Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

21 September 1992

The Smut Glut

No wonder comics stores remind us of porn parlors. For more than 40 years, superhero comics have supplied their sexually deprived male audience with an endless stream of masterfully marketed, four-color disempowerment. The superstud books turn on their readership with a nonstop orgy of bulging muscles, pneumatic breasts, phallic weaponry, orgasmic explosions, ecstatic flight fantasies, brutal sadomasochistic confrontations, and guilt-ridden identity crises between hyperpotent superselves and their less-than-adequate secret identities. They sell mythology-deprived youth technological illusions, cut-rate cosmos, and the world's best power fantasies at a buck and a half a shot.

But, behind the well-fed boys skimming the latest first issue of the "new" Spider-Man, past the college kids and sheepish adults checking out Eightball, Yummy Fur, and Buzzard , you'll reach a taboo zone where under-18s are forbidden to tread. Back in the smut department Zap Comix in their jillionth printing rub dog ears with a flood of titles released during the past two years' explosion of sexually oriented comics. Some of these books are very good--witty, artistically delightful, and hot. Most of them, however, pack about as much pelvic punch as Madonna erotica.

Dirty comics have tickled male libidos since the 1930s, when so-called Tijuana Bibles, or "eight-pagers," conflated sex and popular culture by parodying the day's favorite newspaper strips--such as Popeye, Dick Tracy, and Major Hoople--in what might has been termed the lowest form of the lowest form of art. Usually sophomoric but occasionally hilarious (and by some accounts a multimillion-dollar industry), some of best and most situationist of these strips have been collected in three exuberantly uninhibited issues ofThe Tijuana Bible . If their squishy graphic charms--not to mention archaic expressions of enthusiasm like, "Now once up the old dirt road to see if all's clear! Whee! Is this hole tight! Hot damn!" (#2, 15)--make you feel funny, you can always take a breather and read the master's thesis helpfully included to lend this vintage smut academic credibility.

Tijuana bibles portrayed sex with unrestrained (male, hetero) pleasure and a rough, cartoony jouissance rarely found in much modern porn apart from certain amateur-video moments. Curiously nonexploitative, they combine adult pleasure with naive kiddie chuckles. The Tijuana bible tradition lives on in Bob Fingerman's Atomic Age Truckstop Waitresses , which parodies Twin Peaks and Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and Danny Hellman's Legal Action Comics , which rings "Wedding Bells for Superman" and pits "The Cosbys Versus the Simpsons." Fingerman and Hellman's Tijuana apocrypha, however, is obviously more about parodying pop culture than getting readers off.

The sixties' undergrounds marked a transitional phase in erotic comics' discontinuous history. In titles like Zap, Snatch, and whatever, R. Crumb (and, on a darker level, S. Clay Wilson) proved that comics could do just about anything: explore social mores, épater le bourgoisie, blow readers' minds on a visual level, and put a bulge in a young man's pants. Crumb especially laid his personal preferences out for all to see. He is, after all, one of the world's great sex humorist. And if big butts and powerful legs happen to be your thing as well, you're doubly in luck. Both Crumb and Wilson (whose pirates, bikers, and demons constitute some of modern art's more potent iconography) play on the ambivalence of sexual attraction, portraying sexual relationships as feisty power struggles.

More directly, Crumb's Fritz the Cat inspired Reed Waller and Kate Worley's sexually explicit funny-animal soap opera, Omaha the Cat Dancer . While not particularly enthralling, this popular female-written melodrama does offer a humanist alternative (in animal drag) to male-oriented comicdom, even if you are tempted to skip ahead to the interspecies sex acts. I'd also recommend the autobiographical Melody , written by Sylvie Rancourt and illustrated by Jacques Boivin, as another sex book that really isn't. Sylvie and her boyfriend may be obsessed with the ideology of free love, but as represented through Boivin's no-frills naturalism, whether she derives more pleasure from her orgies or her gardening is left open to interpretation.

The undergrounds begot Young Lust, Weird Sex, Bizarre Sex , and other books that were less turn-ons than put-ons of conventional sexual representation. Likewise, Larry Welz's popular Cherry (advertised as "the girl you always wanted") uses parody to package pure idealized product. A giggling blonde bimbo nymphomaniac with the brainage of a vice president, Cherry the comic nevertheless transcends the limitations of Cherry the character in parodies like "The Clan of the Care Bear," a special occult issue ("Hey, do like what thou wilt, y'know?"), and anything involving Cherry's cyberslut friend Ellie Dee (when she jacks in she really, oh, you know). It aint' easy to condone, but occasionally--as when Welz draws a cutaway of a penis spurting inside a vagina, or portrays himself as a tortured artist--the book reads like a pagan Brady Bunch. Besides, there's probably more fuckage/suckage per page here than in any other hardcore comic around (with the possible exception of Anton Drek), so it's a porn bargain as well.

Hitting the stands around the same time as Cherry `s debut, Howard Chaykin's cynical, S&M-influenced Black Kiss miniseries used the erotic dimension as trendy stylistic envelope. While Chaykin's book failed both as pornography and as genre adventure, it renewed interest in the notion of graphic erotica American style. European and Japanese publishers figured out long ago that hard and soft sex sells, and America was ready to play catch-up. Question was, who would kick it off?

"There is an aura of unrespectability around erotic comics I rather like," confesses Fantagraphics Books publisher Gary Groth. Two years ago Fantagraphics was perched on the brink of bankruptcy in spite of publishing many of the more critically acclaimed titles in the industry, including Love and Rockets, Hate , and Eightball . Figuring that compromise was the better part of solvency, Groth and co-publisher Kim Thompson invented Eros Comix as a means to subsidize their riskier titles and comprehensive reprints of Segar's Popeye , Al Capp's Li'l Abner and Fearless Fosdick , and the complete works of R. Crumb (now up to its ninth volume).

"And it worked," Groth says. "It dug us out of a hole." Since the line's inception, Eros has generated some 50 titles, including limited series and one-shots. It currently generates "six or seven" titles each month, according to Groth, with press runs ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 copies.

Imitators diluted Eros's success almost immediately, however. While only a few erotic comics, likeOmaha the Cat Dancer and Cherry, existed before Eros hit the scene, approximately 75 titles appeared the following year. The new smut glut meant that everyone's sales declined before leveling off. Erotic comics' audience had been identified, nailed, and drenched.

More than an economic success, the Eros experiment proves that good artists create good porn. The best example of this is Gilbert Hernandez's jazzily titled Birdland , whose sexually unfettered sci-fi metaphysics pretty well answers the question as to whether its creator's more artistically indentured Love and Rockets stories haven't seemed to have grown stale lately. A free-flowing stream of cummy consciousness inseminates this unceasingly clever graphic novel, which kicks off with one endlessly spewing character on the verge of discovering the secret of the universe in his lover's snatch. Amid the strippers, aliens, and Herculean body builders, an unethical, lisping female therapist is the main attraction of this sensually relentless book. "No whining!" barks Felice as she simultaneously tweaks her guy's nipple, bites his back, and rams a vibrator up his ass following ejaculation number three. "Your lipth may thay no (ital), but your prothtate gland thayth yeth...yeth...yeth.... " (ital) (57)

Other artists in the Eros line less successfully merge art and eros. In Spank , M. Scott Campbell leans heavily on the influence of Mark Beyer in his story about the eponymous unlovely stuffed doll's sexual self-discovery. Or maybe I just have trouble getting into smut with characters named "Meathook." Brian S.'s Box , on the other hand, is eerie but erotic in spite of a homicidal lunatic's presence. This violent and tense book's subtext actually concerns who gets to come, and when.

Neither of these, however, holds an art-damaged candle to Mike McCarthy's over-the-top Bang Gang . Mushroom goddesses, porn stars, TV sex queens, and Rat Finks a Bo-Boo come together in McCarthy's supercharged splash pages with titles like, "The Psychedelic Steranko Hairspray Queen Meets the Banana Splits." His porn recuperates the history of comic art--or at least such influential paragons as S. Clay Wilson, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Crumb, Jim Steranko, and Robert Williams. The titillation factor is practically nil, but the overall effect is one of candycolored (even in black and white) inscrutability.

Equally inscrutable to me is the dominant male-heterosexual orientation of the smut industry (not counting the guy-oriented lesbian erotics of Terry Hooper and Art Wetherell's 2 Hot Girls on a Hot Summer Night ). Groth claims his industry-wide call for submissions elicited not a single female respondent. While great cartoonists like Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Julie Doucet, Mary Fleener, and others produce work encompassing the sexual dimension, none of them has yet produced a bona fide fuck book. Even the late Dori Seda's Lonely Nights Comics is an attempt that ends in a figurative fit of nervous giggles.

Craig Maynard's fact-based Up From Bondage , however, is a powerful example of politically conscious homoerotica. Radically ambivalent, Maynard depicts a hardcore S&M scene that turns fatal when a passive safe-house organizer unknowingly submits to a CIA dominant. The moral polarities, violent sex, and art are as clear as black and white (the cover depicts a pissed-off Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeve to fist the hero), while the pleasure one might conceivably derive from the leftist's torments threatens to redefine the politics of pornography.

Other books rip their stories from everyday life. Dennis Eichhorn's Real Smut is an all-sex version of Real Stuff , wherein, à la Pekar, different artists illustrate Eichhorn's stranger-than-fiction adventures. Eichhorn episodes tend toward the antierotic, usually because his penis is somewhere it probably shouldn't be (at a freshman gang bang, or sexually comforting a lonely single mom he meets through a wrong phone number). The other great Eros true confessions title is the aptly Eros Forum , whose reader-writers are rewarded with ten copies for submitting the true sex stories excellently illustrated by pseudonymous artists. Unlike the comic's magazine's Penthouse -column namesake, these arousing tales of lust fulfilled ("My pelvis was bruised for days. I never saw her again.") are the real thing.

One of Eros's worst sellers, Bob Fingerman's Skinheads in Love is an utterly naturalistic and truly erotic punk-sex document. Everything Singles (the movie) could never be, Skinheads gets inside the heads (and beds) of Roy and Simone, politically correct bristle brains whose lives are wallpapered with perfectly captured East Village anarchist graffiti and handbills for imaginary hardcore bands. Rendered from Roy's emotional POV ("I'm fucking . . . I'm actually fucking. Oh my God, what kind of loser am I to think that? It's not as if it's the first time. Shit, I wish I could stop thinking, from time to time . . ."), the pair's sex is refreshingly honest and arousingly erotic (the latter, however, cannot be said of an aborted three-way with their friend Naomi).

Pretty much the opposite holds true for the commercially percolating work of the pseudonymous Anton Drek (Donald Simpson). Beyond the smirking frat-boy misogyny of Wendy Whitebread: Undercover Slut lies a strange infatuation with disembodied penises, which Drek depicts spewing endless gallons of mayonnaise about the faces and breasts of his comely females. Drek's apotheosis of the cum shot actually has the effect of reducing it to the silliest common denominator. Stimulating? Sort of. Provocative? Not really.

Smutty comics: take `em or leave `em. The fact is that the Tijuana bible unleashed a gush of images that continue to proliferate in the libidinal marketplace, and offer an alternative to the pornography of violence that has dominated it for so long. In fact, the funniest smut I saw during my extensive research was a spunky little eight-page giveaway by Terry LaBan (Unsupervised Existence, Ninety-Nine Girls, Cud ). "Family Values," featuring Murphy Brown, Bush, and the Quayles, puts the "vice" back into vice president and could stand wider distribution. "Sounds like I'd better teach you some traditional family values," says Quayle. "Oh boy!" squeals the excited Brown. "I learn lessons best when they're taught by a big prick!" I mean, do we ever have to hear the words "family values" again?

THE TIJUANA BIBLE. Starhead, $2.50 paper.

OMAHA THE CAT DANCER. By Reed Waller and Kate Worley. Kitchen Sink, $2.50 paper.

MELODY. By Sylvie Rancourt and Jacques Boivin. Kitchen Sink, $2 paper.

CHERRY. By Larry Welz. Last Gasp, $2.95 paper.

BIRDLAND. By Gilbert Hernandez. Eros, $9.95 paper.

SPANK. By M. Scott Campbell, Eros, $2.25 paper.

BOX. By Brian S., Eros, $2.25 paper.

BANG GANG. By Mike McCarthy. Eros, $2.50 paper.

UP FROM BONDAGE. By Craig Maynard. Eros, $2.95 paper.

ANTON'S COLLECTED DREK. By Anton Drek. Eros, $12.95 paper.

REAL SMUT. By Dennis P. Eichhorn. Eros, $2.50 paper.

EROS FORUM. Eros, $2.50 paper.

SKINHEADS IN LOVE. By Bob Fingerman. Eros, $2.50 paper.