Can I talk to you about Hugless Douglas?
Firstly, I need to give you a bit of background. This book is not one to read when you are feeling remotely hormonal. I read it, and I sobbed. Hugless Douglas broke me in a very good way. It’s a simple, emotional and beautifully told story.
And it’s one that, I think, is all about the eyes.
There are certain books I think everyone who’s interested in pictorial storytelling should read. Jane Doonan’s Looking at Pictures in Picture Books is outstanding and practically obligatory. But the one I want to recommend, and specifically for this post, is Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Told visually, it rampages through image-based storytelling and splits it wide open. It’s a fascinating and very brilliant read by a very brilliant writer.
In this extract, McCloud talks about faces. About the way two dots, a line and a circle make a face. About how we are unable to not see a face. We are programmed, really, to see faces in this moment – and we see them everywhere. We lay our image of ourself upon the world and view the world through that image.
So how does that apply to Hugless Douglas?
It applies because of the eyes. (Do excuse the lapse into impromptu Seuss).
Have a look at the following images. These are all moments from throughout the book, and they all feature the titular character – Douglas. He is looking for a hug. In fig 1. we see a close up of Douglas from the front cover. And oh my God how can this not make you fall in love? We have a character, his arms wrapped lovingly in a hug, and yet we know practically instantly that this character is not satisfied. Douglas is not happy. And me? Well, I’m practically sobbing on reading it.
What do you do when you hug somebody? You fall into them. You give yourself to them. A hug is a sharing, a moment where somebody wraps you up and holds you tight and says it’s not just you against the world. I’m with you. I stand against the world with you. I believe in you.
David Melling is a genius in this moment, at catching the way the hug just isn’t quite right, the unfulfilled sadness of Douglas at having all this love to give and nobody being there at this moment to get it. Dear God, this book, this brilliant bloody beautiful book.
And he does it all in the eyes. In the way Douglas doesn’t blink, in the way that he’s not looking at the object, in the way Douglas is just realising the not-rightness of this hug, in the way that it’s all – just – wrong.
In Fig. 2 we see Douglas having just woken up. It’s all here. The way the eyes aren’t, quite, open yet, the way that they wrinkle underneath with sleep marks, the way he’s just – almost – cross-eyed, still caught in that fuzzy half-awake half-asleep moment.
I sort of think that if you boiled this story down to just one character and just his facial attributes, it would still work. Because it’s so purely, purely staged. Some of the pages where Douglas is alone against a white space (fig. 3) are practically poetic in their nature and sequential form.
But it’s not just Douglas that excels in this book, it’s the supporting cast. Have a look at fig. 4, where Melling manages to make an owl, a rabbit, and some sheep give you a whole story in the merest of moments and it’s all in the way they look at you, how their eyes move and how their faces say a thousand words.
That’s the thing about this book, it’s so good because it gives you so much. Good picturebooks do that. They’re generous in their storytelling, giving you the whole without compromising a single line or cross-hatch. There’s nowhere to hide in picturebooks. They’re difficult, difficult beasts.
So when I see books like this, that master storytelling in the simplest (but I lie! it’s not simple! it’s not simple at all!) and smallest of spaces, I have to shout about them because in a way, they’re the biggest stories of all.
And I shout about them because sometimes these books let you realise the genuine wonder of being who and what we are.