Women-Produced Erotic Comics Enter The Mainstream
By Shea Hennum
Women are revolutionizing the historically male-dominated field of pornographic comics — and we’re all better off for it.
Erotic comics have always been there — like a sexy omnipresent specter traversing the space-time continuum. They exist in a long, rich tradition of erotic and eroticized art, from ancient cave paintings — like a French vulva hailing from 37,000 years ago — to explicit sculptures, pottery, papyrus, daguerreotypes, word carvings, drawings, you name it. Nearly every culture on earth has produced work that, while not necessarily pornographic, revels in sex and sexuality; such pieces are part and parcel of our self-expression.
Some erotic art has even been instrumental in the development of the medium to which it belongs: Eadweard Muybridge, pioneer of photography and film, took countless photographs of nude men and women, and Le Coucher de la Mariée, or Bedtime for the Bride, is not just one of the oldest pornographic films — it’s one of the oldest surviving films, period.
Comics have also been fundamental to sexual expression, with a long and significant history (there’s some debate as to whether erotic comics began with The Yellow Kid, The Adventures of Obidiah Oldbuck, or the Bayeux Tapestry).
The problem? In America, comics have largely been seen as a juvenile art form; the name itself, “comic,” as in “comical,” reveals our “that’s for cheap childish laughs” societal attitude. As a result, pornographic, erotic, and even simply sexually suggestive comics were kept underground and out of sight — until recently.
In America, comics have largely been seen as a juvenile art form.
With the advent of the internet and the comics industry’s many attempts at breaking the stigma of juvenalia — including the publication of Watchmen, Maus, Fun Home, and Persepolis — erotic or eroticized comics are becoming more accessible and acceptable. In fact, many cartoonists are turning to them to explore new artistic ground.
But what is most interesting about this new wave of eroticized comics is that, more and more, women are the ones producing them. With their educational, experimental, and sublime art, women are rendering their own interests, and their own fantasies and ideas about sex, sexuality, and sensuality — revolutionizing the historically male-dominated field of erotic comics in the process.
In the beginning there were Tijuana bibles. Taking their name from the Mexican city they were believed to have originated from, these small pamphlets were wildly popular in the 1930s, though they were still floating around into the 1960s. Often parodies of then-contemporary comic strips like Dick Tracy or the Popeye-starring Thimble Theatre, these small comics featured crudely printed figures engaging in all manner of explicit sex, typically accompanied by a humorous tone.
One such pamphlet features Donald Duck happening upon Mickey and Minnie Mouse (and just as she’s about to “go boom-boom” too), but that’s just pretense for the stork-like Donald to “put a duck egg” in Minnie. Like other pornographic material of its day, owning these pamphlets was prohibited, and even distribution of them was illegal. An August 6, 1955 story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Senate Probes Filth Ring,” concerns the raid of a porno stash. One George Martin is quoted in the article as saying “sexual perversion among juveniles” is on the rise, which begins to get at the real moral reasoning behind the proscription of pornography and America’s fraught history with smut.
In fact, even as late as the 1950s, the industry was self-censoring itself using the Code Of The Comics Magazine Association Of America, which prohibited obscenity of any kind and made sex — suggestive or explicit — strictly off limits:
“The comic-book medium, having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities.Constantly improving techniques and higher standards go hand in hand with these responsibilities. To make a positive contribution to contemporary life, the industry must seek new areas for developing sound, wholesome entertainment. The people responsible for writing, drawing, printing, publishing, and selling comic books have done a commendable job in the past, and have been striving toward this goal.”
In the 1960s, sexual mores dramatically evolved, and the advent of underground comics were part of this seismic shift, fundamentally changing how sex in comics was rendered. Continuing the tradition of the Tijuana bibles, cartoonists like Robert Crumb blended the humorous and the sexual with characters like Fritz the Cat.
Instead of parodying other works, however, Crumb was interested in creating new and original characters accompanied by the same depravity and lasciviousness of his forebears. Crumb and his contemporaries, like Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, and S. Clay Wilson, managed to elevate erotic comics — despite their ostensibly too-racy-for-American-eyes content — out of the back alleys, and made them exponentially more available, and appreciated as something other than a hush-hush novelty with little to no artistic merit.
While this phenomenon is a noticeable development in comics’ erotic history, things like anthropomorphized animals and the inclusion of humor were expected holdovers. But even in this slightly more liberal atmosphere, the comics industry was still repressed and self-referentially maligned.
Jokingly emblazoned with the disclaimer “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only,” the landmark Zap Comix, the magazine that Crumb made famous and vice-versa, continued to walk the line between the prurient and the mature. It acknowledged this imagined boundary, and it reveled in the ephemeral quality of the medium and its perception as juvenalia. The first issue was sold out of a baby carriage on a street corner, and it’s obvious why the series was referred to as “underground.” Sold largely in head shops, the series had limited distribution, but it was a definite step above the under-the-counter anonymity of its predecessors, and, for better or worse, it had the influence of The Velvet Underground & Nico.
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“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to hell for reading [Zap],’” Gilbert Hernandez told The New York Times in 2014. Hernandez and his brother Jaime would go on to launch their series Love & Rockets, the title that helped inaugurate the 1980s paradigm-shifting wave of alternative comics.
This series forced an earnest reconsideration of what comics were, and the industrial shift it began forever altered the perception that comics could only be for children. But even Love & Rockets never hit the sexual heights of the Tijuana bibles, or even some of the Zap Comix. Gilbert Hernandez told me, “The sex in [Love & Rockets] has to be pretty much edited so as not to offend most readers,” and that he feels he has to “reign in characters admitting to liking sex in regular comics.”
But what exactly are “regular comics”? Since the medium’s earliest days, there has been an arbitrary distinction between “erotic” comics and “regular” comics, and like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart — who famously said in regards to “hard-core” pornography in 1964, “I know it when I see it” — we kind of knew the difference . . . when we saw it.
But in other cultures, the distinction isn’t as clear. Ryan Sands, publisher of the erotic comics anthology Thickness, told me that “in other comics traditions — manga primarily, even among shonen [for young boys] action stories or seinen [for young adult men] rom-coms like Dance till Tomorrow — some romance and sexual content does not automatically relegate a story to being ‘Adult Material.’”
And this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. Ramping up the playful détournement of the Tijuana bible and convention busting of the ’60s comix, the past few years have seen an incredible wave of sex comics that are challenging the genre conventions of the medium — and enabling a new cadre of artists to create them.
The Tijuana Bibles of the early 20th century were produced in secret by anonymous or unknown authors, but they reflected — and how! — the common patriarchal objectification of their time. Women were treated similarly in the underground comix of the 1960s, which were mostly produced by straight men, and, as journalist and lecturer Paula Kamen writes, “[t]he sexual revolution of the 1960s [ . . . ] was a boon for many men, who now had access to more women’s bodies and made the rules about what exactly took place in bed.”
Sex was everywhere, but it was a patriarchal sex; women were still treated and drawn like objects. But in recent years, women have become the authors — and their innovative, creative, and diverse depictions of sex are moving the medium in inspiring new directions.
“I love seeing how people react,” says Katie Skelly, My Pretty Vampire cartoonist and author of the Agent series, hinting at the provocative nature of her comics, which have helped to usher in this new era for the genre.
Some cartoonists, like the celebrated Chester Brown in Paying For It, are de-eroticizing sex — presenting it matter-of-factly as part of a high-minded and serious work. But for Spike Trotman, it’s more about proudly and publicly reveling in the relatability to and desirability of erotic or sexually explicit art. The artist recently raked in nearly $162,000 — $121,000 more than they set out to raise on Kickstarter.
Other influential figures include Oh Joy, Sex Toy’s Erika Moen, who reviews sex toys in sometimes explicit, sometimes self-deprecating comics.
For Skelly, it’s simply about producing work that synthesizes pornography and “regular” comics, creating something that eschews arbitrary and useless distinctions. “The barrier is folding,” Skelly told me, “and I’m way less concerned about blending the carnal in with the cerebral. Flesh is like a whole new medium.”