by David Hughes
David Hughes is too close to fifty, out of shape, drinking way too much and really needs to get out and take some exercise. At least that’s what his doctor tells him, Hughes isn’t so convinced. But his family come up with a perfect Christmas present in the shape of Dexter, a wire-haired Fox Terrier and the idea was that the daily walks would accomplish just what the doctor had ordered.
But they may not have considered that the dog walking may have triggered something else in Hughes and Walking The Dog, this huge graphic novel, is the result.
(Hughes’ visits to the doctors, just one of a series of framing devices used throughout Walking The Dog. Published by Jonathan Cape, © David Hughes)
We join man and dog on their daily walks, with Hughes venting along the way about all manner of life’s annoyances and documenting all of the disconnected thoughts that occur when the mind is allowed to wander (and always carrying that ubiquitous accessory of the modern dog owner; the lovely plastic poo-bag). It’s full of delightful, bizarre introspection and prone to wandering off as stray thoughts and stray dogs often do. We get to meet the other dog-walkers, the joggers, the morning strollers and the passers-by, most of whom seem fascinated by Dexter, even if they can’t quite get his name right:
(“What’s his name?” “Dexter” “Hello Hector” “Hello Chester” “Hello Fester”. The conversations you can have whilst out walking the dog. Walking The Dog published by Jonathan Cape,© David Hughes )
And it progresses like this for quite a while; dog walking, doctor’s visits, thinking, reflecting, dog walking, meeting people, more dog walking. And it’s fascinating, wonderful stuff, handled with a lightness and jocularity that means pages just breeze gently by.
There’s a playful lack of structure in Walking The Dog that works beautifully well in these early stages, both in the art and the narrative. Hughes’ artistic style lends itself remarkably well to the tale, all simple, scratchy and inventive lines, exaggerated figurative work as people and features morph from grotesque to childlike forms within a few moments. There’s a clever use of the page and the horizontal panel to create a sense of never-ending motion as Hughes stretches the work across both pages, allowing we the reader to share in the extended walks and thoughts that Hughes is detailing.
(A perfect example of Hughes really using the page well to create that never-ending sense of travel with his dog, plastic poo sack in hand. Walking The Dog published by Jonathan Cape,© David Hughes )
But after the lightness of the first movement, Hughes moves on to darker things, all triggered by the introduction of Hughes’ alter ego, John Crawford. He’s also walking his dog, but this alter ego allows Hughes to veer off and begin documenting his fantasies and obsessions; dark disturbing fantasies involving murder, death and much more. And in adopting an alter ego Hughes then starts playing fast and loose with his characters, his narrative and his artwork, everything gets very complicated, fragmented and complex very quickly from this point in.
(Enter John Crawford, Hughes’ alter-ego. From Walking The Dog published by Jonathan Cape,© David Hughes )
And to be honest, very quickly it all becomes a little too much; the lack of structure, so endearing and intriguing early on, simply becomes wearing and confusing. And after 150 or so pages of this I found that I’d completely lost patience and interest in whatever Hughes was trying to accomplish here, and once that happened I found myself trudging through the remainder of the book and finished with a sense of profound relief.
But on finishing Walking The Dog I started to wonder about what it was that I’d just read. I had a nagging feeling that I was actually missing something deeper and important that Hughes was trying to say about obsession and redemption.
So I read it again and didn’t get anything the second time either. And now I’m left questioning whether I read it right, which is a ridiculous position to be in. But the paranoia had kicked in at this point, particularly when the only other analysis of Walking The Dog that I could find at the time of writing this was from Paul Gravett:
“I’m steadily savouring Hughes’ 304-page journey right now for review in the TLS. I’m already convinced that, while it may be published in the UK on New Year’s Eve, it will be one of the greatest graphic novels of 2010. As Jonathan Cape publisher Dan Franklin put it to me, this is “the Finnegan’s Wake of graphic novels.”
So, was I reading it wrong? Am I not smart enough to understand it? Or is it just one of those books that some will get and love and others, including me, will feel completely let down by? Or perhaps, just like Finnegan’s Wake, it’s something that skates the fine line between genius and utter drivel, something that few will ever understand and only slightly more will ever be able to get all the way through without throwing their hands up in frustration?
Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the author? Is it really and truly an artists book? I certainly can’t argue with it’s artistic merit; the styles and techniques are sometimes quite staggering to behold – although if I’m honest again, I found myself growing wearisome of the continual artsitic trickery and effects and many a time found myself wishing Hughes would just try to stick to one style for more than a few pages.
And am I going to be alone in wishing that Hughes had tried just that little bit harder to be a little more understandable, a little more cohesive and clearer in what he was going to say?
I’ve no doubt that a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one (Paul Gravett for a start). And if you all want to point out to me how stupid I am that I didn’t get it, feel free. But all I can go by is my enjoyment of reading the book and that fizzled out around halfway through.