Book Review: Time Under Tension by M.S. Harkness

After a three-year gap, M.S. Harkness returns with her third autobio graphic novel, and first for Fantagraphics. She continues her track record of sharing highly intimate details of her life, including her experience with “sugar dating”, her ongoing trauma due to childhood sexual abuse by her father, and her continuing relationship with an MMA fighter engaged to another girl. It’s a slice of desperate life, with her clinging on to the fringes of society by the thinnest of threads as she tries to find the road forward to stable adulthood.

As the book opens, she’s graduating from art school but still up to her old shenanigans of hooking up with strangers for cash, occasionally dealing weed, and pining over her ex who never fully left her life. Now saddled with college debt and the need to get on with life, the overall narrative arc follows her quest to pursue her art career while concurrently following her passion for physical fitness into a legit side hustle as a personal trainer. Nestled inside that story are the numerous sordid missteps she makes along the way, sometimes hilarious, more often harrowing, but all par for the course for a scrappy young woman finding her way.

The book is most rewarding for readers who have followed her earlier exploits in her prior two books, but can be fully enjoyed by new fans as well. Any necessary backstory is alluded to in enough detail to get readers up to speed, although we also get new insight here, such as the revelation that no part of her pen name is her birth name. At times, there’s perhaps too much detail, such as the graphic representations of the exact nature of her sexual abuse by her father and the explicit records of her sugar dates. She refuses to shy away from the horrors of her past, and while it can be uncomfortable to read, it’s presented in such a straightforward manner that it’s abundantly clear she’s not looking for any pity.

While Harkness has always had a clear line in her art, here it’s been further refined and tightened, revealing an assured cartoonist in total control of her craft. Character models are locked in and backgrounds are clearly defined, although she continues using a highly cartoony character style that seems more suited for mainstream YA graphic novels than her explicit escapades. Overall, her black and white art in this book is like watching a low-budget genre movie restored in 4K, with her keen eye revealing the gritty, seedy misadventures of her life in unblinking detail. 

Time Under Tension is her longest work to date, clocking in at 260 pages. It appears to signify the close of her desperate era, the final act of a trilogy of powerful works chronicling her formative years. As she moves into her mid-20s and greater stability, it will be fascinating to see where her road takes her next, even if it’s out of the autobiographical arena. She has the talent to go far in this field, and fully stakes her claim her as a creator to watch.  

Time Under Tension is available starting October 24th.

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Steve Geise

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