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Duncan the Wonder Dog Paperback – November 9, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Can this massive, brilliant graphic novel-supposedly the first of a nine-volume series-really be its creator's first published work? Apparently so, and Hines has instantly established himself as a cartoonist to be reckoned with. Duncan is set in a world almost exactly like ours, except that all animals can talk. Humans still have dominion over everything, and a lot of animals aren't too happy about it; they also see the world in very different ways from each other, and from people. The central plot of this volume is what happens after an animal-rights organization run by a deranged, bloodthirsty macaque detonates a bomb at a human college, but that's just a springboard for Hines to show off what he can do. Nearly every page has some kind of stunning visual set piece; Hines' range of black-and-white drawing styles incorporate clean-lined "bigfoot" cartooning, hyper-stylized abstract landscapes and near-photorealism, often on the same page. The book is an overwhelming assemblage of stories within stories, stories on top of stories (sometimes literally), and meticulously crafted anecdotes that aren't directly related to each other but add up to a portrait of a world whose desperate cruelties are more vivid when all its inhabitants can communicate with one another.
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Top Customer Reviews
Where to start with this? The scope of this story is dauntingly huge, but the story, plotline, characters, and artwork are all amazing — and the moral questions raised by the story are really a little bit terrifying.
Let’s start with the general background of the story — namely, talking animals. The story is set in a world much like our own, but animals — all animals — have human-level intelligence and can speak. You’d expect some massive changes to the world, right? And there are some — one of the main characters is a wealthy gibbon named Voltaire who runs a megacorporation and lives with his human lover. Animal rights legislation is hotly debated in Congress, and the leading animal rights terrorist organization is, appropriately enough, run almost entirely by animals.
If you’re a sci-fi fan like me, you go into some kinds of stories with certain expectations. We’ve all watched “Star Trek,” right? When the Enterprise encounters a new sapient life form, what do they do? They recognize that it has certain rights and privileges that it gets just because it’s able to think and reason intelligently. But things don’t work like that in the world of “Duncan the Wonder Dog.”
There’s a scene early in the story, just a short vignette with a human fisherman and a water bird who are working together. The bird is upset because the fisherman isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. The deal was that the fisherman would get the big fish and the bird would get the small fish. The fisherman says, too bad, I need all the fish today — you can have the small fish again tomorrow. “I’m one of the only fishermen who will work you without a snare, but I can put one on if I need to.” The bird knows he’s beat, and he says, “I want… I want to eat today.”
Just that little bit — just five panels all together — completely tore my heart out.
This isn’t a world where humans accept that animal sapience entitles them to equal rights. This is a world that operates almost exactly the way our world works normally — just with the added cruelty that people know their hamburgers came from someone who can think the way they do. In fact, there’s another scene where a couple of men try to persuade a cow on a trailer to go walk into that building over there — all your friends are in there, they say, it’s not like we’d feed you and take care of you and then just send you into a building to be killed, would we? And the cow eventually reveals that she noticed lots of hoofprints going in and none coming out, so she knew it was a slaughterhouse. That’s a sharp, deductive mind in a freakin’ cow — and people in that world valued her only as a steak.
Adam Hines is certainly interested in animal rights, but he doesn’t go and make all humans the villains and all animals the heroes. The story’s most prominent and frightening antagonist is Pompeii, a Barbary macaque who leads the terrorist group ORAPOST. She bombs a university and murders multiple humans in cold blood. In a flashback, after a human ally of ORAPOST is killed, she declares that she wants to cut out the dead woman’s unborn baby to keep for her own. She later discovers and reads a woman’s diary detailing a loving and complex family life — including great amounts of compassion and love for the family’s pets. Pompeii destroys the diary, unable to deal with any evidence of humans and animals living together cooperatively.
To be honest, I see a lot of what drives the story forward — and certainly affects how readers respond to it — as being less about animal rights and human rights, and more about simple empathy. If you have empathy, it’s easy to put yourself in the, um, paws of creatures that have the intellectual capacity of humans but are considered, at best, property. If you don’t have empathy, you don’t see what the fuss is about.
In a way, it’s a story about human slavery and cultural conflicts. We can be a heartlessly cruel species to each other — it used to be you could own and sell people, and there are still a depressingly large number of people who think other kinds of people are worth less than others. There are countries where the under-privileged are as crushed, as abused, as exploited as valuable pack animals. Are the humans in the story who are comfortable owning and eating sentient creatures really all that different from the rest of us?
Art-wise, what’re we looking at? In places, the art is cartoonish — not a bad thing --simple cartooning often does a better job of communicating emotion than detailed artwork. But the detailed artwork is also in here. There are deeply beautiful landscapes, abstract images that go on for page after page, and portions of the story told through typography. And again, this was all created by one guy, over the course of several years, just because he wanted to tell the story and draw the artwork.
This is a fantastic book. Great art, great story, and mind-expanding philosophy? Go pick it up.
BTW, the first reviewer's star rating seems more critical of Amazon's shipping methods than the quality of the book, which in turn screws over the author. Way to go!
From the opening pages, the black and white images and innovative iconography drew me into a world that was both alien and familiar. One of the first scenes is a series of establishing panels of New York City circa 1954 that takes the reader from the Statue of Liberty to the June 17 boxing match at Yankee Stadium between Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles. Passersby in the background speak in word balloons containing muted gray symbols that give a sense of conversations without the unnecessary distraction of actual words. From the ringside announcer describing the boxing match we eventually transition to a group of circus workers listening to the fight on the radio and from there to the caged animals living in captivity as the circus' forced performers.
This is where the fantastic nature of this world is revealed. A monkey is reading Metaphysics, by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who was a vegetarian), and discussing the book with a tiger in a nearby cage. This scene establishes that animals in this version of reality have a very different mental life than in our world and shows that this has very little impact on the similar ways they are exploited by humans. This scene also reveals the artistic imagination of Hines, who uses different art styles (the tiger is drawn much more realistically than the monkey) and multi-layered and multi-print media collages to tell his story. (My words and these reproductions don't do this scene justice. Fortunately, you can download a free sample of the first 28 pages from publisher Adhouse Books.)
This opening scene also highlights my twin fascinations with this book: Hines' creative approach to storytelling and his insights into human/animal relations.
The length of this volume is one of its great strengths. Hines has the room to take things slow, and the many silent moments inserted into conversations and simple actions create a sense of realism that helps make the fantastical elements of the story ring true. In one scene, one of the story's main characters rows wordlessly across a lake for several panels, exchanges "Hellos" with a Canada goose as he glides past a rock the bird is standing on, then continues rowing wordlessly to shore over several more panels. The encounter is so familiar and mundane that it seems totally believable.
The vast array of characters that move in and out of the book is also well suited to a work of this epic scope. There are so many memorable personalities, both human and animal, that I anxiously awaited each ones return to the story and to find out what ultimate role they play in the grand scheme of things (which I'm still not sure of). Some of the supporting characters lead to Arabian Nights-like stories within stories that are just as compelling as the main plot. In fact, probably my favorite part of the entire book is a 32-page sequence of diary entries relating, among other things, the relation between a human family and their beagle, Bundle.
Hines' also makes Lost-like jumps from present to past and possibly to glimpses of the future that can illuminate the meaning of some plot element while simultaneously making the story more mystifying. The more surreal and metaphysical digressions in the book, usually involving the use of collages and seemingly random images, feel like unanswered riddles that I trusted would eventually make sense (not all of them did).
I have only two complaints about the technical execution of book. Although I think the black and white artwork enhances the storytelling, some of the darker panels seemed a little too dark. Also, the flow of the story is sometimes difficult to follow, although Hines provides assistance by numbering some of the panels.
For the most part, whenever I found myself baffled by a particular scene or image I got the impression it wasn't due so much to Hines' failure as a storyteller as to my inability to keep up with him.
Hines handled the subject matter of his story as masterfully as he did its artistic execution.
Although the animals certainly speak and behave more anthropomorphically than the protagonists of my other favorite animal rights comics story, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's WE3, they still seem to maintain their essential animal character. On one page, eight witnesses shown in separate panels describe a terrorist bombing. The first seven witnesses are human and the last is a dog. The effect seemed both jarring and natural, as did the dog referring to his human owner as his "mom."
Hines takes it for granted that most people understand the non-status of animals in our society and the price they pay for it, and doesn't subject the reader to graphic images of animal cruelty to belabor the point. In addition to the circus scene mentioned above, there is a heartbreaking scene involving a crippled cow--called a "downer" in the meat industry--being taken to slaughter. But for the most part, the oppression of animals by humans is depicted in much subtler terms. In the sidebar story I mentioned above, the family cat delivers a scathing rebuke of her human owner, who has been volunteering at a human shelter rather than spending time with her sick dog, Bundle.
But one of Hines' most masterful strokes is his portrayal of animal terrorism, by which I mean animals committing acts of terrorism in the cause of ending the human oppression of other species. And I don't mean the types of nonviolent acts often described as "terrorism" by the media, such as breaking into laboratories, factory farms or fur farms to liberate animals, destroy the instruments used to torture them, or remove evidence of their abuse. I mean real, Al-Qaida-type terrorism in which many innocent people are killed. Although showing humans committing such acts would obviously cause most readers, including vegan animal rights activists like myself, to recoil in horror, I expected that animals carrying out these acts on their own behalf might seem slightly more understandable (perhaps like the difference between Nat Turner and John Brown). But the psychotic fanaticism of one of the terrorist leaders, a macaque monkey named Pompeii (fittingly prone to sudden eruptions of uncontrolled violence) makes it clear that terrorism can never be justified. It also helped create one of the most frightening and disturbing literary villains I've ever encountered.
Of course, despite some of Hines' too human depictions of his nonhuman characters, it suddenly occurred to me while reading this story that the premise is not as fantastical as it seems.
Animals already can talk to humans, as anyone who's ever shared their lives with a dog or a cat (or a hamster or a rat or a horse or a chicken or a pig, etc.,) can tell you.
It's just that humans don't usually listen.
Or, as revered American author, anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist Mark Twain once put it:
"It is just like man's [sic] vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions."
Hopefully Duncan the Wonder Dog will help sharpen some of those perceptions.