Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sex In the Comics: Sex and Fantasy

Continuing transcribing the 1985 book Sex In the Comics (previous chapter here, the one before it hyperlinked there, and so forth), this is from the chapter Sex and Fantasy. As usual, I'm not 100% in agreement with the author's taste in comics or what was acceptable 30 years ago, but here's the text.

Of all the different categories into which comics can be conveniently pigeonholed, fantasy is the most amorphous. It extends from the realm of science fiction/science fantasy all the way to the outer limits of the visionary, the bizarre, and the occult. However it is in the guise of epic sagas set in the long-ago past or far-distant future (unless the action takes place in other dimensions) that the genre has acquired its most devoted following. Freed from the mundane requirements of time, place, and history, these tales of fantasy have also freed themselves to a remarkable extent from the requirements of linear logic and straightforward plotting.

Heroic fantasy has long been one of the mainstays of pulp and paperback fiction. Its success in the comics came more recently, spearheaded by the comic-book adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan in 1970. As originally conceived by Howard, Conan was a creation to delight the heart of the most hard-bitten Nazi. A primitive brute whose only concerns were survival and power, he hacked and clawed his way to the top of the heap without regard for decency, humanity or reason. The comic-book version, though considerably watered down, was still strong stuff, and its excesses were tolerated only because they purportedly occurred in a barbarian age before the dawn of history. Conan's lust for carnage was equaled only by his carnal lust. Once his appetites were satiated, he treated his bedmates with the same cruel contempt whether they were harlots, merchants' wives or princesses. The sight of Conan hurling some helpless wench over the city's ramparts down to the slimy moat below must have provided strong titillation for the acne-ridden adolescents who accounted for most of the book's readership.
Most of Conan's matings were mechanical copulations, never actually depicted though strongly hinted at. Once in a while, however, he would encounter a woman able to fill his barbarian's heart with something akin to admiration. Such was Bêlit, a pirate chieftain who was his only love and confidante (appropriately, she left him). In addition Conan, whose wits did not match his brain, often found himself bested in the games of both love and war by witch queens and enchantresses whose magic philters and wizardly tricks proved more than a match for his warrior's blade (hence the term “sword-and-sorcery” applied to this kind of tale.) These women provided an ironic Freudian twist to what would otherwise have been a monotonous series of fornicatings.
The popularity of the Conan strip soon led to a spinoff in the form of a Red Sonja comic book. The redheaded heroine was as hot-tempered as she was well-endowed: when the king of Hyrkania showed himself too pressing in his amorous advances she simply cut him open. After that exploit she was forced into exile, took up pillaging as her trade and crossed swords with Conan as well as myriad other male opponents. Because of the double standards still prevalent in comic books, on the convenient pretext of vows of chastity, she was never allowed (unlike Conan) to enjoy triumphs in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. She came close, but her otherwise scanty chain-mail bikini provided too great an obstacle to awestruck males who came into bodily contact with her. Red Sonja owed much of her success to the artistry of Frank Thorne, whose depiction of the fiery-haired amazon remains the definitive one.
After leaving Sonja, Thorne went to draw his own barbarian warrior woman, Ghita of Alazarr, a “tacky blend of Fanny Hill,Barbarella, and Joan of Arc,” as her creator characterized her. The blonde-maned beauty gains her skills through a monstrous coupling with the resurrected empire of the Alizarrian armies. The general dies a second time from this encounter (presumably with a grin on his face), but the indestructible Ghita, thus energized beyond belief, leads the troops to victory over the dreaded half-human Trolls. Along the way she makes liberal love with friend and foe alike, without consideration of race, religion, ethnic origin, or even sex. Her acclaimed triumphs in this field come when she tangles with a protozoan creature from the deeps and subjugates it to her will, and above all when she succeeds in rousing the impotent king of the Trolls, the better to bring him to his knees. Thorne generously sprinkles his depictions of these various shenanigans with the salt of bawdy humor.

Among sword-and-sorcery strips Ghita of Alizarr shines with special radiance. The action is fast, the dialogue snappy, the magic appropriately mystifying. The obligatory scenes of violence seem to float in a fluid, almost balletic mise-en-scène. Best of all is Ghita herself, free in body and spirit, the vibrant, irrepressible, irresistible whore-goddess of myth and legend. In her bold, triumphant nakedness she appears the very embodiment of Aphrodite, come down one time from Olympus to mingle freely among the mortals for a fight and a tumble.
Once fantasy had been established in the minds of readers as a genre with no limits of any kind, it was inevitable that the most outré of all American cartoonists, Richard Corben, would be drawn to it. Of the unholy trinity that formed the major themes of underground comics—sex, drugs, and social protest—only the first was an enduring obsession with Corben, and the boundless domain of heroic fantasy allowed him to explore his theme with unprecedented license. His first foray into the genre came with Bloodstar, a loose adaptation of a tale by the ubiquitous Robert E. Howard. A bizarre commingling of Greek and Norse Mythologies, with a light admixture of science fiction, it embodies the sum of Corben's fantasies and nightmares in its fantastic array of repulsive-looking monsters, incredibly muscled heroes, and impossibly big-busted maidens. Bloodstar also embodies Corben's peculiar vision of heroic sex and heroic death as the twin saviors of mankind.

Compared to Bloodstar, Corben's Beast of Wolfton looks almost sedate, but the appearance is deceptive. The plot is simple and appears to follow the well-worn formula of the fairy tale, in this case Beauty and the Beast. In it a werewolf—actually a chief under the influence of an evil spell—can only be restored to his former self by the love of a beautiful woman. When he saves the pulchritudinous Lady Chabita from a gang of would-be rapists, he is rewarded with her favors, and his grunts of ecstasy match the grunts he emits in battle (the equation of sex with warfare is a Corben specialty). After the climax, when the hero has regained both his composure and his human appearance, the lady puts an axe through him and wanders off to give birth to “a very strange child”. Both sex and war are indeed the dangerous sports in Corben's universe.

In these stories even the layout of the pages takes on an orgasmic quality, breaking out in spasms of violent, discontinuous action splattered with bursts of color. The demons here are all too real, and the light of reason will not exorcise them. But in Corben's world, while the sleep of reason does not produce monsters, it also produces heroes to slay them.
Though better known for his science-fiction stories, Wallace Wood also ventured into the fantasy realm with a succession of short tales done for various publishers over the years, such as The Curse and Animan. These were in fact pretexts for the cartoonist to display his knowing appreciation of feminine flesh. In the face of peril Wood's women all had the same response: to divest themselves of as much clothing as possible and then run into the strong arms of the waiting hero. In retrospect these suggestive tableaux seem to have been warm-ups for the “dirty” comics the cartoonist drew in the latter part of his career, up until his untimely death in 1981.
Next to the Americans, Spanish cartoonists have been the most prolific producers of heroic fantasy. One major reason, aside from market demand, is the Spaniards' strong grounding of aesthetics and draftsmanship. Their knowledge of human anatomy, for instance, is particularly well suited to a field where the depiction of the human body is all-important. Be that as it may, Spanish fantasy strips are very expressive as well as quite suggestive in their delineation of erotic interplay in even the most extreme circumstances.

Among Spanish cartoonists there is probably none better known in the United States than Esteban Maroto, whose work has appeared in many of this country's comics publications. Maroto's barbarian hero Wolff bears a strong resemblance to Conan in his sullenness, valor, and sexual prowess. Unlike Conan, however, this barbarian never allows himself to be two-timed by the gorgeous creatures he meets on his perilous errands. Sultry Amazon queens may offer him half their kingdoms for his strong hand, alluring sorceresses may concoct magic charms in an effort to enslave him to their desires, but all in vain. Wolff stays obdurately faithful to his quest—whose object seems as compelling to him as it remains vague to readers.
While Maroto never openly depicted scenes of blatant sexuality(after all, Franco was still pretty much alive then). His image conveys a sensuousness and a broad suggestiveness that were even more intriguing in what they concealed than what they showed. Few comic-strip artists have been able, as Maroto was, to portray feminine beauty with such delicacy of tone. The flesh seems to quiver in expectation, and the sexual tension is apparent every time the hero comes into contact, however formally, with one of the female protagonists. If for nothing else, Wolff may be remembered for its gallery of lovely women and for the aura of subtle eroticism that pervades the strip.
About the same time—in the early seventies—Victor de la Fuente was also trying to break out of the oppressive straitjacket imposed by the Spanish authorities, and he too discovered that fantasy was the best way to achieve his goal. In his best work in the field, Haxtur, de la Fuente did not so much depict heroic fantasy as tie it to his purpose. Haxtur was a thinly disguised denunciation of all regimes, but since the one the hero was battling was set in prehistoric times, the author's intention escaped the censors. As heroic fantasy, Haxtur was very good of its kind, and the obligatory erotic encounters (there were never as many as Wolff) were handled with mastery and sometimes a strange lyricism. Between them, Maroto and de la Fuente established the artistic standard for most of the Spanish fantasy strips to follow.

Vincent Segrelles, by contrast, relies more on plot—farfetched though it often is—than on sheer draftsmanship in his tales of a moody taciturn Mercenary (no name given) whose amorous exploits rival his heroic deeds. In his first adventure the Mercenary is hired to retrieve a rich man's wife who is being held for ransom. He rescues her from her abductors, and the grateful woman rewards him with her favors. But when he refuses her plea to take her away with him and insists upon returning her to her husband in exchange for his customary fee in these matters, she accuses him of rape. Deprived of his monetary reward and fleeing for his life, he comes upon a sky island peopled and ruled exclusively by women. There he is freed by one of the women, who gives her life for the love of the handsome hero (a familiar move), and he escapes in a weird contraption in the company of a woman captive—whom he later also abandons to follow his mercenary calling.

The Mercenary's plot holds fascination on several counts. First, it brings to the fore, perhaps more clearly than any other, the aura of sexuality that permeates all the heroic fantasy strips, an aura that is indeed one of their strongest selling points. On a related level, it epitomizes the sharply misogynistic strain that is at the heart of the genre's appeal. Women are depicted as helpless and willing victims, or conversely, as treacherous, emasculating ogresses—an adolescent's view of feminine mystique.
Few are the contemporary Spanish artists who haven't at least dipped their toes into fantasy's dark waters. Two of them are especially noteworthy in this field, José-Maria Béa has woven disturbing tales of perverse old wizards and lubricious young maidens into little morality plays suffused with black humor and twisted lessons. The work of Jaime Brocal Remohi is such a blatant ripoff of Conan, right down to the hero's name—Kronan!—that such impudence deserves mention in and of itself, Kronan and it's later clone, Taar, display all the situations familiar with the sword-and-sorcery genre but go Conan one better by depicting the protagonist's numerous sexual encounters in elaborate detail of closely entwined bodies and rapturous faces.

In addition two veterans have entered or re-entered the lists in the late seventies and early eighties. Maroto came back with a vengeance in Dax el Guererro (Dax the Warrior) in which the hero carried on with equal fervor in his prowess on the battlefield and the bedroom in an explicit manner that would not have been tolerated in the less lenient era of late Francoism.
Dax is pretty much the macho hero, but it took another, tough-guy artist, Jordi Bernet (hitherto known for his gritty, take-no-prisoners renditions of gangster melodramas) to create a tough-gal heroine who could outfight, outwit, and outclass all her male opponents with a mix of guile, gall and sex that Spanish readers have found irresistible. Sarvan (thus named for the dark-maned heroine) runs Thorne's Ghita (and her most recent avatar Lann) in a close second for the title of second sexiest fantasy strip.

It fell to the Italians, however, to create a heroic fantasy to end all heroic fantasies, with The Ape, written by Silvero Pisu and drawn by Milo Manara, the genre o'er-leaps itself into giant bounds of absurdity and wretched excess. Freely based on the classic Chinese epic The Westward Pilgrimage, the strip relates the exploits of a young ape born of stone and gifted with supernatural strength. Armed with his only weapon, a golden rod, the Ape challenges the powers of both Heaven and Earth, but his attempts to restore order and peace to the Celestial Empire brings only turmoil. His sex life is no less agitated as he strives vainly to achieve the perfect union with whatever female (or hermaphrodite) chances his way. The Ape's sexual innocence contrasts ironically with his sexual vigor, and his mates never tire of taking advantage of his gullibility in worldly nature.

The joke, however, is always on the Ape's tormenters as the roused beast finally strikes back, wreaking vengeance on men and property alike. The ultimate joke is that the Ape at least exhibits some qualities—courage, generosity, compassion, honor—that have come to be recognized as human, while the humans only display animal fears and appetites; indeed, the more elevated their position, the more they wallow in sheer animality. The Celestial Emperor himself spends most of his time enjoying the attentions of his concubines; when he finally finds time to meet the Ape; he forgets his duties so far as to make a play for his guest's girlfriend. Is it any wonder that our primate goes ape at the sight of such corruption? The Ape is less a stright tale of heroic fantasy than a send-up of the whole genre, which the authors view as a self-indulgent justification of bestiality and barbarism.
All heroic fantasy tales share a common longing for a simpler time,when men were uncompromisingly men (and women were glad of it, as the old vaudeville joke goes), when sex was seen as an uncomplicated thing, blissfully divorced from thought, conscience or the findings of Freud. As a genre that appeals primarily to adolescence, heroic fantasy presents an appropriately sophomoric view of sex, but it has the merit of stating the question forthrightly. Whether it comes up with the right answers is a different matter altogether.

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