When the curators of the Comic Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition decorated the entrance hall with a mix of quotes which included Julie Burchill’s boldly negative statement “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP,” they knew how varied the audience’s reaction would be. The latest exhibition at the British Museum which opened in May, seems to be inciting extreme reactions: from unrequited devotion to repulsion and offence. In his devastating review, the famous art critic Waldemar Januszczak accuses the exhibition of being “overly fond of the creepy, the gory, the deluded and the ignorant.” I would not try to argue with him, for it is clear from his introduction – “I went (…) prepared to accept that comics are worthy of serious museum investigation.” – that he doesn’t think especially highly of the genre and should perhaps read Scott McCLoud’s Understanding Comics before entering the British Library exhibition. Personally, as much as I love painting (I’m a painter after all), I confess that I regard comics higher than paintings, for they require more skills, imagination and ability to create something that works on the visual and intellectual level. In the comics I read, such as Lorenzo Mattotti’s books, every single frame is so exquisite that I’d gladly have it on a wall. But that’s just my opinion.
No, I wouldn’t try to convince Januszczak or anyone else to fall in love with comics. What I find very interesting though, is the level of disgust towards the aspects of comics which this exhibition highlights: their subversiveness and explicitness. Januszczak is bothered by “lots of mutilation, lots of violence, lots of horror and a horrible ‘sex’ section featuring grim sadomasochism and tied-up girls,” and would like to see Mickey Mouse instead. This is interesting because I actually found the sex section the most interesting one, and if there was one thing I would wish for, it would be the inclusion of Japanese comics – but of course, the exhibition is strictly limited to the British art.
“Horrible sex and grim S&M.” Despite all the years that have passed since the writings of Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, since the liberty of the roaring twenties, and the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, many people still perceive depictions of alternative sex and sexual fantasies as sick and wrong. I remember a series of lectures I attended as a Central Saint Martins student, which were based around the theme of “shock and controversy.” The lecturer, Mark Harwood, told us that while he was preparing for a talk on Japanese manga, his computer broke down, and had to be repaired. When the service technicians discovered his research material, including Ero guro images of boys and girls with disembowelled genitals, Harwood was sweating in the fear of having to justify their presence on his hard disc.
I don’t intend to start a “Fall in love with dirty comics!”crusade. Ultimately, this is a matter of taste and everyone has their own understanding of what is erotic and what is pornographic. But I can’t help thinking that rejecting imagery of subversive sex is not always an informed choice but often a result of prejudice, self-imposed censorship and fear.
The Let’s Talk About Sex section of the British Library exhibition presents quite a varied selection of erotica: From 18th century pre-comics illustrated books such as William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress and Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata, to 1970s and 80s works which sparked a series of obscenity trials, such as the Oz Schoolkids issue, Nasty Tales and Knockabout who published Lady Chatterley’s Lover!, Hunt Emerson’s rework of the infamous novel which was banned for 30 years. (After the court lifted the ban on the book, Foyles sold out of 3,000 copies in a single day.) Needless to say, it is thanks to these battles over censorship that modern comic artists can enjoy an increased creative leeway.
One of the books I’ve found most interesting are Lost Girls, a fruit of a long-term collaboration between Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and Melinda Gebbie, an expat San Franciscan underground artist. The book is a visual tribute to Gerde Wagner, Aubrey Beardsley and Edwardian erotic magazines like The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading or The Oyster, but what distinguishes it from other erotic comics is the realism of Gebbie’s characters and her soft crayon lines. The narrative of Lost Girls revolves around three female characters from cult children’s stories – Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan – who meet as adults in 1913 and share erotic adventures. In an interview with Science Fiction Weekly in 2006, Moore said: “Certainly it seemed to us that sex, as a genre, was woefully under-represented in literature. Every other field of human experience—even rarefied ones like detective, spaceman or cowboy—have got whole genres dedicated to them. Whereas the only genre in which sex can be discussed is a disreputable, seamy, under-the-counter genre with absolutely no standards: [the pornography industry]—which is a kind of Bollywood for hip, sleazy ugliness.” But there aren’t many who are brave enough and capable of present erotica as a reputable art form, and even Neil Gaiman in his review of the book expressed gratitude that “someone of Moore’s ability actually has written that sort of comics for adults.”
A similar to Gebbie’s painterly style of illustration can also be found in Erich von Götha de la Rosière’s explicit illustrations in the Torrid Magazine. Interestingly, Erich von Götha, who gained popularity for his S&M imagery, worked during the day as an advertising executive, and his real name was Robin Ray. In those post-war days, it wasn’t uncommon for authors of such subversive works to shield their privacy. Reina M. Bull, who also signed her work as RMB and Janine (and whose real name remained unknown for a long time), was another artist with an air of mystery surrounding her. She worked in the erotic publishing underground during the 1940s and 50s, and contributed to a number of titles from Utopia Press, notably Fads & Fancies, a relatively tame S&M magazine. The magazine published readers’ sexual exploits next to comics and drawings of women in fetish gear. Even though the fetish scene wasn’t yet defined at the time, the publication found its audience. Reina excelled at drawing kinky characters, but she was also quite versatile, working on numerous illustrations for British pulp books, science fiction and mystery covers, and she did some serial work such as The Adventures of Delia.
A very different example of an erotic comic is Oh Wicked Wanda!, a strip that appeared at the back of Penthouse magazine in the 1970s, written by a respected British journalist and novelist, Frederic Mullaly and illustrated by Ron Embleton. Wanda Von Kreesus, an attractive lesbian, is a heiress to a multi-million-dollar-fortune, and travels in time with an army of butch-dikes, the Puss International Force (the commander of which is called General German Grrrr – an allusion to the feminist Germaine Greer). Wanda is a dominatrix, though despite in engaging with S&M play with men, she maintains her preference for women. This stylishly drawn satirical adult comic, with caricatures of politicians and numerous in-jokes, is a celebration of post-sexual revolution libertarianism. It also invites us to approach sexuality with a sense of humour, which is a common theme among the comics presented at the exhibition. In Varoomshka, a strip by John Kent which ran in the Guardian between 1969 and 1979, a scantily-clad young woman would ridicule some prominent British politicians. In Oh Boy by Bob Monkhouse from 1949 , the superhero Tornado is fighting with monsters that resemble giant penises. In Captain Kremmen and the Krelis from 1977, Kenny Everett is having sex with a cross-dressing green alien. You name it.
Some people argue that pornography is always degrading towards women, and even feminists’ views in this matter differ enormously. Despite the strong female lead, Oh Wicked Wanda isn’t free from misogyny. But comics are not just a male territory reserved for fulfilling only masculine fantasies. In a very good article, Jude Roberts, an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College who specialises in gender and sexuality in popular culture, talks about comics that represent women’s sexual desires and experiences. Wet Satin and Tits and Clits, Smut Peddler, the works of Jess Fink and Coleen Coover – are all attempts at breaking from the notion of obscenity surrounding erotica for women.
So we’ve got sex, but what about gore, the other subject of audience’s criticism? Well, one of the major theme in comics are superheroes – but not necessarily the good ones. The interest in anti-heroes dates back to earlier centuries – even Victorians took great pleasure in following the adventures of criminals in “penny dreadfuls.” There is something profoundly attractive in fictional disobedience, particularly when we lead an orderly and obedient life. It is the same sort of attraction that makes high-powered businessmen pay astronomical amounts of money to be dominated by cruel and ruthless dominatrices, of whom there is no shortage in London. The violence and blood have their place in adult comics, though just like with sex, it’s a question of personal taste.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the anti- (or super-, for that matter) hero comics, and their goriness is not what I lust after. But blood can be shed for different reasons, and one of the most remarkable things I found at the exhibition was a book by John Hicklenton aka Deadstock who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. 100 Months, which can be described as something in between a graphic novel and an illustrated blood-stained poem, describes the author’s agonising experience of the disease which was slowly destroying his body. Hicklenton wrote the book for a year, and took his life the day after he had finished. His work somehow makes me think of Bob Flanagan aka Supermasochist, the American performance artist whose often brutally painful masochistic performance acts were a (very successful) way of dealing with cystic fibrosis.*
Reading comics featuring incest or the Joker’s sophisticated cruelty doesn’t mean accepting incest or violence in real life. Several independent studies conducted over the last thirty years demonstrated that the fantasy of a forced sexual encounter ranks among the most common ones, but it doesn’t mean that people would enjoy acting it out in their lives. The comics are not an instruction on how to turn into a whore, pimp or a psychopath. They’re merely an invitation to go on a journey into an alternative world of uncensored fantasies. One can argue that books do that too. Yes, but since the visual side of novel-incited fantasies are a question of one’s ability fantasise, people are likely to tame themselves out of guilt and culturally imposed sense of morality. Explicit graphic images from comics can take them further on that journey.
There aren’t many things more violent than Ero guro images – even I am too embarrassed to share examples here – yet crime in Japan is lower than in all other industrialized countries. Fantasies are a healthy vent for tension and stress, and a way to inject some excitement into our lives (Dr Logan Levkoff insists that they’re crucial for women’s well-being.) When they emerge from well written stories and wonderfully executed artwork as opposed to a sleazy and tacky porn magazine, all the better.
*I wrote about Flanagan in my MA thesis on masochism, which I hope to translate in the future from Polish into English, and publish here on this blog.