At nearly 400 pages, this debut graphic novel by self-taught wunderkind Adam Hines is merely the opening salvo in what the artist forecasts will be a 2600-page epic in nine volumes, to be completed over the next twenty-five years, all about the fate of sentient beasts in an alternate timeline (otherwise resembling our own era) where “animal rights” means arguing with a weeping cow about why it needs to die for the benefit of its human overlords. Not since Dave Sim launched Cerebus on its three- decades-long road to completion has a creator embarked on such an ambitious and perhaps foolishly grandiose project. But judging by the obsessive meticulousness, craft and talent on display in Duncan, Hines stands a good chance of fulfilling his vision, barring a chance mortal encounter with a rogue pitbull objecting to any of his sentiments.
Let’s talk about the look of the book first. Hines believes in visual maximalism: incorporating a muchness of every possible style and format. His work quite often resembles that of David Mack in Kabuki, full of computer-assisted photorealism (do youngsters credit old-schoolers Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko with originating this device?), wodges of floating text, and a rare tactility derived from incorporating swatches of fabrics and natural objects. His baseline style of drawing is a simplified yet naturalistic cartooning, very evocative, which at times employs a “superdeformed” lens to indicate varying emotional or thematic states, much in the manner of Dan Clowes’s recent Wilson. Hines’s art eschews color, but he manages to evoke a wide spectrum from his black and white and greyscale palette, using washes nicely too. His page compositions are incredibly varied, and conducive to easy tracking of the narrative. When panel flow might prove confusing, Hines is not too proud to use the old-fashioned device of numbering his panels. Taken as a whole, this book aspires to the same heights of creative bricolage as David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp or Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland.
Hines’s story is very sophisticated science fiction as well. Echoing bits of Grant Morrison’s We3, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Orwell’s Animal Farm, the story focuses on a moment in time when Orapost, the terrorist group composed of animals fighting for their rights, has just staged another bombing. We follow the plight of on-the-run Orapost leader Pompeii, a macaque, and the various human law-enforcement officials on his trail, as well as other animals and humans both essential to the tale and peripheral. No explicit backstory about the genesis of this weird alternate continuum is given, but Hines drops sufficient hints involving time travel to tweak the reader’s interest in learning more in future volumes.
Besides creating well-rounded and intriguing human characters, Hines succeeds admirably at portraying the inner and outer lives of his animal protagonists. He dips into animal stream-of-consciousness. He makes the beastly dialogue—between animals alone, and between animals and humans—both homey and alien. He creates pathos around what could be ridiculous images: a rabbit holding a guitar, for instance, or a monkey reading a book in bed. These are not the anthropomorphized animals of Spiegelman’s Maus, after all, but the naturally evolved creatures we know. When a discontented dog asks its child master to please remove its collar, the import of sentience trapped in odd, unfitted forms is driven home.
The huge size of these pages (many pages feature a dozen or more panels) allows Hines to tell his story in both “decompressed” and “compressed” fashion. Individual incidents acquire the luxury of being stretched out, but the whole tale acquires a cumulative heft. If—or when—he completes his 2600 pages, he will have created a miraculously full and magnificent world of fur, feathers and flesh
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.