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Erotic Comics:

A Graphic History Vol 1

From Playboy and bandes dessinées to hentai manga and webcomics, on Sunday, 23 November, 2008, the Comica Festival presents an adults-only romp through the sex and sexualities in modern X-rated comics with special guests including artists Erich Von Gotha, Lynn Paul Meadows, Garry Leach and Wicked Wanda writer Frederic Mullally. A last-minute extra guest will be gay erotic comics artist Oliver Frey. The event will be hosted by Tim Pilcher, author of the two-volume Erotic Comics: A Graphic History. In anticipation of this event, I thought I’d give you a quick tour of the first volume of Tim’s new book, Erotic Comics.

Ploughing back as far as cave paintings and culminating in the sizzling Seventies, Tim Pilcher’s Erotic Comics, is a highly illustrated romp through the history of sex in comics inevitably has to breeze through a lot of territory in less than 200 pages, 25 centimetres square. Pilcher’s challenge is to distill huge subjects, major artists and cultural phenomena down to one double-page spread, sometimes two, exceptionally three at the very most. As part background, part justification, the opening historical chapter outlines erotic art’s international prehistory, through such broad themes as ‘Romans and the Kama Sutra, Japanese ‘shunga’ prints and Britain’s bawdy satirists from Hogarth and Rowlandson to Beardsley and McGill, the majority in the form of isolated, one-off images.

Sexy sequential strips, true erotic comics, properly arrive here from the 1920s with America’s Tijuana Bibles. Neither Mexican nor religious, these prototype sex manuals and stroke books, crude, anonymous and illegal, parodied movie stars, celebrities, famous comics characters, even Stalin and Gandhi, and were small enough to fit into the palm of one hand, leaving the other free for other purposes. In comparison, the females of George Petty, Varga (pen-name of Alberto Vargas) or Arthur Ferrier were more polished but tame cheesecake, while Britain’s Second World War nudity in Norman Pett’s Jane of the Daily Mirror proved far too risqué when exported to American family newspapers.

The second chapter looks at the rise of the men’s magazine and their pin-up kings: Jack Cole, Bill Ward, Dan DeCarlo, Bill Wenzel and Don Flowers. Highlights here include rare originals shot from sometimes crumbling artwork, although the humour of some of these old gag cartoons is pretty creaky. Some problems arise when Pilcher moves on to tell Hugh Hefner’s Playboy saga. Presumably due to the expense or unavailability of copyrighted material, all of the images accompanying this section have to come from Playboy‘s imitators. Cartoonist Doug Sneyd can show only loose roughs of his Playboy jokes, and nothing finished. The Playboy embargo also means we see nothing from Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s sublime Little Annie Fanny comics, only some intriguing but incidental sketches, rejects and commissions.

Little Annie Fanny
by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder

Again text and visuals are disjointed when Pilcher writes at some length about Hustler‘s Honey Hooker comic strip by Jim McQuade and Dwaine Tinsley‘s Chester The Molester (actually, a series of gag cartoons, not a real strip) but no examples are to be seen. Instead we get two lacklustre Hustler cartoons inexplicably enlarged to fill whole pages. To my mind, these single-image tease cartoons are all very well, but like a ‘quickie’ they might make you smile, even laugh, for a moment and then they’re all over very fast.

Honey Hooker
by Jim McQuade

The real power of comics is to immerse you in a believable imagined world via multiple panels or pages with all the sustained unfolding anticipations and surprises of a good film, a good book, or good sex. And this we finally start to experience in the spreads devoted to pioneering erotic strips like Phoebe Zeit-Geist in the Evergreen Review, Marvel’s Pussycat magazine, Wally Wood’s Sally Forth and Ron Embleton’s Oh, Wicked Wanda! in Penthouse, who lauched their own glossy Comix magazine from 1994. Still, there are some missed opportunities from this era, especially from some of America’s uncensored, pre-Code comic books, where we could have enjoyed Bill Ward’s Torchy, or Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady and Harry G Peter’s Wonder Woman, infamous for their kinky bondage scenes.

Oh, Wicked Wanda!
by Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton

Speaking of which, bondage amply fills the third chapter, bning from John Willie, Eric Stanton and black artist Gene Bilbrew in America, whose portfolios include a couple of choice originals, through to modern masters Erich von Gotha, Italy’s Guido Crepax and Franco Saudelli, and Americans Dementia (alias the late Tom Sutton) and Michael Manning. This is an especially good selection, even if it stretches beyond the 1970s to the present day. Here and elsewhere in this book, while it is interesting to read about these artists’ whole lives and careers, at times these mainly factual texts are short on closer detail and insight about their erotic output, to allow us inside their stories and imaginations, the subject and purpose of this book, after all.

Image by John Willie
the writer, artist, editor, publisher and creator of the original
Bizarre magazine and creator of Sweet Gwendoline.

The flowering of hippie underground ‘comix’ in Sixties America is sketched out in the fourth chapter with attention to the inevitable Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and the first of the liberated, feminist women’s responses to their taboo-breaking tactics. The covers and strips chosen to represent the series Wimmen’s Comix are quite mild and only Joyce Farmer’s cover on Tits & Clits shows a woman’s empowering exuberance. In fact, whatever their gender and taste, most underground cartoonists were more intent on outraging than arousing. As Aline Kominsky, Crumb’s wife, explains in her introduction to this book, the underground work " meant to shock, it’s vulgar, gross (especially mine), ugly, slimy,... and it’s not really meant to turn you on. I consider my depictions of sex as anti-erotic, absurd and ridiculous–exposing the human underbelly in all its hideousness!" Little more than the surface of this rich seam is exposed here. Despite three paragraphs on the visionary Vaughn Bodé, not a single image is shown by him, perhaps again due to rights issues. Probably the sequel volume, picking up from these undergrounds, will spotlight more members of this pivotal movement.

Image by Eric Stanton

The French revolution in adult bandes dessinées, before and after May 1968, concludes this whirlwind tour. An introduction traces this back to René Giffey’s daring World War 1 illustrations, the biting, controversial Sixties satire of Hara Kiri magazine, a sort of wilder Gallic Private Eye, and Guy Peelaert’s Pop Art heroines Jodelle and Pravda and then comes more up to date with the launch in 1980 of the anthology BéDé Adult. Frenchmen Georges Lévis, Robert Hugues, Jean-Claude Forest of Barbarella fame, and Georges Pichard and his tall, powerfully-featured Paulette, each receive two-pages with examples of their erotica (the Lévis strip page, like a few other images, is scanned rather fuzzily), followed by Italy’s brilliant Magnus, alias Roberto Raviola. Coming almost full circle, the spotlight finally touches on Mexican porno comics, in colour but cheap, pocket-sized Mexploitation, which recall those pioneering Tijuana Bibles of some eighty years previously.

As an undemanding overview, this first volume of two covers plenty of the mostly expected bases. Its companion volume, due later this year, promises to bring this whole torrid history up to date, exploring further afield, notably manga from Japan, and more varieties of sexuality than this overwhelmingly heterosexual, male-created survey, as well as moving from print into web comics. Having fewer decades to cover may also help to add a bit more depth.

Posted: November 20, 2008

This article orginally appeared in The Erotic Review in 2008.


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Featured Books

Erotic Comics:
A Graphic History Vol 1:
From Birth To The 1970s

by Tim Pilcher
(Ilex, UK edition)

Erotic Comics:
A Graphic History Vol 1:
From Birth To The 1970s

by Tim Pilcher
(Abrams, USA edition)

Erotic Comics:
A Graphic History Vol 2

by Tim Pilcher
(Ilex, Jan 2009)

Most Outrageous:
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Vol 1: 1962 - 1970

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Little Annie Fanny
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