Now that it’s December, it’s safe to anoint the best debut graphic novel of the year. Adam Hines’ Xeric Grant-winning Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One is an incredible piece of work–a frantic science-fictional meditation on the relationship between people and animals, and a virtuosic display of Hines’ range and power as a cartoonist. (There’s a preview of it here.) It’s a densely packed 400-page slab of a book, planned as the first of a nine-volume series; this one’s almost entirely devoted to building up the world where the rest of the story will happen. (The title character doesn’t actually appear in this volume, although he’ll apparently turn up later.)
Duncan starts with a simple what-if premise–what would the world be like if animals could talk?–and extends that into a grand conflict of world-views as they manifest themselves in philosophy and language and visual perception. The plot of the book, at its core, involves the events around a terroristic animal-rights group led by a macaque named Pompeii, who’s prone to bursts of violent rage and psychotic monologues (or maybe the way she talks is just because she’s a macaque). “You give each other names you give everything names–to assert your place,” she rants to John in the copy of the Bible she’s reading. “But we have names too. We take the form of what brought us here–and we take the name of what we killed to stay.”
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Pompeii’s group has bombed a university, a couple of human agents are on their trail, and everything else seems to revolve around that–although there are red herrings and false paths all over the book, with dozens of characters introduced for sequences just a few pages long. But every scene, one way or another, touches on the relationships between the humans who believe the world belongs to them by rights, and the animals who aren’t so sure about that. And although the animals talk, they aren’t quite anthropomorphic, either: as in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3, with which it shares a touch of DNA, the animals in Duncan are animals rather than furry people, and their perceptions and concerns and desires are often so alien not only to humans but to other species that they can’t make themselves understood even in a shared tongue.
Hines is 26 years old, according to this fascinating interview with him; he says that this volume was put together over the course of about six years, and estimates that the rest of Duncan is going to take him another 25 years to finish. That’s an incredibly ambitious plan: occasionally young cartoonists will come up with some kind of epic, closed-ended project that’s going to take them decades to complete, and very few Anglophone cartoonists have actually pulled it off. (Dave Sim spent more than 26 years completing Cerebus, and beyond that, the closest anyone’s come is Jeff Smith’s 14 years of Bone.)
One thing Hines has going for him, though, is that he’s well past the stage of juvenilia. Duncan is named after the comic book he drew about his family dog beginning when he was six years old (yes: there was a dog named Duncan Hines, apparently), but this is the work of a fully formed artist and writer–which is remarkable for a first book. You can see some of his stylistic points of reference in his artwork (Chris Ware, Dave McKean, Ben Katchor, maybe Paul Hornschemeier), but he’s absorbed them into his own deliberate, design-rich aesthetic. He’s still finding his way as a writer–there’s a lot of mannered free association, and a few direct tributes to other writers’ styles (a scene near the end riffs on the “Ithaca” sequence of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance). But he’s got a terrific ear for dialogue that says a lot about his characters, even when we only get to read fragments of it.
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Fragmentation and noise, in fact, are not just the central style of the book, they’re its point. (Which is why it demands much more careful reading than most graphic novels of comparable length.) Visually, it’s very murky, entirely in grayscale and thickly layered with textures and images that are tough to make out. One scene of exposition happens in a snow storm that obscures its pages with speckles; another collages together “realistic” representations, a Beatrix Potter-ish storybook about its (gruesome) events, and torn-out bits of line drawings of birds commenting on what’s going on in abstract poetry, all obscuring each other.
Having to puzzle out what’s real and what’s relevant–filtering all the beautiful static out to be confronted with the terrible picture at its core–is exactly what Duncan is about: the clash of world-views that are incompatible with one another. Even Hines’ pictures and words often seem to be struggling against each other, to emphasize the idea that every character in his enormous, sprawling story is experiencing it differently on every level, from what’s important at any particular moment to what life is ultimately about.