Sunday, May 18, 2008

Erotic Comics: A Graphic History Volume 1

Erotic Comics: A Graphic History Volume 1

UPDATE: A new edition of  this title is due in May 2011 which can be pre-ordered here. Volume 2 is still available (see the Amazon link below)

As you might expect with a book called Erotic Comics: A Graphic History, I've not had much chance to read the text but I have looked at the pictures... and I'm still managing to type with both hands. That's not meant as a criticism. This is 'erotic' comics rather than outright pornography so, as they say in Bladerunner, reaction time is a factor. It's actually a very good book covering the history of erotic comics from pre-history, via Victorian prints and the Tijuana bibles, through adult magazines like the relatively tame gentleman's mag Playboy and the courser, specialist bondage magazines of Irving Claw, to Robert Crumb's underground comics of the 1970s.

As far as Britain is concerned, erotic comics seem to jump from Thomas Rowlandson to Frederick Mullally & Ron Embleton's 'Wicked Wanda' with very little of note in between except Arthur Ferrier cartoons and Donald McGill postcards. Europe (France and Italy especially) has had a rich history of erotic comics to cater for all tastes while here you couldn't legally read Lady Chatterley's Lover until 1960. However much Channel 5 wants you to think otherwise, sex is still something of a guilty pleasure over here in the UK and you're more likely to hear a joke about sex than a serious conversation. Innuendo and humour are our way of coping with the risqué ("This girl asked me for a double entendre, so I gave her one") and Britain's major contribution to art, when it comes to sex, is the smutty seaside postcard and the accidental striptease (Jane losing her skirt after it gets caught on a branch or a stile or a door handle).

After the infamous trial of Lady C., it became almost impossible to prosecute books for obscenity; visual material, on the other hand, was another matter: much was made at the Oz trial in 1971 of a six-panel strip which juxtaposed Rupert Bear with images from a Robert Crumb comic; Nasty Tales was prosecuted in 1973; Savoy Books was regularly raided and prosecuted but a 1991 ban on the novel Lord Horror was overturned at appeal in 1992—the destruction of the comic Meng & Ecker, however, went ahead.

Maybe this is why erotic and pornographic comics have never appeared in any great numbers in the UK: the Obscene Publications Act allows for literary merit and, time and time again, this has proven a valid defence for novels where cases have been brought on that woolly charge of "a tendency to deprave and corrupt". Comics and visual material, on the other hand, are probably thought an easier target as a jury might be persuaded that an image of Rupert Bear ejaculating does have that tendency.

So... that's why there's not much British content in this book. All the more space for a greater range of material from elsewhere, ranging from Japanese prints to Vargas pin-ups, from Harvey Kurtzman and the late Will Elder's sophisticated 'Little Annie Fanny' to John Willie's bondage comics. Heavily illustrated and with an introduction by Aline Kominsky Crumb, author Tim Pilcher has managed to uncover the incredible variety of ways the female body has been stripped (double meaning intended). It's a fascinating journey into a sub-culture of comics that we've not seen much of in Britain. From the statuesque 'Miss Geewhiz', who leaves much to the imagination, to the bizarre sexual exploits of a gay Jimmy Cagney, there's going to be something in here for all tastes.

A couple of very minor glitches have crept into the captions which credit Albert Ferrier (p.33) with artwork by Arthur Ferrier, correctly identified in the main text; and a pin-up drawing on p.44 is incorrectly credited to Norman Pett when it's by Michael Hubbard.

There's a promised second volume which picks up the story of the underground comix in the 1970s and takes it forward to show how erotic comics continue to flourish in the first decade of the 21st century. They're not called the noughties for nothing.

Erotic Comics: A Graphic History Volume 1. Ilex Books, ISBN , 2 June 2008, 192pp, £20.00.

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