Every once in awhile in the course of a year, a book gets my attention in a way that other books do not. Adam Hines' Duncan the Wonder Dog (coming out from AdHouse in September) is one of those books for 2010. I hope my gut instinct is right and that this book lands on many "best of" lists for 2010. Hines' story challenged me immensely in terms of the questions I wanted to ask--and thankfully he indulged my abundance of queries . Here's AdHouse's description of the book: "What if animals could talk? Would some of them form a militant group in reaction to how humans treat them? Would humans treat them different? Come explore this dense tome of an alternate universe where the lavish renderings recall Dave McKean." My thanks to AdHouse's Chris Pitzer for allowing me to get an advance peek at the book.
Tim O'Shea: How and why did you come up with the iconic dialogue aspects early on?
Adam Hines: It was a solution to a problem. I wanted to show crowds of people talking, but without ascribing them any real character beyond their appearance and only giving the conversations' general topics. It’s a nice little effect that can only be done in comics, and I thought a way to just fade into the world slowly, like hearing a conversation between two people far down a hall as you approach them.
O'Shea: When did you start on the book? How did it find its way to AdHouse?
Hines: I started writing the book in 2003 and finished it in late 2009. I had intended to self publish it myself, but upon receiving the Xeric grant and realizing their much appreciated contribution would fund only a third of the projected cost I decided to blindly submit it to comic publishers for further assistance. Instead of shot gunning it out to everyone imaginable I limited myself only to publishers whose books I liked, and of that handful AdHouse replied with the greatest enthusiasm. And I’m thankful they did because I’ve been very happy with the process so far.
O'Shea: Many of the pages in the story are multi-layered and multi-print media collages. Can you walk me through the production process of a page with an abundance of multiple layers?
Hines: Sure. After I’ve written and thumb nailed everything, I draw the panel borders onto the page within Photoshop. It’s the only bit of actual drawing I do on the computer and I relish the joyous ease, however brief. I then draw everything on cheap 8 ½ by 11 copy paper you can buy at any office supply store, and only if it requires paint or more substantial inks or washes will I really deviate from that. After I’m done I scan it all into Photoshop and shade and color each panel as separate files. I’ll then begin pasting the panels into their borders, changing the composition as I go to what I think works best for my purposes. Sometimes this will require me to draw a little more, but more often than not I’ll end up cropping huge parts of the picture because it ends up framing better in a way I didn't anticipate. Once all the panels are pasted up I’ll drop in the word balloons and put in the text using a font from my own handwriting since I have truly horrendous penmanship.
I wanted things to look a bit rough and pasted together, with texture and shadow apart from what’s being literally conveyed within the frames, so I’ll then gather materials and found objects that I want to use to border and augment the art and scan them in as well. This is quite often the longest part, slowly cutting and pasting and painting and scanning and arranging and playing with the levels and getting it so its still readable but effective and aesthetically interesting but also somewhat justifiable. All the placement is done on the computer, but giving everything a rough edge has to be done by hand, and sometimes what looks “right” in real life doesn’t translate well enough through the scanner’s eye so I have to find something else. In the end, the computer really just allows me to not have to worry about solvent transfers and the like; I can just copy and paste all the raw elements and slowly get it how I want.
O'Shea: What was the creative thinking behind setting part of the story in the mid-1950s (and using a Ezzard Charles & Rocky Marciano fight as part of the narrative framing)? In developing the book, did you research Charles & Marciano (as well as other historical periods) to a certain extent?
Hines: I can’t rightly explain the creative thinking behind it. Some of it was timing: I wanted to introduce the rhesus macaque Euclid and so that dictated the 1950’s. I also wanted to structure it around a boxing match and ultimately settled on the Charles/Marciano fight for its length and brutality. I did a lot of research when it was necessary, but most of it was fairly minor, making sure such and such thing exists in the correct time and place. And sometimes you have to take creative license but I like to have the knowledge to ignore.
O'Shea: About 30 pages into the book, I was blown away by how you chose to drop out almost all background for two pages after giving the dark and dense tone of the pages that had gone before. Did you make creative choices like that early in the planning stages or was that a creative choice you made in the revision process?
Hines: A bit of both. In that particular instance it was planned in the writing, but many times it will change as I draw it. The effect and pacing of comics is difficult to predict, at least for me, until I’m seeing it “work” (or not) right in front of me, and I’ll make a lot of on the fly choices that can change entirely how I had originally envisioned the scene to play out.
O'Shea: I'm always impressed when a storyteller forgoes dialogue or narrative of any kind for several pages, which you do frequently in this book. Before you had anyone read the book, how nervous were you about how those pages would be interpreted (or misinterpreted) or did you have confidence in those pages at the outset?
Hines: I’m never really afraid of misinterpretation. The reader’s relationship to comics is the most schizophrenic of all mediums as it combines so many disparate, even contradictory disciplines in one setting without the fire hose spray illusion of time passing that film can take advantage of. No one plainly processes comics in the exact same way, and I think it can be a benefit to the reader that theirs is a unique experience. Speaking to the more abstract, narration-less pages though, I wanted the book to have the pacing of an artist’s monograph, where you typically have big splashes of artwork followed by blank pages or blocks of critical text. I think the best art books have the effect of feeling like you’re walking through an art museum, with some halls being strictly maintenance. I like that more than a constant stream of story-story-story-panels-panels-panels.
O'Shea: On the flipside, I'm amazed at the intensity of the dialogue in other parts of the book (I'm thinking of page 138)--how did you decide when to utilize dialogue or not.
Hines: I write scripts first, then change everything when I thumbnail it, and change it more as I actually start to draw. At some point during the process it becomes clear which aspect – the art, or the “writing”, if there even is any – will take precedent, which half will get across what I’m most interested in. Generally if I was dealing with concrete, explicable ideas, I would place an emphasis on the writing, but as these things go it varies wildly and you can never really relegate any aspect to support for it to work.
O'Shea: OK, by the time I got to the dialogue in which one character reminded another character of Houston Stewart Chamberlain I was thrown. What was the intent of referencing a name like that, a relatively obscure (to me) historical figure who died in 1927, but whose writing was of great influence to the Nazis?
Hines: I liked the imagery of it, a mandrill delicately calling someone a Nazi without actually calling them a Nazi because he doesn’t want to overshoot his rhetoric and insult his friend. And I think it says as much about Voltaire, if not more, than it says about Vollmann, that this was the person of whom he was reminded. I also wanted to give the impression that he’s generally well read, but especially so in history and political philosophy. And I thought it was funny.
O'Shea: Given the density of the book (400 pages) is this a book that you hope people read again and again (like a complex film) to appreciate the nuances of what you're trying to execute?
Hines: Read it once and heave it into the garbage, folks, that’s all its good for. No, I think any author would be pleased to hear that someone had taken the time to read their book once, never mind twice or more. That kind of dedication isn’t anything you can really control or count on. It’s also very difficult to know what’s “nuanced” and what isn’t hugely obvious when you’re working on it. I personally like dense, packed works and wanted to create something similar, with many points of view and ways of storytelling. If someone does want to read it more than once, though, I would hope it’s because they enjoyed their time with it the first time so much that they want to have that experience again, and not because they feel like there’s a puzzle there that they have to solve.
O'Shea: What is your history with animals, did you grow up working on a farm and/or with pets?
Hines: I grew up with pets in a suburban-bordering-on-downright-rural community in Illinois. A lot of deer, a lot of possums, a lot of wildlife generally. Duncan was a real dog who we adopted when I was six who passed away four years ago. And my grandfather had a cow and horse farm that we would visit a lot. But otherwise I don’t think they were in my life to a greater extent than anyone else’s. It was very typical.
O'Shea: Were some of the pages actually drawn on legal pad paper or was that an effect you went for?
Hines: Just an effect. Everything’s typically scanned separately so I have more minute control over how it looks once assembled on the page. I rarely know how big or how small I want something until I see it on the screen in context, so even though it’s a little more time consuming than simply drawing on legal paper I prefer the end result if I piece everything together later.
O'Shea: Once you decided, OK this story's going to have talking animals, did you struggle finding the right voice for some of the animals?
Hines: Honestly, the most difficult part for me was writing for the animals at all. It was important to me to somehow strike a balance between giving them recognizable emotions and making them too human. I wanted to maintain a respectful distance, and reinforce the idea that their frames of reference for things would be at times so completely alien to us that even though, in this world, we can talk to each other in the same languages, genuine communication might still be impossible. I never wanted to anthropomorphize them too much, if that makes sense. I would sometimes pull them a little closer to us specifically for a laugh or because I found it amusing, but those instances are few, and otherwise it was a constant pressing concern for me.
O'Shea: Once you get to the end of the book, it's clear that this is merely one of a series. Will the future installments plot going forward or do you intend to go into the past history of some of this universe's dynamics?
Hines: Every volume will show a bit of the past as well as proceed forward, except for the middle fifth which will take place entirely in the past.
O'Shea: Anything you'd like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Hines: When are Sleater Kinney gonna get back together? It’s been four years already God.