What is at stake in eroticism is always
a dissolution of constituted forms.
Many stories can be read within the history of comics. The mere mention of the term brings to mind the genre’s battle to legitimize itself as an important artistic and cultural form. However you look at it, the history of comics is also that of its struggle against power, against the constituted forms of what can and cannot be said (and shown). Most likely, no other of fine art has been so controlled, censored, and despised –even within the art world– as the form of art that Will Eisner preferred to call “sequential.”
The origins of such censorship are perhaps based on the satirical, vulgar and informal character of the political vignette, in which sexual content was frequent, or in the naive folklore of stories of mores and manners and the illustrated catechisms that opposed them. The revision that this genealogy merits exceeds this space, but I bring it up because it interests us insofar as it evinces the innate subversive character of the comic strip –something that the Japanese understood from the very beginning, as shown by the meaning of the word “manga”: “irresponsible drawings.”
Let us agree that the best Western art has been the product of such irresponsibility; otherwise, no creative freedom could be amassed. Fear and shame are known to be effective dissipators of expressive energies and are often encouraged by the most conservative political and social regimes: those who seek to induce the artist to fear the consequences of his work.
Bocaccio, Sade, Wilde, and a long list of artists of all time directly experienced moral surveillance over their work, usually embodied in the figure of a censor or inquisitor. Few of those figures were, however, as explicit and precise as the American Comics Code Authority (CCA), created in 1954 to regulate the content of the comics that could be officially distributed in kiosks and stores. Among the commandments that this code imposed on creators were not only the elimination of words like “horror” or “terror” from covers, of “obscene” scenes, “excessive” violence, lewd language, and episodes of lust, depravity or sadism, but also the removal of any mention of “illicit” sexual relations, explicit scenes, improper poses, seduction, rape, and sexual perversion of any kind. Even “violent love” or “abnormal sexualities” were forbidden by the code. All of these distinctions were based on the most puritanical precepts of the American middle class of the time: McCarthyist, white, and straight.
Such moral and, above all, sexual control of content also compelled creators to devise plots in which evil was always portrayed and punished in an exemplary manner, and in which there was no vestige of erotic enthusiasm unless it served as prelude to respectful, consensual and correct romantic love: female submission as a reward for male heroism, always within monogamous, adult and heterosexual relationships. Any work that dared explore the vast margins of this decaffeinated view of sex and eroticism (not to mention life), such as the brilliant work of Robert Crumb, was banished to a semi-clandestine comics market, lacking both access to official distribution and recognition.
Add to this the appearance of books condemning comics, such as Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which even led to public burnings of comic books, and we might get an idea of the effort involved in adding the voice of this genre to the imminent sexual revolution of the 60s –an opportunity that would ultimately be one more episode in its long road towards the constitution of an adult market, one able to explore its artistic contents with complete and irresponsible legitimacy.
Barbarella Versus the Militia of Interspace Machismo
Spanish and Argentinian cartoonists lived situations similar –if not worse– to what I have described: they were monitored and punished by the military dictatorships of their countries, which were eager to politically or morally interpret their works. The imposition of a patriarchal family order, phallocentric sexuality, and the worship of the caudillo on duty are incompatible with the questions that an artist is motivated to ask herself. It is revealing, in this sense, that two of the most daring and avant-garde magazines in the history of the genre emerged in these two countries at the end of their respective dictatorships: El víbora in Spain in 1979 and Fierro in Argentina in 1984. Once the muzzle had finally fallen, comics could only scream.
Of course, no one is surprised today that sex is a political battlefield like any other. The appearance of the fantaerotic genre in the 60s and 70s uncovered the territory in dispute and allowed the birth of heroines such as Barbarella (1962) or Modesty Blaise (1963), who broke with the traditional models of damsel-in-distress or faithful-companion-in-love: they would give way to much more active female sexualities and narratives.
Barbarella, created by Jean-Claude Forest based on the adventures of Flash Gordon, was characterized by the protagonist’s adventurous audacity and openness regarding her sexuality, which she often considered one more weapon at her disposal. Unlike other gentle, modest female figures who expect the hero’s love and become happy mothers, Barbarella is in active pursuit of her own pleasure, as ready for intercourse as to join the battle against despotic totalitarian regimes in various fantastic-scientific worlds.
However, this archetypical renewal of a heroine without a male protector or companion was not complemented by an equally revolutionary illustration style. In fact, most erotic situations were represented more or less tangentially, though with abundant direct allusions. It must be said: it was no small thing. Still, it is possible to find intimate scenes in the story where the man’s place is occupied by a robot –a rather eloquent gesture in the distribution of roles.
The case of Modesty Blaise, created by Jim Holdaway and Peter O’Donnell based on James Bond, also presented a heroine barely dependent on male company, hero of her own adventures and relationships. In that sense, her sidekick Willie Garvin reversed the polarity of masculine and feminine roles, granting the latter the dominant role. Their relationship, on the other hand, was based on principles of friendship, distanced from erotic possibilities (scarcely ever insinuated between them), let alone romantic ones; this provided the heroine with a plot independent of her sentimental life.
It is interesting that the emergence of both these leading ladies followed the appropriation of eminently masculine archetypes, such as the American football player and the seductive spy; a feminist message, however, that would be overlooked by the male readership in favor of their voluptuosity. This newly acquired emotional and narrative independence would, therefore, come with a cost for the characters: to become simply objects of male desire.
Vampires, Whores, and Lesbians
Contemporary cases abound that echo those first emancipated protagonists. From the erotic terror adventures of Vampirella (1969), symbol of a femaleness forced to contain its own desires in order to coexist with her masculine affections, to the liberal, lesbian and punk femaleness of the main characters in Love and Rockets (1982), or the sexual paroxysm of Raúlo Cáceres’s Relatos Mórbidos (2004), where plentiful explicit representations fuse gore, psychoanalysis, and oral stories. A transition in the uses of eroticism that fixes its attention on female desire and its twists and turns becomes evident throughout history.
In that sense, it is useful to mention the realistic and explicitly erotic work of Guido Crepax (Valentina, 1965) and Milo Manara (El clic, 1984), centered on voluptuous and libertine female characters endowed with a nearly childlike candor. While these works may suffer somewhat from argumentative weakness, in favor of the plasticity of erotic scenes and oneiric and satiric content, it is also worth noting how they focus on the search for a female sexual fulfillment that is scarcely related to the exploits of their male counterparts.
This growing concern for female desire and satisfaction can be interpreted as an opening and acknowledgment of the sexual and libidinal life of women, with all its implications in terms of social and symbolic power, such as the male fear of not being able to satisfy them or concerns about female infidelity and promiscuity (which are traditionally reserved for men). It means, in any case, that female protagonists now play more active roles, pursuing erotic realization equally or more than the men of the story –insatiably, without romance or familiar commitment. However, this also evinces the imposition of a dangerous mandate: that of being constantly willing to engage in sexual intercourse and enjoy it; a fantasy adjoining a pervasive rape culture that is expressed in the most commercial and reactionary forms of pornography.
On the Need for Erotic Comics
As we have seen, the formal incursion of sequential art into the erotic realm can certainly be read as its attempt to grow with its audience and house within its pages the most current perspectives and reflections of contemporary discourses. For instance, publications as important as Metal Hurlant (1974-1987) and its numerous descendants and derivatives gave rise to the dreamlike, surrealist inquiries of artists and writers such as Jean Forest and Paul Gillon (Les naufragés du temps), Moebius (Arzach), and Alejandro Jodorowsky (Alef-Thau); in those works, eroticism constituted a natural and consubstantial part of an aesthetic and philosophical search, nourished by the imaginaries of science fiction and the nascent cyberpunk, which, paradoxically, now resonates in the most commercial circuits of storytelling.
Digital humanities, the impossibility of defining humans in relation to their bodies, artificial life and its trials, the fate of the individual opposite machines… all of these explorations have been more than merely aided by science fiction and eroticism, and the comic book, long before cinema and animation, has been the ideal and central medium to display their joint results. It is thus astonishing that stories like Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (1989) have arrived so late to the screens of mainstream cinema, despite being an unavoidable milestone in this type of aesthetic and philosophical investigations.
The birth of adult comics –challenging to its readers– turned sequential art into one of the main bastions of exploration and reinvention, not just of storytelling forms but of late 20th-century Western eroticism, along with cinema and literature. Many may be surprised that this type of publication, traditionally associated with children or young adults (as shown by a Spanish slogan in alleged support of the comic book “Where today there is a comic book, tomorrow will be a book,” taking comics to be an approachable prelude to actual reading), is depicted precisely as one of the principal laboratories for artistic and aesthetic experimentation in sexual themes of the last century. This might be, perhaps, a valuable offering in the face of the massive erotic education that is today’s pornographic industry, where stories rarely transcend a simple staging of the most retrograde sexual values in our culture.
– Bataille, G. (1957). El erotismo. Trans. Santiago Gelaya Díaz. Digital version, ExLibris.
– Pons, A. (2011). “Del erotismo y la ciencia ficción al establecimiento de claves adultas para el cómic europeo”. Revista Tebeósfera. 2da época, 9. Published 22-12-2011. Available online: http://www.tebeosfera.com/documentos/del_erotismo_y_la_ciencia_ficcion_al_establecimiento_de_claves_adultas_para_el_comic_europeo.html
– Schaufler, M. (2014). “Itinerarios teóricos para abordar el erotismo, los géneros y sexualidades”. Cuadernos Intercambio sobre Centroamérica y Caribe. Vol. 11, N°2. July-December.
About the author:
Gabriel Payares (London, 1982) is a Venezuelan writer living in Buenos Aires. He holds a degree in Literature from Universidad Central de Venezuela, a Master’s in Latin American Literature from Universidad Simón Bolívar, and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Universidad Nacional Tres de Febrero in Argentina. He has published three books of short stories: Cuando bajaron las aguas (Monte Ávila Editores, 2009), Hotel (Ediciones Puntocero, 2012) and Lo irreparable (Ediciones Puntocero, 2016).