Xeric-Winner's Unique Anthromorphic DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG

Xeric-Winner Talks Anthromorphic DUNCAN

Check out a 28-page preview of DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG

Comics have a long history of giving a human voice and characteristics  to animals of all shape and size. From both the humorous runs of Scrooge McDuck to the holocaust story of Maus and many works in-between, 'anthromorphisim' can shed light on the human condition through the words and actions of animals, or give voice to the concerns of species that can't speak for themselves.

In the upcoming graphic novel Duncan the Wonder Dog, cartoonist Adam Hines does both by illustrating the words and deeds of animals both wild and pet, as they band together as dissidents and rebels against their inhumane treatment. Published by AdHouse books, Duncan the Wonder Dog is Hines’ debut into the medium – and he’s riding high after winning a Xeric Award for financing of this project. His illustrative work recalls Dave McKean and David Mazzuchelli, showing an assured style for someone who just entered the medium.

We recently spoke with the creator...

Newsarama: Adam, how would you describe this book for someone?

Adam Hines: The series takes place in a world pretty much as we know it, with the only difference being that every sentient, conscious creature is "equal" with us in our level of cognitive thought, and can also understand and speak the same languages. The series then uses that setting to discuss different ideas but primarily to explore the similarities between species, our differences and connections. The first book focuses on a group of animal terrorists that have committed an attack in California, and how the main characters react to it.

Nrama: I don’t want to spoil the story, but I can spoil the method you use to tell it in. You use many different points of view to get your story across. Can you tell us what led you to use this approach for Duncan?

Hines: I wanted many different ideological and political points of view to be represented throughout, so that made an ensemble necessary. I also wanted it to feel like there was no main character, that the main "character" is the way all of these people and animals fit together, both within the structure of the story and the structure of the natural world. I allowed myself to drift off onto tangents, and show glimpses of events happening elsewhere in other places that sometimes have no direct relation to the core story, mostly because I wanted to regularly remind how complicated and intricate and huge this second structure is, and that even though we may not be connected in any immediately obvious way, we are, even if, in this case, its literally because the pages are stapled next to one another.

Nrama: The idea of animals as self-conscious and able to speak is a unique one – while on the surface it might sound like a kids cartoon like those we’ve all seen, you really take it to a more mature end.

Hines: Yes, and admittedly the story did originally come from my childhood frustrations with those same cartoons. I never liked how in Duck Tales they'd show a scene at a dock with Donald talking to his nephews, and then the camera would pan over and show a perfectly normal sea gull standing two feet from them squawking like an idiot. Why is one water bird wearing clothes and the other catching fish out in the ocean? It honestly made me feel bad, like an unseen God was indiscriminately cursing certain animals with weaker minds. So I made my own comic books where every animal could speak and no one was left out. And it evolved as I grew up into something more serious.

It may seem silly to say about a book with talking animals but one of the difficulties for me was to avoid anthropomorphizing them more than what I thought necessary. Yes, they can communicate with us, but I wanted to give the impression that their concerns, beliefs, motivations, fears in life would be so far outside our own frame of reference that oftentimes meaningful communication would still be impossible. Wittgenstein wrote once that if a lion could speak, we would still not be able to understand him. I've always loved that idea, and I tried to honor it by sometimes having the animals speak in verse, or song, in place of what would be in real life an instance of them chirping or howling, in an effort to continually reinforce that distance between us. I think maybe a braver artist would have written the entire book that way, but I don't think I could have sustained it for as long a work as this is without sacrificing clarity.

Nrama: Your art style goes into a lot of places and takes a lot of things to make this a patchwork and cohesive work. Can you tell us about deciding how to depict things in these styles for the book?

Hines: I had a rule that if the characters were inhabiting a literal space, if they weren't dreaming or being remembered or imagined, they had to remain in the same style, but everything else was up for interpretation. Part of it was an issue of subjectivity, that I wanted the setting to change depending on the characters inhabiting it.

Another part was that it was useful narrative shorthand. For instance, the paper texture of the circus panels are always the same, so even if there are no clues within the frame, you still know where you are. Another reason was that I am concerned with making a comic that can withstand the level of scrutiny given to looking at single illustrations. There is a contingent that believes that comics should be devoid of extraneous detail, that the drawings should be as simple as text on a page, but my interest in comics stems from the form's ability to be both visual and literary at the same time and not have to sacrifice any of either language's strengths for the benefit of the whole. So I like to try to stack communication through the rendering of the art.

Also. I wanted the book to almost appear as if it had been cobbled together from disparate elements, and that this arrangement was just the best the unnamed editor could do at the time. I am always inspired by Rauschenberg and Anselm Keifer. I like that you can see the work, that it looks like effort, and I wanted the book to share that feel of assembly.

Nrama: Can you talk about how this idea originally came from you and developed into what it is now?

Hines: Sure. When I was six my family got a small terrier poodle mix who we named Duncan. He was warmly staid, if that makes any sense, and hated other dogs, and was the closest thing I had to a brother. A month or two later, after years of reading (and before I could read, having them read to me) comic strips, I was introduced to comic books after seeing the back issues of the Batman story "Dark Knight, Dark City" in some underground mall comic book store. I was immediately drawn to the covers, particularly issue #453 which depicted Batman being dragged into Hell by zombies. I knew who the character was from the Burton movie but had never read the comic, and forced my dad into buying me the three issues on the spot.

When I got home and actually opened the books I saw, to my dismay, that the interior art was nothing at all like Mike Mignola's covers, but the lasting impact for me was, unlike the movie, I could make a comic book myself. So I put the two newest things in my life together and made Duncan the Wonder Dog, who at the time was basically Batman except he used his leash as a grappling hook and dog biscuits as batarangs and fought bank robbing animals. And I just kept making issues on through school just to amuse myself, the concept slowly changing from a child's version of Batman to whatever I was interested in as a teenager, and finally an adult, the focus gradually shifting from Duncan himself to the world as I saw it. I never intended to publish any of it, until Duncan started to get older, and I guess a part of it was seeing time running out, and wanting to extend it by inventing scenarios for him to exist in. He died in 2006 and I still miss him. But that's the progression of it, anyway.

Nrama: This is a tremendously big book – 400 plus pages – and quite an auspicious debut. What led you to delve into such a big project for your first major work?

Hines: As a teenager I read Akira in the Dark Horse collected editions as they came out, and I enjoyed reading those comics in that format so much it has since defined how I want to read all comic books. So when it came time to make Duncan I wanted to pattern it after that experience, so I knew very quickly I wanted them to be a set series of novel length books. But to be honest I wasn't really aware of its length as I worked on it. I knew it was going to be 400 pages, but most novels are around 300 so that number never read as "huge" to me. It wasn't until I held a printed copy in my hands that I was like, "Man, this is big."

Nrama: You won the Xeric for this work back in 2009. Can you tell us about your process in putting this together?

Hines: I had read Brian Ralph's Climbing Out around the time it was released, and I think learning that it won a Xeric was how I first heard about the foundation. I started work on Duncan shortly after, and it was always in the back of my mind to eventually one day submit for it. I knew it was going to be a large book, and didn't think many publishers would be willing to sign on an unknown, so I fully expected to have to self publish it myself. After years of working and seeing submission deadline upon submission deadline fall off the calendar, I broke my promise to myself that I would wait until the book was completely finished before submitting and just sent what I had -- roughly two thirds -- and just hoped my naked ambition would be enough to impress them.

The process was fairly painless, and I would encourage anyone with the slightest inclination to try. It was the first impartial response to the book after years of work, and I was very grateful and relieved when I heard it had been accepted. And I think having someone say, "We like what you're doing enough to give you a big check," pushed me past the finish line with more energy than I would have had otherwise.

Nrama: The book leaves off with an ominous page with the words “to be continued”… so is there more?

Hines: Why thank you for asking! It's Show One of Nine. If anyone's confused about why the series is called Duncan the Wonder Dog, they won't be by the end of the second volume. The next book will be out 2014/15, when we'll all be living a Waterworld lifestyle in New China, hunting and burning mutations on dead barren seas when we're not sitting on our hover couches watching hover football drinking hover beer. Hopefully people will still be reading comics.

Check out a 28-page preview of DUNCAN THE WONDER DOG

Chris Arrant (chris@chrisarrant.com) is a contributing writer to Newsarama.com.

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