“I guess every coming of age story winds up reading like the emo Tumblr suicide note of the child you’d thought you’d always be”
Howard Hardiman’s The Lengths was picked up in the New Statesman this week. They've had a lot of good comics writing lately, and this was no exception. After picking up The Lengths myself at Thought Bubble this year, I’d say it definitely deserves the attention.
It's the story of Eddie, an art school drop-out struggling to hold his relationships together, and Ford, a fledgling rent boy with a broadening callous streak. They are the same person, and The Lengths is about tangling and untangling those identities.
In a few fairly superficial ways it’s not unlike Not My Bag – it’s an identity story, text heavy, in heavily stylized monochrome. It’s about how a couple of impulsive decisions and a cloud of temptations lead a rather naïve protagonist down a trail of forking identity, and the quiet little revelation that eventually leads him back. Only, the protagonist in The Lengths sells his arse rather than designer sweaters, and he has the head of a dog.
Actually, let’s get the dog thing out of the way now. This is not Disney. It is not Redwall. In places the style is scratchy and brutal and it certainly isn’t cute. Some of the dog breeds are used to quickly telegraph traits, others just to give characterful faces. They’re aggressively physical, and the human/canine disconnect emphasises that. There's two types of incongruity at work here, and they both help grab attention. One is just having dog heads on the bodies of what often look like underwear models, the other is that this isn't your kids' section talking animal story. When these dog-people play video games, or have coffee, or nosh each-other off, it can just spark a bit more attention that it otherwise might. It's a little flourish, and it's not overplayed.
It may not be overly saucy and explicit, but The Lengths is not shy about its sexuality. In places it almost has a swagger. The seasoned-escort Nelson in particular is like some kind of improbably-buff BDSM Anubis with a torso from the wrong end of a Rob Liefeld sex fantasy. Seriously. I’d love to believe he’s a joke about that Captain America cover. And again, his bull terrier head just foregrounds the aggressive physique.
Stylistically, The Lengths is an odd one. It uses actual panels very sparingly, more commonly layering images around each-other and using a lot of whole page layouts. Text floats, and images associate spatially, often radiating around the point of the page’s focus. That focus is typically Eddie, and often his memories. The book is told through his experiences, and the world often flows around him, surrounding him with images and collapsing into panels or expanding to a page spread when it brings him up short. Visually, it’s fantastically structured.
In fact, that's largely why I bought it. The first page kind of suckered me. The amount of character creation and tone setting it gets done with almost no words and very few lines is impressive. The world feels real, too. Chatting very briefly to Howard at Thought Bubble (he’s utterly lovely, incidentally) he spent a lot of time researching it. The story is not documentary, it’s not a broad exploration of the sex trade, for instance. But it rests on top of a series of interviews and conversations that help make it feel concrete, plausible. Likewise the relationships – the group of friends and boyfriends and casual encounters it’s spun around, they have defined, neatly-crafted tones of voice. The geeky milieu makes me think of people I know, or certainly people I've met.
It's sweet in places - it's built around a gentle, tentative love story. Getting together with Dan forces Eddie to try and reconcile his two lives. Through that stress he explores previous relationships, wrong turns, and how he ended up here at all. The ending (again, similar to Not My Bag) is self-awareness and the start of something rather than big denouement fireworks.
I picked up The Lengths for the first page, for being a bit striking and visibly well-constructed. That stays true throughout, and I'd recommend others picking it up not just for that style, but for the character work that carries through it.