Author Tim Pilcher at the 2009 NYC Comicon: your guide through the history of porn comics.
Since homo sapiens first picked up a hunk of charred wood and scrawled images across the walls of caves, there has been the undeniable urge to create and view works depicting the myriad expressions of human sexuality. Appropriately born from fulsome Paleolithic goddesses of fertility, gaining sophistication of craftsmanship in the Greek ideal of male beauty embodied by the kouros, and ranging across the globe while providing insight into the sexual attitudes, fears and desires of countless diverse cultures, erotic art has been considered both sacred and profane, depending on the beholder. All of which is a high-falutin’ way of saying there’s always been a fascination to erotic/pornographic art, and that fascination has been given voice in just about every way imaginable. But what interests us here is the erotic in the comics medium, its history and evolution, all areas that are compellingly addressed in British author Tim Pilcher’s highly informative, lushly illustrated and thoroughly entertaining two-volume EROTIC COMICS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY (with additional research by Gene Kannenberg, Jr.) from Abrams ComicArts.
Exhaustively researched and approached with an enthusiastic and scholarly eye, the two handsome hardcover editions chronicle the evolution of erotic comics and gives readers intimate looks at the lives of the pioneers and legends in the field. Pilcher’s work here is never less than compelling and acclaimed comics scribe Alan (WATCHMEN, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) Moore provides the letter-perfect introduction to Volume 2, but when presenting two volumes of sexually explicit material, even when viewed in an historical context, it’s probably a good idea to answer the many questions certain to be raised about the books. Fortunately, Tim Pilcher was kind enough to speak with Yer Bunche and address some of these queries.
Yer Bunche: What separates the erotic from the pornographic?
Tim Pilcher: I think the terms are really interchangeable. Cultural snobbery will always label middle and upper class porn as erotica. It’s the same as sates of mind. The only difference between being mad and eccentric is how much money you have in the bank. Alan Moore deliberately prefers the more provocative term, pornography (literally “drawings of prostitutes”), but I think that has too many unfortunate negative connotations in the general public’s mind as it conjures up plastic bodies, expressionless faces and soulless sex. Erotica, literally “desire” and “works of art,” implies a bit more thought and creativity has been employed in the expression of sexuality, but basically they are two sides of the same coin. Legally, of course, erotica has some sort of artistic merit, whereas pornography is there merely as a means of arousal. But let’s face it, some people can get turned on by staring a photograph of a pair of shoes, so the lines are utterly blurred and definitions are meaningless.
Bunche: What sparked your personal interest in the genre?
Pilcher: I was first made aware of erotic comics when working in the now defunct Comic Showcase in London, England. We were selling Kate Worley and Reed Waller’s Omaha the Cat Dancer and Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss sealed in plastic bags. During that time the wonderful Melinda Gebbie popped in from time to time and showed me pages from a new erotic comic series she’d started called Lost Girls, back around 1990, written by Alan Moore. Years later I read and excellent article Alan wrote on the history of pornography for Arthur magazine and that got me thinking about the genre in comics. I did some research and was amazed to find the last English language book written on the subject was Maurice Horn’s Sex in The Comics way back in 1985. I couldn’t believe that no one had explored this subject area for over 20 years, particularly as the explosion in erotic comics and the Eros line happened after Horn’s book came out. So, I would say that Alan Moore was one of the primary inspirations for the two volumes of EROTIC COMICS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY, and that’s why it was such an honor to get him to write the foreword to the second book.
Bunche: What motivates the human interest in viewing images of sexuality?
Pilcher: The same motivation that drives humans to have sex, or as popular science author Richard Dawkins calls it, “the selfish gene.” We are driven to procreate as much as possible, regardless of population explosions and food shortages; it’s not a rational thought process. I think we are part of a small selection of animals on the planet that have elevated procreation into a recreational activity and thanks to advances in medicine and contraception, it’s one with far fewer repercussions than just 50 years ago. It’s an age-old saying that men think about sex every couple of minutes, so the desire for sexual imagery has mostly come from males. Of course, this heightened interest in sex isn’t necessarily healthy. We now see overt and covert sexual imagery on TV, in magazines, billboards, cinema, food packaging… everywhere, mostly to sell a product of some sort. Sex + cola = massive sales, and whatnot. This has had the adverse effect of influencing younger people, who are emotionally unequipped for it, to have sex earlier and earlier, and who feel massive pressure to live up to certain—unrealistic—sexual and physical ideals, which is starting to have worrying repercussions for society as a whole.
Bunche: How do you feel erotic comics have evolved since the days of the early, illegal porn comics known as “Tijuana Bibles?”
Pilcher: Well, apart from the obvious points of better printing and paper quality, improved art and more space and thought given over to actual storylines, I think the sheer diversity of erotic comics is what strikes me these days. There are comics to cater for every fetish and sexual proclivity imaginable, from relatively tame heterosexual threesomes, to gay, bi, lesbian, transgender stories covering rubber bondage orgies, to uncomfortable rape fantasies and scat play. Basically, if someone’s been aroused by it, it’s a safe bet that someone’s created an erotic comic about it. Although, I haven’t see any ‘furries’ comics myself, but I’m sure they’re out there!” (Note for those in the dark: “furries” are folks who dress in animal costumes for the purpose of sexual adventuring. As for “scat play,” feel free to look that one up for yourselves.-Bunche)
Bunche: What sets apart the expression of erotic content in comics as opposed to any other medium?
Pilcher: What sets erotic comics apart from any other type of erotica are the same strengths that comics have over novels, photographs, or films. That’s to say you can have a rich storyline, which is intelligent, erotic and intriguing. Of course there’s a lot of dross out there—and there has been, ever since the earliest Tijuana Bibles were scribbled down—but the potential for sophisticated porn in comics is greater than the DVD or mens’ magazine industry. Erotic comics blend prose and imagery and thus make erotic graphic novels appealing to heterosexual couples, as the books satisfy the visual stimulus for men while providing the text, story and character development that women find more arousing. Also the fact that the stories are drawn means that women aren’t intimidated—as much—by surgically enhanced porn actresses, a major turn-off for many women I’ve spoken to. Plus, it takes imagination to fill in the gaps between panels and the story can proceed at the reader’s rate, rather than that of a director dictating pace in a film. Comics feel less voyeuristic and more intimate somehow, probably because we can get inside the minds of the characters and share their fantasies. Moreover, there is no uncomfortable feeling that any of the participants have been coerced into making this erotica, as it has come purely from the imagination of the artist straight on to the page. No one is psychologically damaged or harmed in the making of an erotic comic, unlike much of the fairly nefarious Hollywood porn industry. Of course, how the erotic graphic novel affects the viewer is an entirely different subject. I do think there are some creators who have gone too far and their work is verging on the insidious, however, as the old saying goes, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Bunche: What is the goal of your books?
Pilcher: The goal of the books is to shine a light on an area of comics that hasn’t had a critical eye cast over it for the last 20 years. While I wish I could have gone more in-depth with my analysis, it would take an academic book to do that and mine is more of a road sign to start people off on a journey of self-discovery. There are plenty of dead ends, potholes and police roadblocks along the path, but the journey, rather than the destination, is worth taking as it gives a fuller picture to the sequential medium that we love so much. Almost every comic creator has made an attempt at creating erotica at some point—some more successfully than others—whether as private commissions or by producing full graphic novels, and even Jack Kirby tried (and failed)! To ignore erotic comics is to ignore an important part of the history of the medium.
Bunche: How do American erotic comics differ from those created elsewhere?
Pilcher: I think American erotic comics are fast catching up with Europe and Japan, where the genre has been covered in this medium extensively since the late 1960’s. Generally, Americans (on the surface) are still much more prudish than their European cousins. I was in Angouleme and there were lots of couples coming up to the stand and looking at the erotic graphic novels together with no embarrassment whatsoever. I think that aspect of “shame” is still palpable in the US and it’s this I’d like to see disappear. Adults should be able to enjoy erotica and erotic comics without fear, guilt or shame.
Bunche: Why is this stuff often considered offensive or “forbidden?”
Pilcher: Throughout history there has always been a deep-rooted hypocrisy about open sex and sexuality. There have been periods when certain acts or proclivities have been made illegal and other periods where it was perfectly acceptable; homosexuality was accepted in ancient Greece and Rome, yet until the second half of the 20th Century it was illegal in the UK. Of course, Church and State have always tried to stamp down on expressions of sexuality (a war that’s as winnable as the ones on terror and drugs) and have constantly introduced oppressive legislation to prevent erotic creativity, often under the guise of “protecting the children.” And don’t get me started on how the Catholic Church “protects” children. The fact is that sexual politics is something that has been used throughout history to criticize and topple regimes and it makes governments nervous. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for them, their laws are often so wide-reaching that they are, more often than not, unenforceable, as seen by numerous court cases such as the infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover case in the UK in 1960, in which the prosecution famously asked, “would you let your wife and servants read this?” revealing the class distinction of the repressive hypocrisy left over from the Victorian era. Also, the UK Customs battles with Knockabout Comics in the 1990s, helped reveal the pointlessness of trying to censor what adults can and can’t read. The state lost all these cases. In fact, there are very few cases that the CBLDF—the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—has lost in the USA, highlighting that once the initial outrage and publicity has died down, most cases are dropped by the prosecution, wasting thousands of US taxpayers’ money. The majority of volume 2 focuses on how censorship of erotic comics has been used as an excuse to introduce new and insidious laws that undermine the basic human right of the freedom of expression and speech. Now, more than ever, we need to secure these rights, which are under threat.
Bunche: Is there any one artist, post-Tijuana Bibles, whose work could be considered “ground zero” for the erotic comics genre?
Pilcher: It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific artist who was solely responsible for the rise of erotic comics. In my books I point out that it’s been more a war of attrition with each artist and writer creating the right work for that point in time; Crumb and S. Clay Wilson in the Sixties, Milo Manara in the Eighties, Franco Saudelli and Giovanna Cassotto in the Nineties, all played key roles. I think the formation of Fantagraphics’ Eros Comix line was another huge leap forward and saw companies like NBM move into erotica with their Amerotica and Eurotica lines. Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman’s Little Annie Fanny and Frederic Mullally and Ron Embleton’s Oh, Wicked Wanda! in Playboy and Penthouse are important landmarks. So I wouldn’t say it was one individual, but rather a gathering of brave artists, writers and publishers willing to expand the genre and push the medium in new directions.
Bunche: Some people find themselves highly aroused by erotic comics — a certain ex-girlfriend comes to mind — whereas other explicit media does not appeal to them. Any thoughts on this?
Pilcher: I think erotic comics managed to straddle an area whereby there is just enough material to still arouse, without everything being explicitly laid out for the reader (although some do). Plus, most modern, mainstream visual pornography is created for men, so it only shows what arouses men (stylized, cosmetically enhanced blonde bimbos) and this consequently turns women off. Erotic comics are ultimately about stories that fire the imagination. This has appeal to both men and women, as they can transpose themselves into those scenarios. With a DVD the viewer is a passive observer, but with a comic the reader is drawn into the story. After all, the largest sex organ is the brain.
EROTIC COMICS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY-FROM TIJUANA BIBLES TO UNDERGROUND COMIX is currently available and EROTIC COMICS 2: A GRAPHIC HISTORY-FROM THE LIBERATED '70S TO THE INTERNET will be released on March 2nd.