Animals Walk With Heavy Steps: Duncan the Wonder Dog

I spent the evening of September 11th, 2001 sitting in my friend Matt’s bedroom watching the movie Spies Like Us. It wasn’t a case where the events of earlier in the day brought out a strong internal desire to watch a middling cold war comedy featuring Dan Akroyd and Chevy Chase. We were sick of watching the news so we went to Blockbuster to rent a movie. It was all that was left. Escapism was needed and we settled for Spies Like Us. Since then I can say that I have been looking for a lot of escapism in my life.

That is a heavy start for one of my columns but it is an event that has been lingering in my mind since I finished Duncan the Wonder Dog (Adhouse Books) by Adam Hines. The book's elegant mix of escapism and stark reality have stirred strong emotions and memories in the last two weeks. I am probably the most pro-Escapism fan in comic books. If a creator puts a talking tiger in a book, I will be there. A hero who travels via a spaceship that run on laughter would be cool with me. The world that Hines has created appeals to that escapist in me. It is a world of talking animals with the intelligence of mankind. People still have pets. History has gone mostly the same. It just has a slight twist that animals have always been able to speak to humans and vice versa. Once the reader gets past that surface fantasy lays one of the most thought provoking works I have experienced dealing with the strife of our modern world.

Duncan the Wonder Dog manages to be a book that dodges the cliche elements of talking animals. It isn’t a place where the animals are angelic pure creatures and humans are simple monsters. It  isn’t a slapstick comedy of monkeys on roller skates. Hints of those tropes dance around the edges of the book but Hines always keeps the work balanced around a central idea. The center of this story is about how the world works when it is filled with two groups who see reality very differently. A natural result of these divergent world views is the looming specter of terrorism.

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The strongest narrative thread in the book revolves around the bombing of Elijah Gates University Library by the animal terrorist group ORAPOST. This isn’t their first attack and this world has been plagued by similar attacks. It is simple fact of this world, and part of the day to day life of everyone. On one end we have Aaron Vollman, head of ONACP, who is in charge of bringing the animal question under control. A cold calculating bureaucrat, who has an almost mechanical manner to his actions. At the other extreme we have Pompeii, the diminutive monkey leader of ORAPOST. A crazed anti-human terrorist with a penchant for violence and destruction. The reader can feel the hate towards humanity in every word and action of Pompeii.  In between these extremes we have the rest of the world. We meet Agent Jack Hammond who has a history with Pompeii and is working to track down the terrorist. There is Voltaire, a baboon who has inherited a fortune and seeks to find harmony between mankind and animal. He even has a relationship with a human female. Mixed into the background is a search by a sect of animals for a specific dog that will bring harmony to the world.

Mixed into these traditional narratives are asides that give us a flavor for this world. We see an injured cow on his way to the slaughterhouse. A dog who is told what is in beef stew. A nature photographer labeled a pervert by monkeys They range from the tragic to the hilarious and provide excellent pacing breaks to the heavier narrative sections of the book. It borders on being disruptive at times but I found it be just on the right side of the line.

Hines handles the realities of terrorism with a rare deftness. The tension is being driven by the extremes of two different ways of viewing the same world. Hines makes sure to show the value and the weaknesses of both approaches.  He also manages to avoid making both viewpoints too simplistic, giving a depth to the story that elevates beyond the usual post 9/11 reflection.

In a bar we see a monkey, Anaximenes, taking a break from the troop, having a drink and explaining to a bartender how humans see the world. The monkey points out that when you “say to a human that the sun is either up or down…that human will nod his in agreement. Two points of entry.” No nuance or angles to that analysis of the sun’s state, a viewpoint that tends to flatten out the intricacies of the natural world. A piglet later finds a metal spike in the ground and goes through a very thorough deduction of what it’s possible purpose is. At one point he thinks about the fact that humans will just create things that don’t have any purpose in nature. That mankind looks inward to measure the world and that leads nowhere.  At first read this might seem like a harsh criticism of humanity. The piglet seems flabbergasted by the unnatural actions that humans will take. It is a view of humanity that sees us as running away from the innate harmony of nature. The flip-side of this though is revealed in the fictional history of literature contained within the book.

One of our characters is Herodotus, a much sought after scribe, who is on a journey to find the animal that will bring harmony to man and creature. Herodotus has written a history of how animals have influenced art. This history is show in the gutters of select pages. In it is revealed that most animals have no feel for art. They see it as pointless. The only animals that have dabbled in creative enterprises are those that have had heavy interaction with humans.  Even then animals stay away from the more fanciful forms of fiction like science fiction. I would be willing to wager that most of you reading this have a healthy respect for the act of creativity. A trait that seems to only be brought out in animal kind by their interaction with humans. Humanity’s inward gaze extended and shared as a gift. It is a two way street as many humans, like Shakespeare, were inspired by their conversations with the animals.

Balancing the terrorism plot is the idea that man and animal can and need to  elevate each other. There is a relationship that can be rewarding for both. At one point as Pompeii and his gorilla guard are hiding out in a suburban home, Pompeii discovers a diary. It belonged to the woman who lived in the home, and whom he killed. It is a detailed story of their family and the death of their pet dog Bundle. A shift in storytelling technique and art style lend an emotional resonance to this section that upped the ante in my critical eyes. Here was the harmony of man and animal. A pet dog who was part of the family. Not in a perfect fictional way, but in a loving, real way. A way that had flaws, arguments, and a not necessarily happy ending. Mixed into the strife is this diary that tells us how things could be, without the terror and anger. A place where neither of the extremes want to go. In fact, in a moment of anger Pompeii attempts to burn the diary and destroy evidence that man and animal need each other to reach their full potential.

This depth does make it a challenge of a read. It takes a little while to get a sense of exactly what Hines is creating. A lot of characters are thrown at you and it can take it bit to pick out the recurring ones, especially the small apes. It is black and white with grey-scale, but at times the printing seems excessively dark. Dark enough to obscure some of Hines fascinating work. The art is mix of traditional cartooning, montage, and photo reference. Fast paced dialogue scenes mixed with full page drawings of bugs. Landscapes interspersed amongst the violence. Hines creates a feeling of perpetual dawn when looking at the pastoral scenes. A quiet place that humans might be intruding on. A unique rhythm is created and once you are in for the ride it becomes a compulsive read. The story, art, and layout contain a level of detail and precision that make it pleasure to retrace the story elements.

At 400 pages it is hefty read for a very reasonable price (cover price of $24.95). Be warned that this is just the first chapter of a multi-chapter epic, and that Hines has said the next volume won’t be out for a few years. Then again, that just gives me more chances to read the first volume. It is a book that I have thought about every day for the last week and I look forward to reading again in the future.


Tom Katers hasn't watched Spies Like Us since 9/11.
 

Comments

  1. It this sounds incredibly lame, but could you give your personal rating?

  2. I think it sounds bizarrely interesting, and I don’t usually go with the talking animals thing.

    Also, is Duncan the Wonder Dog related to Rex the Wonder Dog? 😛

  3. Saw this in the shop this week. It’s a hefty book and looks like nothing else out there. I can definitely see reading it over multiple times. Lots of value there. This is on my next order. 

  4. @vadamowens  4.5 out of 4.7

  5. I’m assuming you don’t approve of ratings? It was an honest question

  6. @vadamowens I am being flippant. 5/5 

  7. @vadamowens  Is reading the whole article and deciding how much you would like it too difficult?

  8. The sample pages look interesting and you sell it well, Tom. I just requested this through my library. More to add to the stack!

  9. I’m hesitant to read this since it seems like it could possibly come off as some kind of preachy pro vegan propaganda. I don’t condemn it, but I really don’t care to read something that’s trying to change my mind. Maybe I’m just seeing something that isn’t there, but from this review, it seems very possible that this could be the case.

  10. @gobo wow.  I just wanted to know. Sorry my curiosity bothered you.

  11. @ActualButt  As I wrote in the review “. It isn’t a place where the animals are angelic pure creatures and humans are simple monsters.”

    It isn’t vegan propaganda.

  12. Glad to see this book got reviewed. An excellent (however lengthy  read). This is not a book you want to blow through, the pages cry out to be savored.  Since reading the book I haven’t been able to look at my cats the same way. Great Review Tom! This is my choice for Book of the YEAR

  13. @vadamowens  Sorry if it came across as harsh, I just don’t understand what numeric scores add to well written reviews other than as a shortcut for lazy people.

  14. I also see this could lead to a shitty digression. I’m done talking about it.  Let’s just leave it at Sorry if it came across as harsh.

  15. I read the review gobo.  The number is just as telling to me as the review.  It’s a final stamp.

  16. This seems like a really interesting book and something that I definitely want to read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  17. I’ve been interested in this book since I heard Jeff Lemire talking about it on twitter and facebook. When amazon gets this back in stock I’m getting it.

  18. This book is really smart, really heavy.  Glad you’re showing it to such a large audience.  Though the first printing has already run out.  Hopefully they get a second printing started soon!

  19. I hope so! Amazon and instocktrades are out. Let’s hope they do another printing if there’s enough demand. 

  20. This book has a very interesting story, but I certainly wasn’t ready for it when I first read it.  Let me make it clear: this book is exactly as described above, and has touching, hilarious, and mostly thought provoking moments and anybody dismissing it as anthropomorphics is way off (it doesn’t fit in anything else in that genre that I have ever read).

    However, the art is extremely dark, and out of the 400 pages I would guess there are 30 to 40 pages that I could not even tell what the picture is.  Also, as mentioned, it is not a quick start.  There is a lot going on with a lot of characters, and if you wait awhile to read this you’ll be where I was at, which was confused.  I don’t know about anybody else that’s read it, but it took me rougly 1/3 of the book before I was even willing to guess what the storyline I was just reading was about.

    Still, a worthy addition to any collection, and certainly one of the books I will be revisiting again in the future.

  21. @cubsmodano  You are about spot on.  I also took a portion of the book to piece it together and there was some very dark art but worth everything vested into it.  If you are going to read this, be prepared to take your time and make it last over a few days.  I thought it worked best letting it seep in because it was very dense.  Fantastic review Tom

  22. Somehow I missed this article and I just sent out my christmas list a couple days ago.  Sad day for me.

  23. @ActualButt  Duncan is not any sort of vegan treatise.  While the terrorist themes make the story (or some of the plotlines within the story) political in nature, there is a much larger landscape to be explored within the pages.   There is an epic world being crafted within Duncan and it merits being explored.

  24. @vadamowens & gobo, I haven’t read the comic or the review, however, I found your back and forth and insight into the value of rating systems fascinating. 5/5.