The lifeline of erotic comic art has been long relative to its history; it has also been far-reaching. Risque cartoons appeared in men's magazines (Esquire, Calgary Eye-Opener, and so on) pre-World War II, and American newspapers featured sexy, young women in the flapper comic strips of the 1920s and others a decade later, examples being Terry and the Pirates and Li'l Abner, the latter with a character none-too-subtly named Appasionata Climax. In England, the star of Norman Pett's (1891–1960) newspaper comic Jane's Journal, the Diary of a Bright Young Thing (1932) regularly shed her clothes, increasingly more often during World War II (1939–1945) when the strip was the favorite of soldiers. Almost from their beginnings in the early 1940s, American superheroine comic books portrayed namesake characters such as Wonder Woman and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, in scanty apparel, often posed in bondage or with phallic-shaped objects.
Pornographic comic books, like stag films, circulated illegally in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, providing inexpensive, titillating entertainment during the Depression (1929–1939). Called Tijuana bibles, they were eight pages, 4 by 6 inches, and showed either public figures or, more commonly, comic strip characters engaged in all manner of sexual activity. Clandestinely published and circulated comics appeared elsewhere as well; in Brazil, Carlos Zéfiro (1921–1992) secretly drew pornographic comics called catecismos, from 1950 until the 1990s. Others followed his example in Brazil. A touch of pornography was apparent in comic books sold in the open market in Mexico during the 1950s. Starting with Adolfo Mariño Ruíz's Yolanda, a number of comics featured bold women of sadomasochistic fame.
The 1960s ushered in a period of virtually unrestrained adult comics, attributable to the underground comix and the sexual revolution. In some newspaper strips, such as Modesty Blaise in England and Brigette in Australia, sex was strongly implied, but no more than that, because of their family audiences. At the same time, an unfiltered view of sex as fun began to be seen in the French strips Barbarella by Jean-Claude Forest (1930–1998), Les Aventures de Jodelle and Pravda by Guy Peellaert (b. 1934), and the American The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist by Michael O'Donoghue (1940–1994) and Frank Springer (b. 1929). The French strips were published in girlie magazines; Phoebe Zeit-Geist was published in Evergreen Review. As an indication of how sexual subject matter had expanded, the erotic dreams of Phoebe included rape, flagellation, fellatio, bestiality, and branding.
France contributed a number of sexy and sex-obsessed girl strips in the 1960s, including Pierre Dupuis's (1929–2004) Jartyrella, Daniel Henrotin's (b. 1943) Aurelia, and Georges Wolinski (b. 1934) and Georges Pichard's (1920–2003) Paulette, but the strip that made the biggest impact on European comics was Valentina by the Italian Guido Crepax (1933–2003), called the poet of sex comics. Valentina was known for its stylized design with mood-setting panel shapes, its sometimes erudite subject matter (Valentina has sex fantasies with famous literary and film personages), and its always explicit portrayals of the featured character's very active and varied sex life.
After Crepax and Valentina, the floodgates were opened wide for eroticism in many genres and most parts of the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, Argentina had Barbara, Spain had Vampirella, and Italy had the master criminal Diabolik by sisters Angela (1922–1987) and Luciana Giussani (1928–2001). The sexually violent formula of Diabolik was quickly imitated by other Italian creators. Outlandish science fiction and fantasy incorporated strong sexual themes in France's Major Fatal by Jean Giraud (b. 1938) as well as in The Horny Goof and Bloodstar by Richard Corben (b. 1940), both published in the United States; heroic fantasy mixed with sex was prominent in Spanish works such as Inanna and Dax el Guerrero by Esteban Maroto (b. 1942), Haxtur by Victor de la Fuente (b. 1927), and Italy's The Ape, drawn by another master of erotic comics, Milo Manara (b. 1945). Sexual satire was prominent in the United States during this period, with Wally Wood's (1927–1981) Sally Forth, done for a servicemen's magazine; Harvey Kurtzman's (1924–1993) widely-known comic page parody Little Annie Fanny for Playboy; British artist Ron Embleton's (1930–1988) well-endowed blonde in Oh, Wicked Wanda for Penthouse; and a number of strips for underground periodicals.
The underground movement in the United States contributed its share to the development and acceptance of erotic comix through social spoofs by Gilbert Shelton (b. 1940), Richard Corben, Bill Griffith (b. 1944), Jay Lynch (b. 1945), Denis Kitchen (b. 1946), Jay Kinney (b. 1950), and others. The unintended leader of underground erotic comix was Robert Crumb (b. 1943), who had a host of sexually oriented characters, including Fritz the Cat, Angelfood McSpade, and Whiteman. With Crumb, everything ended up with sex. At various speeds, underground comics caught on elsewhere: 1968 and 1971 in the Netherlands, with Real Free Press Illustratie and Tante Leny Presenteert; between 1960 and 1990 in Mexico, evidenced in sensacionales, small one-episode stories that were openly masturbatory; beginning in the 1970s in Brazil, with udigrudi, one of the most successful being Chiclete com Banana, self-described as immoral and filthy; between the 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand with Strips and Razor magazines; and the 1990s onward in South Africa, most notably, Bitterkomix by Anton Kannemeyer (b. 1967) and Conrad Botes (b. 1969).
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, eroticism in comics had become almost commonplace. Europe was dotted with adult magazines serving erotic comics, a few of which were Pilote, Charlie Mensuel, À Suivre, Circus, Metál Hurlant, Fluide Glacial, Bédé Adult, and El Vigora; Latin America was rich with creators such as Nicaragua's Róger Sánchez, who drew Humor Erótico in Semana Cómica, and Argentine writer Carlos Trillo (b. 1943), who often teamed with famous artists Alberto Brecchia (1919–1993) and Horacio Altuna (b. 1941); and Japan was ensconced in a lead position in the comics world. Eroticism has played a major role in Japanese manga; nearly all titles carry sex-oriented stories, and specific sex genres exist, such as rori-kon (little girls as sex partners) and yaoi (male gay comics). The popularity of manga has spread comics eroticism worldwide. In the United States, male gay comics started in the mid-1970s, with Gay Heart Throbs, followed shortly after by a series of lesbian books, first of which was Roberta Gregory's (b. 1953) Dynamite Damsels. Women had already begun to explore sexual themes in the 1972 comix Tits and Clits and Wimmen's Comix.
Eroticism has planted itself firmly in the global comics industry, and, as a significant part of the mammoth pornography business, has ensured itself a financially secure and legally protected position.
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John A. Lent