VAGUE INKLINGS, or, SNO-BALL'S CHANCE IN HELL
A Comix Review
Review Copyright © 1995 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
Horny Biker Slut #6, by John Howard, with Bill Widener, Scott Phillips (lettering by Lazlow), James Burchett, Coyote. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1993, $2.95.
The Blonde, Book 1 of 3, "Double Cross," by Franco Saudelli. Seattle: Eros Comix, 1991, $2.95.
Diary of a Dominatrix, Number Two, by Molly Kiely. Seattle: Eros Comix, December, 1994, $2.95.
City of Dreams, Chapter One, "The Sleeping Princess," by Brian Tarsis. Seattle: Eros Comix, September, 1994, $2.95.
Spanish Fly, Volume 1, by Tobalina. New York: Eurotica, an imprint of Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 1994, $9.95.
Lolita, Volume 1, by Belore. New York: Eurotica, an imprint of Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 1994, $9.95.
Skin Tight Orbit, Volume 1, by Elaine Lee, with art by Michael Kaluta, Will Simpson, Mary Wilshire, Phil Winslade. New York: Amerotica, an imprint of Nantier, Beall, Minoustchine, 1994, $9.95.
Back in 1970 when I was working for a rich international skin magazine, I was one of the in-house Young Turks who wore cowboy boots, flowered shirts, a mustache that ran from jawbone to jawbone trying really hard to be fierce, and hair that fell in thick waves halfway down my back and made the 12-year-old girl in my heart go "Ooo-oo-o!" every time I leaned back in the shower and let a river of water run through it. The magazine that employed me subscribed to every other magazine I had ever heard of, as well as to hundreds more no one but their publishers and their publishers' mothers even knew existed. As they passed through our library's portals all these periodicals were routinely routed to any editors who requested them, as well as to those of us some other editor thought should see them. Because I wore a motorcycle jacket and jeans in lieu of a suit and tie, and also, probably, because in those days I sometimes came to work smelling of marijuana, every underground paper in what we then laughingly called the free world passed across my desk, from the LA Freep and the East Village Other to the Oracle, Organ, the Berkeley Barb, and smudge-sheeted labors of angry love no one born into the computer age will ever believe were actually touched by people who still walk the Earth.
Beside and sometimes within these passionate experiments in self-expressive journalism came the Comix: a whole art movement of drawn stories and novels full of sex & drugs some wag once called the reading man's rock n' roll. Gilbert Shelton! Rick Griffin! Kelly/Mouse! S. Clay Wilson! I saw the best minds of my generation well, some of them anyway toking on their pencils and drawing with a roach. We thought back then, or some of us did, that the world would soon be safe for humanity, and the Comix gave us hope so we could have a good time. We thought back then, or some of us did, that the world had already gone to hell in a handbasket and the Comix gave us license so we could have a good time too.
But as you may have noticed if you've been around long enough to have the vaguest inkling of what I'm writing about, along the way Something Happened. Peace, love, and dope all died, or else went into some serious hibernation; the back-to-the-land movement became survivalism; George Bush said it was a sin to be liberal and Michael Dukakis (who?) cashed in his ACLU card in response; a few years later, when the National Rifle Association usurped from the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army the privilege of calling the Feds jack-booted storm-troopers, George Bush protested by resigning his membership in the NRA as if his Presidential invocations and the NRA's claims were unrelated; the three-day work-week that was going to result from the labor-saving devices invented during the Ike-and-Beaver years and give to all Americans the leisure to be civil, resulted instead in record unemployment and two-income families with latch-key children scrabbling for the rent while the United States became the largest debtor nation in the world under Ronald Reagan, then almost immediately also became the industrialized nation with the widest income and resource disparity between rich and poor.
Yeah well, says Sno-Ball, my two-dimensional angel, it wasn't just the economy, national morality, and the Presidency that got hurt; not just the ozone hole, the slow death of the oceans, acid air even in Antarctica, the despoilation of the rain forests, and the extinction of three irreplaceable species of the planet's life-forms every hour that are hard on the world: Comix suffered too, ya know. Where are the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers when you need 'em? Even with R. Crumb's biography rendered for the silver screen, where's the real Mister Natural now?
Where, indeed? One of my favorite though short-lived comics from a quarter-century ago was written, drawn, lettered, inked, and privately published by the local pornographer James Williams. Its central character, Sno-Ball now my spiritual mentor was a circle so roughly drawn she changed shape and proportion from one panel to the next; but she was unfailingly devoted to getting it on, or in any case trying to get it on, with a wide assortment of triangles, rectangles, pentangles, and other pointed characters out of Euclid. Sno-Ball's Chance in Hell was soft and even modest compared with the raunchy lines of Comix porn that triumphed most visibly over the years, but in retrospect it was the book that told me best where the form was headed: straight, for the most part, down the tubes.
For the most part, I say; for the most part. There are exceptions. For instance, there's some wonderful sex art around drawn in the exaggerated style that, at its best, dances along the line between archetype and stereotype, such as the gay SM fantasies rendered by Rex, Cirby, the Hun, and Tom of Finland, as well as the het art lent more explicitly to Comix work that ranges from Michael Manning's stark butts and whip-wielding Mistresses to the stylized expressions of Guido Crepax and the elegant fetishistic pencil work of Bernard Montorgueil. These are a few artists among many who possess the technical skills their craft requires; what sets them apart from journeypersons of the form is that, in addition to the technical virtuosity required to execute their special visions, each of them actually has a special vision. Most art that finds expression in the Comix, like most art that finds expression in the Sunday funnies, is short on vision.
Vision doesn't have to be sweet, genteel, or even pretty, but it does have to embody some over-riding spirit other than turning fifty cents into a buck: a spirit of a time, a place, a life, a sensibility, or an experience. Vision is part of what held the most exciting artists of the Comix revolution together a quarter century ago, not just in the outlines of some single story, but in the whole movement of a pen, the development of a style, the evolution of a myth. Through vision the best artists made their work resonate with meanings and innuendoes, intended and surprising, like the rich dreams or drug-induced versions of reality some deployed quite frankly and happily on the page.
Or something like that. No one but ivory tower types were trying to understand the process of the Comix back then, and the artists themselves were out on the fields of their drawing boards ushering in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius knowing, perhaps, that Richard Nixon was a Capricorn without realizing that Aquarius was Ronald Reagan himself.
Horny Biker Slut has a vision fer shur, and perhaps that's not surprising. The publisher, Last Gasp, is one of the Old Guard Comix houses that was here for the revolution's first wave. Also not surprising, then, is that Horny Biker Slut is a throwback to some of the best raunch of the first-wave Comix. As it was in those nearly pre-feminist days, the women all have enormous bazooms, round & firm & fully-packed as Roger Corman's wet dreams of melons, while the men all have John Thomases as thick and long as Arnold Schwarzenegger's bank book. It would be easy in 1995 to sit on a politically proper high horse and find the themes of these Comix offensive gang bangs and piss parties, she-males with melons and bank books fucking women swimming in thick oceans of gism but for the reader who hangs on past the satirical agitprop manifestoes it slowly appears how much of the page is tongue-in-cheek: the women and she-males are running the show, and the occasional biker guy or regular Joe who doesn't just get wasted is merely a tool for some lady's lust.
Now, that scenario itself the lusty lady longing for the dumb boy's schlong is certainly some of the het male mind-stuff Andrea Dworkin gets her panties in a bunch about. But it is also satire as the great German novelist Thomas Mann used the term: Horny Biker Slut pushes the form's full expression toward new limits. That this sex-biker comic is self-ironic is part of what makes it comic. And the mirror it holds up to all sex-biker Comix is the same mirror it holds up to the reader: what you laugh at is what you are, you nasty boy, in your nasty sex-addled brain.
Delicate and prim, in a broad-stroked kind of way, The Blonde does not just have a vision, she is a vision in herself: a human Jessica Rabbit of comic-book loveliness twisted by a Comix sensibility into a jauntily anti-establishment burglar, thief, and well-off ne'er-do-well. Like the other single-book entries here, The Blonde appears serially, her stories collected into book form every three episodes. It features gorgeous big-haired hard-boiled janes who are cleverly at intimate war with one another in a dimly futuristic cop-less land, knocking off heists with 1940s gumshoe knock-offs.
If the women who were forever batting their baby blues at Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade had dispensed with men there are no males in The Blonde except an occasional functionary, and little overt sex despite the baring of many voluptuous body parts and had lived in a kinder, gentler, vaguely Blade Runner future, they could be living The Blonde. When their stories turn back on themselves a double-crossing kidnapper is seen by the captured women she kidnapped on a live-action television program called "Double Cross," produced by the woman who is double-crossing the kidnapper the super-anti-hero-styled villains here, like those in Horny Biker Slut, display a delightful self-mockery that keeps the story rolling while it makes the Comix fun.
Diary of a Dominatrix is another story, so to speak. Though the heroine is neither lesbian nor super in the modish sense of the term, this exploration of a day in the life of professional dominant Zelda Zonk is ironic and wry precisely because its matter-of-fact narration is so very realistic. I'd guess the artist has some inside knowledge of the Pro-Dom world, and she uses it to provide the reader with a glimpse inside Mistress Zelda's mind. Zelda's mind, rather like Herman's Head late of Fox-TV fame, is dominated (if you'll pardon the expression) not only by her job, but also by the very human, mundane concerns many people reflect on on the job: shopping lists, guilt, Comix explanations of do-it-yourself-to-himself circumcisions and vasectomies (don't try this at home, kids!), and a long walk home to love and dinner with a largely vanilla boyfriend. Diary of a Dominatrix has a vision of what's real, seen and presented with enough of a jaundiced eye to keep it witty and adventurous.
One way an artist with a graphic vision can exploit his or her talent without having to generate a visionary story-line as well, is to make use of a story that's already well known. Guido Crepax did this with his Story of O, and to some extent Brian Tarsis does it with City of Dreams.
City of Dreams is an Anne Roquelaure-like version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale in which the boundaries are blurred between good and evil. At the same time they are blurred between the story the protagonist dreams and tells her therapist imagining she is the sleeping beauty, wakened, captured, and enslaved by her Prince Charming and the reality she lives, in which a biker knight rouses her from her middle-class lethargy and makes her dreams come true. The blurred boundaries help to keep both dream and story on enough of an edge that the artist's graphic vision can provide a comfortable home for his narrative. Probably this explains why Tarsis has the sort of following poets used to yearn for and maybe still do.
Perhaps something's lost in translation, but the sort of vision most of these Comix offer is exactly what I find missing in two Spanish imports, Belore's Lolita and Tobalina's Spanish Fly. Instead of some novel perception or interpretation of the story's narrative world or its inhabitants; instead of some ironic use of imagination's rich resources; instead, even, of a deep exploration of the characters' social world, both these books are devoted to the most worn-out clichès of big-boobed women who long for limitless sex of the most obvious suck-fuck varieties with men whose dicks are big as howitzers and stay hard all night, supported by prostate glands that pump more gism in a single episode than Moby Dick produced in a year.
In some ways the fantasies in Lolita and Spanish Fly are about the same as those that jazz up Horny Biker Slut. But the jazz is missing. There's no surprise, no special fun: it's a bit like watching Prime Time Porn Comix. Tobalina's and Belore's drawings are clean and nicely executed, but their graphic skill only makes the case that skill without a vision is not enough for the Comix.
Elaine Lee conceived the sci-fi anthology Skin Tight Orbit, the third of the book-form Comix here, and scripted the stories as well, then teamed up with Michael Kaluta, Will Simpson, Mary Wilshire, and Phil Winslade to execute them. As a consequence, the stories have Lee's unifying narrative vision, while each story is rendered with one artist's unique visual contribution. This puts the book in a Comix class all by itself.
Lee's vision is always erotic; sometimes it is also ironic, and she loves surprise endings as when, in "The Next Best Thing," a woman on a space station makes love with a handsome man through a sensitive robot hook-up and a radar screen, then the reader but not the woman learns that the face on the screen is just another robot, propelled by and hooked up to a much more, um, ordinary looking boy who's enough of a computer whiz to have figured out how to get cyber-laid.
Other times her vision is macabre. In "Double Your Pleasure," a story told from two perspectives mirroring each other on facing pages, a man and a woman are trapped on a damaged space station. In order to repair a leak in the air system they undergo a body switch so that he can use her smaller body to carry his technical expertise into a narrow physical space. She, in the male body, discovers the thrill of force and cannot keep from trying to rape him, in her body. He, on the other hand, finds that he has not the strength to protect himself the way he is used to doing while in her more vulnerable form. What story would you tell, Gentle Reader, if you were one of those two?
Of the three big offerings from NBM, Skin Tight Orbit is clearly my favorite. On the other hand, I seem to like most of what Eros offers, and I can almost count myself a Last Gasp fan after all these years. Since the entries on this list that I dislike all seem to be imported, while the ones I like seem most in the grain of the first-wave American Comix revolution, I have to ask about my own vision: do I like Comix, or am I just a good American? Or is it simply that, searching for a Comix dream, I'm really still searching for Sno-Ball's Chance in Hell?
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.