Below is an interview with the brilliant artists, writer, and illustrator Howard Hardiman. Howard is the creator of The Lengths, Polaroids from Other Livers, and Badger and The Moon.
At Panel Bound we are always trying to speak with creators who are taking the comic genre and doing innovative things with it. Howard is a great example of a creator who can create compelling comics without tights and capes. Books like The Lengths plunge into topics like sexuality, self destruction, and emotional trauma in ways that honor comics and story telling.
I spoke with Howard about some of the more controversial subject in The Lengths as well the why he chose comics to tell this deeply personal story. I hope you enjoy it
The concept of female sex trafficking is one that has been analyzed many times in comics, television, and film. But male escorts typically never gain the same amount of coverage. What made you want to explore this rarely covered topic?
Well, first off, I’d want to be clear that sex trafficking is a completely different story to prostitution. Like any humane person, I’m against slavery, violence and the abuse that’s often linked to trafficking, but the job of a prostitute, when it’s a job rather than something forced, is a job. I’ve spoken to far fewer women who do or have done sex work than men, so I can’t generalise, but both men and women I’ve spoken to talk about sex work as a choice, whether they’re wanting the money to get by, to get through college, raise the deposit for a flat or to spend it on drugs.
That said, the reason I wanted to write about male escorts wasn’t to redress any balance, although it’s meant I read things like Paying For It, which came out after I’d put out a couple of issues of The Lengths, with a very different eye. It was much more a case of that slight cliché that you write what you know. I used to go clubbing a lot on the gay scene, and like a lot of people with ADHD, or people generally, for that matter, I took quite a lot of drugs during that time. I got to meet a lot of escorts through that scene and made friends with a few of them, so when I managed to land a research and development grant from the Arts Council to get some writing mentoring, I interviewed escorts I knew, then through them I got to interview quite a fair number more. I tried escorting a couple of times, but I think being a tourist in the sex trade like that with an eye to do hands-on research probably isn’t something the Arts Council would approve of. It was about as surreal and tedious as any new job.
I couldn’t quite make it work the way I wanted as a play, although it was progressing well enough, so I waited until I could approach it differently. When I started doing an MA in Illustration at Camberwell a couple of years back it seemed like the right time to get started on it.
The Lengths is completely unique in its tone, style and content. The world of comics has not typically embraced gay culture at its core like The Lengths has. Were you ever concerned that especially in comics the reception would be negative?
To be honest, I didn’t really think too much about the reception, I just wanted to get on and tell the story I wanted to tell the way I wanted to tell it. There were days where I worried that the art history references are lost on a lot of readers, or that others might be frustrated that it never becomes graphically sexual.
I think that once you get past the initial frisson of Eddie’s job as an escort, you realise that most of what he puts himself through isn’t really anything to do with being a sex worker or with being gay, but a story about someone going through that uncomfortable second coming of age that seems to happen in your twenties.
I was surprised that I was able to get a distribution deal for the comic; I’d assumed no-one would be that interested in something that was quite different to the norm, so I think I’ve realised some of my self-limiting beliefs there were spurious, as were my worries that the story might be alienating for readers who aren’t gay, with all the nods and in-jokes about gay culture or all the swearing, but it seems like it’s going okay. I’m really glad to be getting coverage in mainstream gay media; comics don’t often make that leap.
Much of your work deals with sexuality. Why comics? Why not a medium that is more at home with the topic (movies, books)?
I think for me, some of that’s an issue around reading speed; with a film or a play (which The Lengths almost was at one point), you’d not get the chance to stop and reflect on things before dipping back into it, whereas with a novel there’s a bit more of a structural requirement to spell things out for readers. When I did my first degree, which was the interdisciplinary art theory Cultural Studies degree Norwich used to offer, my work was almost exclusively poetry and monochrome photography; I think there’s still a part of me that loves the implied action of a photograph and the way that a poem is made stronger and clearer by what you don’t say; I think that comics have the capacity to offer both.
The characters in The Lengths are all anthropomorphic dogs, what caused you to illustrate these very human characters in non human ways?
Well, retrospectively, I could say all sorts of glib things about how it gives you cues about the characters because you recognise breed traits or something like that, but it really wasn’t that considered at the time. I tried drawing Eddie and Nelson as entirely human in very early sketches, but I could see too much of the guys I knew and had interviewed in them and it would stop me from telling the story I wanted to tell if I had to worry about the anonymity of the people who’d placed so much trust in me.
The main reason, really, is that I miss having a dog; when I grew up, we always had dogs in the house, would go to dog shows and things like that, so having not been able to have a dog as an adult’s been heartbreaking, but it’d be too cruel in London where you live in one shoebox after another and wind up moving every few months. So it’s a little bit of nostalgic wish fulfilment – if I was going to manage to draw the same characters every day for a couple of years, I’d have to want to see their faces, and I’d rather see dogs than men most days.
On your website and with comics like Polaroids from Other Lives you maintain a very open approach to your personal life. Do you find your openness with your fans and followers enhances your readerships connection with you?
I’m also not sure how I’d feel in myself if Polaroids had been any more popular than it was; it left me wondering if I’d crossed a line about how much I wanted to expose myself, so I let it drift, like the sketches on post-it notes I’d started out with in Anthropomorphism in Action or the craziness of My Tweaker Mum. They were very much of the moment and I love them for that, but I think I’m always looking forward to finishing the thing I’m on now and moving onto the next.
It’s been strange to go from only selling at fairs to selling online and through a distributor, because it now means there’s people I’ve not met or interacted with who’ve read my comics and that still feels weird. I love the way the internet’s allowed me to get on and do my own thing a lot more than I would have done otherwise and to realise that your audience isn’t who you might think it is.
As for whether it’s better this way, I don’t know; it’s just what I’ve done. I’ve not really been very sensible and gone at any of this with a plan!
What comics recently have inspired you?
Hmm, Blacksad, The Glacial Age, Essex County, Becky Cloonan’s Wolves, Lizz Lunney’s Depressed Cat… I think there might be a bit of a theme coming through here of bleak or stark stories, mostly including animals.
What’s next for you, The Lengths, and any other comics you may be working on?
Well, I think I want to get The Lengths finished through to issue eight so Eddie’s story’s told, and work’s continuing on The Peckham Invalids, with the next issue coming out in May, but after this Summer, I’ll want to take a breather to think about what comes next; there’s a few ideas I’ve had brewing for a while, but I’m trying to learn to do one thing at a time.
Any last minute advice for aspiring comic creators?
Don’t spend money you can’t afford to lose – printing is horribly expensive and the profit margin in this industry is painfully slim, so don’t pour all your wages into your first self-published book, and don’t give up a steady income stream.
Look after your hands and your eyes; there’s no gain in wrecking them long-term to meet a deadline you’re up against because of bad time management. Plan ahead and save your health.
Cautionary grown-up stuff notwithstanding, here’s the more optimistic stuff – I’d say a lot of people miss a trick by making comics that ape the work of other comics creators. It should go without saying, but there’s no point because that’s already been done. Even the bigger publishers will look for artists who have their own style, even if house rules are strict.
That said, work hard at the technical aspects of your work and strive to understand context and theory underpinning how visual narrative and storytelling work. You wouldn’t expect to become a novelist without brushing up on your punctuation and grammar, so show a similar respect to a comic’s reader and be prepared to properly think about how a story flows and how it’s received.
I’d also say don’t be ashamed of any of the things that make you who you are; it’s those differences that will come through in the personality of your work. Me, I did a dry degree in art theory, got depressed, became a sign language interpreter, did a sideline in writing sad poetry and taking moping photos for myself and I played a lot of roleplaying games before I got into going to the gym, taking heaps of drugs and went crazy for a couple of years. All of that, and the stuff I went through in my personal life, has fed into who I am and the work I make. If you try to filter out all of that and want to make a comic that looks like a comic, you’re denying people the things that are unique about you. That’s not to say you should only make comics about the subjects you’re obsessed about, but don’t be ashamed of them.
Main one, though, is to enjoy it. Stories are brilliant; pictures are beautiful. Comics are great; don’t knock them.
Thanks again to Howard for taking the time to speak with us and share some great insights. If you want to check out the Lengths and other comics you can find a link below.