We’ve discussed the relationship between comics and mimesis, temporality, identity, continuity, and a whole slew of other categories. In fact, the basis for our continuing engagement with comic books is an underlying, preconceived, agreement that comics deserve critical scrutiny that reflects the complicated subjects and themes comics themselves engage with. That said, our criticism of comics relies–like all forms of criticism–on analytical frameworks borrowed from other methodologies–literary criticism, film criticism, and other modes such as social critique and philosophical interrogations (post-structuralism!). And while this approach to the criticism of comics is all well, and good, it belies its own undercurrent of elitism, exclusion, and preconception. In other words, we take the critique of comics seriously only for those comics that take themselves seriously or, those comics that imply they take themselves and their subject seriously as a medium for expression. There’s always room for a joke, irony, and liminality without plunging the whole exercise into the toilet as “inauthentic” or “inane,” but we tend to critique on the basis of a set of–with apologies to Woody Allen–aesthetic criteria that prioritize “serious” subjects, re-imaginings, or themes. Our reluctance to move out of the “serious artist / critic” mode, suggests there are areas where comics are “representing” that need critical attention, if only to account for the dearth of socio-cultural subjects comics represent in the twenty first century. And one of those subjects in need of attention is the relationship between comics and pornography.
Pornography in comic books occupies an odd “middest” position (credit to Frank Kermode) somewhere between credibly realistic–it does “show” anatomical features in a way literary pornography cannot–and comically awkward–it doesn’t “show” anatomical features in way that film or video can. Like every other kind of comic book representation, pornographic comics represent a hybrid between realism and fiction that is both self-evident and cloaked in a web of integrative connections between text, context, and image.
If we take for granted that Umberto Eco is correct and comics are “inconsumable” in that they cannot occupy a fixed place in time but rather occupy a constantly recurring present in which the circumstances change only tangentially, then the connection between superhero comics and pornography is almost a formality. Just like a viewer of pornography, the comic book reader can predict how the narrative will develop, its signature moments, key manoeuvres, all leading to the proverbial “money shot” in which all anxieties are released and the action hero retreats back into daily life. As we’ve discussed in the posts of Graphixia before, even the narratives of non-superhero comics follow a particular trajectory around memory, identity, and awakenings that reflect the inconsumable dimensions of the superhero comic. It’s not so much that comics are like pornography; it’s that they enact the same narrative techniques and rely on fulfilling a similar set of expectations in the reader. Everyone knows what they’re getting and everyone’s secretly–or openly–happy about that fact.
Of course, inevitable will be the pointing to artists such as Robert Crumb, who seem to embrace rather than resist the pornographic pretense to comic books. However, Crumb participates in the long line of comic book illustrators who reconfigure superhero tropes in other contexts. There’s no question that Crumb’s artwork is closer to being labelled pornographic at face value than the textual analysis needed to deconstruct pornographic layers in a Spider-Man comic. However, Crumb’s story-lines always enact the superhero fantasy of coming out of one’s shell and performing super-heroic acts. Indeed, Crumb’s work is a helpful bridge between the super-heroic of fantasy and the super-heroic of, well, fantasy. Superman might be restricted to fighting crime, but Crumb’s crude supermen perform sexually in a superhuman way. Pornography is full of super-humanity, real and fake. It’s also full of costume and shifting identities. In fact, pornography and comics are ridiculously alike. They both enact a fantasy of everyday life that allows for escape, mimesis, memory. Everyone is just “minding their own business” until something happens and one is given an opportunity to do, and be, otherwise. We always fast-forward through the constant re-telling of origin stories, but we need them to be there; it’s part of the experience of recognition (cue lame synth music: bowm. bowm. chicka-bown. preeeummm. bowm).
There’s a lot of comics—long and short form—out there that are strictly pornography. It’s not all about memoir, history, superheroes; or maybe it is. See, that’s the thing. Comics, no matter what they represent, play for the same comfort zones as pornography, and they always have. The first “re-writes” of comics characters were in the infamous “Tijuana Bibles” that took famous characters from newspaper strips and put them into pornographic story-lines: Blondie unapologetically riding Dagwood moaning about his over-sized cock, or Dick Tracey showing his engorged first name to a nude, wide-eyed, dilated-pupil Little Orphan Annie. Long before Moore and Miller, artists were reframing superheroes and others in updated and “more realistic” contexts, and they were doing it pornographically–maybe the “unliterary” is influence.