BEST EROTIC COMICS 2008
edited by Greta Christina
Last Gasp ($19.95)
A Graphic History from Tijuana Bibles to Underground Comix
Tim Pilcher & Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
by Paul Buhle
In his monumentally hefty collection and commentary No Laughing Matter: Rationale of the Dirty Joke, Gershon Legman noted that sex humor is hardly ever about sex, so much as dishing out degradation. But a large handful of the jokes he collected strike me as quite good, usually because they dole out wholly justified revenge by women against men (impotence jokes, small penis jokes, etc.), or because they treat satisfying and unharmful behavior as perfectly fine (so long as no one is hurt or really humiliated, anything goes). The humor is found in the foolishness of sexual embarrassment about ourselves.
This is the spirit in which the ill-famed Tijuana Bibles produced 50-75 years ago continue to look a lot better than almost all other comics pornography. The dames of these booklets are, generally speaking, quite chipper, and the men are depicted as foolish for all the usual reasons. Also, the satires of movie stars, politicians, and other comics are often sharp and topical, amounting to a sort of Doonesbury with sexual acts. The underground comix artists of the ’60s and ’70s, determined to overthrow existing censorship, went back to this source in more ways than one, adding more cartooniness and shunning the pseudo-realism of professional porn. Undergrounds such as Snatch, Jizz, Wet Satin and Tits 'n Clits were all pretty funny, and Gay Comix actually reframed what comics are and what they do.
In the ’80s and ’90s came the era of alternative comics and the rise of soap-opera porn typified byOmaha, The Cat Dancer and the diverse offerings of Fantagraphics’ “Eros” line. For all we know, many independent comics publishers might not have survived without this line of goods. The belated critical acceptance of comics as an art form no doubt inspired Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's recent pornographic epic Lost Girls, which achieved prestige for displaying sex in ways that the Tijuana Bible artists would have considered impossible. Escaping legal retribution used to be the game; now publishers of erotic comics vie for window displays.
Best Erotic Comics 2008 brings us up to date. Actually, the work herein was originally published from 2000 onward, but the mood is distinctly modern. Organs and process predominate, and humor or social critique of any kind are less present than sexual transgression (not all of it compliant). This is not a happy book, although a majority of characters obviously enjoy themselves. The art is impressive, in a mostly depressive way: we see a world of near-hopelessness and sex as costly consolation, perhaps a mirror of the prevalence of STDs and the specter of impossibility that haunts that erotic leitmotif, the pleasurable but chance encounter. A fair share of the happier congresses seem to be about the displacement of power in favor of women, and in that sense, except for the emerging and often central role of lesbians, it may not be entirely far from the Tijuana Bibles after all.
Still, the seriousness of the work in Best Erotic Comicslies in vivid contrast to Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings. Anthologist and editor Craig Yoe, a former manager of the Muppets, is a sort of modern Legman, a collector of visual impressions and a compulsive filer-away of odd art. Here he has gathered dozens of naughty pieces by well-known comics artists and cartoonists, mostly from the 1920s-60s, many hitherto unpublished. As Yoe notes, mainstream cartoonists from Rube Goldberg to Charles Schultz—including Carl Barks, Will Eisner, Mort Walker, Hal Foster, Hank Ketcham, Chuck Jones, Al Capp, Jack Cole, Jim Steranko and Roy Crane—repressed their quiet urges to draw hot stuff in their funny papers and comic books. Only a few, like Don DeCarlo, did it for a living, and even then the ladies kept some of their clothes on.
When seen as a group, unfortunately, a lot of the women depicted here look too much alike—tall, busty and brazen—although it’s nice to see Brenda Starr naked, something her artist (Dale Messick) wanted to do for a long time. Worse, too few of these artists are women and even fewer nonwhite, but in the mainstream, these categories were small until very recent times. The important thing is that their art is, in most cases, exemplified their individual styles—none of these artists are imitating someone else's idea of nakedness. Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings thereby helps make sense of what has been missing from the mainstream all along.
Robert Crumb writes in his Forward to Yoe’s book that its contents might have been better left secret, the wild id of the artist that never got beyond his drawing board. Aline Kominsky Crumb has a somewhat similar comment in her Foreword to Erotic Comics: she looks back to the Men's Magazine era of the 1920s–’50s and its extension into the underground comix that followed as the Golden Age of porno-humor, exuberantly sexual, by obvious (if unstated) contrast to the last few decades. In short, and once again: perhaps less is more.
But this would be a conclusion that the authors of Erotic Comics are not at all likely to share. In one sense, the book is an updated version of Maurice Horn's Sex in the Comics, published in the more innocent (or censored) year of 1985. Both versions are global, with heavy influences of the French (naturally); apart from graphic updates, the new volume includes S&M material that Horn and his publishers were probably too fearful to handle. Thus, the often unclothed ’60s heroine Phoebe Zeit-geist, who originally appeared in the Beat-oriented pages of the Evergreen Review, seems tame when compared to an entire section of “Bondage Babes.” It's all out in the open, and though the authors add helpful commentary, mainly biographies of the artists, the ordinary reader is not likely to pay much attention to it.
Which is a shame, because overall Tim Pilcher and Gene Kannenberg, Jr. (both comics historians, a Brit and an American respectively) have constructed a well-organized overview of the erotic comics genre. Pilcher discusses right off the bat Picasso's famous "Dream and Lie of Franco," lending the rest of the book an art-world respectability and planting the seeds of its modernist thesis, summed up in Viennese architect Adolf Loos's pithy dictum "All art is erotic." The authors go on to chart the development of erotic comics from the turn of the century's "saucy postcards" (the prolific Edwardian Donald McGill will be a revelation to some) and hardcore but satirical Tijuana Bibles (amply discussed with a range of examples) through the Men's Magazines and subsequent underground comix that continued pushing the envelope on sex and social mores. Pilcher and Kannenberg are detailed in their histories of these artists and their cultures, and occasionally discuss technique as well (pin-up artist Bill Ward's intriguing use of white-out, for example) while not being oblivious to the rampant sexism that underlies so much of this work.
Erotic Comics concludes with a discussion of “Abandonment Abroad,” and while it features some Latin-American art amidst the Europeans, it would be a better survey if comic artists from Africa, parts of Asia besides Japan, and other parts of the world could be seen here. Even more, we could wish for more women artists, whose ideas of erotica might be as distinct as the few pages devoted to Women's Liberation-era comics (i.e. Wimmen’s Comix and Tits and Clits) suggest. Perhaps this is the proper job of future Best Erotic Comics volumes. For now, the books on the shelves do at least provide a glimpse of the range of possibilities.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008