"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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain