Graphic novel created by a cartoonist named Adam Hines and released by AdHouse Books in 2010.

This basically came out of nowhere. It was a massive 400-page comic by a guy with little formal art training who had plans on making another half-dozen or more parts of the story over the next quarter-century. The scope of the story is dauntingly huge, with fascinatingly detailed and complex story, plotline, characters, and artwork -- all that, plus moral questions, too. Not too bad for a comic book about talking animals.

Yeah, talking animals. The story is set in a world much like our own, but animals -- all animals -- have human-level intelligence and can speak. You'd expect some massive changes to the world, right? And there are some -- one of the main characters is a wealthy gibbon named Voltaire who runs a megacorporation and lives with his human lover. Animal rights legislation is hotly debated in Congress, and the leading animal rights terrorist organization is, appropriately enough, run almost entirely by animals.

But a lot of the world is still running on the same rules as our own. Animals have few rights. People still own pets. People still eat hamburgers. There's a short vignette early in the story with a human fisherman and a water bird who are working together. The bird is upset because the fisherman isn't upholding his end of the bargain -- they had a deal where the fisherman would get the big fish and the bird would get the small fish. The fisherman says, too bad, I need all the fish today -- you can have the small fish again tomorrow. "I'm one of the only fishermen who will work you without a snare, but I can put one on if I need to." The bird knows he's beat, and he says, "I want... I want to eat today."

Just that little bit -- just five panels all together -- completely tore my heart out.

This isn't a world where humans accept that animal sapience entitles them to equal rights. This is a world that operates almost exactly the way our world works -- just with the added cruelty that everyone knows their bacon came from someone who can think the way they do. In fact, there's another scene where a couple of men try to persuade a cow on a trailer to go walk into that building over there -- all your friends are in there, they say, it's not like we'd feed you and take care of you and then just send you into a building to be killed, would we? And the cow eventually reveals that she noticed lots of hoofprints going in and none coming out, so she knew it was a slaughterhouse. That's a sharp, deductive mind in a freakin' cow -- and people in that world valued her only as a steak.

Adam Hines is certainly interested in animal rights, but he doesn't go and make all humans the villains and all animals the heroes. The story's most prominent and frightening antagonist is Pompeii, a Barbary macaque who leads the terrorist group ORAPOST. She bombs a university and murders multiple humans in cold blood. In a flashback, after a human ally of ORAPOST is killed, she declares that she wants to cut out the dead woman's unborn baby to keep for her own. She later discovers and reads a woman's diary detailing a loving and complex family life -- including great amounts of compassion and love for the family's pets -- Pompeii destroys the diary, unable to deal with any evidence of humans and animals living together cooperatively.

To be honest, I see a lot of what drives the story forward -- and certainly affects how readers respond to it -- as being less about animal rights and human rights, and more about simple empathy. If you have empathy, it's easy to put yourself in the metaphorical shoes of creatures that have the intellectual capacity of humans but are considered, at best, property. If you don't have empathy, you don't see what the fuss is about.

In a way, it's a story about human slavery and cultural conflicts. We can be a heartlessly cruel species to each other -- it used to be you could own and sell people, and there are still people who think other kinds of people are worth less than others. There are countries where the under-privileged are as crushed, as abused, as exploited as valuable pack animals. Are the humans in the story who are comfortable owning and eating sentient creatures really all that different from the rest of us?

I could go on and on about this forever, but suffice it to say -- the philosophical and moral background of this story is absolutely fascinating to me.

Art-wise, what're we looking at? In places, the art is cartoonish -- not a bad thing, as simple cartooning often does a better job of communicating emotion than detailed artwork. But Hines also has his share of beautiful detailed artwork here, including amazing landscapes, abstract images that go on for page after page, and portions of the story told through typography. And again, this was all created by one guy, over the course of several years, just because he wanted to tell his own story and draw his own artwork.

"Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show One" has great art, a great story, and mind-expanding philosophy. I think you should go pick it up.

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