March 2011

Martyn Pedler


Duncan the Wonder Dog and Animal Em-pa-thy

Some vegetarians eat fish. To these people, fish are a complicated form of seaweed, I guess, capable of detaching itself from the ocean floor. And there are those who go fishing for sport, not food. They remove the hook -- because then it’s not cruel in the slightest -- and dump the fish back into the water.

This is the only explanation I have for it: fish don’t make any sound. We’re regularly and horrendously cruel to animals that do squeak, or purr, or bark, so what hope is there for fish? They don’t have a voice; maybe they’re not truly alive. They’re the hated mimes of the animal kingdom.

But what if animals could talk? In Adam Hines’ graphic novel Duncan the Wonder Dog, there are awkward conversations. Uneasy alliances. Family pets demand to be called by their real names and not those given on whim by excited children. Some primates go into politics, making compromises, dressing like the men around them. Others turn to violence, striking back at their human oppressors.

After reading Duncan, I pestered its publishers for an interview with its author. Adam Hines replied to very politely decline. He said he was wary of influencing any new readers. He wants them, as much as possible, to come in cold. You know what? I completely understand why.

I read Duncan having heard nothing more than “debut,” “by a 26-year-old,” and “last-minute edition to a bunch of 2010’s best-of lists.” A debut graphic novel doesn’t trail anything behind it. No evolving styles or ongoing obsessions. For me, Duncan’s 400 pages arrived alone, out of nowhere, like a glowing meteorite found in a dimly-lit field.

Even though Duncan isn’t exactly a book full of he-was-a-ghost-all-along spoilable twists, I wanted to tread carefully. I thought I could just pick one scene, maybe, and discuss it while avoiding the rest. Duncan lends itself to this as it contains chunks acting as their own short stories. There’s a lengthy tangent, towards the back, about the relationship between a cat, a dog, and their human family that’s a blisteringly sad melodrama; there are quick vignettes, too, like an ape telling off a nature documentarian for filming without permission: “All the women are pregnant, you missed all the action you giant perv so just move on up the coast.”

(I’ve already failed, I know. There are too many moments worth mentioning. Maybe he was a ghost all along!)

Hines art is a soft, melancholic wash of grays and blacks. There are definite Dave McKean (Cages) influences at play -- torn pages, extensive text, faded photographs in the margins -- but Duncan’s long conversations are expressed in small panels, carefully arranged on the page. Animals can speak English, but humans sometimes speak in word balloons holding cramped little pictograms, as if only half-overheard. There are some truly striking splash pages, too. There’s one of a man searching in the grass, as if seen from an impossible vantage point under the ground. The grass hurtles towards his face like a thousand needles.

The meandering stories are matched by Hines’s playful use of different styles: children’s books, comprehension tests, philosophy texts, and straight-down-the-camera vox pops. Some of these are more effective than others, but I wouldn’t begrudge Hines’s use of any of them -- even its longest and most pretentious digressions -- because Duncan is nothing if not ambitious. This collection is just “show one” of nine planned volumes, and Hines has said he expects to be working on this project for the next 25 years. (You heard me.)

Gun to my head, this might be the scene in Duncan that hit me hardest: Jack Hammond is outside, smoking, thinking back on his investigation of the bombing of a California college. Hundreds dead. It’s suspected to be the work of a terrorist group led by a Barbary macaque named Pompeii. Jack remembers a human arm he saw protruding from the rubble. As he sits there, he spots a squirrel in the distance. In a word balloon smaller than its own tiny body, the squirrel says: “…sorry.”

Suddenly shared language doesn’t mean easy answers. Duncan can be righteously furious, but the mood is more one of overwhelming sadness. Even when Pompeii is viciously attacking a captive, the frame drifts up away from the violence, into the sky, until we’re looking at birds barely made of more than two curved lines.

Comic art is the perfect home for talking animals. There’s no need for CGI lip transplants; no need for Mister Ed-style lip smacking, or the years of lies about it being caused by harmless peanut butter in the horse’s mouth. No one’s lips move on the page, and word balloons look just as unnatural drifting up from the mouth of a pelican as a man. Hines’s animals, like his people, aren’t cartoonish, but he has an incisive knack for the abstractions to make them come alive.

And animal faces are always abstract to us. We can’t help but project our own emotions onto their features. We see a dog’s curled lip and are sure it’s grinning, or a cat’s narrowed eyes and we feel judged. A recent New York Times piece reported that “researchers trace the roots of our animal love to our distinctly human capacity to infer the mental states of others,” and soon, “humans were committing wholesale acts of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics and motives to anything with a face, a voice, a trajectory -- bears, bats, thunderstorms, the moon.”

Or as Scott McCloud put it in Understanding Comics: “We humans are a self-centered race. We see ourselves in everything. We assign identities and emotions where none exist. And we make the world over in our image.”

I’m not saying animals don’t have feelings. The only people who say that -- even of fish, or rats, or insects -- seem to be those who have a vested interest in it being true. If we can’t help read emotion into the alien eyes of another species or a few shapes inked onto a page? That speaks to the best parts of humans, self-centered or not. Duncan pauses at one point for a little fox to offer up a lesson that the passing squirrel, above, already understands:

“Hey everyone! What’s the word of the day?!”
“That’s right! Now let’s use it in a sentence.”

The book’s been out of out of print for a few months now, although hopefully that’s just about to change. In the meantime, the author has it up on his site and a downloadable version has been made available at a reduced price. (This is the version I read, but I can’t wait to get my hands on the object itself.) I’m not sure where Duncan the Wonder Dog is going, and I don’t relish waiting a quarter century to find out. I couldn’t be more pleased, though, that the book’s last three words are “to be continued.”

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He still suspects all dogs can secretly speak like Scooby-Doo.