Sex And Comics
By Erotic Art Network Staff, published on 2/8/2010

So there's this great comic-book limited series. And it's dressed up with a plot about super-heroes saving the world but includes mixed media and stories-within-stories, takes on Cold War politics, metaphysics, even the nature of time itself, and it's ticking along, until ... sex comes into the picture.

There's something just too crude and reductive, as nastily fascist as the world the series is criticizing, about a woman falling in love with her rapist.

Maybe that's because Watchmen focuses on men. Even the love-making scene between Nite Owl and Silk Specter in the film version, as Peter Birkemoe, owner of Toronto comic store The Beguiling notes, "caused quite a bit of disdain and/or laughter in the audience familiar with the source material," since the series isn't erotic. But women tend to come up short in comics -- usually short-skirted or skimpy-topped. As Birkemoe says, "If people don't think of sex when they think of comics, sadly they do think of sexism -- the ridiculous super-heroine costumes, fighting crime in high-heels and spilling out of your top. More often than not, these criticisms are sadly justified." And sex in superhero books often seems to involve dehumanization of women. There's a website listing the victims of "Women in Refrigerator Syndrome" -- all the females in male superhero books who've been brutalized or killed as a plot device.

Even though psychologist William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth conceived of Wonder Woman as a feminist role model in the 1940s, the Amazon princess and her successors on the panelled page have usually been pneumatically, but not psychologically, enhanced. Take Mary Jane Watson. Before and after a wet T-shirted Kirsten Dunst in the first movie adaptation, Peter Parker's favourite redhead has been super-sexed up. In 2007, there was some criticism when a new collectible figurine of Mrs. Parker was released, showing her bent over, thong showing, while washing her husband's costume. Last month, two Spider-Man covers looked like Mary Jane centrefolds. And Marvel is now issuing a Models Inc. comic series to show off more leggy ladies. Such images are sure to make Disney's recent acquisition of Marvel for $4-billion, a deal made in large part to enchant the Magic Kingdom's elusive tween and teen boy demographic, sex-cessful.

Dig deeper in the comic-store shelves, though, and some intelligent, three-dimensional explorations of sex do pop up. This may be because of the rise of female writers and illustrators, Birkemoe notes. Alan Moore, Watchmen writer, recently collaborated with his wife Melinda Gebbie on Lost Girls, an erotic reimagining of children's book characters Alice, Dorothy and Wendy. And, Birkemoe explains, "Comics with sexuality as central themes are increasingly popular, even if many of these works would not be considered erotic. Best-selling recent works like Fun Home (by Alison Bechdel) and Skim (written by Toronto's Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her Alberta-born cousin Jillian) are excellent examples that have sex at their core with hardly any explicit depiction. On the porn side, I have noticed both men and women becoming more open about including out-and-out porn in their purchases."

Jay Bardyla, owner of Edmonton's Happy Harbor comics, says that, "These days we sell as much sexual material to women as we do men."

Pornographic comics still aren't nearly as big over here as in Europe or Japan, but then North America doesn't have as popular or transgressive a comic culture. As Bardyla explains, "For starters, it was, and somewhat still is, generally more difficult to obtain that type of material in North America than overseas ... Frequently creators and, more often, retailers are imprisoned in the US for (legally) creating, distributing and possessing 'adult' material. That's why the industry had to create the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, to allow people to properly express themselves in a free society without fear of litigation or incarceration."

Japanese manga, a popular art form with its origins in traditional Japanese art, has its own pornographic offshoot that, inside the covers, can go far beyond the outside world's legal lines. Hentai publications present all sorts of fetishes and perversions (Bondage Fairies is one self-explanatory title), and has many subgenres, including yaoi (male-male sex for female readers) and bear porn (burly, hairy men for gay male readers).

And maybe comics can offer more of a projection-screen for the sexual imagination than a video or film. "Transgender porn is surprisingly popular in comics form, making up what I have to imagine is a much higher percentage of total porn than in any other format. I theorize," Birkemoe says. "This is mostly because with pen and ink you can create the transgendered body of your fantasy much more easily than you can find an actor with those traits, if such a person even exists."

In North America, Birkemoe's noticed, "LGBT themes in comics sell very well in comics form, but much more so in ... personal works by LGBT authors than by some token reference in a superhero book." There can be a greater part-of-life honesty to graphic novels, Bardyla says: "If you examine the more alternative and independent comic sector, the vast majority of those stories are auto- or quasi-biographical and therefore lend themselves to discussing most people's biggest hang up: sex."

And in some graphic novels, where adult male characters harbour an adolescent frustration with women, honesty can be the best policy. Birkemoe's found, for instance, "Joe Matt's honest depiction of his own rather pathetic relationship with porn has won him just as many fans with women as with men, perhaps because he confirms their worst fears."

Even in the simpler world of super-hero comics, there's now more of the men for straight women readers and gay male readers to ogle. "The male bulge is making a strong comeback," notes Bardyla, and men's "excessive musculature has always been present." A recent issue of X-Factor showed a kiss between Rictor and Shatterstar, a revision of their sexuality that character co-creator Rob Liefeld objected to.

"So many characters have been around for decades and to decide which are no longer hetero requires some finesse," Bardyla says of today's comics, increasingly reflecting our more sexually complex and open society. "In the case of the Rictor/Shatterstar relationship, had one of the original co-creators not publicly said a bunch of silly things, the kiss may have gone largely unnoticed except by the people who actually read X-Factor."

But even during an economic downturn, in any industry, even the industry that was, just a few decades ago, mostly kids' books selling for a dollar at the corner store's revolving wire-rack, talking about sex sells as well as sexy images do.