “animal rights activists in the real world to start murdering anyone”.

          Why didn’t you?

          It’s precisely what he does say:

          Reason-destroyingly, misanthropy-generatingly angry. Rooting for the terrorist monkey as she blows up colleges and shoots people in the face angry.

          He’s quite right that it makes him look ugly and foolish and hateful. It makes him look that way because it is, and he should be ashamed of himself.

          • I’m unlikely to be made to feel ashamed of myself by anonymous people, but even if I were, sheesh, no one’s heard of hyperbole? I mean, honestly, people think I want monkeys to run around murdering people?

  6. [...] Another review of Duncan criticized it for not being angry enough about animal rights, which was useful to me because it helped crystallize exactly what is so successful about the book: It is not a polemic; it is an exercise in empathy. If it is about anything, it is about perspective, about how many perspectives there are, and how all of them overlap and interact with each other like vibrations from a tuning fork. It is a story that is like every story, and every story is the definition of empathy: Imagining for a while that you are someone else. The world of Duncan is only as upsetting as you are empathetic, but then that is true of our world as well, and of any injustice that is not your own. [...]

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