FOR BOTH COMICS READERS well advanced in age and younger readers interested in the history of an art form, the subject of eroticism remains, shall we say, touchy. Always touchy. It has become more so, arguably, in the light of #MeToo. On one hand, we seem to have arrived, more generally, in the age of the sexually aggressive female comics protagonist — where, presumably, we should have disembarked long ago. There has been a wave of graphic novels by and/or about young women, specifically adolescents, whose troubled fictional and semi-fictional lives find a ready audience.

On the other hand, the subject cannot be avoided, is not avoided, in the various retrospectives of Underground Comix that reach gallery walls or print even now, 50 years after 1969. To give a concrete example, Robert Crumb’s critical stock drops while Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s rises. Our understanding of the role of eros in comics art has been necessarily complicated by embarrassment about men’s misdeeds in comic art as well as real life. History is not, of course, every reader’s cup of tea. But as has always been the case, the present is inseparable from the past in our construction of aesthetic histories. Salutary changes in how we understand sex in the present is bound to cast new light on the history of eros in comics art.

We need a rewind. Perhaps the lush, new, somewhat expanded edition of the erotic classic Lost Girls, originally published in 1991, along with the reappearance of the late Spain Rodriguez’s “Big Bitch” superwoman, affords us the opportunity to rethink where we’ve been, and how we got to where we are.

Lost Girls is undoubtedly a comics phenomenon, in part because of the prominence of its creators. If Alan Moore is an icon of the form, Melinda Gebbie is a highly unusual artist who came upon the scene at the end of the underground era, one whose work is notable for its treatment of sexual abuse in the counterculture world.

The second volume of the Collected Works of Spain Rodriguez, edited by Patrick Rosenkranz, is for me the proper match for Lost Girls. Not that “Big Bitch” stands alone here in a volume titled Warrior Women. But this creation was a standout when the story was published in the later 1980s, following the rise and fall of the comics underground, and it remains as daring as ever. Like Lost Girls, Rodriguez’s volume is an incitement, its artist an erotic provocateur of high order.

To further flesh out the comparison, as it were, seldom have we seen so many sexual organs on display and in action on the pages of high-class art comics by socially conscious artists. And yet Gebbie’s and Rodriguez’s drawings are so distinct, in every other way, that it is almost difficult to believe that both more or less emerged from the same Bay Area scene, albeit a generation apart. (They were also, not surprisingly, personal friends.) Rodriguez, with his roots in the 1950s and his greatest fame in the 1970s, died in 2012. Gebbie remains a driving force in the present, especially for young women artists.

Perhaps in order to properly place their work in comics history, we need to step back even further in time.

Erotic art can surely be traced, in a general way, to the earliest days of human expression, and is sometimes said to have gained print form perversely, a few centuries before movable type, in illuminated bibles. Tortures of various kinds evidently proved titillating enough to join small collectors’ editions. Modern erotic art seems to arrive in the 18th century with private prints. It flourished in the early 19th century, and even more in the Victorian fin de siècle, by which time it had become associated all too clearly with sexual abuse.

Erotic art as actual comic art, sequential art in panels, is necessarily of a still more recent vintage. Anthologies of explicit sex comics, published within the past few decades, reveal very little before the 1920s, when some joke book series, like Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, pushed at the limits of the publishable. In these cartoons, “college widows” (unattached older women living in the campus area) and hot-to-trot coeds set the pace, with their avid boyfriends, for the rawer material to follow. 

“Tijuana Bibles,” eight-to-24-page small-sized comics, began to appear during the Depression, following the expansion and consolidation of organized crime networks. Never sold in public, they circulated mysteriously, and sexual organs were very much on display. They were first distributed in tobacco shops (which at an earlier time had offered a literal entryway to commercial prostitution). Rendered less necessary by the slippage of censorship in wartime, these “bibles” slipped downward to distribution at gas stations and off-the-truck direct sales.

A generation or so later, the form had become a small totem of print-era nostalgia. Dozens of excerpts from Tijuana Bibles have reappeared in paperbacks in recent decades. Seen in a fresh light, they clearly display humor as their narrative keynote, cartoonish pornography aside. Among other things, they offer up the supposed sexual adventures and misadventures of celebrities — mostly movie stars, sometimes political or other public figures of the day. They feature very little homosexuality, on one hand, and on the other very little violent or non-consensual sex — the occasional sex with animals aside. Art Spiegelman, writing an introduction to the most respectable of reprint volumes, accurately pointed out their invariable subtheme: women of all kinds crave sex in almost every possible way. Hollywood men certainly grope anonymous dames, but women stars are not left out of the adventures.

Without romanticizing an exploitative genre, we can note that the sex in Tijuana Bibles operates, at least in part, as a commentary on celebrity. The form suggests that even movie stars have bizarre sexual cravings and behavior, elaborating an assumption regularly hinted at by real-life tabloids and fictionalized tell-all novels. The rich and famous, Sonja Henie along with Laurel and Hardy, make fools of themselves, like us ordinary mortals.

If we stay a moment longer here, we might ask what it meant, in this comic genre, for women of all kinds to urgently desire sex from the men conveniently on hand — with a preference, naturally, for the young and handsome? While liberating is surely too strong a term, this hardly seems dreadful, several generations after publication. In fact, it seems not too far from the sentiments of today.

Wildly profitable, over-the-counter eros in comic art arrived from another, arguably more perverse, direction. Harry Donenfeld, the pulp publisher who launched mainstream comic books at the end of the 1930s, had himself graduated from girlie pulps consisting of prose with scattered illustration, sometimes narrowly escaping prosecution. The next step for Donenfeld and his competitors, into comics featuring superheroes fighting Hitler, was quickly followed by something very different. As superhero comics lost circulation, the slack was taken up by hugely selling, postwar “headlights” (tight sweater) comics. Plots with extraordinary sadism and constant violence drew upon and reinforced the feeling, so rampant in noir films of the day, that all society was at war with itself.

Recent reprints of the dominant headlights series, Crime Does Not Pay, remind us how garish the mixture of violence and cruelty with bulging breasts and thighs could be. Of course, the key female body parts remained covered — as at least sex organs remained even in the small genre of bondage-and-fetish specialty comics that appeared under the counter during the 1950s (some of them drawn by down-on-his-luck Joe Shuster of Superman fame).

The Congressional investigation and subsequent informal repression of comic books naturally struck hard at sex and violence as leading causes of juvenile delinquency. Comics publishers, already under assault from television, disappeared in large numbers overnight, with superheroes and a few others barely surviving. (The code itself lasted until 2011, by which time even Archie Comics withdrew, formally ending an era that had passed long before.)

Underground comix, capitalizing on the spread of the underground press and produced by artists chafing against the Comics Code, were unrestrained on point of principle. By the early 1970s, when dozens of titles had appeared and some sold like the proverbial hotcakes, sex sizzled in the 24-page newsprint. To codify the range of art and narrative would be impossible, and the anthological efforts to analyze the genre at close range seem best when they do not try to be definitive. That said, underground comix were pretty consistently against war and repression, and for the use of drugs, as befitted their creators’ countercultural affiliations. They could also be dreadfully violent and sexist. By 1980, their peak had passed.

The feminist underground comix genre that emerged a little later, and survived with vibrancy at least through the 1980s, hit the satirical note harder, and with better accuracy. Among hundreds of titles of assorted series, Tits ’n Clits Comix from Southern California offers an especially vivid case in point. In Tits ’n Clits, sex is funny because fear and repression of sex are funny — if often painfully so. In the magazine’s pages, men’s fears as well as their abuse of women offer good material for satire, but so do women’s own frequent lack of sisterhood. We might also note that women’s comix tended by be drawn by at least part-time political activists.

Spain Rodriguez’s work stands above that of all the other male artists in this creation of sexually explicit comics art, both because he was so prolific and popular, and because he strove to show his sympathy toward women’s passions and struggles. Admittedly, he did so in ways that were distinctively his own.

A veteran of both a Buffalo motorcycle club and the 1960s underground culture of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, Spain can be described as an artist of “action comics” with a political soul. He can also be described as a working artist who early in his career dabbled in exploitation. His work drawing pin-up girl illustrations might recall, for some, the photo-posing of later feminist comics godmother Trina Robbins in men’s magazines a couple decades earlier. Sex sold, in what we would now regard as fairly modest forms, for marginal freelancers in the years when rents were still low.

Spain’s exodus from New York to the West Coast in 1969–’70 coincided with, but arguably also helped usher in, the new era of explicit comics. No one drew more of them than he did. Street Fighting Man, the first of the series of anthologies of his work, featured an extended, biographical backstory by editor Patrick Rosenkranz. The second volume, Warrior Women, has a great deal more to say on the subject of gender equality, with sexually demanding crusaders for social justice very much at the center of the action. A plethora of women testify, in this volume’s biographical sketch, to Spain’s good-natured emotional support.

In Warrior Women, as in the vast majority of Spain’s comics work, the central theme of direct, often violent struggle against capitalism returns repeatedly. Interestingly, violent Amazonians are on hand in Spain’s work as early as 1971, the dawn of the underground era — a definite nod to (and rewriting of) the Wonder Woman of Spain’s youth.

But confrontations do not always need to be violent in Spain’s work. Marriage to feminist filmmaker Susan Stern following a lengthy stream of affairs, and helping to raise their daughter, obviously had a real effect on his life and work. Spain increasingly took up themes that he had only hinted at in his earlier work, or managed to express indirectly through mentoring individual women artists or providing poster illustrations for the militant San Francisco Mime Troupe.

Thus “Granny McGurk,” one of his later lead characters, an older lady on a skateboard, fights the capitalist class and its malign agents. McGurk joins other female heroines in the volume, such as an ace Red Army pilot and famed Yiddish actresses (these last thanks to his collaborator, Yiddishist professor Joel Schechter).

A high point in what we might call the “new Spain” was surely reached in “Women Art Revolution” (2010), published two years before his death. This single story of a dozen pages offers a particularly vivid protest against the marginalization of women across the graphic arts. Of course, the story’s documentation of their struggle for something like equal representation, done Spain’s way, is naturally full of erotically dressed women making their demands known. 

Way back in the early 1970s, the proximity of Spain and a dozen other male underground comix artists, prominently including some who unapologetically depicted violence against women in the name of free expression, had already roused Bay Area–based women comic artists into action. They responded in the best way possible, with collective work of their own. It Ain’t Me Babe (1972) led quickly to Wimmin’s Comix, which continued for almost 20 years. Outstanding feminist comic artists of the last 40 years, movement founder Trina Robbins among them, worked on the title, setting a standard for women creators that still holds today.

It would be difficult to cite a single artist among them who did not deal with sex and humor. Melinda Gebbie, younger than most of the rest and coming upon the scene in the 1980s, was the intriguingly mostly (although by no means entirely) non-humorous exception. Her comics were angry. She depicted her largely realistic subjects — teenage girls, prostitutes in and out of prison, and others — with great pain, or worse, with acceptance of pain as a fact of life. Her comics were as hard for some readers (including this one) to take in as were violent war comics — one might say, the other war comics. Or to put it another way: we could appreciate, but it was harder to enjoy.

Lost Girls is, so far, her masterwork. Here, amid sumptuous color art, sex is endless and seemingly unbound by gender and age, if much more pleasurable among women themselves than anywhere else.

The conceit of Lost Girls features an encounter between three now grown-up protagonists of children’s fiction. Alice of Wonderland fame has grown into gray-haired Lady Fairchild. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz is now in her 20s, Wendy from Peter Pan in her 30s. When the three happen to meet in a luxurious Austrian mountain resort at the moment when World War I is about to break loose, they explain and explore their own pasts, offering a meditation upon childhood sexuality in extremis.

And why not? — except that the sexual pleasures that they give each other seem to remain trapped within the traumas of their personal pasts. The sex here is — in contrast to the happy, untrammeled (and heterosexual) sex in Spain Rodriguez’s work — at best, badly conflicted. The story lines written by Moore are brief, with limited dialogue. What does it all mean?

Interviewed recently in the online version of The Comics Journal, Gebbie said,

When I read anything about my work that’s been written in the past, it’s often talked about in terms of victimization or abuse, when in my heart I feel like my work is about so much more. To me, so much of this stuff is funny. There’s a way out, and it’s often represented here in these stories.

So, by her own lights, redemption does exist in her work. It obviously takes some careful reading and rumination to discover it, but that may be the point. It is surely no coincidence that Warrior Women quotes Gebbie in support of Spain as a friend and as an artist.

Today, comic art has found a new generation of female writer-artists whose personal narratives successfully reach audiences here and abroad, win prizes, and make a mark. The saga of adolescence and the mostly lonely pursuit of identity and successful relationships is a winning formula. But to risk a generalization, sex seems more often troublesome to these young women than funny or even cheerful, a gloomy marker for our time. But it is there and will not likely go away — a development for which Spain Rodriguez and Melinda Gebbie surely deserve a large, if not always acknowledged, portion of the credit.

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Paul Buhle was publisher of Radical America Komiks (1969) and has edited a dozen comics since 2005. His latest is Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography.