“So, I have a challenge for you.”
I’m sitting on the couch scarfing pomegranate seeds and ice cream while my gentleman friend looks up from doing the crossword.
“I’d love to see you draw Sexy Lucy. I mean, if you want to. If you think it would be fun.”
I laugh through a mouthful of dessert. “What? Why?”
“Well, I saw you draw Happy Lucy today and that was really adorable, and I’ve seen Grumpy Lucy and Goofy Lucy and Tired Lucy, but you never seem to draw Sexy Lucy.”
Now, my gentleman friend is a smart cookie. He is perceptive and thoughtful and often gets me thinking about things I’ve become comfortable accepting at face value. I like him for this and many other reasons.
“That’s not…” I frown, trying to word my response properly.
He raises his hands “I mean, I get it. Cartoon Lucy is boats and comics and illustration, right?”
“Yeah but that’s not the whole of it. Cartoon Lucy is mostly cute and euphoric and goofy. She’s kind of a muppet. These are not characteristics that are divorced from who I actually am. They’re very accurate portrayals of parts of me. But there’s also stuff I leave out. Stuff a lot of autobio cartoonists leave out.”
We go on to talk about it for a little while, but even after the conversation moves on to something else this question sticks with me. Why is it that all the autobio cartoonists I know (even the immensely sex-positive ones who spend the rest of their time drawing porn or sex toy reviews or even stories about making out with their younger selves) seem to avoid drawing themselves as sex symbols? When we talk about sex or sexuality it’s either playful or sweet or educational or analytical or mortifying or just downright goofy, but rarely…sexy.
Let’s begin with the idea that our personal avatars — these artistically abstracted, semi-(or very)-self-deprecating selves — allow readers to feel like we’re approachable human beings rather than fantasy constructs. Our flaws reveal our humanity. We aren’t untouchable. We’re just like you. Of course, there’s a lot of thorny stuff tied up even in this method of portrayal, where the work gives people the idea we’re best friends when we’ve never even met in person, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Autobio comics offer a window into someone else’s world, warts and all, but they’re always mediated through some sort of lens. Kim O’Connor touched on this debate of accuracy and self-portrayal in a lengthy and insightful piece for The Awl in 2012 entitled Penis Rays, Self-Loathing and Psychic Voodoo: Autobiographical Cartoonists on Truth and Lies. She writes:
The fragmentation of self — the distance between me and my idea of me and what I’m willing to tell you about me and what you think I’m telling you about me, and all the subtleties that are lost in translation — is a postmodern concept, a sort of earnest and existential game of telephone.
This concept is foundational to the discussion of how I present on the page. And so far we know that I stick to pretty safe territory.
Now let’s consider erotic avatars. Whenever I think of this there’s a short story by Harlan Ellison that I can’t get out of my head called Broken Glass. In it, a female protagonist on a long bus ride revisits an erotic daydream to pass the time. It’s a well-loved sexual scenario and in addition to a lot of attractive female models it also features a mental avatar of herself — a cocktail waitress at an upscale bar. “In the fantasy her breasts were larger than in real life” he writes. “In the fantasy she had no moles on her back, it was all smooth and white.”
But the story’s twist comes when a fellow traveller on the bus — an insidious mental voyeur — invades her fantasy and begins to take control of her mental avatar. She finds that every scenario she visits on the bus ride becomes tainted by the presence of this man, until (spoilers) she’s forced to lure him into the darker fantasies — the unpalatable, violent, brutal landscapes of her “other” scenarios, where she leaves him, transfixed and absorbed, incapable of tearing himself away from the desecration of her eroticized self. She bricks up the mental landscape, preventing him from preying upon other unsuspecting women in the same way, but at the cost of her innermost mental sanctum.
Okay, yes, this is a brutal example, but the story’s stuck with me since I first read it in high school for a reason. The Internet is vast. There are many eyes upon it.
Let’s also think about the fact that I’m a female-bodied person talking about anything on the Internet. While I haven’t experienced even an infinitesimal fraction of the abuse that some online personalities do (probably because there’s not quite as much testosterone-driven machismo tied up in the accurate portrayal of 18th century sailing vessels as opposed to, say, video games), I’m constantly aware of the fact that there are people on the Internet far more concerned with how I draw my tits than what I’m actually saying — even in comics that aren’t about the tits. And there are totally comics that are about the tits.
I make emotionally vulnerable autobio work about death and fear and crises of self-confidence, and that’s scary every time but it generally leads to people coming forward with difficult, scary revelations of their own. And that’s the work that makes me feel good. That vulnerability and fear leads to a sense of community and bravery with my audience and that’s a huge part, at least for me, of what making autobio work is all about: exploration — revelation — empathy — growth.
But given that we know comics — especially vulnerable, personal ones — create a sense of familiarity between the reader and their perception of the creator, what would be accomplished by sharing my sexualized self in this arena?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve drawn some Stuff. I’m perfectly comfortable drawing myself naked, I’ve talked about my first brush with nonmonogamy and the emotional chaos that ensued, done a couple guest comics for Erika Moen’s Oh Joy, Sex Toy, and made it onto a BuzzFeed list of 23 Female Cartoonists on Drawing Their Bodies. But my sexuality? This dynamic, magical, complex beast of a thing? It is, perhaps, the most intimate and hard-won part of my identity as a human being. And it’s mine.
Sure, I’ve grown a lot in many different areas over the last ten years, but when I think about the hopeful, terrified, clueless, loving bundle of a person that was me becoming sexually active at 14…I was useless. Those battles have been vast. They’re ongoing. They’ve brought me immense challenges and unbelievable joy and they’ve turned me into a goddamn sexual dynamo who’s only going to continue getting better with age and I’m meeting that challenge every day with open arms.
And in spite of all that dynamism and power there are so many ways in which displaying it is when I am at my most vulnerable. And I choose very carefully and particularly who I share that paradox with. My work, turned loose in the infinite pasture of the Internet, is not an outlet for that identity. I’ll talk about lessons I’ve learned, share helpful tips, and probably detail a disastrously hilarious bad boner session or two, hoping that I can help some other new-to-this young person feel a little less useless, but who I really am in those moments is staying off the comics page.
Because goddamnit I’m selfish.
And that person is mine.