FOR FANS WHO consider the 1950s and 1960s the greatest era of comics, Wallace Wood is second only to Jack Kirby. He left his signature at Mad, EC Comics, Marvel, and in his own underground mag, witzend. Most of his oeuvre is in print and if you’re a Wood completist, you can now read the cartoons and strips he contributed to low-rent girlie mags in the new Fantagraphics collection Cons De Fée: The Erotic Art of Wallace Wood. The scandal behind this collection is pathetic. The title comes from a 1977 French edition of Wood’s erotica and roughly translates as “Fairy Cunts,” a play on the French term for fairy tales, contes de fée. The book was banned once everyone realized it wasn’t a children’s book, but it was reissued with a different title and an “adults only” warning.
Wood’s mainstream work was not prudish. His work at Mad featured bombshells and could be startlingly self-aware of its own sexism: “Lampoon women are either real good looking,” the narrator of a Julius Caesar parody says, “or lampoon women are real bad looking! For some reason lampoon women are never … real in-between looking!” The strips Wood drew for military publications in the 1960s and 1970s — “Sally Forth,” “Cannon,” and “Shattuck” — are glorious fuck-a-thons. The work in Cons De Fée goes further, and it gets outright evil, by which I mean there’s a lot of rape humor and grotesque homophobia. You probably wouldn’t bother with it if it had any other name besides Wood’s on the cover. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother with it.
The collection covers almost the entirety of Wood’s career until 1981, the year of his death by suicide. He lived an intense life, poisoning himself with cigarettes and alcohol to the final hour. He fought hard against an industry that denied him both money and freedom, and eventually became a pioneer in the underground comix movement. In the 1970s, he saw his talent begin to slip away. He died at 54, when he should have been in the process of becoming the comics equivalent of a gray-haired jazz virtuoso. Cons De Fée tells this tragic narrative through pornography.
Wood started off in the late 1940s, but the first cartoon in Cons De Fée is from 1954. It’s a prank panel for an EC science-fiction story in which he imagines one of his bombshells completely nude. Wood’s EC comics were extraordinary. His pen was made of steel, his ink was as thick as tar, and his overstuffed panels, filled to the edge with detail, seemed carved from wood. I pause on this panel and admire the careful use of ink to articulate the woman’s crotch and the shadows of her body. Wood is just tossing off a joke that will never make it to print, but he almost — almost! — seems to respect his subject matter.
We could compare the full-page washes Wood contributed to Playboy’s low-rent competitors to the work Jack Cole produced for Playboy, but this work also has something in common with the pulp science-fiction covers Wood was producing at the time. His fairy-tale sex parodies of the mid-1960s have affinities with his Mad work a decade earlier. The panels are filled to the brim with jokes. The punch lines come out of nowhere. The stories in Cons De Fée, that is to say, is of a piece with everything Wood did.
I turn to “Super Cosmic Comic Creator Comix,” a gag story he drew in 1977 but which wouldn’t be published until long after his death. From the title, you can probably guess that it’s a satire examining the awkward relationship between comix and comics. Wood had a foot in both worlds. In 1966, he founded witzend, one of the first comics of the underground movement. It wasn’t long after he had left Marvel, where he drew Daredevil. Stan Lee, he complained, had taken credit for his writing.
The strip references Captain Marvel, Conan the Barbarian, and the Katzenjammer Kids. The aesthetics are punk. A parody figure of Shazam is dressed as an S&M daddy with a swastika. “I’ve got a date with Billy Badson at the automat. What an ass on that boy!” When the nebbish-cartoonist hero of the story turns into Kilgore the Barbarian and grabs a secretary’s breasts, she thinks, “I’m being violated by a Mad cartoonist! But Jesus, what a thrill!” In its analysis of the economic flows of 1970s comics culture, the story is astute. The humor may be awful, but its vileness reminds us how much was at stake for artists like Wood who risked everything: their minds, their bodies, their souls.
In 1980, Wood had returned to Marvel to ink one more cover: Daredevil #164, penciled by Frank Miller, Wood’s spiritual son. To look at that drawing — perfectly vintage, competent Wood — makes it downright miserable to read the second half of Cons De Fée, which addresses the final two years of the artist’s life. Wood’s kidney was failing. He was churning out work for the California-based Gang Bang. In “Stuporman Meets Blunder Woman,” his bodies have lost all proportion and weight. His faggot jokes — the villains are named the Transvestite Twins — are the kind of thing you’d expect from a straight dude who was born in Minnesota in 1927 and spent most of his life hunched over a drawing board. No depth. No satire. A particularly flat Stuporman sodomizes Blunder Woman while they soar across a cityscape that, if it wasn’t from 1981, one would assume had been taken from clip art.
Fans of comics erotica, whether it be the Tijuana Bibles of the 1930s or Joe Shuster’s fetish art of the early 1950s, aren’t always looking for “good.” Sometimes they just want “honest,” or at least “less dishonest.” Superman’s erection, every fan secretly knew, would eventually appear through his spandex. I guess there’s honesty of a sort when a great artist wallows in sexual violence and bigotry. The puny 10-year-old who draws mean caricatures of his classmates never really dies. He’s always right there, ready to be released at any moment of weakness.
The work Wood produced for Gang Bang is also less dishonest for another reason: it shows decline, a fate we will all face, and not all of us with dignity. A once great man who had built elaborate worlds, one panel at a time, can now barely remember what sex is supposed to look or even feel like. The pen has lost all control. A once expansive imagination has become narrow. “He’d lost his magic.” That’s the opening line of The Humbling, Philip Roth’s second-to-last and his worst novel. I imagine Wood just as aware of the nearness of his death. I imagine him thinking, as he stares at his drawing board: “This will be the last breast I draw. This is my last ass. This is my last pussy. This is my last dick. The last ass-fuck. The last blowjob. The last blowjob ever.” Every good comics artist should know what their body wants and what their body needs. Unfortunately, at the end, that’s all Wood knew. And it’s not even clear if he knew that much.
Comics creation is physical labor. You put on weight. You kill your back. The bones in your hand start to ache. The comics industry of Wood’s time advertised its artists as eccentric, popular geniuses but treated them as grunts, and there were no unions to protect anybody. A better, more humane economic system may have protected Wood from his most self-destructive impulses. What more could this genius have produced had he been treated better? Maybe my own definition of great art: pornography that outlives the death of its author.
Paul Morton recently received his PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington. He is currently working on a manuscript based on his dissertation on the Zagreb School of animation.