So I've read the first 3 issues (of what is to be an 8-issue series) of Howard Hardiman's excellent 'The Lengths', looking at the murky world of male prostitution through the eyes and experiences of the protagonist, Eddie, and the people who he meets and interacts with, all within the setting of London.
Although using anthropomorphic dog-men to portray characters in a very gritty and real world may seem like an initially somewhat bizarre concept, it actually works extremely well in telling the story (in the way that Spiegelman's 'Maus' did); it is never gimmicky, and it adds symbolism and added character to the work.
It’s a story which has a foundation in real life – Howard interviewed several male escorts a while ago, and has incorporated much of what he learnt about during that time, as well as putting much of himself into the fictional lead character's personality; which gives the work a very personal, involved and authentic feel.
The comic explores and narrates Eddie's double life; he's an art school dropout, moving between jobs, looking for love and possibly a relationship, but he also has his secretive alter-ego of 'Ford'; a male prostitute, who has learnt to hustle and sell his body for cash.
Through clever use of flashbacks, and a slightly disjointed layering of the story (initially a little disorientating, but which 'clicks' pretty quickly), we see glimpses of Eddie's past and present, travelling through his thoughts and memories and his two separate, yet gradually intertwining lives.
It becomes apparent in the first issue, that Eddie is conflicted in many ways, including by who he is attracted to. At the beginning of the story, Eddie (under his alias of 'Ford') sits overlooking the Thames with Nelson; a butch and athletic fellow-escort, whom he's somewhat besotted with. Nelson comes across as unattainable and closed, yet Ford still sees him as ideal. This intro to the tale immediately sets a moody atmosphere, with Ford somberly huddled on the ground, his feelings unrequited as the abrupt Nelson coolly walks off into the night.
The story then jumps forward, to Eddie's regular life, and what looks like the beginnings of a passionate yet potentially secure, loving, relationship with 'Dan'; an amiable, intelligent and affectionate fellow geek, who he befriended years before at art college. Eddie feels confused after spending the night with his long-time friend, who it now seems, could well be his lover. He's ashamed of his secret life, and of himself, and afraid of telling Dan the truth. As he ventures off to meet a client, he questions if he's cut out for, or deserves a relationship, and we also see, he's still not hung-up his obsession with Nelson.
We are then taken back to Eddie's memories of his previous relationship with ex-boyfriend James. It's around that time that Eddie is approached in his gym by a stranger to model for one of the more 'arty' gay porn mags, and the seeds are being sewn - the initial step that will lead Eddie towards exploring prostitution. This is then juxtaposed with his frustrations with his life, and secretive, guilty behaviour, which results on him taking things out on James, who is portrayed as a sympathetic, understanding and patient character.
Eddie, it becomes clear is a flawed and damaged person, but very human. You get the sense of Eddie's appreciation of those who show him love, his vulnerability, of wanting to do the right thing; but his weakness and addiction to the material trappings of his trade draw him back in. As a result, you experience his head-trips, conflicts and isolation, of feeling hollow as he wanders around the cold and distant london backdrops, as he goes from love, into the world of those who just want him for sex.
As the story progressed, I also became aware of how Eddie becomes 'Ford' to escape reality when his relationships come on strong, and there are also increasing subtle indications that 'Ford's' life is also linked with increasing drug use. We also see how the mess, guilt and secrets, are spilling out over into Eddie's life and mind and adding to his problems, making him more evasive and insecure.
As the pieces of the story fit together, it seems like only a matter of time before the walls between his two lives (which he tries to keep apart like his two separate phones), will come crashing down.
There is the feeling that Eddie/ Ford is walking a tightrope. I think it's the art that really helps create this uneasy feeling with it's atmosphere and its often stark and heavy contrast of light and shadow, which still retains sensitivity and warmth through it's linework. And the artwork, by the way, is improving each issue.
The scene in issue 1 where a younger and more naive Dan & Eddie visit a male brothel to find out whether or not Eddie should get work there, was for me, the darkest moment so far. The silent, seemingly emaciated and drug-addicted young men pose and lie around in the background, whilst the 'top dog' heavy of the establishment who is clearly an unpleasant character, exploiting and pimping the boys (who are all younger than Eddie) is shown in a slightly absurd, yet disturbingly effective way.
It's also worth mentioning, that this isn't a 'thoroughly depressing' piece at all. The dialogue is snappy, there's wit and comic relief throughout. There are genuinely warm and likeable characters, such as Dan and his ex-boyfriend Krys, James and also Eddie too; who although messed up, retains a dark sense of humour, self-deprecation, and irony throughout the 3 issues I've read. It's this balance with the darker undercurrents that really make it work, and Howard writes the lead character's narrative so well, that you often feel like you're in his head.
This series already feels like the first 3 chapters of a graphic novel; one which has a controlled and considered method of storytelling, yet which unfurls at an engaging pace, with an interesting visual style. It deserves to get picked up by a publisher, and seen by a wider audience, but in the meantime, you can get it here: http://cutebutsad.bigcartel.com/