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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.

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

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