One of the most ambitious graphic novels we’ve encountered in recent years, Adam Hines’ new book, Duncan the Wonder Dog, is a multi-volume fictional comics work set in an otherwise naturalistic world where animals can talk and debate the consequences of their treatment by humans. Introduced at the recent Small Press Expo, Duncan the Wonder Dog is Hines’ first published work and it will be published this month by AdHouse Books.
Densely illustrated using an inventive process that combines illustration, collage and digital media, Duncan the Wonder Dog offers a sumptuously illustrated story that combines deep emotion, engaging narrative complexity and a vividly evoked intellectual conflict as a background to its depiction of violence and action. While comics have a long history of humorous talking animals, Duncan the Wonder Dog offers something a little different: a serious and entertaining fictional meditation on the relations between humans and animals. The book has been chosen as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010 and PW Comics Week was able to discuss the creation of the book with Hines and talk to him to about his background and his approach to making comics.
PW Comics Week: May I ask your age and can you give me some information on your background, like where you were born, what schools did you attend and where do you live?
Adam Hines: I'm 26. I was born in Chicago and grew up in a small suburb in Illinois, and I went to Pasadena Art Center as an Illustration major for a few weeks before dropping out. I live in Southern California.
PWCW: Where did your interest in comics and making comics begin? Do you have formal training in cartooning?
AH: I became enamored with golden age comic strips when I was little, and my parents would bring me to used book stores to find old hardbound collections of Dick Tracy, Barney Google, Peanuts, Little Nemo and the like. Eventually I discovered Batman and Spider-Man but never had the same connection. I made comics because I liked to write and draw and wanted to do both at the same time, and the stories usually revolved around the family dog, Duncan, in some fashion. I don’t have any formal training, no.
PWCW: Could you give me a summary/overview of Duncan the Wonder Dog? We’d love to hear your take on what the book is about, how it was made and can you tell us when started working on it?
AH: The series is about the differences, similarities and connections between humans, animals and the natural world, and the first book is an introduction to the workings of the world and a solid chunk of the main characters. I started writing the script in my last year of high school, and slowly edited it to a vague jumbling of words that only sort of resembles the finished product. I hadn’t made a Duncan the Wonder Dog comic in a few years at that point, but after reading the Dark Horse reprints of Akira and enjoying that experience to the extent that I did, I wanted to do a similar series of book length graphic novels. I otherwise don’t typically like serial narratives, but I appreciated that it was a way to tell a long and complex story but still provide a fulfilling reading experience in each installment. So I charted out the nine books and started working on the first one, and only just finished at the beginning of this year.
PWCW: What is the significance of the Rocky Marciano/Ezzard Charles title fight (the fight took place at Yankee Stadium in 1954) that starts the book off, to a world of talking animals and their conflicts with humans?
AH: I opened with that specific fight because a) the time period was right for Euclid the monkey and b) it was a long and bloody bout that ended in a referee decision. Also, I wanted to contrast the human’s intense interest in the match, almost to the disregard of all else, and the animals not only not caring, but not even knowing it was taking place at all
PWCW: The book’s narrative is shaped around the discussion of pending legislation that will controls the rights of animals and this legislation seems to loom over the actions of many of the book’s characters. Can you tell us more about the Wildlands Bill (I believe that’s what it’s called) and its relationship to the central characters.
AH: The Wildlands Bill has no greater purpose other than to demonstrate Vollmann’s willingness to bend the rules and circumvent the law to accomplish what he feels is right. [Vollman is a bureaucratic figure who runs a government agency overseeing animal control]. As alluded to in the book, it started out as legislation that would potentially help ranchers—think of it as a less comprehensive version of the Farm Credit Act—but, through a slow accumulation of tampering and riders, had become something that would make it easier for government to seize property.
PWCW: Your central narrative is often interrupted by interludes that feature parables, stylistic variations in the cartooning, long prose sections or characters that seem to be offering philosophic or historical arguments targeting the themes of the book. Can you give me some perspective on those sections, such as the one involving the household pets, Polly the cat and Bundle the small dog?
AH: I like tangents and interludes that comment on the story proper, and I think the comics format can possibly utilize that technique better than any other medium. I wanted to show how full the world was, and that the story we were watching was not the only thing going on. I make a lot of jumps through space and time, and I wanted to pay respect, as it were, to the parts I was just skipping over by stopping and giving a few pages here and there to characters that didn’t fall under our direct focus. And I was after a specific, lazy flow to the book, where we pick up strands of stories and meander a bit. I didn’t want it to feel rushing ahead or urgent. And specifically to the Polly and Bundle section, that, for me, was the heart of the book, and while it seems like a digression, a worry of mine was to make sure everything else surrounding it made it “work.”
PWCW: Everyone (that includes me) seems to cite the influence of cartoonist Chris Ware when they talk about Duncan the Wonder Dog. Would you agree that he is an influence on your work and are there other contemporary artists who you consider influential to your work, or who you just happen to like. Who do you read among today's comics creators?
AH: I've stolen from a lot of artists, and Chris Ware is undoubtedly one of them. In particular, I've always loved his pacing—it feels, to me, like you're watching his strips unfold in "real time", and I've striven to emulate that feeling of graceful regularity. People have also pointed to my panel compositions as another example, but that honestly comes more from problem solving and wishing to layer the communication then a deliberate aping. Regardless, I think Chris Ware is one of those few artists in any medium whose work was so consequential that it requires a reckoning from any future artists who follow. Even if you don't take anything from him, he can't simply be ignored; he must be consciously and purposely dismissed.
As for other contemporary comics artists who I read and take from, Ben Katchor is a huge influence on me, as is Edmund Baudoin and Jacques Tardi. Dominique Goblet, Naoki Urasawa and Vincent Fortemps I frequently look to for guidance. Pierre Duba is another. I like Paz Boira's work a lot, and Frederic Coche, especially Hortus Sanitus. And if he was still producing, Yoshiharu Tsuge would be foremost on this list. But I take something from everything I read.
PWCW: Can you describe your drawing techniques?
AH: I don’t know if I can, really. It isn’t well thought out. Mostly everything is drawn on cheap copy paper, and only when painting or deep washes are required will I use anything sturdier. I draw everything separately; the characters first, then the backgrounds, then make any textures I’ll need, and then I’ll scan everything into the computer. From there it’s a matter of putting everything together and shading it in with Photoshop, then going back and augmenting the art with materials and fabric and whatever else would be appropriate.
That’s my typical routine, and probably 19 out of every 20 pages were done that way, with the 20th being completely drawn and painted and finished by hand, and only would the contrast or brightness be adjusted on the computer at that point. But generally I prefer the level of control you get with Photoshop. Other than the panel arrangement, I rarely know how things will fit together until I’m looking at them on the page, so it helps to be able to change things on the fly. I really only have one rule, in that I don’t actually draw anything with the computer except for the panel borders
PWCW: Why did you settle on using a gray-scale, especially since you use such a rich variety of materials and techniques? While the book is still incredibly atmospheric and visually rich, the process is almost contradictory since the gray-scale seems to flatten the imagery and dampen some of its emotional impact.
AH: A few reasons. For one thing, the books of Duncan the Wonder Dog, since the first issue when I was a kid, have always been done with pen and ink interiors with a color cover, and while it may seem unwise to take aesthetic cues from a six year old, much of the book's design is how it is because of how I did it back then, including the size and the title. Second, I personally find it harder to "bridge the gap" between my own subjective view of the world and the artist's in full color comics, particularly ones that are long; I find unless they are drawing in a predominantly symbolic, simplified nature, it cements too many of the particulars and creates a bit of a wall. And third, I didn’t want the animals to stand out from the humans more than they already do. Giving everyone only one color helps deaden the difference.
PWCW: Does Duncan the Wonder Dog reflect your own relationship to animals or is it an allegory that reflects on any relationship that hinges on a historical legacy of power?
AH: I feel it would be an abuse of my role to dissuade anyone from any reading of the book, no matter how far off the path of intent it may stray. But I will say that when making it I was thinking only of the topics being directly discussed, and that animals and our relationship to them was my only concern
PWCW: Is there really another volume coming?
AH: Yes, there are really eight more volumes of this. People have looked at me dubiously when they hear it, but it's the truth. I feel as if I’ve just gotten married, and at the reception everyone's coming up and saying, "Honestly now, how long do you think this will last?" The only way it's not getting finished is if I die first, which I'll admit is a distinct possibility.
PWCW: Eight more volumes with the same depth, nuance and invention of this one is pretty impressive. Just how long do you think it will take you to complete?
AH: Another twenty five years. That's about four to five years per book, except for shows three and four, and six and seven which will be shorter, and come out within a year of each other. The entire story is around 2600 pages. It's a commitment, to be sure, but I'll never run out of interest, and I plan on doing smaller things in between each installment to recharge.
PWCW: Is there anything else we should know about Duncan the Wonder Dog that would amplify its themes and our understanding and enjoyment of the book?
AH: The panel design is heavily based on mathematical principles and, beyond that, math in general is a very large part of the book. But other than that I made it with the aim that it be an ultimately life-affirming book, so I hope people see it as such, and not a downer or anything.