Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines

Duncan the Wonder Dog
by Adam Hines
Adhouse Books, 2010

Simple drawings. Characters with dots for eyes. A simple premise: an alternative universe where animals can talk. Now, that sounds straightforward, but the result is one of the most complex graphic novels I’ve ever read, and one which really earns the title graphic novel. It’s hard to imagine this being split up into 24-page instalments. This 390-page book is apparently the first part of nine, which is actually the least satisfying part of the reading experience – there’s no resolution at the end, and after wading this far through the tiny text and muddy grey* pages, some resolution would be nice.

The animals of this world can talk, and they aren’t exactly happy. Monkeys and apes have an intelligence equivalent to that of humans, and cats and dogs aren’t far behind. Much of the tension arises from the fact that humans continue to treat animals as they normally do, as chattels and slaves, aware of their own cruelty, but what are you going to do?  In this uneasy atmosphere stalks Pompeii, a tiny psychotic macaque terrorist who blows up a university research lab and kills 300 people, a splendidly Tarantinoesque villain (like a Fitz Bunny who shoots people in the head) whose demeanour is a complete contrast to the numbed resignation of everyone else in the book. Why is everyone in great graphic novels so bloody sad? Apart from Maus – that one’s understandable.

The pages are a mixture of ink drawing, acrylic, collages, and traced photos, like Dave McKean’s Cages but with every technique on the same page. There’s Chris Ware’s attention to diagrammatic page design (with the sparing use of panel numbers to guide you through the less intuitive layouts). A tiny piglet finds a metal spike stuck in the ground, and for the next four pages we get 18 Aphorisms Concerning the Investigation & Interpretation of the Purpose of the Metal Spike. It’s that sort of book.

* Like Ant Sang’s Shaolin Warrior, it seems as though it was designed to be printed in colour, but everything is grey instead, and has to be read in a strong light. To make things worse, for some reason the Central Library copy smells slightly of panther sweat, so close inspection of the panels is necessary but unpleasant.

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