Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sex In the Comics: Sex, Romantic and Otherwise

Welcome to the next installment of Sex In the Comics, this being the fifth chapter: Sex, Romantic and Otherwise. Like in previous weeks, I've been reprinting the text by Maurice Horn as well, because comparatively there is so little of it accompanying the illustrations this blog is really about.

Because it is reprinted verbatim, sometimes there are things I don't agree with. I'm not sure how Mr. Horn also feels where he quotes someone verbatim as well when mentioning the “no means yes” mentality, but there it is in the next to last paragraph. If I censored everything because I didn't like the sentiment, my library would only be half a shelf.

In his provocative study Love and the Western World, Denis de Rougemont argued that love was a Western invention invented to revert early church strictures against sexuality: courtly love was only a clever disguise for carnal desire. Over the centuries since its first appearance in the Middle Ages, however, the concept took on a life of its own, even as the oppressive church codes were progressively lifted. The ideal of pure love has lingered longest among and has become most identified with women. In this century it has come down to us mainly in the bastardized form of the soap opera (a formerly chaste genre that now thrives on sex).

These developments did not escape the notice of syndicate editors eager to enlarge their female readership. As we have seen, the so-called girl strips were the first attempts in this direction, with their strong emphasis on gossip, fashion, and romance. In the new breed of women's strips, however, romance would no longer be added fillip but would constitute the heart of the matter, with no holds barred, in the manner of contemporary women's magazines and the afternoon radio dramas.

The first successful newspaper strip of this kind was Brenda Starr, which came out in 1940, at the height of the radio soaps' popularity. Fittingly, it was created by a woman, Dale Messick. A tempestuous and flamboyant creature, the redhead Brenda has exhibited more than her share of neuroses, both in her professional career as a newspaper reporter and in her personal life. Always elegantly attired and impeccably coiffed, she has shuttled to the far corners of the earth on one glamorous assignment after another for her paper, The Flash.

Romance, usually doomed, has dogged Brenda's footsteps throughout her long career. Along the way the sexual overtones of her private life have become more and more explicit. She has been kidnapped and sequestered a number of times by spurned lovers bent on subjecting her to their libidinous desires, she has fallen with monotonous regularity for smooth-talking con men and mobsters only interested in using her as a front for their nefarious activities, and jealous rivals have on occasion sent her letter bombs and poisoned gifts. She finally yielded to a secret admirer who had been showering her with orchids, but once she married him, he was promptly lost at sea. While not overtly erotic, the whole atmosphere of Brenda Starr is permeated with sexuality, and the heroine herself is bathed in an unmistakable odore di femmina, in contrast to her more aseptic comic-strip sisters.

The soap-opera genre nearly flourished in the newspaper strips of the fifties, spurred on by the success of the daytime sudsers on TV. Stan Drake's The Heart of Juliet Jones was one of the best, if mot the most representative of these strips. With not one but two sexy heroines in its cast—the Juliet Jones of the title and her sister Eve—opportunities for romantic entanglement were multiplied exponentially, As befits the older sibling, Juliet was rather demure and managed to keep her virtue in the face of many temptations (Drake finally married her off). The closest she came to succumbing was during a bout of amnesia, but she recovered her memory just in time to escape the clutches of a slick womanizer. Eve was a different article altogether. She never hesitated to throw herself at eligible males, even her sister's suitors, and she was once made the prize in a car racing contest (the man she wanted lost).

Unlike Messick, whose draftsmanship is barely adequate, Drake is a talented artist whose graphic excellence has only been equaled in the field by Leonard Starr, the creator of On Stage. The strips heroine was a naïve, stagestruck, dark-haired ingenue named Mary Perkins who had come from the provinces to conquer Broadway. There she was finally discovered, met the cynical photographer Pete Fletcher, whom she eventually married, and went from triumph to triumph on Broadway and then in Hollywood. In true soap-opera fashion Mary has had her share of agony and frustration in the course of her career, but she has remained largely unpolluted in a profession not otherwise noted for 99.44% purity. The truly racy episodes have been carried on by her friends, colleagues, and rivals, whose escapades Starr depicts with gusto.

It was probably inevitable that Drake and Starr would team up on a joint venture: Kelly Green, about a murdered cop's widow who follows in her late husband's footsteps. Despite some scenes of gore and violence, Kelly Green is more a soap opera than an action yarn. Drake's fine brushwork and roving eye conspire to depict the heroine in sexy poses and scenes, while Starr's keen ear for nuance tends to underestimate the erotic climate. Kelly's sex life is primarily conveyed in dialogues and soliloquies; but, as Eric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman have shown, conversational sex can be as suggestive as the real thing.

Romance has not been an exclusively female prerogative in the comic strips. Smilin' Jack, for instance, was an aviation adventure strip, but the title character's private life was as filled with heartbreak, drama. Passion, as that of any soap-opera heroine. He went through so many ill-fated love affairs and doomed matrimonial unions that their number is impossible to count. As Ron Goulart wryly notes in The Adventurous Decade “When Jack hopped into his plane to fly to his own wedding, you could be sure that he'd (1) crash; (2) Be set upon by sky pirates; (3) run out of gas; (4) be impressed into a chain gang; (5) end up a prisoner on Devil's Island; (6) all of the above.” With all the heavy breathing in between heroics, it's no wonder that Smilin' Jack was one of the few action strips to enjoy a sizable female readership.
The comic books too waded with gusto into the soap-opera genre, in hopes of attracting female readers to a medium whose audience had hitherto been more than ninety percent male. The end of World War II also signaled the end of the phenomenal growth of the comic books, and the publishers decided that the times were ripe for love, not war. The romance books literally proved an overnight success with girls and young women who bought them by the sackful in the late forties and early fifties. Their plots, all similar, were disarmingly simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (or vice versa), love conquers all in the end. The stories were usually told in the first person, in True Confessions magazine fashion, by the girls, invariably young, innocent and wholesome (oh, so wholesome!). The heavy stuff was left to the “other woman”, generally older and worldly-wise, who would try to steal away the girl's boyfriend. There was no overt lovemaking in these early tales, but a lot of kissing and eyes rolling in ecstasy (or dissolving into tears). Young Love was one of the first and by far the most successful of these formula comics, and it soon gave rise to a horde of imitators.
Soon romance comics flowered on every newsstand. There were Revealing Romances, Darling Confessions, Forbidden Love and Modern Love. There were some that promised a lot more than they delivered, like For a Night of Love, and others that delivered no more than they promised like Love and Romance, It's Love, Love, Love, and I Love You. There was even Saddle Romances, no doubt for saddle-sore cowgirls. One of the most outlandish titles had to be A Moon, a Girl... Romance, published by EC (better known for horror comics), which later became Weird Fantasy—either the publishers had a warped sense of humor, or they knew something their readers didn't.
Came the sexual revolution of the sixties, and all that gushing and mooning suddenly looked laughable. The comics tried to attune themselves to the times by talking about sex and even showing a little—still a far cry from I Am Curious (Yellow). The artists, or their editors, couldn't bring themselves to portray lovers going to bed together. In one story it actually seemed to happen, but it turned out the couple was secretly married—they worked in the same office and didn't want their boss to know for fear of being fired. It was all titillation and no satisfaction, and readers stayed away in droves. The last surviving title, Young Love, sputtered along for a while and finally gave up the ghost in the late seventies.
In contrast to American titles, soap-opera comics south of the border are not squeamish about mixing some hot chili in with their suds. A number of Mexican cautionary tales luridly relate how young girls, led astray by some smooth-talking rogue, have to pay for a night of ecstasy with unwanted babies and unrelieved social shame. Some go even further in their prophesying of gloom and doom. There is, for example, the story of a naïve young beauty from the provinces seduced by a dashing film producer and then forced to perform in porno flicks. Strong stuff, that (there is always a heavy dose of voyeurism amidst all the preaching). In these comic books men are often depicted as stopping at nothing to satisfy their lust. In one such story a sex-crazed macho threatens to kill a shapely divorcee's baby unless she submits to his will; she does, only to exact terrible vengeance on him.
The best selling of the Mexican love (or lust) comics bears the colorful name Lágrimas, Risas, y Amor (“Tears, Laughter, and Love) and more than lives up to its title. For laughter there are all the fat, old, rich men who think they can buy love with pearl necklaces and fur coats, only to find themselves cuckolded by poor but handsome muchachos. Tears flow in abundance on the cheeks of abandoned country girls and trusted but deceived wives, not to mention spurned suitors. As for love, well, it is usually of the more physical kind, with graphic depictions of panting bodies, suitably accompanied by grunts and groans. All in all, the Mexicans seem to take their romance with a grain of salt—and plenty of spice.

When it comes to melodrama, their Spanish cousins are somewhat more serious-minded. Ever since Franco's death, there have been hints of political relevance and social involvement in the comics sudsers. Romanticism mixes with adventure, exoticism, social commentary, and psychological observation in such new comics as Frank Cappa , written and drawn by Manfred Sommer (who, despite his name, is a bona fide Spaniard). Cappa is a foreign correspondent, and between assignments—or on assignments, for that matter—he enjoys quite a few romantic interludes with ladies of many lands, As soon as he gets serious with any of them, however, his love partners disappear or die, leaving him free for the next encounter. One of the most sensitively told episodes involves Cappa with a beautiful, rich, and headstrong young woman dying of an incurable disease (shades of Love Story). The obligatory sex scenes are handled with an understated elegance and restrained fervor that makes them all the more sensual.
In matters of romance and sex the Orient is no more (or less) inscrutable than the rest of the world. The Japanese have a flourishing industry of romance comic books that, in their unabashed sentimentality and emotionalism, put Young Love and all the other American love comics to shame. Generally produced by an audience of women artists for an audience made up largely of high school girls, they feature long-limbed, delicate-looking young things with buttons for noses and stars for pupils.
On the other hand, the Japanese have a long tradition of sex-oriented picture stories going back to the Middle Ages. Their modern equivalents include such wonderfully titled comic books such as Hunt For the Sex Maniac, Angels Without Panties and Perverted Flight of Love. These comics are read by young men and even by women when there is a suitable tinge of romanticism to the theme. They might describe a day, perhaps a night, in the life of a famous courtesan in Tokyo's red light district (Mugen the Courtesan), or the initiation of a young Buddhist monk (Life of a Buddhist Monk). Cartoonists are pretty much free to draw as they please, as long as they do not show the genital areas. “To compensate,” as Frederik Schodt notes “artists stress the suggestive: shots of groaning faces, drooling mouths, sweating bodies, and mysterious, viscous fluids. All this is accompanied by men groaning AUOOO and women crying Yada! and Yamete! (words which mean 'stop' but of course don't mean 'stop' at all).” As is frequently the case, censorship is the mother of invention.
Love is a many-splendored thing, as novel and movie have taught us. The transmogrifications and permutations of courtly love are bewildering and sometimes mystifying in number and variety from era to era and country to country. Wherever the comics have flourished, as we have tried to show, they too have participated in the eternal parade of love, lust, and libido.

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