An interview with Adam Hines, author of ‘Duncan the Wonder Dog’
Hi Adam, let’s start with a brief introduction: can you tell our readers something about you like your age, where you live and what is your job?
I’m 30. I live in a small, Northern California town called Larkspur and my day job is writing video game stories for Telltale Games.
How would you summarize the plot of the first volume of Duncan the Wonder Dog for someone who hasn’t read it yet?
Duncan the Wonder Dog is the first of a series of nine books about a world where every living creature can think and talk just like humans, and how that would change (or not change) how we live together. I would also warn them that its largely plotless, slow moving, and primarily concerned with playing host to rambling conversations about nature and religion and other self-serious topics I am wholly unqualified to write about.
Can you tell us how and when did the idea for Duncan the Wonder Dog arise for the first time?
In 1990, when I was about six, my family adopted a small, mixed-breed dog we summarily named Duncan due to his close resemblance to a small piece of chocolate cake. Even as a puppy, he was very intelligent, kind of detached, but still very loving. I was immediately enamored with him. Not one month later, my father and I were walking through what I believe had to have been a section of the Chicago Pedway past a tiny comics stand, and – infatuated with Tim Burtons recent Batman movie – whined enough that he bought me my first ever comic books: Batman #452-454, the Dark Knight, Dark City story written by Peter Milligan. I remember being entranced by the Mike Mignola covers and then becoming only slightly disappointed that the art inside was quite different. Conflating my newest brother, Duncan, with the eponymous character I was then obsessed with, I began drawing Duncan the Wonder Dog comics which, at the time, was basically vigilante stories populated entirely with talking animals. The stories changed as I did, and I just never stopped making them.
Duncan the Wonder Dog is a very ambitious editorial project: nine volumes, 2600 pages to be completed in the next 25 years. In comics the only similar editorial projects that come to my mind are Cerebus by Dave Sim and Age of Bronze by Eric Shanower: have you already planned the overall plot of all the other 8 volumes of Duncan the Wonder Dog? In the meantime are you going to draw something else in the years to come?
The overall plot is very loosely defined but yes, it’s there. Between books I plan to take breaks and do other work, though mostly writing, so I don’t get burned out.
You’ve been lucky because you’ve found a publisher (AdHouse Books) who believes in such complex and long-lasting editorial project: what’s your opinion about the alternative choice, self-publishing?
I was fortunate enough that AdHouse agreed to publish the first book on faith that there would be more coming eventually; Chris Pitzer, the owner, has been a great support, and without him it would have been very difficult to get the book into stores or drum up any interest in it at all. If he had said no, I would have self-published, and I suppose I’d been happy enough with whatever result came of it.
Why did you choose to offer for free on your personal website the reading of the entire first volume of Duncan the Wonder Dog?
Depending on the day and my mood, I have semi-strong feelings about art being free and upholding the separation between art and commerce and trying to do things for the right reasons and blah blah blah. But the short of it is that it was important to me that people be able to just read the damned thing if they want to and not be worried about finding it in a library (a rarity) or paying for it. I’ll be doing the same thing with every volume, but I think I’ll continue to wait until the first printing either a) sells out or b) has at least been out for a few months because I’d still prefer people read it in book form since its been carefully and explicitly designed for that format. Having it online also helps because the sloth-like pace of book production can sometimes mean theres large gaps of time between printings, and if its constantly on my site theres no down time so to speak.
YOUR VISUAL STYLE
First of all the physical size of your book: why did you choose this format, with every page almost as big as an A4 paper?
Since I was a kid, I’ve drawn Duncan on 8.5 X 11 inch copy paper and stapled them together when I was finished, and changing the format would have been asking for misfortune, like washing your jersey on the day of the big game.
Your name is not on the cover of the book, not even on the spine. The only visible details are the title, a full page image of a sheep on a red background and what I suppose to be the logo of the series, nine circles interconnected one with each other: can you explain us your graphic and layout choices?
It felt garish to put my name on it; the project is enough of an affectation, I donìt need to compound the vanity. And the nine circles will be the consistent emblem of the book; I like how it looks, and it felt right. My design sensibilities and layout choices are all, in the end, gut-check stuff. I move things around and take things out and put things in and change the textures and switch things around until I can look at it and immediately get the feel of what I’m going after.
Visually speaking Duncan the Wonder Dog seems to me to be influenced by the works of Chris Ware (Building Stories, Acme Novelty Library), Dave McKean (Cages, Mr. Punch) and Bill Sienkiewicz (Stray Toasters, Big Numbers): do you agree with this? Are there living artists/illustrators/comic creators or artists/illustrators/comic creators of the past who are a source of inspiration for your drawings?
Those three artists you listed have been huge, titanic influences on me, particularly Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work I discovered in Junior High when I read the Frank Miller penned, Daredevil comic Love and War.
My most significant inspirations are all childrens book illustrators. Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad Are Friends and various Poetry anthologies), Stephen Gammell (Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, Song and Dance Man), Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit stories) and E. H. Shepard (Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows) are the primary artists that made me want to draw and tell stories.
Second to those four would be Charles Schulz, Billy DeBeck, and Chester Gould, along with a host of various illustrators whose work I would catch and absorb throughout my childhood, such as T. S. Sullivant’s animal drawings, Heinrich Kley, Gustave Dore, Wallace Morgan’s illustrations for My Four Weeks in France, Alphonse de Neuville’s military paintings, etc, etc.
Today, Edmond Baudoin, Jacques Tardi, Yoshiharu Tsuge and Ben Katchor would be my favorite living cartoonists; Saul Steinberg, Harvey Kurtzman, George Herriman and Osamu Tezuka would be my favorite deceased.
Have you studied art or illustration?
I haven’t. I went to the Pasadena Art Center for a few weeks before deciding it was not worth the money, since I didn’t anticipate nor really want to make my living drawing. It’s better for me to have it be a separate thing.
Which kind of drawing tools/techniques do you use?
Too many. Most of the book is drawn with cheap pens on cheap paper you can buy in any office supply store, then scanned in and colored (with gray scale) on a computer in Photoshop. Sometimes I’ll paint with acrylics and water colors, and sometimes I’ll just use pencils, and I’ll also frequently grab boards or wood or tarp or carpeting or rugs or other materials with textures I find interesting and incorporate them into the pages.
Why do you mix different drawing styles in the same page, for example cartoonish and simple sketches for characters vs. photorealistic and accurate drawings for the landscapes and the backgrounds, and why do you use very often graphic collage with every kind of items?
The most honest answer is the most boring answer, and it’s that I simply like how it looks. But I also wanted the book to specifically appear as if it was cobbled together from many different and disparate sources, that it wasn’t created by just one person. The story jumps around so much in time and space that I felt it appropriate the books design scheme mirrored the same hitches and jumps with sudden turns in style and cadence.
The dark tone of many pages in the book sometimes makes the reading experience difficult: why did you choose to use only a greyscale palette?
The book originally came out darker than I would have wanted, but subsequent printings I thought struck the right balance. I’ve heard complaints also that the text is too small. And maybe when I’m older and my glasses are thicker I’ll regret these decisions, but for now I’m fine and happy with how it reads. And I always drew the book in black and white since I was a kid, and I like, if anything, the consistency of that.
Which role does the lettering have in the creation of your work?
When the characters talk at each other, the lettering is a font of my own handwriting. I have terrible penmanship, and it would have taken probably another ten years if it wasn’t aided by a computer. In other cases when the words are more directly ingrained with the artwork, I treat it like anything else.
Are you going to use the same drawing style of the first volume also for the other eight books of Duncan the Wonder Dog or are you considering some changes in it?
It will largely be the same. Probably identical, really. So, uh, if anyone out there didnt like the first one and was thinking of giving the second another go, you most likely shouldn’t bother.
YOUR STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES
When you read the first pages of Duncan the Wonder Dog you feel catapulted directly and without any previous explanations in this strange parallel world where animals can talk: this narrative device often puzzles the readers so why did you choose to start the book like this?
I don’t mind puzzling readers, since I don’t mind feeling puzzled myself. And when reading a story or watching a movie I’d rather feel momentarily lost than the sensation that the authors were purposefully slowing down to hold my hand. I dislike exposition, unless otherwise necessary. I enjoy the feeling when reading a book that the writer isnt writing to me at all, but to a dear friend with whom they share many inside jokes, uncommon languages, secret histories, and other strange asides that I can only imagine what they mean. I cherish specificity above all things in art, a desire to convey something in a manner specifically personal to the author, even if it means leaving a portion (sometimes a large portion) of the audience behind.
The plot goes on in a non-linear way, with frequent spatial and temporal jump-cuts. Yes, we have main four characters (Voltaire, Aaron Vollmann, Jack Hammond, Pompeii) but it seems to me that the real protagonist of the first volume is the structure of the story itself, in other words the flow of the many parallel human and animal stories all united to build a single framework of evident and hidden connections: is it your way to express that the human vision of things is just one of many other possible visions available in the nature?
Yes, partly. I also just like big stories, and get bored easily.
Digressions seem to be the real narrative engine of the book: is because of this that you’ve frequently included in your book many different storytelling techniques like fairy tales, folkloristic stories, religious parables and literary quotes? This narrative collage, this variety of storytelling approaches and fragmentation of different styles, is a very post-modern way to depict the ineffable complexity of the world.
Rauschenberg was one of my favorite artists, and I’ve always been moved by his ability to take what seems to be just about everything he’d ever seen and place it into his work, along with the little corners of expression he would put off-center almost just to amuse himself. I hope Duncan feels as full as that.
The names in the book: why do the animals have the names of mathematicians and philosophers of the classical Latin/Greek world? Is it a way to better descrive the behaviour of the characters? Why did you choose “Organosi Apostasia”, organized heresy, for the name of the animal terrorist group?
I care a lot about the names of things in stories. Some writers don’t. Theres a slightly funny anecdote I think I remember reading that said that apparently Katsuhiro Otomo didn’t give really two seconds of thought to what any of his characters were named; whatever first random thing pops into his head is whatever it will be. I’m the same way with how characters look, but I’ll ponder what to name them for a while. I usually don’t like to discuss stuff like this because I’d prefer readers just fill in the blanks on their own – nothing kills a story I love faster than over-explaining background details and overriding the personal connections I’d already made with the work – but this seems somewhat harmless enough: I decided to give every animal a Greek/Roman name because of a couple reasons. I’ve always enjoyed reading the survived texts of philosophers, mathematicians, military tacticians, etc written during antiquity, and wanted to keep a link to that. And narratively I wanted to somewhat imply that during that period humans went one way in their thinking, and animals stayed the same.
In the book there are a lot of pages with silent landscapes, without dialogues or characters: do you use them like a sort of narrative pauses or do they have a specific meaning in the overall story?
My favorite books as physical objects are easily artist monographs and museum exhibition catalogues. I love their typical design approach of big walls of text followed by pictures followed by big blank pages, almost like walking through a museum itself, where some spaces are purely functional; interstitials supporting the show. I wanted Duncan to feel the same way, so I designed it much the same.
PHILOSOPHY AND ANIMAL WELFARE
Duncan the Wonder Dog starts with a prologue/prelude about ideas like the real nature of mathematics, the purpose of the art and the meaning of “good” according to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (who was also vegetarian, by the way). Then we see a brief fairy tale which serves to introduce the Hinduist/Buddhist concept of “dharma”: can you better explain to us which role do these ideas have in your story?
The Pythagoras prelude will be brought up later in the series, and it was a nicely worded introduction to set up the book. And the dharma section was to show how these animals have heard human concepts and sort of adopted them for their own ends. So the tiger explains to Euclid her version of dharma to comfort him, which concerns the worlds natural flowing order and each persons place within its course.
In the book you frequently mention philosophical topics like the ethics of violence in terrorism and the power of the language as oppression tool on minorities: have you studied philosophy or are you just passionate about it?
No, I haven’t studied it. I have no formal education in anything, really. I just enjoy reading about it, having some thoughts of my own, mixing it all up and regurgitating it upon the page in a fashion Im sure would embarrass those who participate in it seriously. I guess you could say I’m passionate about philosophy in that its a way to consistently admit over and over how ignorant we are of all things, but also not relent in the search for a sort of meaning in the world, however constructed that meaning may be.
In Duncan the Wonder Dog you’ve chosen to make the animals able to speak the human language: aren’t you afraid of the potential risk of anthropomorphism and projection of our feelings and thoughts on animals?
Anthropomorphism is impossible to avoid, but I try to mitigate it by having scenes peppered throughout depicting animals doing inscrutable things, things that we would find completely insane if we witnessed a human being doing the same. I use these to try and have jabbing reminders that animals live with codes of conduct and points of reference entirely apart from our ways of experience – and each animals entirely apart from each other – and that its foolish for me to try and speak for them.
Do you think it’s really possible to enter the “black box” which is the animal mind and to really understand, for example, what it is like to be a bat (the famous mental experiment coined by the philosopher Thomas Nagel)?
It’s impossible to enter another person’s mind, let alone an animal. We are all in our own boxes, and the gaps between language and communication are filled in by art; what we can put into plain words, we don’t have to paint. Thankfully, we can’t put much of human experience into plain words.
The language, the act of naming the things around us, seems to be real difference between human beings and animals: human beings use words as tools to separate themselves from the rest of the natural world and to define rules of social behaviour. Do you think that if animals could talk they would behave differently from us?
Wittgenstein famously said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him” and I am certainly not one to argue with Wittgenstein. If you go from country to country, town to town, human beings alone have enough difference between our respective cultures that make us impenetrable to one another. If animals could talk, I think it would be that lack of understanding times a million.
Pompeii and her animal terrorist group, Orapost, use very frequently violence for their own goals: how does the violence of rebellious animals is different or better compared to the violence of human beings?
I would imagine humans see violence very differently from animals, wrapped as we are in our layered systems that try and prevent such outbursts. The average person would rarely, if ever, have to kill someone to protect their children, or kill the food they need to eat and survive. The average person rarely fears for their life in any serious way; for animals, however, its a pervasive standard of being. Human beings dont really need to be violent, ever, and yet we are, and against each other, and frequently, so the gratuitousness of it must place it lower on the morally justifiable spectrum. But it’s almost pointless to compare, because animals would surely have very different moral compasses as their realities and the priorities those realities dictate are so radically different. However, Pompeii uses political violence, so it’s as tainted as our own violence, I would think, and much the same.
Do you know Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan and WE3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, two comics which have already covered the topic of animal welfare in the past?
I had read WE3 when it came out, and didn’t particularly like it. I’m a great admirer of Frank Quitely’s art, and while I think Grant Morrison is an always interesting writer with enough ideas for five lifetimes, his work runs hot and cold with me. I’m afraid that this fell on the cold side. I’m not sure why, though I remember feeling benumbed by the gruesome violence. I’ve heard of Elmer but haven’t gotten around to reading it.
Which is your personal idea of balance in the relationship between human beings and animals?
Simply, that we leave each other alone.