LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES
Last year, “Asterios Polyp” won as the graphic novel category was introduced at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The five finalists in the category this year have been announced and the winner will be named April 29. Leading up to the awards ceremony, we will be looking at each of the finalists. Today: “Duncan the Wonder Dog.”
“Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One,” set in a world where animals can talk, reason and even revolt, is a massive, lavishly drawn first installment in what Hines plans will be a nine-volume epic. Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark caught up with the author, Adam Hines.
NC: How did this project get started, and what inspired you to write about the relationship between animals and humans?
AH: “Duncan the Wonder Dog” was originally a comic book series I created when I was 6, based on my dog, Duncan, who we had only just acquired at the time. I was interested in comic strips, Batman and talking animal cartoons — and was frustrated by the creators’ inconsistencies when it came time to imbue them with fertile consciousnesses – why could Donald Duck talk and Pluto couldn’t? The comics I made reflected this, a mish-mashy conflagration of all of those influences and whatever else from pop culture I had absorbed during the week. The book that exists now is only a few yards away from those original issues, but the focus is of course on what interests me now. I only decided to take it slightly more seriously in high school, where I wrote the first draft and outlined the series. And to answer why I wanted to write about the relationship between animals and humans, it’s that it was rare for me to see one that wasn’t intended to be a parable for some other political injustice, and it’s a topic that’s of great importance to me.
NC: Can you tell us more about Duncan? We didn’t see that much of him in “Show One.”
AH: Yes, Duncan was the family dog, a terrier poodle mutt, so named for his resemblance to a small black piece of chocolate cake when he was a puppy (by the time he was 2, however, all his black coloring, except for the tip of his tail, had changed to a light brown). He was an unusual dog, and very intelligent. He liked to be around us but still left to his own devices. My main concern, above all else, is to accurately capture his unique temperament. Duncan is the focus of the series, and “Show One” serves to introduce the world and him, but only at the end.
NC: Is your book advocating for animal-rights causes, or is it meant to be more allegorical?
AH: Animal welfare is very important to me, and the series is not meant to be allegorical, though I suppose it matters little what I intended it to be. It will be what it will be for whoever wants to read it, and I would not want to influence anyone’s personal take by my original intent.
NC: Was it difficult to write dialogue for animals? In several places, I could read the words, but had trouble ascertaining the meaning, as though the animals were speaking another dialect or language. Was this intentional?
AH: It’s intentional, and it was hard. I didn’t want the animals to veer so far into anthropomorphism as to become indistinguishable from the human characters, but I also wanted them to be at least somewhat relatable. I wanted to pay respect to their otherness, though, by sometimes writing in verse or abstraction to reinforce that divide between us.
NC: You use multiple mediums, and the complexity of the story seems to be echoed in the art. Can you tell us about your artistic process and style?
AH: It’s a big story with lots of little tangents and I wanted the art to reflect that diversionary tone. I wanted the book to feel like it had been culled together from many different disparate elements, and I was only the editor sewing them together. And, as a narrative device, I wanted the reader to be able to tell instantly that the book had changed scenes just by the texture of the paper or how the background was drawn. It just helps keeps things in order.
NC: Your book tackles philosophy in a very unique way. Did you study philosophy? How did you assign different philosophical perspectives to different animals?
AH: I’ve never studied anything in any sort of “official” context; I’m an amateur in every respect. Philosophy as a practice is just endlessly fascinating to me, but you can get into trouble when using it as a guide for character motivations or actions. People just aren’t that intellectually explicable. But I wanted early on to show that not only are wild animals very different from humans, but every animal is very different from every other kind of animal. And as for assigning them different perspectives, there was no set system or approach. It was only what felt right for that character or scene.
NC: What about mathematics?
AH: Mathematics are a big part of the book, and a huge overriding part of the series, and will get more prominent as the books go on. For “Show One,” though, it is mostly used as framing devices, ways to set up the panels. I wanted it to always be there, but mostly in the background, supporting the story.
NC: And can you talk about why you named the animals the way you did? Many shared names with famous thinkers.
AH: I struggled with what the animals’ names should be for a while. I think, in all honesty, they probably shouldn’t have names at all, but it would be a big issue to not be able to have characters refer to themselves in such a way, and it would have only continued to get more complicated as the series went on and more characters were introduced. But the exact reasoning for their names is something that will be talked about more as the series progresses.
NC: I found the story of Bundles, a family’s beloved pet dog, to be one of the most moving segments of the book. Can you tell us a little about how it came about and why it is so significant?
AH: I had once thought to include a section that would go through a family’s day, and sort of expose how often they use animal-based conveniences (like animal-tested medicines, eating meat at a restaurant, etc., etc.), but quickly decided against it because that’s a horrible idea that would read as finger-wagging at best and obscene at worst. But I liked the nugget of it, of simply presenting a family’s life for a bit, so I distilled it to something more basic, and it became a story of this wealthy American family who happen to have pets and how that relationship works. It was important to me that the family be likable — innocuously so — and to have it be clear that they genuinely love this dog and cat, and want to do right by them. When all was said and done it became what I viewed as the anchor to the book, the sequence for which the rest of the “plot” revolves around. I’m glad you liked it.
NC: Throughout the book, animals share fables to explain their worldview and their relationships with each other and with humans. Did you come up with the fables the animals tell?
AH: They are well-known stories that I have altered slightly to demonstrate the differences in animals’ thinking to our own. The story Euclid tells of the “Devil’s Bridge” in Italy is based on the Ponte della Maddalena, though there are many bridges around the world with a similar legend as it was apparently common in Medieval times. The fable the lion tells in return is a version of the “The Scorpion and the Frog,” and the story a dog hears later in a classroom through a puppet show is “The Three Dogs,” a German fairy tale.
NC: What’s next for you?
AH: A few different things to take a break between books, but those are just diversions to recharge. The real next work is “Show Two.”
– Noelene Clark
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