"I didn't expect to cry. When the results were negative it just all sort of fell out." Image: Howard Hardiman.
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Comics interview: Howard Hardiman on "The Lengths"

The writer and artist talks to Laura Sneddon about "The Lengths": a controversial, important comic about male escorts, imagined as dogs.

There aren’t many comics out there that feature escorts. Fewer still that star male escorts. Probably none at all that are also a love story. And told with dogs? We’d be in negative numbers if not for The Lengths, Howard Hardiman’s newly collected labour of love that is perhaps one of the most important works to hit the shelves this year.

Previously self-published in instalments, to great critical acclaim, The Lengths tells the story of Eddie, a young guy who is struggling to maintain his double life. To his friends he’s a loveable graduate, who isn’t great with relationships but desperately needs to be in one. But his other mobile phone holds his secret life as the escort Ford, tempted into that world by a man he’s half in love with, and terrified that his two worlds are doomed to collide.

Except of course, replace ‘guy’ and ‘man’ with ‘dog’. Comics have a long history of using anthropomorphic animals, from the early funnies to more serious works like Maus, and the use of different breeds of dogs here certainly makes it easy to tell each character apart and to see subtle inferences about their personalities.

Any kind of sex work is a rather contentious issue – what was it that led you to write about male escorts and did you worry about any particular resistance or lack of interest? Do you think sex work as a whole is talked about fairly in the media?

I suppose it’s the cliché that you write about what you know, and I knew a lot of escorts and had done a bit of sex work with them and it had fascinated me. I had only anticipated [The Lengths] being sold at conventions and through friendly comics shops, so it surprised me when I got a really positive response after sending a copy to Diamond UK. They went on to distribute the series for me, which was an enormous confidence boost.

Thinking I wasn’t writing for a vast audience probably helped, because I’d have self-censored if I worried about who might be reading it.

There wasn’t resistance particularly, but I think several places weren’t sure how to categorise it or market it when most of the comics about gay people’s sex lives are overtly pornographic and not character led (Steve McIsaac’s Shirtlifter books being a lovely example of being both, mind you).

It’s fair to say a lot more people worried about offending people than there were people offended. Distributors feared publishers might not support a title like this, publishers feared retailers might not support it and some retailers feared an audience might not be there for it. In the end, I think that caution was a little excessive and there’s been a great audience and lots of support - right from the start when I had to beg for support though crowd-funding to pay for it.

Speaking of paying for it, yeah, I think there’s a pretty poor history of representation of sex work in comics. Paying For It came out while I was making The Lengths and the reaction made me shudder. Lots of sex workers said they were as disgusted by it as most readers were - by the casual, dehumanising sexism and the blind eye he turned to what were possibly clear signs of abuse.

That’s at one end, but books like Sin City also show sex workers as weirdly objectified. I didn’t set out to combat that kind of prejudice, but just to try to tell a story that felt authentic.

How did the new collected edition come about?

I’d been having conversations with several publishers and had been quite disheartened at how many times I got told “This is a brilliant and important book, but it’s not right for our collection” even by publishers whose collection covers similar emotional territory to The Lengths. Then, at a comics convention where I was really over-tired, I remember a vague conversation with someone about how they’d visited the Isle of Wight only to find it raining and everything was closed. It hadn’t really registered at the time that he’d also mentioned that he published comics and was interested in The Lengths.

So, stupidly, while I was getting these baffling rejection letters, John from Soaring Penguin contacted me again (and again…) to ask to talk about it, and when I met with him, I was cautious because I’d had such a pile of rejection letters that I was starting to believe I’d made something unpublishable. When we finally got to sit and talk, he understood nuances of the book that lots of reviewers had missed, could talk about themes and motifs in the story, had caught how much humour is in it and even caught a fair number of the art history references, too, so I was sold on the deal.

At the same time, Zwerchfell, the publishers who’d done a translated collection of Lizz Lunney’s comics (Ich liebe Katzen und Katzen lieben mich) had invited her over for a comics festival and she’d asked if I could come along to keep her company on the flight. It turned out that they’d been wanting to approach me for a while to talk about a translated edition of The Lengths, so it was a pile of great news all at once.

I love that the translation’s been done by someone who translates humour because the bulk of the dialogue is people talking past each other and making silly jokes all of the time. My German’s not brilliant, but even I laughed when the translation came through, and my partner (who is German) had to step in to translate some of the filthier bits, which, apparently, were the easiest to convert!

There are queer comics out there but I think it’s maybe fair to say that people generally have to dig a little deeper to find them. With The Lengths hitting bookshop shelves now, you’ve made it that much easier for everyone. Obviously above all this is a story that you wanted to tell, but was there anything you were hoping to say with the book, politically or socially, that will now reach that wider audience?

I don’t think so, or at least not intentionally. I didn’t set out to write a gay book because that’d be a little bit limiting and, likely, pretty homophobic, but I think I’ve learned from the comics that I’ve made in the past that if you make something feel personal and honest enough, you can reach for more universal truths. I don’t particularly like how pedagogical a lot of issue-led comics can be, and I’d rather let readers join the dots and come to their own conclusions.

That said, I’ve been so touched when people have come to talk to me at conventions and have said that it’s helped them figure out something that had been problematic in how they approached relationships. I think it shows how much we internalise prejudice that I’d been blinkered enough to be surprised when straight men said they’d changed their behaviour because of it or when straight women said they’d had similar drug-fuzzed relationships. I think that’s all you could wish for as an artist, that something you’ve expressed has made a genuine difference to someone’s life.

The Lengths does feel very personal, which is something that runs through some of your other work as well, and certainly your website. It’s also very funny, in some unexpected places! Is your work something you feel quite protective of, or are you happy to put yourself out there? It also covers some pretty hot button issues, again similar to your other work – is that kind of progressive voice something you want to get out there more?

I think anything you make is unavoidably autobiographical, whether it’s a story, a poem or a mark on a wall because your own body and your experiences will shape what you create. I’ve struggled with the question of how much of myself to be exposing, and I think I overstepped the line for my own comfort with the Polaroids From Other Lives short comic about surviving sexual assault. After that, I think I needed to retract a little bit from being at the fore of my own work and, I think, The Lengths is much stronger for at least trying to avoid explicitly telling my own story.

The humour’s definitely a key part to the book, though. Some of that’s just the need to use dynamic variance to keep a reader engaged, but also it’s because a lot of the stories I was told in the interviews and most of my own experiences around drug abuse and sex work were pretty hilarious and I didn’t want to be sour-faced when I relayed those experiences.

The interview at the back of the collected edition, one of many that you undertook with various men working as escorts, is a wonderful inclusion. How did you go about finding people to interview, and what was their reaction to your work?

Well, some of the interviewees were friends I’d met at the gym I was going to (and, yes, seen them wanking in the showers), so some of it started as conversations with gym buddies. When I started going clubbing and got into that weird hermetic bubble where you spend most of your time with sex workers, addicts and dealers, I think my natural curiosity took over.

One of the funniest responses to reading it came from someone working in the sex industry, who said “you let straight people read this?” because he’d become so used to secrecy.

Other than that, though, the response has been reassuringly positive. I waited almost five years between the interviews and making the book because I needed to have a distance from telling too much that could have identified people, especially given that I’d been told a lot of things that could have resulted in them having trouble with the police or the inland revenue!

I personally first came across your work with Badger, and reading The Lengths I wondered whether anthropomorphic animal stories were particularly close to your heart, or whether other anthropomorphic animal comics (eg Maus, Blacksad, We3 – different levels I know!) had had a particular influence upon you?

To be honest, I think I can more directly cite Simone Lia’s Fluffy as an inspiration. The Dadaist peculiarity of a talking rabbit who thought he was someone’s son was a brilliant mask from behind which to talk about difficult topics.

I wanted to be able to step back from the kind of exposition that most books need and using dog breeds was a useful shortcut to let people get an idea about what each character’s like. It was a little bit weird when someone told me they’d started looking at people’s pets and thinking “Oh, he’s handsome!”, but I think that I’m going to take it to mean they engaged well enough with the book to see past their canine heads.

The use of dogs does really help the characters stand apart from each other, making them instantly recognizable – was that a factor in choosing to portray them as non-human, or were there other reasons at play?

I first started sketching the characters as human, but two things immediately hit me. One was that I struggled with drawing human faces and the other was that I could see too clearly the men they were based on. I had to respect their anonymity, but I knew I had to distance myself from feeling like I had to be kind to them.

And, of course. I like dogs, so if I had to draw the same faces thousands of times, I wanted to be able to enjoy that, and who doesn’t like looking at dogs’ faces every day?

Why a comic for this story rather than any other medium?

It originally wasn’t going to be. At the time that I did the interviews, I thought I was writing a play. I had a brilliant writing mentor who helped me to structure what I was making and I got to the point where I was having conversations with theatres about developing it for production. Then it dawned on me that audiences might be going to look at naked men or that they wouldn’t have the time to properly engage with the story, so I backed out.

When I started doing my MA and needed a project, I came back to the script notes and started re-working them from what would have been a ham-fisted and probably pretty weak play into something that I hoped would be a more personal and engaging experience for an audience.

One of the most striking aspects of The Lengths, from a comics criticism point of view, is the choice not to use speech bubbles or captions, but to have floating text. For me personally, this made some of the conversations flow more naturally as I was sometimes (sub-consciously) reading more than one person’s speech at once. What was the reason behind lettering the comic this way?

One is that I don’t like how speak bubbles take you out of the realism of a piece. Ironic, I know, when it’s a story about dog-headed whores. The other is that I wanted readers to be able to figure out quite early on how they’re reading the story from Eddie’s memories, hence the leaps from moment to moment being emotional rather than chronological. Putting all of the text in the same space as the images, I hope, helps the reader to understand that everything’s Eddie’s point of view - the story, the artwork and the words.

Will you be appearing at upcoming festivals and shows to promote the book, and what is next on the agenda for you?

I will indeed! There’s the book launch at Gosh! [Friday 11th], then I’ll be at the Lakes Comic Art Festival, then I’ll be at Thought Bubble in Leeds (where I’ll also be speaking as a part of a panel on Diversity in Comics). My only London based festival this season will be the London Queer Zine Fest in Kennington, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

What’s next? Well, I’ve just had a short book out with Chrissy Williams which is her poetry and my images [Angela, Sidekick Books]- it’s a slightly nightmarish mash-up Murder, She Wrote and Twin Peaks. I’m also doing an artist residency with Quay Arts in Newport on the Isle of Wight which culminates in a major exhibition of paintings and drawings next May.

Beyond that, well, who knows. I’ve got a story in the back of my head about a dog who can’t figure out how to deal with relationships and regrets that I’d like to get around to telling at some point, too.

The Lengths is out now from Soaring Penguin Press, £17.99 

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser