Pet Politics

Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One
Adam Hines
(AdHouse Books, 2010)

It would be reductive to say that Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One, a lumbering behemoth by the previously untested Adam Hines, is deeply in thrall to the mania for overdesign that plagues comic books that would consider themselves ambitious, but it sure is tempting. Like the lionized Chris Ware, Hines plays constantly with position, tempo, and palimpsestment of panel, as if dissatisfied with the page’s limitation and anxious to fully embody whatever scene is coming next. But where Ware uses repetition and a fractured aesthetic to mirror his characters’ inability to escape their isolation, Hines expands and contracts his panels from a dense multiplicity depicting “normal” conversations to single-page portraits and series of landscapes, as well as everything in between, in an attempt to show how his interest in his characters is just as intense at every level. Further, Hines skips between a variety of formal techniques which are familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention (or else reading Scott McCloud, the Great Explicator), to bolster his vision of a world wherein all stories are equally meaningful, no matter how empty they are.

This is really the point of Duncan, which ostensibly is about detailing a world in which animals have consciousness and can speak with humans, and even more tangentially about the politics of such a world. What snarls these politics, from every-day interaction to the highest chambers of state, is that the positions of animals and humans in this world is roughly similar to that of our own. This gambit is easily the most interesting thing about Duncan. While certain animals, such as Voltaire, a mandrill who sleeps with a human woman and lobbies the U.S. government for animal rights, have won some vague status and others live wild and free in cities, jungles, and suburbs, a huge number remain domesticated, for food, companionship, and pack-work. This leads to both agonizing meat-killings and off-kilter, touching puppy-and-mommy scenes. It also nicely ignores the pressure of “interior logic” and “world-building.” This world feels less like one where animals have always been able to talk and more one in which they all just started talking last week.

The narrative, and there is one, stretched out and ignored as it is, concerns the effects of an animal terrorist organization known as ONMOST on this world. ONMOST’s primary representative (or else its unheralded rogue, it’s difficult to tell) is Pompeii, a parody of rage in classic mid-career Al Pacino mode despite being a female Barbary macaque, who is easily the most energetic and entertaining thing about this book. Too many others, especially the humans, are lifeless, dragged down by ennui into slow death. Hines exacerbates this by giving his characters simple, cartoonish faces, not allowing either humans or animals more detail or expression, and follows through by repeating panels of these blank faces long after whatever action/dialogue they’ve been performing has run its course. Sometimes this pays dividends; sometimes it just takes up space. This isn’t helped by the fact that in the book’s 390 oversized pages, not much happens. Excise the digression, winnow the dialogue down to something less forcibly “natural,” kick out all the philosophical references that don’t lead particularly anywhere, and you’d have a 22-page normal length comic book which would have three or four moderately complex characters and some fairly interesting ruminations on death.

Hines is, it should be noted, a wonderful illustrator, and Duncan is exceedingly well-rendered in black and white. The aforementioned landscapes and still-lives are utterly beautiful and often haunting, while managing to remain just as expressionless as the characters who, when they die, merely summon a vague pity.