Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sex In the Comics: Sex and Violence

Here's more from a book called Sex in the Comics from 1985 that I got remaindered somewhere. There's little enough text that I may as well retype it in its entirety. The book exists mainly for the images, many of which are blown up much larger than they were originally. Most of the chapters are much dirtier than this one, which mostly covers mainstream comic strips. A big problem with the book (among several) is that many of the examples that were originally in color are not reprinted in color here. Hopefully the hyperlinks that lead you to examples which are will make up for that.

The previous two chapters were posted here and here. Here's the third one written by historian Maurice Horn:

Sex and violence have gone hand in hand since the dawn of mankind. The caveman, it is reported, were not averse to using a little violence in order to get a little sex from the cave women. The bible is full of episodes linking sex with violence, and vice versa, from Judith vamping Holofrenes out of his head to Salome peeling off to get John the Baptist's. Examples drawn from literature and history are so numerous that it would be possible to fill an entire book with them. In fact, so interlocked are sex and violence that they are usually pronounced in the same breath by fire-and-brimstone evangelicals and overzealous PTA mothers: sex and violence, even in sex 'n' violence (sex, it should be noted, always gets top billing—perhaps because it is a shorter word).

In the comics sex and violence—or rather eroticism and adventure, their classier relatives—made their appearance as funnies started moving away from mere humor to action and thrills. Comic-strip artists and their readers seemed to discover with some astonishment that couples could spend time in pursuit other than bickering or hurling at each other—such as going around the world in a plane, fighting for justice or putting down mad potentates. The call of adventure, the thrill of danger, the smell of victory are a heady brew, and they make they blood of hero and heroine alike course faster. Action, especially violent action, is an aphrodisiac. This was all the more striking in the early comic pages, where the comics tried to avoid giving even a hint of sex. But the images of a male and a female in close intimacy, facing some unspeakable peril, spoke for themselves.

In the beginning the world of comic-strip adventure was a world of unquestioned male supremacy. The hero was there to rescue his girl, seldom the other way around. In fact, the fierce exclusiveness of heterosexual bonding was one of the most common motivations for the action. The Phantom was forever saving Diana Palmer (sometimes willy-nilly) from the clutches of rivals. Mandrake eternally getting Narda out of the predicaments she always fell into, and Prince Valiant perennially vying for the favors of Aleta. Only much later did the all-powerful male hero find a female counterpart in the comic pages.

In the jungle, where issues and people alike are stripped down to the bare essentials, the theme emerged with crystal clarity: ”Me Tarzan, you Jane” was a concise, if ungrammatical, statement of the situation. And Jane had to wait, half-naked and helpless, subjected to the whips of sadistic jailers and the whims of jealousy-crazed warrior-queens, until the Lord of the Jungle saw fit to come to her rescue. Similarly, the white African queens and high priestesses Tarzan kept encountering were there to be subjugated, whether through manly force or virile charm, by the male hero.

The situation was not too different in The Phantom. In the very first episode the obscenely fat and libidinous Kabai Singh, chieftan of the dreaded Singh Brotherhood, imforms Diana (clad in a flimsy and revealing outfit) that she is to become one of his harem girls. To teach her a lesson in obedience, he has her suspended over a shark basin, but the Phantom intervenes in the nick of time (natch). Diana spends the remainder of the story in her slave-girl costume, her charms advantageously exposed, as she and her hero gamely face (often in tight embrace) Kabai's minions, finally making their escape from the Singh hideaway. This opening tale set the tone for many of the adventures to follow.

Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates wove adult themes into its narratives more often than any other strip of the Depression era. His major female characters as much as male—Pat Ryan, the Dragon Lady, Burma, later Terry himself—displayed an earthy, healthy sexual quality that ran as an undercurrent through their adventures. The love-hate relationship between Pat and the Dragon Lady is significant in this respect: they were thrown in the countless perils together, sometimes as allies, often as foes, and their intimacy acted as an aphrodisiac, even though they might return to an antagonistic relationship afterwards.

Nowhere were sex and violence as intertwined as in Terry. The sexual situations constantly shifted with the ebb and flow of the action: the couples in this strip were always forming, dissolving, and re-forming in endless combinations. Sexual triangles abounded (Caniff's characters were seldom models of fidelity): Dragon Lady/Pat/Burma. Pat/Burma/Terry, April Kane/Terry/Dragon Lady, and all the permutations allowed by the vital flow of the narrative. There were all physically attractive characters, and with the ever-present threat of danger hanging over them, the attraction was heightened and quite naturally strongest between those who happened to be closest together at any given moment.

The same adult outlook carried over to Caniff's Steve Canyon, at least until the hero unfortunately got married (heroes never marry, as Hercules and Samson learned to their sorrow). In addition, the violence took on explicitly sexual overtones: in one adventure a voluptuous blonde is exposed (in more ways than one) to the threat of being branded with a red-hot iron. Scenes of sexual torture and bondage occur often in this long-lasting strip, almost as a matter of course.

The concept of male dominance in the field of adventure took its knock with Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. As Juanita Coulson described her in The Comic Book Book, Sheena would swing through the pages of Tarzan-style, her long, blonde hair flying an fur bikini plastered to her 42-22-34 figure. I'm sure it brought the drooling male male readers back for more.” Sheena had a male companion named Bob constantly in tow, and she was always busy saving him. But I suspect that she got her thrills more from tussling with strong-bodied male antagonists than from mooning with her cardboard lover.

The jungle-queen theme was later expanded and made even more explicit in the Mexican comic book ,Roratonga. The beautiful title character is described as a green-eyed, light-skinned mulatta who holds sway over her male counterparts in an unmistakably sexual fashion.

The threat of danger or violence acting as a prelude or a fillip to sexual activity emerges more clearly in Modesty Blaise, in which the heroine and her faithful male assistant, Willie Garvin, obviously enjoy a relationship made even more intimate by the requirements of action and suspense. Here are the male and female roles, while still firmly delineated (most of the heavy violence is left to Willie), come closer to a position of parity (indeed, it is Willie who occupies the subordinate role).

Modesty is British and even in the heat of action tends to preserve a modicum of quality for which she is named. The Italian heroines are not so reserved in their proclivities and activities. Bearing evocative names—Jungla, Jacula, Angelia, Lucifera—and scant costumes (if clothed at all), they freely mix the games of sex with those of violence in close encounters of any kind.

When the first detective of the comics, Dick Tracy, arrived on the scene in 1931, suspenseful, violent, often brutal action arrived with him. The focus of the violence has often been Tracy's girlfriend (and later wife) Tess Trueheart, and this has given an obvious sexual undertone to the goings-on. It was to avenge the murder of Tess's father that Tracy joined the force, and it was because of Tess that he went through some of his most harrowing ordeals. Tess has been the frequent object of violence on the part of sadistic criminals trying to take revenge on her mate or to trap him. Violence, often prompted by strong sexual motivations, has been visited upon many of the strip's other female characters as well.

Sexual jealousy also proved a strong motive in Secret Agent X-9, especially during the short time that Dashiell Hammett was writing the strip and Alex Raymond drawing it. Two-timing, two-faced dames were a staple, as were the acts of violence they either committed or provoked—they were not above trying to seduce him or scratching out the eyes of their rivals. Later, when Raymond went on to create Rip Kirby, this theme acquired a more polished, committed, upper-class tone in the form of crime passionel committed by the rich and famous. Meanwhile, Austin Briggs, who inherited X-9, continued the tradition with his gallery of alluring Mata Haris and slinky femmes fatales who would resort to any amount of physical violence when enticement failed to achieve their ends.

The tradition was further carried on, often tongue-in-cheek, in Will Eisner's The Spirit. A multitude of homicidal sirens were always crossing the Spirit's path, from the much married (and often widowed) Silk Satin to the sultry P'Gell, and our hero never tired of tussling with them. Later on the Spirit became kind of an emcee or umpire—he enjoyed the sex while others indulged in the violence. Along with his creator the Spirit had grown older, and wiser in the ways of the world.

Latter-day gumshoes became even more outspoken in their attitude toward the twin (and fatal) attractions of violence of violence and sex. In the Mike Hammer strip Mickey Spillane, who wrote the scripts himself, hardly toned in his hero's “bash 'em or bed 'em” method of detection, to the despair of his syndicate editor, Jerry Iger. Despite its success the strip was continued because of his outcries from critics during the squeamish fifties. Later, during the more liberated seventies, Wallace Wood brought out Cannon, a private-eye strip even more openly brutal and explicitly erotic than Hammer, nobody batted an eye.

In the late forties and early fifties the comic-book industry developed its own end o sex-explicit police titles. These often featured overendowed female sleuths, such as Phantom Lady and the Black Cat (a master of karate), who were then thrown into dangerous and revealing situations. Along with the horror comics, these crime comic books aroused the particular ire of the censors, who liked to point to the exaggerated anatomy of the female protagonists (“headlights”) and a pernicious influence on young readers.

For sheer imprudence, however, nobody can rival the Italian comic strip writers and artists. For instance, Diabolik, created by the sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani, has been featuring the bloody exploits of a master criminal for over twenty years. All through that period Diabolik and his beautiful companion in crime, Eva Kant, have been mixing sex and gore in almost equal amounts. The success of Diabolik has given rise to a host of imitators—Kriminal,Fantax, Demoniak, Sadik (sic)—each more sexually violent and more violently sexual than the last. In this domain, it should be noted, the Mexicans run the Italians as a close second with such superheated features as Fantomas,Arrabalera, and Sirenia.

The violent trend in American comics were exacerbated by the coming of World War II. The saying “All's fair in love and war” was soon transformed into “Anything goes” in the wartime comics. It was then that Dick Tracy featured a particularly sadistic episode, ”The Case of the Brow”, in which espionage, mayhem, torture and sexual bondage were all mixed up together and served hot. In Terry, Burma and the Dragon Lady both used their feminine wiles to lure the hated Japanese into deadly traps, while Captain Easy and Barney Baxter were kept busy saving innocent blonde American nurses from rape, torture, and death at the hands of their buck-toothed Japanese captors. In the European theater of war, secret agent Vic Jordan used beautiful resistance fighters as bait for sadistic SS guards and Gestapo henchmen.

The epitome of the war syndrome in comics was perhaps Black Fury (later Miss Fury). Miss Fury was in civilian life beautiful socialite Marla Drake, who donned a block leotard to fight for Justice and the American Way. Her adventures, already tough from the outset, became literally hard-boiled with the onslaught of the war. There were no holds barred in the heroine's battle against Nazi agents and their American accomplices. Females battling each other tooth and claw were staples, as were men savagely beating up on women, and the use of whips, branding irons, and other implements of torture.

The comic books particularly warmed to the theme as they discovered they could depict any amount of sex and gore as long as they kept the proceedings patriotic. This was a time when a costumed hero with the no-nonsense name Spy Smasher could beat the Dark Angel, an enemy villainess, into submission without too many questions asked. Nor was anyone perturbed by depictions of savage beatings or torture inflicted on helpless female prisoners or hostages by grinning Japs or monocled Nazis in such patriotic comic books as Captain America,Minute Man, and the aptly named Military Comics.

Many of the comic-book warriors were aviators, which gave them wide latitude to roam at will from one theater of war to another. Among them were the Blackhawks,Captain Wings, Captain Midnight and many others of the same ilk. They all featured incredibly violent action and displayed incredible amounts of female flesh. They also offered scenes of the heroes locked in deadly physical combat with women adversaries. The best example is perhaps Airboy, who fought a string of battles, aerial and otherwise, with the ruthless German female air ace Valkyrie and her squadrons of sexy Air Maidens. Aside from being an unconscious (and quite effective) Wagnerian pastiche, the Airboy comic books contained unbridled tableaux of sadistic violence (women being mercilessly whipped, Valkyrie slowly torturing Airboy, etc.).

All this went on without a murmur from the self-appointed guardians of morality. As Pauline Kael wrote in a later review of the 1945 movie Confidential Agent, “Those unfamiliar with the melodramas of the forties may be shocked at the brutalities that sneaked by under cover of the anti-Fascist theme.” Which goes to show that the violence in these comic books was a phenomenon of the time more than a flaw inherent in the medium, as later detractors would try to prove. More recent conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam, did not arouse the same popular fervor, and thus did not provoke a corresponding level of violence in the comics of the periods, Steve Canyon to the contrary. After 1945, war—except World War II, which was still being fought in some comic books as late as the seventies—seems to have lost most of its sex appeal.

In the comics women have most often appeared (in men's eyes) as threats or victims—either terrifying Medusas or willing Justines. This is a world that is still divided into “good girls” and “bad women”, just as it is still largely divided into “bad guys” and “heroes”. Yet in the comics the division is mot so rigid that it doesn't allow some movement from one sphere to the other. One of the clichés of the medium, as of all popular literature and movies, is that of the “bad woman” not only reforming but protecting the hero at the cost of her own life. This theme is particularly evident in many of the crime strips (Secret Agent X-9, Red Barry, Cannon, etc.) The woman's earlier hostility towards the incorruptible hero thus stands revealed as the measure of her sexual frustration.

Of course, the more hard-boiled dames harbor to no such qualms. They do not hesitate to play out their characters in full by trying to do in the hated male (The “Hell hath no fury...” syndrome) in a variety of ways, always in vain, as it turns out. Examples of this kind of behavior (deplorable or admirable, depending on the viewpoint) abound in comic strips as well as in comic books. It can be found in The Phantom, in Inspector Wade, in Daredevil, even in Batman, sometimes taken to extremes, as in those not infrequent cases where the villainess tried to take the hero's life along with her own. That's what may be called vengeance with a vengeance.

Examples of openly sexual violence, as distinct from sexually motivated acts of revenge, were rare in the early comics (except during World War II, when they masqueraded as acts of patriotism, as we have seen). The situation has changed drastically over the past two decades: not only have literary works of sadism been adapted into comics form Sade's Justine and Juliette, among others, but sexual cruelty has emerged as one of the major “adult” themes of the medium.

In our culture rape is considered to be the primary symbol of sexual violence, which may be why the comics long shied away from its depiction, or even its mention (fear of words is the puritan's obsession, as Sartre observed). Graphic intimations of rape were not uncommon in such strips as Rip Kirby, Smilin' Jack, Mandrake, and others: One scene in Skyroads, for instance, shows a repulsive, hunchbacked dwarf dragging a young woman away by her long blonde hair. But the act itself never consummated, or even initiated: the hero always managed to get there in time and save the beauty from the clutches of the beast. Only recently has rape (even homosexual rape) been depicted in graphic terms.

The question of sex and violence in the comics has always been a touchy one. This was the issue that prompted Dr. Frederic Wertham's attack on the medium in Seduction of the Innocent and caused the long period of ostracism and censorship that followed. Ever since those dark times in the fifties, comics fans have lived in fear of another anticomics crusade, and they have watched with apprehension (as well as furtive enjoyment) the rise of nudity, sexuality, violence, and other formerly taboo subjects in the comics. Their fears seem to be largely unfounded. The comics have only belatedly caught up with the trend apparent in other media, notably television. Times have changed, and the comics have changed with them, gradually becoming a more mature medium, in readership as well as in concerns. There is no way the clock can now be turned back.
A lot of the illustrations have no accompanying text, which wasn't the selling point of the book anyway.

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