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David Hughes:

Walking The Dog

A highly acclaimed British illustrator for books and magazines, David Hughes is not well-known in graphic novel circles, at least not until now with the publication of his debut magnum opus from Jonathan Cape. It’s an extraordinary work, to my mind, and below is my review of it written for The Times Literary Supplement. David Hughes is also one of the judges of this year’s Graphic Short Story Prize organised by Comica, Jonathan Cape and The Observer. Are you an aspiring graphic novelist? Do you have an original story to tell? Enter and you could win £1,000 and see your story printed in The Observer. Closing date for entries is 6 October 2010. Full details here…

Comics have traditionally been undemanding entertainment. A reader tends to bring certain expectations: that they will be easy to read, require no more than modest effort, and reward with a punchline, neat plot twist or resolution by the end, with at least some engaging narrative along the way. David Hughes confounds those expectations. His goals are not transparent, his techniques are not glib, his subjects are not always digestible or palatable. Hughes is off-the-leash and running. As a lauded illustrator’s illustrator, he is all the better for being new to the supposed rules of the graphic novel, because he brings invention, wit, confusion and occasional anarchic genius. From neat manuscript or inky typewriting to photo-collages, dense comics or full-page pictures, there is no preparing for what will confront you with each turn of the square page.

In conventional comics, the artist uses pencil drawings only for rough layouts, left unseen, which are defined in ink for reproduction. It’s true that a few autobiographical cartoonists, such as Joe Kubert in Yossel and Willy Linthout in Years Of The Elephant, have deliberately kept their pencils raw and uninked for their final printed books. But here Hughes makes his finished drawings almost entirely in pencil, not as loose, spontaneous rehearsals but the subtlest, crispest of mark-makings, their notations slow, considered, exact, however falsely naïve and child-like they appear at times. Far from the uniform, perfected ‘Clear Line’ of Tintin‘s creator Hergé, Hughes modulates his graphite greys in weight, texture and hue, hard and fragile, sharp and smudgy, which make you aware of the hand and mind behind them, pausing, thinking, making a line go for a walk, as Paul Klee put it.

In 2008, Hughes told Esquire magazine that he was working on “a sketchbook called Walking The Dog. It’s literally about walking the dog, but it touches on murder, suicide, and death. It’s semi-autobiographical.” Which half do we believe? The first episode, “The Boy Who Was Cruel to Insects”, seems like a pre-existing piece, drawn in black ink rather than grey pencil onto sixteen faded sheets, four per page. How much of this boy aged 7 1/2, whose love of maiming and torturing ants, earwigs and other wildlife drives him to dismember his own mother (*), might be the young David? It’s an augur of disturbing family traumas to come, real and imagined. (* Note: Subsequently, David Hughes informed me that the boy in fact dismembers himself, so embarrassed apologies to David and to his mother for my misreading here.)

Presumably amongst the book’s true half is his 50th birthday present, a “whft” or wire-haired fox terrier named Dexter, prescribed by his doctor and bought by his wife to make him take more exercise. Illustration is a sedentary occupation, not helped by Hughes’ drinking and high blood pressure. He initially caricatures himself as a large-headed balding baby, in denial about his faltering health. Once he and Dexter set out on their walks, Hughes draws himself as a Jacques Tati-like figure in outlined hat and coat, as the dog-walking forces him to socialise with complete strangers, usually directing attention towards each other’s dog rather than to the fellow human beings at the other end of the lead. In these temporary acquaintances, the dogs become “our glue”.  More than one passer-by comments on Dexter’s resemblance “a Tin Tin [sic] dog” and in one case, Hughes grumbles back, “Yeah, more like Captin Fuckin’ Haddock.” Hughes does have the swearing in common, and the booze too. Unlike Tintin and Snowy, Hughes and Dexter only occasionally seem to converse. With prickly gloom as a default setting, Hughes seems oblivious to Dexter’s in-the-moment vivacity, so much so that the dog says “Even breathing must annoy you.”

Characters in Western comics walk from left to right, because that’s where the next panel, and the future, lie, but Hughes can disrupt that flow into a sinuous path snaking down the page, suggesting the back-and-forth route and routine of walking a dog. Some multi-track pages require close re-reading with up to four different narrations at once. Additionally, Hughes footnotes his family and working life, logging the time he takes to draw, weather reports, world news, bird-spotting. That said, he draws virtually no landscape or nature observed on his walks and about the only tree in the book is his Family Tree, its trunk shaped like a gnarled profile of the man himself.

Hughes insists he cannot “even draw a joke to save his life” but he does compose some perfectly timed routines. Look closely and you can see that, when he has to start carrying a little black bag of poop, he keeps his little finger sticking out, dainty, untainted. Later, the bag disposed of between images, he feels free, his figure straightens, arms swinging, his stride wider. But then Dexter squats and squits again, like machine-gun bullets, and just as two young women jog by. Then, as he continues bag in hand, another dog-walker approaches, his presumably large pooch unseen out of panel, holding a bag ten times the size. Delight in toilet humour runs through much of the book, from barrages of onomatopoeic farts to Hughes’ own stools, samples for the doctor, turning into pub stand-ups with stethoscopes for mikes.

Hughes’ self-representations keep slipping, as the tone darkens. All this time walking lets the mind wander and unloose increasingly grim memories, truths or half-truths. During Dexter’s first excursion to Brighton, Hughes spots himself as a boy, with his other name William, on the pier, where he once got lost for hours, and crosses his anxious father, asking “Have you seen my little Willie?” like the McGill postcard. Worse flashbacks soon well up: a classmate strangled by his own mother with his school tie; gay molestation at summer camp; the local landlord’s suicide; a brutal assault on a Polish immigrant; a chilling Ouija seance. Death is never more than a walk away. The fantasies of Hughes’ alter ego, John Crawford, are little better. Based on his idealised image, JC is thinner, cooler, with a goatee, but also a deranged hitman whose next contract may be his wife. Later Hughes transforms again into a humanised dog like those poker-playing pooches painted by C.M. Coolidge and Arthur Sarnoff.

As his mental journey lurches on, there’s a danger of it all going off a cliff and that’s exactly what it does in the closing, lucky 13th chapter, as man and dog morph into Superman and Krypto to the rescue. By the epilogue, a last walk into the sunrise of Obama’s head, all this exercise has done some good. He has lost weight, averted death for now, but can he escape his own head? Hughes remains living, walking proof of John Irving’s observartion: “You think you have a memory; but it has you.”

Posted: June 20, 2010

This article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2010.

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Walking The Dog
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