Comics review: The Lengths by Howard Hardiman

A love story about a male escort, told with dogs. What's not to like?

There's a long history in comics of using anthropomorphic animals to tell adult stories. Even people who have only passing acquaintance with the form know Art Speigelman's Maus, telling the story of his father's experience during the Holocaust using cats, mice and rabbits. Before that, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo was telling the stories of a bodyguard in Edo-period Japan who happened to be a rabbit; and before that, Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat was freaking out squares with sexually explicit adventures in the underground comics of the 1960s.

Which is to say that there's pedigree (no pun intended) for Howard Hardiman's decision to turn the cast of his exhaustively researched series about a young male escort, The Lengths, into dogs.

That said, the characters in the book are more anthropomorphised than most of the examples above. Although they have canine heads, except for their claw-like fingernails and the occasional piebald skin, the rest of their bodies are largely human. That's probably for the best, given the amount of sex between the covers (no pun intended, again).

The Lengths examines the double life of Eddie, a young art-school graduate who half-falls, half-dives into life as a male escort. To his friends, he's a young man getting out of one serious relationship and into another; but to the people he meets through dating sites, classifieds and smartphone apps, he's "Ford" (as in, Escort – a pun only he seems to find funny), suffering an identy crisis while finding himself slowly more attracted to Nelson, the beefcake bodybuilder who got him into this world in the first place.

Despite Eddie's stress, the book is no preachy condemnation of sex work. Most of the drama comes not from meeting strangers in hotel rooms for drugged-up orgies (something which Eddie rapidly becomes so comfortable with that he is soon admonished by another escort: "Did you really have to check Twitter while you were pissing on the client? . . . I'm not sure it was the kind of abuse he was after"), but from his desire to keep that aspect of himself separate from his "real" life. That said, apart from some machinations involving two phones, one work and one personal, at times it seems his heart isn't really in it. After all, he lives in a London not of physical brothels (although an early, failed visit to one presents the book's darkest look at sex work), but of Grindr. How is his work any different?

That the tales of life as an escort ring so true is testament to the research that Hardiman carried out. Interviews with sex workers provided the factual background to the series, but the insight they gave him is fully rendered into fiction; there are no talking heads reading verbatim. Everything is presented through the eyes of Eddie, and the story doesn't take a backseat to the desire to impart knowledge.

Surprisingly, aside from aesthetics, the decision to cast the characters as dogs doesn't have a huge effect. The city is so recognisably our own, and the characters so true-to-life, that the distancing which you might expect to come from reading about people who are, literally, not quite human never quite arrives. And the times when it is a negative are rare, although two men with dog faces french-kissing will never look right.

The main benefits of Hardiman's decision are subtler. While it may not soften the emotional impact, it certainly removes some of the erotic charge of the book, and takes the edges off the most explicit scenes – which, it should be noted, are never that visually explicit. And there's no doubt that the various breeds of dog render the characters immediately visually distinct in a way some comics (particularly black and white ones, which don't have hair colour to fall back on) find troublesome.

In fact, there's a far bolder decision than dog heads in the book. Beyond the first of the eight chapters, Hardiman dispenses with two of the most important pieces of a cartoonist's toolkit: speech bubbles and captions. The vast majority of the book is presented with the text just floating near the characters, without even a line to indicate the speaker.

Usually, this works fine; the placement is clear enough, or there is enough context to work out who is saying what. But sometimes, the ambiguity is too strong. It only gets worse when Eddie's thoughts enter the picture. Occasionally, this produces a pleasing double meaning; but just as often, it leads to confusion.

The Lengths is an important work. It covers topics largely passed over even in prose literature, let alone the diversity-challenged world of comics. In giving a voice to the voiceless, Hardiman deserves praise - and behind the anthropology, the Lengths is a love story sweetly told. By the end, I wanted to see its leads together. And that's really all that needs to be said.

The complete The Lengths can be bought from the artist, £20.

The Lengths, Howard Hardiman.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Frank Ocean’s stairways to heaven: how his new works explore faith and mental health

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic.

In the Apple Music video stream for Endless, released to the world on Friday, Frank Ocean is building a stairway, step by step. As the album plays out through an enormous boombox, we watch the slow unfolding of a spiral staircase in real time. When it’s completed, it leads up out of shot, giving the impression that it could go on forever, that it, too, is endless. “When you see the video,” artist and collaborator Tom Sachs explains, “you see him building a stairway to heaven.”

It is slow, humble work – Sachs adds that the full art film of Ocean completing the staircase lasts over 140 hours – and it feels spiritual in its physicality: woodwork as a craft has been blessed with the whiff of holiness since the Bible told us Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family. Anupa Mistry writes in the FADER, “Ocean’s had a spiritually significant impact on our lives”, adding, “There are a lot of lessons that faith tries to impart – patience, justice, etc – and I think that, amidst the infinite scroll of our contemporary lives, Frank’s made a new virtue out of quiet.”

“I believe there’s heaven,” Ocean sang on his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape back in 2011 – and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself of its existence as much his audience. “You must believe in something, something, something.” Five years later, many of the songs on Endless and Blonde, the two albums Frank Ocean released this weekend, are reaching towards a distant, ethereal state, even when hope seems futile. “I’m just a guy I’m not a god,” Ocean sings on Blonde’s final track. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god / If I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.”

Blonde’s “Solo” sees Ocean describe the trajectory of a drug-fuelled night out in detail set against a sparse, organ backdrop – from triumphant Jagger-esque dancing, through a moment of warmth with someone outside, to an inevitable comedown, where Ocean is left alone and depressed, “solo” and “so low”. As the high fades, the horror of the world encroaches: the police arrive to shut down the party, and we hear the occasional screech of a siren over the organ keys. The line “Stay away from highways / My eyes feel like them red lights,” feels like a warning. The spectre of police brutality hovers just out of view in this song, only fully entering on the later track “Solo (Reprise)”, when Andre 3000 admits he is “So low that I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event / No more”.

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic. The chorus of “Solo” explores how the everyday ordeal of living in a violent, racist society can lead to a retreat into the mind, be it via drug use, dreams or isolation.

It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven
There’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

Here, conflict permeates even the heavens themselves: the constellations (Taurus and Orion) are locked in an eternal battle. The only sanctuary is in the mind. We see the mind as a microcosm reflected in the use of words inside words (“inhale” contains “in hell”). Ocean offers his own variation on Milton’s line “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”, one that also touches on the devastating cycles of racial trauma, its impact on mental health, and self-medication that, when coupled with a racist prison system, see so many young black men with mental health issues imprisoned for minor drugs offences.

On Blonde, dreams and highs become a kind of heaven on earth. “Ivy” begins with the line, “I thought that I was dreaming,” and ends with the refrain, “I could dream all night”. “Pink + White” ultimately looks not towards a blushing, cloud-patterned sky, but the pink of flesh and the white of cocaine, as “glory from above”. “Nights” quips, “Rolling marijuana – that’s a cheap vacation”. Sex, drugs, and driving offer a tempting escape. But every escape is transient, and involves an eventual crashing back down to earth. “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?” comes the refrain on Endless’s “Mine”. In the video for “Nikes”, we hear a deep, computer-manipulated voice insist over images of hedonism, “This is heaven on earth.” Later, we see a visual reference to the Heaven’s Gate cult, which saw 39 people commit suicide while wearing Nike Decades, shrouded in purple sheets. It’s not an overly optimistic moment.

But Blonde ultimately feels like a hopeful record. At a show in London in July 2013, Ocean projected pink and white clouds the length of the stage behind him, bearing the Jenny Holzer lyric, “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” (Holzer references are peppered throughout this recent wave of Ocean’s work: he wears a top emblazoned with her “Truisms” in the “Nikes” video, which also appears in his zine, Boys Don’t Cry.)

Survival is a miracle in itself on this record. A verse on “Pink + White” contains the lyrics

If you could die and come back to life
Up for air from the swimming pool
You kneel down to the dry land
Kiss the Earth that birthed you
Gave you tools just to stay alive
And make it out when the sun is ruined

If the tools required just to stay alive are miraculous, life itself becomes more important than questions of afterlife. If you can find the freedom and joy in simply keeping going, then perhaps we can worry less about the unending staircases unravelling before us. “This is joy, this is summer,” Ocean sings on “Skyline To”. “Keep alive, stay alive.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.