216 pages • Soaring Penguin Press • October 2013 [HB]
Paul Smith reviews
Away from spandex and biceps, graphic novels in the UK and US have been exploring the wider possibilities of the medium and the diversity of the stories that can be told. Many writers and artists have turned their pages into a reflection of their own experiences, concerned with life and death issues, failed romances or relationships, and the personal impact of disability or illnesses. Equally, we’ve had characters such as Howard the Duck and Cerebus the Aardvark, who have been created either as anthropomorphic mouthpieces for satire, or for exploring wider issues such as Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’.
There have been a rainbow community of gay cartoonists such as Howard Cruse, Tim Barela, Roberta Gregory, and Alison Bechdel in the US to Britain’s Bill Ward, Oliver Frey and David Shenton, who have drawn a vibrant, frequently funny picture of queer life with characters we can laugh, love and cry with. However there have been surprisingly few graphic novels from gay authors or writers that address a real world. Howard Hardiman has now done that with The Lengths which takes us through the dark, often bleak world of former art student and rentboy Eddie and his close circle of friends. Or rather his pack since all the characters are represented by different breeds of dogs. Guess we could say this is a love story doggy-style.
London is the backdrop and in economical style, Hardiman sets the scene of each chapter with familiar landmarks around the South Bank and Soho before leading us into the complex world of casual sex and relationships centred around art student Eddie and his alter ego rentboy Ford, trying to find his place in life but compromising his relationship with Eddie, especially when he idolises Nelson, a mastiff of an escort, who has found it financially lucrative profession but at the expense of any emotional attachment. Fears of commitment, low self-esteem, drugs and AIDS swim around with the more positive values of friendship and love, plenty of bone-crunching issues for our mutts to gnaw on.
(Click images to enlarge)
There’s a free-flowing feel to the story as images fragment with loose regard for framing or tight panel construction. Hardiman’s angle of perspective and dramatic composition changes like a film director’s eye for action. He plays around with white and black so that his characters seem to claw their way out of the page, defined by precise, economical lines but almost drenched in shadow or bleached whiteness. Likewise the dialogue has burst free of speech bubbles and hangs poignantly in the air
His scratchy outlines define each character through full expressive body language that is more human than animal. Eddie is defined and athletic, Nelson is muscle-bound and pumped-up whilst Dan is more a introverted cuddlesome shaggy terrier. All the other homo hounds have similarly unique identities as demonstrated in their amusing Trackr profiles.
Originally a project spawned from his MA course at Camberwell College of Art, it was originally as a presented as six-part comic, but this collected edition of The Lengths helps with a better appreciation of character development and story arc, but it also demonstrates Hardiman’s evolving skills as an artist. His draftsmanship grows in confidence from the slightly disjointed first chapter to explore a stronger, more coherent visual voice for his narrative in the proceeding chapters.
Whilst Hardiman has brought aspects of his own experience into the story, emotional ink to bleed into the page, he also undertook background research by interviewing a number of real escorts who add a frank and humorous texture to the story. These are the lengths he has taken to create a veracity to the story as well as identifying the lengths Eddie takes to hide his double life from Dan. At the end of the day, whether you like Eddie or not, self-absorbed and unfocussed, escaping into a world of sex and drugs, The Lengths is a dark, sobering but rewarding read. Howard Hardiman has marked his territory and will be a talent to watch grow into a pedigree storyteller.
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