Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sex in the Comics: Sex and the Single Girl

More from the book Sex In the Comics, a book from 1985. I posted the previous chapter here.

The pictures dominate the text, and since there's very little of it, unlike other comics reference books I've posted, it short enough to include the entire text of the chapter. Sometimes there are things mentioned in the text that aren't in the illustrations and vice-versa. This is the second chapter called Sex and the Single Girl, and here's the text by author Maurice Horn:

Young attractive girls were seldom part of the raucous world of the early funnies, or they played secondary roles or were relegated to the background. After World War I, however, American women in the comics started to assert themselves—as they did in the real world—and a host of lovely young things burst upon the comics pages. They were smart, seductive, stylish, and unmarried.

These alluring newcomers,for all their apparent diversity, were in fact derived from the same model, which Colton Waugh dubbed “the French doll” characterized by “bulging brow, high forehead, short, up-tilted nose, and enormous eyes”. They formed a rhythmic parade of alliterations: Tillie the Toiler, Syncopating Sue, Flapper Fanny, Dumb Dora, Winnie Winkle, Merely Margie, Polly and Her Pals, Boots and Her Buddies. Going to parties, dancing, flirting, and husband hunting were the primary occupations of even those comic strip girls who were supposed to work (though never very hard).

Despite the general permissiveness around then, there was never any hint of their indulging in what comes naturally. “Sexiness, yes, sexuality, no” might have been the motto of the cartoonists (Cliff Sterrett, Martin Branner, Russ Westover, et. al.) who drew their adventures.

Even John Held Jr.'s Margy was a lot tamer than his female characters who cavorted through the covers of Vanity Fair and Life. In a word, the girls of the comics were teases, designed to attract the male reader's eye but not likely to satisfy his prurient interest.
Some heroines of the pre-World War II era were more than mere decorations, however. Jane Arden was a newspaper reporter. Connie was a private investigator and space explorer. Flyin' Jenny was, as the name implied, a pilot and barnstormer, and Debbie Dean was described as a “career girl”. Independend, earnest—sometimes to the point of priggishness—and proud, they found more glamour in their respective professions than in men (in retrospect they can be seen as early forerunners of the women's movement). If these strips were to be believed, single women were a bunch of polymorphous perverse creatures eho found gratification in anything but sex.

Across the Atlantic the British in the same period held a very different view of womanhood. English newspapers had always had their share of spicy girl strips, with such titles as Spotlight on Sally and Our Dumb Blonde, and Norman Pett's Jane's Journal, The Diary of a Bright Young Thing, seemed to be another of them when they first appeared. It proved much more inventive as well as much more humorous than the other features of its kind. The imaginative ways in which Jane, a pretty and buxom blonde, managed to shed her clothes, usually in full view of an appreciative male audience, were a tribute to the leering ingenuity of the artist. There always remained something very British about Jane despite the naughtiness, an unabashed naturalness that probably discouraged censure (though there was quite a bit of grumbling among the bluenoses).

Jane repaid her debt to the nation during World War II when she entertained the boys in uniform. And entertain them she did: whether parachuting into a tree with a skirt raised high and blouse open wide or reviewing troops in nothing but gartered stockings and high heels, she kept the morale of the average Tommy high—and his blood running. Withal she was quite innocent in her ways, All was fair in love and war, she seemed to say, and if she was able to give the boys an additional reason to fight, then it was her patriotic duty to do so, as George Perry, in The Penguin Book of Comics, reported tongue-in-cheek, “One day Jane appeared completely nude and within a week one British division had pushed the enemy back six miles and another had launched a major attack.”
While Jane was more than ready to bare her body, she wasn't quite ready to put it to enjoyable use, at least not in public. The times weren't ripe. A couple of decades would pass before a British comics heroine displayed obvious sexuality in the newspaper pages. She was Modesty Blaise, agent of the Intelligence Service, judo expert, and English womanhood's answer to themale chauvinist James Bond. She would more than once be locked in mortal hand-to-hand combat with male opponents, and the implicitly sexual nature of these encounters was often underlined in drawings picturing Modesty and her adversaries in close embrace. Yet, with all the opportunities for physical intimacy (and not just in combat), she has remained resolutely monogamous over the years. Her relationship with her male assistant, Willie Garvin, who draws a respectable pose and calls her “Princess”, is discreetly handled but not platonic. Despite intimations of a shady past, Modesty cannot abide sexual promiscuity, as is often the case with other heroines of the same era.
Modesty was a herald of a new era—the sixties, the decade of the much-publicized sexual revolution. Liberated females, eager to shed their inhibitions along with their clothes, sprouted in comics all around the world. France was in the vanguard of this comic-strip revolution with such frolicosome confections as Barbarella (of which more in a later chapter)and two creations by Guy Peallart, Jodelle and Pravda. The only thing this trio had in common was an unjaundiced view of sex as great fun, as they playfully executed their own imaginative variations on one of the most overworked slogans of the decade, “Make love, not war.”

In Jodelle, Peallart made liberal use of the Pop Art imagery that was all the rage at the time. Campbell's tomato soup cans, Coke bottles, and Marilyn Monroe photoprints sprinkled the strip's landscape, which was supposed to represent ancient Rome brought up to date. In the middle of all that madness the redheaded Jodelle, a spy for the emperor, circulated with cool aplomb. She dispensed her luscious body with equal relish to pubescent pageboys and overweight senators, not to mention a lesbian chief spy and a couple sadistic prison guards. The whole thing reached a new high in licentiousness—and became, accordingly, a commercial hit—but its campy tone and dated references make it something of a period piece today.

Jodelle was modeled after French pop singer Sylvie Vartan; Peallart's next heroine, Pravda, bore a close resemblance to another singer, Françoise Hardy. Unlike Jodelle, Pravda was not an ingratiating creature. She was the head of a biker gang, a tough broad with no heart of gold, prone to the initiative when a man appealed to her. There was an unpleasantness about Pravda, and even her sexual frolics looked labored rather than enjoyable—certainly a cardinal sin for a strip of this time.

In New York the trendy Evergreen Review, eager to cash in on the craze, came out with The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist, about a socialite brunette who goes through all the kinky ordeals obligatory in a sixties “girl strip”: rape, flagellation, branding, degradation, fellatio, bestiality and so on ad nauseam. In the last panel it turns out to have been an erotic dream (or fantasy)—a trick ending probably meant to circumvent possible censorship (there was none).
Even prim Australia got into the act, Brigette was a California-type blonde teenager always getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, and more than willing to go in for some heavy petting with attractive males—though not all the way. In spite of this throwback to a more innocent era, the moral authorities were incensed, and the Brigette newspaper strip,despite its popularity with readers, only lasted for a few years.
Entertaining though they were, all these strips pale when compared to Guido Crepax's Valentina, which debuted in the mid-1960s. It is not an exaggeration to say that Valentina is the most significant heroine in European comics. Her vibrant, if neurotic, personality completely dominates the goings-on of the strip. A sexy, sophisticated brunette with a Louise Brooks hairdo, small, firm breasts, and a hauntingly beautiful face, she debuted as a young and alluring photographer attracted to Phil Rembrandt, an enigmatic American criminologist and art critic. Her long affair with Rembrandt produced a son named Mattia, but she stubbornly chose to remain unmarried.

In addition to her very active sex life, not only with Rembrandt, but also with a number of casual lovers along the way, Valentina enjoys a vivid fantasy life. A woman of catholic tastes and wide culture, she realizes her fantasies in encounters with famous personages from myth and history, and with characters out of Joyce, Proust, Melville, Ingmar Bergman, and comic strip lore. If her experiences have a definite sadomasochistic tinge, it is due as much to the ambiguous longings of the lady as to the proclivities of the artist: Valentina is a genuinely modern heroine: her knowledge of, and complicity with, the world of fact only increase her sense of alienation, while her insights into the realm of imagination only enhance her feelings of frustration. Boredom, estrangement, guilt and helplessness are the dark underside—perhaps the penalty—of an outwardly happy, brilliant, and successful existence.

Women are at the very core of Crepax's vision—not only Valentina, but many other stunning beauties with active libidos and romantic names like Bianca, Belinda, Marina. Unlike the big-boobed peasant types so favored by American cartoonists, Crepax's women are small-chested, long-limbed creatures with delicate, patrician faces; their sensuality resides in quivering lips and vulnerable eyes. Crepax draws the kind of women a civilized man would like to know and not just to bed. The artist's fascination with women, fashioned of ambivalence, is paralleled by his adult view of sex as a conflict whose attending ills—jealousy, deception, cruelty, frustration, and violence—are incapable of cure.

Another skimpily-clad heroine was Vampirella, a denizen of the dying planet Drakulon, where blood was the staff of life. On the good old planet Earth, where that staple could only be detracted from humans, the black-tressed vampiress began experiencing qualms of conscience about having to take a man's life in order to preserve her own. She solved the problem by preying on villains whom she enticed into her waiting arms, the better to lull them for the vampire's bite. Truly the kiss of death (the image of the praying mantis immediately comes to mind). To complicate the Freudian theme even further, the man Vampirella fell in love with turned out to be none other than Adam Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula's foe, and himself a mean vampire hunter. The relationship between Vampirella and Adam, the lover and the love object, was loaded with psychosexual ironies: who was the hunter now, and who was the prey? Love and death commingled, as in any good erotic tale.
Vampirella's artists have been many, But the Spaniard José “Pepé” Gonzalez is usually considered the definitive one. Soon after he left the feature in the seventies he created the short-lived Herma. Herma was a barbarian woman from the Ice Age, miraculously preserved in a block of ice and brought back to life by a scientific expedition. A frizzy-haired blonde with a voluptuous figure, she displayed a premoral attitude toward sex as something to be enjoyed with whatever partner (of either sex) happened to be at hand. Because of the shallowness of the characterization, and despite generous displays of the heroine's body in ingenious poses, the strip soon became tedious and didn't last long—proving once more that art, if not in life, there has to be more to sex than merely sex.
The sexually liberated female has now become a mainstay in comics in virtually every form of the medium—except American newspaper strips, which still cling to the “old lady in Dubuque” mentality. Consider for instance, Cathy, drawn and written by a woman, Cathy Guisewite. The heroine is a career girl apparently on her way up, but her love life is a disaster area, and no wonder. Even her steady boyfriend, a slob named Irving, is not allowed more than a goodnight kiss, and when he drops in for an overnight stay, Cathy can be seen making up the sofa for him. The strip contains much talk about sex, some of it quite funny, but no action. In short, it is a more with-it version of Tillie the Toiler.
The important point, however, is that Cathy and Tillie are no longer the only role models. In many “girl comics” the pleasure principle seems to have won the day (or night) over the reality principle. The diversity is in itself enlightening, as it reflects the various, often confused views of premarital sex in society at large, swinging back and forth between good-natured permissiveness and thinly disguised conservatism.

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