On Cultural Harm and Pornographic Diversity

So I haven’t blogged in a little while now. The reasons for this are various, including working on an article (now due to be published some time next year in The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics) developed from my blog on ‘Girly Porno Comics’ and a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality on Representing BDSM and Kink. I’ve written quite a bit here (as the blog’s title would suggest) about the censorship of pornographic comics, but I’ve also written about both pornographic comics and the censorship of comics more generally, so I thought it might be time to dedicate a blog to talking about the censorship of porn.

I’m particularly interested in the ways in which censorship works to limit diversity in pornography and, while it’s a claim I’m wary of making, how greater diversity in porn might contribute to an increased degree of sexual freedom in society more generally. I’m wary of making this claim because it sails pretty close to being the direct inverse of an argument made frequently by anti-porn campaigners best summarized by the phrase ‘cultural harm’.

The ‘cultural harm’ argument, at its core, is that the existence of pornography contributes to a culture which perpetuates and normalises violence against women. This of course requires us to accept a number of fundamental premises, some of which I’ll address below, but is particularly founded on a view of pornography as always already exploitative. Within this framework any argument about pornography that does not begin from (and ultimately end with) a position of condemnation also therefore contributes to violence against women by ignoring the harm it is seen to cause. This makes any more substantial analysis of pornography difficult to pursue and any discussion of diversity in pornography appear misguided at best and the work of rape apologism at worst (see an interesting challenge to this by Obscenity Lawyer Myles Jackman here).

Many anti-porn campaigners use the concept of cultural harm to allow a continuation of an argument initially introduced in the 1970s by anti-porn feminists, most notably Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon and Robin Morgan, that the existence and viewing of pornography increases the likelihood of sexual assault being perpetrated by men against women. This is perhaps best surmised by Morgan’s statement that ‘Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice’.

There have been a great deal of studies conducted (more or less rigorously) intended to determine the extent to which this statement might be true. While I won’t go into all the details here, it is worth noting that by far the majority of these studies have been conducted using US college students or convicted sex offenders as their subjects, almost all of them have focused exclusively on men, and their results are far from conclusive.

Generally speaking, anti-porn campaigners have now moved on to using the ‘cultural harm’ argument, rather than the much more stark ‘porn causes rape’ argument. Whether this is due to the difficulty of substantiating the latter or for a range of other reasons isn’t entirely clear, but it is an important shift nonetheless. The ‘cultural harm’ argument does not require a one for one causal correlation in the way that the ‘porn causes rape’ argument, in its most extreme forms, might. Rather, in order to claim cultural harm it can easily seem like enough to point to the existence of harm – violence against women – and to draw a link between this harm and the representation of women in pornography that goes something like this:

1. Women in pornography are represented as sexual objects.

2. Being a sexual object is dehumanizing.

3. Dehumanization is a common means by which violence against a given person or group is legitimized.

(This is where the ‘porn causes rape’ argument ends, but the ‘cultural harm’ argument takes a few crucial further steps.)

4. The representation of women as sexual objects has, particularly in recent years, spread beyond the already broad reach of the (singular) porn industry to produce images of women as sexualized across culture more generally – ‘the sexualization of culture’.

5. The way a given group is represented in culture will affect the ways that others will treat people identified as belonging to that group in society.

6. This means that all representations of women as ‘sexualized’ anywhere in culture contribute to the dehumanization of women and therefore to the violence perpetrated against them and is therefore directly attributable to the influence of pornography on culture and therefore society.

Well beyond the limitations of ‘porn causes rape’ the ‘cultural harm’ argument holds pornography (particularly identified as a monolithic porn or sex industry) accountable for all representations of women seen as inciting the (presumed male) viewer to regard women as dehumanized sex objects and therefore legitimate targets of violence.

It’s an incredibly clever argument and I’m genuinely in awe of its scope. I disagree extremely strongly with its conclusions and with many of the steps taken to get there, but there are a few steps in the process that I don’t entirely disagree with and it’s these that I (with reservations) recognize as contributing to my own argument about diversity in porn.

The first claim I don’t quite want to abandon, but would like to reframe a little is:

Women in pornography are represented as sexual objects.

This is true(ish), although I immediately want to rewrite it as:

Women in some pornography are sometimes represented as sexual objects.

As noted by Nichi Hodgson, the link between being sexually objectified and being dehumanized isn’t all that clear. But far more than that, I think I’m also unclear on how being seen as a sexual object – and it’s not clear to me how this differs from being an object of desire – precludes someone also being a sexual subject.

I’m reasonably prepared to accept that the majority of women characters – n.b. characters, not performers1 – in pornography are fairly two-dimensional representations without much of the background development and motivation we generally expect from other forms of culture. But I don’t accept that this is exclusive to the women characters. In a wonderful (although perhaps more optimistic than my own will be) article about the representation of sadomasochism, Eleanor Wilkinson gives a lovely explanation of this:

‘Pornography does not attempt to explain why or how the actors came to experience sex like this, it simply just is: a vivid representation of fucking for fucking’s sake. The visual representation of sex acts reminds us that sexuality is a doing rather than a being. Maybe this is why porn is seen as so dangerous; it makes no attempts to explain or excuse itself, and therefore does not fit into the conventional methods of telling sexual stories.’ p.189

Pornography as a genre is often uncompromising in its pursuit of representing sex, but that really isn’t disproportionately levelled at women. Bodies of all kinds are frequently split up, framed, filmed and photographed in pieces with only those body parts deemed most relevant – for better or worse (and I do happen to think it’s usually for the worse) – to the sexual representation at hand. Incidentally, this is far from only being the case in live-action or photographic pornography – comics porn uses many of the same framing techniques.

So, the claim that women in pornography are represented as sexual objects isn’t one necessarily that I’d want to throw out, but reframing and replacing the emphasis so that it reads something like this:

In addition to their roles as sexual subjects, characters and bodies in pornography are often represented as sexual objects as ‘fucking for fucking’s sake’ forms part of the premise of the genre.

How does this relate to diversity and the censorship of porn?

While most pornography does in fact strive to represent women’s sexual pleasure (realistically depicted or otherwise), the censorship of pornography is disproportionately levelled against women (alongside gay men: see for example, the disproportionate prosecution of representations of gay male sex for breaching the Obscene Publications Act) who are working explicitly to bring women’s sexual pleasure to the fore.

A good example of this is the recent (ultimately successful) battle by Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, creator of the Urban Chick Supremacy Cell (UC-SC), against the Authority for Television on Demand (ATVoD). ATVoD’s role is as a regulator of video-on-demand content, delegated by Ofcom. They are responsible for ensuring that on-demand content doesn’t breach the Communications Act 2003, as amended by the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2009 and the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2010. Interestingly, ATVoD’s Chief Executive appears also to see their role as enforcing the Obscene Publications Act and having been overruled by Ofcom in their attempted regulation of Playboy TV (on the basis of most of the editorial work taking place overseas) seem to have firmly committed themselves to the pursuit of Femdom (female domination themed) pornography. Urrutia’s work blurs the (supposedly) clean-cut category boundaries between art and pornography (and according to ATVoD, between internet pornography and video-on-demand services like BBC iplayer), but crucially UC-SC focuses primarily (even exclusively) on women’s sexual pleasure, deliberately deconstructing precisely the kind of fantasies so often identified as problematically underpinning mainstream pornography (whether they do or not is a whole other question).

The second step in the ‘cultural harm’ argument that I actually really don’t want to dispense with is this one:

The way a given group is represented in culture will affect the ways that others will treat people identified as belonging to that group in society.

I don’t want to dispense with this because I think culture matters, because I think culture really does have an effect on society, because I want to be able to argue that diversity of representation matters and that control over the ways in which a group is represented ought primarily to rest with that group. This is where I part company with a lot of the anti-censorship campaigners, many of whom argue that the ‘cultural harm’ argument is nonsense because culture isn’t that powerful, because it doesn’t really matter, because how people treat each other has nothing to do with the representations we see. As a researcher, scholar and teacher of culture, I utterly refuse to accept that.

However… that is not at all the same as saying that therefore culture ought to be intentionally, explicitly censored. The fact is, and I know I’ve argued this on this blog before and I’ll keep repeating it, the power to censor is always in the hands of those already in power.

In doing research for an article (hopefully to be published next year sometime in a special issue of Porn Studies focusing on Sex Critical approaches to pornography and based on a conference paper the prezi for which is available here) about the Object and UK Feminista ‘Lose the Lads Mags’ campaign, I came across a related argument being put forward by US legal scholar, Vicki Shultz, that ‘regulatory initiatives to stamp out sexual conduct are often mobilized disproportionately against stigmatized minorities.’ (p.2068) The claim here is that calling for censorship doesn’t improve the representation of those who are already represented poorly. If anything, it intensifies that poor representation, because it makes alternative representations (those produced by people from minority or marginalized groups) more vulnerable, more likely to be subject to legal (or other) censure.

So in my article about ‘Lose the Lads’ Mags’ I argue that the ‘no porn policy’ employed by Tesco and much cited by the campaign is far more likely to restrict the representation of black and minority ethnic sexualities, lesbian, gay, trans* and bisexual sexualities, disabled sexualities and fat sexualities, along with other sexualities deemed outside the mainstream of acceptable sexual expression and identity, than it is to restrict the extremely narrow range of images available in lads’ mags, or indeed in the far more financially successful women’s magazines. This is due to the fact that these representations are far more likely to be deemed pornographic in the first place. That the magazines which carry sexual images currently available in Tesco almost exclusively depict white, heterosexual, slim, young, cisgender, British and American women suggests that improvements to the representations available are unlikely to come through an intensification of policies based on exclusion. On the contrary, this narrowness of image – both in terms of those who are represented and in terms of those who are not – might best be combated through a call for more images rather than less.

And ultimately this is where the ‘cultural harm’ argument takes me:

My response to the role and power of culture to affect the ways in which people treat each other is to call for more representations. For all her at times problematic treatment of other sex workers, Annie Sprinkle makes a powerful argument when she suggests that ‘the answer to bad porn isn’t no porn, it’s better porn’. This is something I have come to slowly, cautiously, worriedly even and I recognize that more doesn’t necessarily equal more diverse, but less? that certainly doesn’t either.


1 Unless we assume (as indeed the majority of anti-porn campaigning does) that women who perform in or pose for pornography do so unwillingly or unwittingly – they are either unable to escape their exploitation or unable to recognize even that they are being exploited – then we have to recognize that for at least some women porn performers, at least some of the time, their work is something they actively engage in and contribute to as much as any of the men involved in the production process. Therefore, the sexual stories that are being told, to whatever extent they belong to those who are telling them, must also belong to the women too.

Drawing the [redacted]: comics and censorship

As I noted in my last blog, I spent this weekend (well 5 days really plus setting up and taking down) at the World Science Fiction Convention in London. It was an extraordinary event attended by around 6000 people each day and made up of an enormous range of activities. My greatest involvement was with the Exhibits Hall – a spectacular endeavour bringing together around 100 different organisations, including universities, charities, artists and community groups – and with the astounding array of panel, discussion and academic programme events taking place throughout the convention. I was particularly struck by the significant size of the audiences for the academic talks and papers – this is what fantastic public engagement looks like folks!

My own talk – thoughtfully scheduled late enough to allow me to include plenty of images – was a whistle-stop tour around some of the most interesting events in the history of comics’ censorship. As this was the *world* science fiction convention, I was particularly keen to discuss examples from a wide range of countries, but it’s also important to note that the events discussed represent only the barest scratching at the surface of the histories here – as I said in the blurb for the talk: the history of comics *is* a history of censorship. So, as promised, here is the text and accompanying images from the talk!


The title of this talk comes from a comment that is made fairly frequently by people when I talk about my research into pornographic comics and censorship. The responses I’ve had are quite varied – as you might imagine – and the vast majority of people appear genuinely extremely interested in the histories I’m trying to uncover. But with some frequency, the comment is made that while x, or y, or z thing might have been censored unreasonably, you have to draw the line somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding where. The problem with this is that historically, censorship has been (and indeed still is) used disproportionately against those whose lives, whose existence is itself considered to be somewhere on (or beyond) the line between socially acceptable human behaviour and unacceptable obscenity. Drawing the line between acceptable and obscene is a political act and some lives are considered more acceptable or more obscene than others.

In 1954, the same year as the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent – to which I will, of course, return – an Australian university librarian published an essay titled ‘Books and the Censor’ in which he protested that librarians ought to be fundamentally opposed to censorship (something that generally speaking I have found to be true). On the extraordinary mess and complexity of censorship law, D. H. Borchardt argued that,

‘Censorship laws are designed to protect the society that established them against the potential dangers of ideological infection. If we want to understand their implication, their full meaning, we must know what ideas they are designed to protect, that is, what ideas are held to be the foundations of that society.’

As I go through this series of examples of censorship of comics, I would encourage you to consider what is being protected by the censorship of each comic? what ideological infection is being guarded against? and therefore, what is being held to be the foundation of the society from which the comic is excluded?

The structure of the talk is broadly chronological, although I do jump around a bit.

In the United States:
SeductionDr Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent is frequently cited as the starting point for the censorship of comics. Wertham was a child psychologist in the US, working primarily with juvenile delinquents. As part of his work he conducted interviews with the children he encountered and on discovering that almost all of them read comics, he concluded that the comics were the cause of their law-breaking.

Beyond this, he famously claimed that comics promoted homosexuality because Robin was drawn with bare legs, that were often wide open, and that Robin seemed devoted and attached to only Batman.

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 10.48.24

He was also distressed that Wonder Woman was giving little girls the “wrong ideas” about a woman’s place in society.

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 10.51.33

It’s impossible to tell where he might have got these ideas from.


Carol Tilley’s recent investigation of Wertham’s personal papers has also revealed that much of his research and conclusions were falsified.

However, Wertham was not the start of anti-comics fervour in the US. As early as 1940 there were public campaigns against comics and criticisms of them in the press. An editorial in the Chicago Daily News wrote that comics are:

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”

And by the late 1940s there were public burnings of comics.

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 11.00.30

The comics’ industry’s attempt to regulate itself by establishing the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers who established guidelines for content was unsuccessful due to lack of participation from major publishers, including DC.

So when Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 it was to an extremely receptive audience – his book was exerted in Readers Digest and reviewed favourably across the US, translated into several languages and finally convinced the US Senate that it was time for a full investigation into comics.


The Senate Investigation heard testimony from a range of representatives from the comics industry, along with Wertham himself and concluded that unless the comics industry made a serious and successful attempt at self-regulation then the state would have to intervene.


One of the turning points of the committee hearings was when Bill Gaines, a notable comics publisher of the period, was asked to comment on the cover of an issue of Crime SuspenStories as to whether he thought it was ‘in good taste’. His response, that he thought it was in good taste ‘for a horror comic’ and that it might have been in poor taste if the woman’s head had been held a little higher to show the blood or the body positioned differently to show the bloody neck, saw him widely pilloried in the press. comic-books-juvenile-deliquency-s-rpt-62While there was no national legislation against comics, local level legislation restrictions were instituted in several states and cities.

Famously, the industry’s self-regulation came in the form of the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code was a set of rules, modeled on the ACMP’s guidelines, to which all comics had to conform in order to be accepted for sale. A comic without the Comics Code stamp would not be accepted by retailers.

Comics Code StampSome of the restrictions imposed by the Comics Code included:

Part A – relating to crime
1. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
2. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
3. The letter of the word “crime” on a comics magazine shall never be appreciably greater than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.

Part B – relating to horror
1. No comics magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
2. Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited

Part C – covering everything else!
1. Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
3. Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed.

Marriage and Sex:
1. Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable.
2. Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
3. Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for moral distortion.
4. The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.
5. Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
6. Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
7. Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden

The Code was altered several times during its lifetime, but only became officially defunct in 2011 when the last major publishers, Archie and DC, stopped sending any of their comics to the CCA prior to publication.

Turning now to Canada:
EdmundDavieFulton-1916Wertham’s most vocal supporter was Edmund Davie Fulton, Member of Parliament for Kamloops, British Columbia. In 1947 Fulton took an awareness campaign about the danger of comics to Parliament in Ottawa, after which parents in his constituency demanded that he take steps against this menace. In December 1949, he succeeded in passing an amendment that added crime comics to the list of obscene publications covered by Section 207 of the Canadian criminal code. With this, the manufacture, printing, publishing, distributing, sale, or possession of crime comic books became an offense punishable by two years in prison.

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 11.22.17

Romance comics were also indicted in the early 1950s because some of them used a style then perceived as erotic, or even pornographic. Around 1952, comic books were singled out once again, this time by the “House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials” chaired by Ezekiel C. Gathings. The Gathings Committee was something of a public sensation because it indicted cheesecake magazines, paperbacks and comic books all at the same time.

In South Africa:
During the Apartheid regime, the Cronjé Commission was established to investigate the risks associated with mass culture. Geoffrey Cronje was a prominent apartheid ideologue and particularly vehement in his writing against ‘miscegenation’. Therefore, it is no surprise that after two years the Commission concluded that a Publications Control Board be established to pre-censor all cultural products in SA in order to prohibit ‘the evil of indecent, offensive or harmful literature’ – including comics. The Commission drew freely on Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and was particularly concerned regarding the representation of white Europeans, especially women, as they were, according to the Commission ‘the lighthouse or beacon of culture’.

ISlide14n France:
In the post-WWII period in France particular concern was raised over the values espoused by imported US comics with Tarzan and Zorro being identified as particularly worrisome. This concern was increased when a ten-year-old boy in Melun accidentally killed his friend with a pistol while playing ‘Zorro’, but it was also founded on a general fear of the rise of US pop culture – the Americanization of French young people was seen as a threat to French civilization – and specifically linked the US media to the Nazi-ism under which France had so recently suffered.

Slide15This attempted link between comics and Nazi-ism had also been made by anti-comics campaigners in the US, most notably in a book called Love and Death: a study in censorship, in which Gershorn Legman claimed that Superman, in particular, stood for Fascism, homosexuality and sadomasochism. In France at this time, this was a potent argument and led to the creation of the Commission for the Control of Juvenile Publications in 1949 which primarily, although not exclusively, tasked itself with regulating imported US comics, arguing that ‘Through open commerce and the fiction of free enterprise, the conscience of childhood is [being] poisoned to the profit of Yankee imperialism.’

In the UK:
In the 1950s concern about the persuasive powers of American comic books, particularly horror and crime comics, being imported, reprinted and imitated in Britain led to a moral panic. An informal alliance of interested parties, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Communist party, operating as the Comics Campaign Council called for a government ban.


The National Union of Teachers held an exhibition in November 1954. On one wall, five lurid sample pages from horror comics were introduced with the large title “KILL!” and a caption asking “Should your child see this?” The outcome of this was the introduction of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act. Although very few prosecutions under this law have actually been pursued, the risk of prosecution can be more effective than explicit censorship.

In Japan:
Some of the restrictions on pornography in Japan have famously affected what can be shown in manga, with creative responses to regulations against the depiction of genitalia or pubic hair until the 1990s becoming synonymous with manga in many parts of the world. Of course, not all manga is pornographic and officially manga has not been subject to national level censorship since 1946 – prior to the second world war manga was subject to increasing restrictions directing it toward nationalist and militarist themes and then subsequent restrictions imposed by the US directing the opposite. But even once this had officially ceased there have been several attempts to restrict the availability and content of manga. Two main periods of anti-manga campaigns in Japan were 1965-75 and the 1990s.


In 1964 the introduction of the Indecency Act provided a national framework, but the real regulation of manga takes place through the Youth Healthy Development Ordinance a local law adopted by each council individually, although in reality every council in Japan did adopt it within a few years of its establishment by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Periodically updated, the main aim of the Youth Ordinance is to provide a list of manga considered ‘harmful’ to young people. Each council is encouraged to submit titles to the list, administered nationally, which it considers likely to cause harm to children. The restriction on selling manga deemed harmful to children only applies where children are able to purchase it, but as most manga shops are open to all ages, the reality is that if a title is put on a list it is extremely unlikely that anywhere will stock it. Recent updates have expanded the definition of Harmful Publications significantly, including the controversial ‘non-existent youths’ bill.

ISlide18n Spain:
Superman was banned in 1964 for fear that its themes threatened to ‘delegitimize the regime through its publication of non-traditional values.’ The ban was generally ignored by the Spanish populace, so the Commission of Information and Child and Youth Publications (CICYP) launched a public smear campaign against Superman.

An 30 page article written in 1966 by Spanish official noted that despite being banned for 2 years,

‘Superman nevertheless continues prowling through the minds of our children, adolescents and even the majority of Spanish adults… Superman continues alive in Spain and it is possible that he will never die.’

In contrast, Spanish comics, tebeo, were utilized by the state to support their idea of Spanishness. Superman returned to Spain in 1972 as part of a general loosening of state censorship, although still subject to state review until after Franco’s death in 1975.

In Mexico:
There have been concerted attempts to censor historietas in Mexico in the periods of 1942-44, 1952-56 and 1971-76 under the guidance of religious and moral guardianship groups. This led to the creation of La Comision Calificadora de Publicationes y Revistas Ilustradas (the quality commission of illustrated publications and magazines) intended to ‘protect the populace from the influence of morbid contents in frankly anti-educational materials’. While primarily focused on historietas, the Comision was broadly ineffectual due to lack of funds. The Comision did, however, limit import of foreign comics substantially, which gave homegrown comics industry space to grow. The remit of the Comision was to review all comics titles and related publications once they were issued.


Comics could be censored or banned on the grounds that they denigrated ‘the work ethic, enthusiasm for studying, law and order, the idea that crime does not pay, the Mexican people and culture, democracy, standard Spanish, and high moral and ethical standards.’ The primary consequence of this was to make historietas considerably more nationalist. While the aim included censorship of sex in comics, in reality the Comision were unable to pursue this really at all.

In Czech:
fast arrowsIn the period of Soviet control of Czech, then part of Czechoslovakia, the successful Czech comic The Fast Arrows was commandeered for Nationalist purposes with the characters, who had previously undertaken light-hearted adventures, enrolling in work programmes and becoming mouth pieces for the state.

Mickey Mouse with empty balloons

Foreign comics were viewed with suspicion and the use of speech bubbles in particular was considered to be a sign of a lower literacy level for the readers of comics, so during this period Czech comics increasingly moved to a picture with caption underneath format. (Enormous thanks to Panel Korinek for this image!)

In Argentina:
Following the military coup in 1976, Vida del Che (published in 1968) creator Hector Oesterheld and family were disappeared by the government apparently for having created “the most beautiful story of Che Guevara ever done.”.


Although Oesterheld had also recently started a new story in his popular time-travel epic El Eternauta which showed a future Argentina ruled by a brutal dictator.

Back in the US:
Zap4A new generation of comics creators, who had grown up under the Comics Code began to work on small run, independent comics distributed and sold through alternative shops and on street corners – hence avoiding the restrictions of the Code, but increasingly having their comics seized and destroyed by police. The centre of this underground comics rebellion was San Francisco with Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix being recognized as the underground’s leading light.

By the time Crumb published Zap Comix #4, there was a concerted effort on the part of the authorities to secure a prosecution. After several attempts, Peter Kirkpatrick, a bookseller was arrested for ‘promoting obscenity’ by selling the comic. The only evidence presented by the prosecution was a copy of Zap #4 itself and despite considerable testimony to the contrary, the comic was found to be legally obscene, characterized by the judge as ‘utterly unredeemed and unredeemable, save, perhaps, only by the quality of the paper upon which it is printed.’ Other comments made by the judge indicate that this was not only a judgement on Zap #4 but also on the whole of the counter-culture it was seen to represent.

OZ+(Magazines)+-+No.+28+-+School+Kids+Issue+-+MAGAZINE-533520Back in the UK:
This is a similar story to the events of the Oz and Nasty Tales Trials in the UK. In 1970, the Oz ‘Schoolkids Issue’ handed over the magazine to twenty young people who were given complete editorial control. The result was a mixture of articles and cartoon strips which communicated the teenage view on music, sexual freedom, hypocrisy, drug use, corporal punishment and education. The following year Oz was unexpectedly raided by the Obscene Publications Squad. Issue 28 was seized and Oz’s three editors were charged with obscenity and conspiring to ‘debauch and corrupt the morals of young children’.skoolrupert

Of most concern to the court was a mash-up made by 15 year old Vivian Berger of a Crumb strip with iconic children’s comics character Rupert the Bear. After the longest running obscenity trial in UK history, the editors were found guilty under the Obscene Publications Act. There was a significant public outcry and the verdict was overturned at appeal.

2 years later the trial of Nasty Tales was the first official trial of a comic for obscenity. Nasty Tales was defended by an extraordinary range of people, including George Melly and Germain Greer, and was ultimately ruled not guilty. This landmark ruling was celebrated in comic form in The Trials of Nasty Tales.


Back in Japan:
In 1989 a moral panic regarding dojinshi – amateur, fan-made – manga and otaku (geek) culture more generally was triggered by the arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu for the violent abuse and murder of 4 little girls. In his bedroom the police found a large collection of manga, particularly Lolicon, and the media quickly seized on this as proof that popular culture, but particularly manga was responsible.

Sharon Kinsella explains:

‘Following the Miyazaki case, reporters and television documentary crews visited amateur manga conventions, and specialist manga shops. Amateur manga culture was repeatedly linked to Miyazaki, creating what became a new public perception, that young people involved with amateur manga are dangerous, psychologically disturbed perverts.’ (p.128)

The consequence of this moral panic was a raft of arrests by Tokyo metropolitan police and the seizure of over 4000 amateur manga volumes. Comic Market, the largest convention for the sale and discussion of dojishi also issued guidelines on the content of manga at the event.


Very recently there has also been increased attention paid to representations of children and teenagers in manga with the introduction of what has been termed the ‘non-existent youths’ bill. This has been a particular source of concern to dojin – amateur and fan creators – as it means that entirely fictional characters, if they appear to be under age, cannot legally be depicted engaging in any sexual activity.

In the US again:boiled angel
In the late-1990s, Mike Diana was arrested over a self-published zine called Boiled Angel. This comic attracted the attention of local Florida police who were on the hunt for a serial murderer. Diana was eventually found guilty of publishing, distributing and advertising obscene material – part of his sentencing was the injunction that he was not allowed to draw.

tuition teacher savitaIn India:
In 2009, the online pornographic comic Savita Bhabhi, was blocked in India by the Computer Emergency Response Team using legislation updated following the Mumbai bombings. The new law regarding online material changed the process by which websites could be blocked, requiring a court ruling, except in those cases whereby the site was deemed a threat to the ‘sovereignty or integrity of India, defence … [and] security of the State’. I will be discussing this case in detail at the free Transitions 5 conference at Birkbeck in October.

In Egypt:
Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro was banned and both the publisher and creator were given substantial fines for ‘offending public morals’. It was suggested that this may have been because the comic includes panels showing a couple in bed together and a half-naked woman, but it was likely actually targeted for showing police brutality and corruption under the Mubarak regime.


The comic has been republished since the revolution, but commentators have suggested that this doesn’t necessarily mean greater freedom, just less clarity on where the line will be drawn.

On the Canadian border:
The Canadian border police are famous for their regular seizure of comics and in 2011 Ryan Matheson was arrested on the Canadian border and charged with possession of child pornography for having 48 positions Moe-style as his laptop wallpaper.

In Singapore:Life-with-Archie_16
This year, as part of a series of acts of censorship (including the banning of a children’s book about two male penguins raising an egg together called ‘And Tango makes three’), Life with Archie #16 in which Kevin Keller and Doctor Clay Walker get married, has been banned. In contrast, X-Men #51 not banned because it included characters who objected to the wedding and was therefore ‘balanced’.

There have also been a series of disputes with digital distributors. I won’t go into the details here, but I’ve blogged before about the Saga saga.

Two other notable events, both involving Apple:
Ulysses picUlysses ‘Seen’ by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas: When it began serialization in 2010, Apple insisted that they remove an image of a bare-chested woman from the first chapter. After intense public pressure Apple reversed the decision.

Tom Boulden’s graphic novel version of The Importance of Being Earnest contains some gay fantasy scenes, and these were approved only after agreeing to cover specific sections of the panels with black bars, although this decision too was eventually reversed.

importance of being earnest

These examples are absolutely not meant to be a comprehensive history of the censorship of comics, but instead to give a sense of its scope and extent. I’m listing some great further resources below and I’d be thrilled to hear from anyone who can add to the list. Ultimately the worst part of censorship is:

the worst part of censorship

Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Of Comics and Men: a cultural history of American comic books
Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: the strange history of the British Horror Comics Campaign
Michael Dooley, ‘An uncensored look at banned comics’, Print Magazine. 68.1 Feb 2014 pp.48-65
Archie comic banned in Singapore: http://www.dhakatribune.com/asia-pacific/2014/jul/18/archie-comic-banned-singapore-censorship-row-escalates
No ban on X-Men: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/no-ban-x-men-comic-due-balanced-treatment-gay-marriage
Republication of Metro: http://www.freewordcentre.com/blog/2013/02/metro-republished/
Mexican Historietas: A History – Censorship and Mexican Historietas: http://www.ualberta.ca/~berban/Mexico/censorship.html
5 Memorable Moments in Comic Book Censorship History: http://mentalfloss.com/article/19695/5-memorable-moments-comic-book-censorship
Louie Dean Valencia-García ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way in Franco’s Spain’: http://www.fordham.edu/images/academics/graduate_schools/gsas/student/louie_valencia_essayshort.pdf
D. H. Borchardt, ‘Books and the Censor’, The Australian Quarterly, Vol.26, No.4 (Dec 1954), pp.69-81
Seduction of the Innocents and the Attack on Comic Books: http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html
Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: culture and power in contemporary Japanese society
Full Text of the 1954 Comics Code: http://www.comicartville.com/comicscode.htm
Paul Gravett, Comic books: A freakish kind of writing: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/comic-books-freakish-writing
Nasty Tales Trial: http://www.funtopia.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/friends/nastytalestrial1.html
Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent
Carol Tilley’s Talk ‘Dr Wertham’s War on Comics’: http://www.firstcomicsnews.com/?p=113324
(US) The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: http://cbldf.org/
(Canada) The Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund: http://www.clldf.ca/
Kate or die: all-ages LGBT content: http://comicsalliance.com/kate-or-die-leth-all-ages-lgbt-comics-cartoons/
Richard Ivan Jobs, Riding the new wave: youth and the rejuvenation of France after the Second World War.
Jeff Heer and Kent Worcester, Arguing Comics: literary masters on a popular medium.
Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: apartheid censorship and its cultural consequences.
Alex Leavitt, Andrea Horbinski, ‘Even a monkey can understand fan activism: Political speech, artistic expression, and a public for the Japanese dôjin community’: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/rt/printerFriendly/321/311

Comics and censorship and pornography, oh my!

My life recently has been almost entirely taken up with preparations for LonCon3 – this year’s World Science Fiction Convention – so time for research has been a bit tricky to find. I’m going to be doing quite a lot of different things at the con, including a talk about comics and censorship late on the Friday night.

When I have had time, I’ve spent many fascinated hours reading about the development of obscenity legislation in India for a paper I’m hoping to give at this autumn’s Transitions 5, the academic element of the Comica Festival. I’ll likely post more about this at the time, but my paper will (if accepted) be part of a panel on pornographic comics, along with papers from Anna Madill on Boy’s Love manga and the complexities of the UK’s Prohibited Images of Children Act and Sina Shamsavari on alternative gay porno comics. My own paper is on how the online porn comic, Savita Bhabhi, came to be regarded as a threat to the Indian state:

Online porn comics and the threat to the nation from ‘India’s most lusted after fictional sex goddess’

In this paper I will discuss the nexus of gender, sexualities, national identities, digital technologies and comics that emerged in the controversy surrounding the appearance, blocking by the Indian government, then re-emergence of the online pornographic comic Savita Bhabhi. This comic, claiming to show ‘India’s first international porn star’, focuses on the wide-ranging sexual activities of a newly-married Gujarati housewife. Clad in traditional (although often unconventionally sheer) sari, sindoor and mangalsutra, Savita pursues sexually explicit fantasies which, while not particularly hard-core, go significantly beyond the soft-core pin-up and far exceed the extremely chaste limitations of Bollywood. Within weeks of its appearance in March 2008 Savita Bhabhi gained a substantial following both in India and internationally. The level of response and particularly the enthusiasm for the comic shown by young urban middle and upper-middle class Indians, including many women, appears to have been a significant factor in the blocking of the site in June 2009.

The website on which the comic was posted was blocked by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in India following direction from the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) in its first use of legislation updated in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings. The illegality of pornography in India, which does not prevent the existence of a thriving soft-core porn film industry, was extended in this legislation to explicitly prohibit the publication or transmission of sexually explicit material online as part of broader changes to the Information Technology Act (2000, 2008) intended to protect the ‘sovereignty or integrity of India, defence … [and] security of the State’.

The comic’s anonymous creators have been particularly keen to claim Savita Bhabhi as an icon of freedom of speech and sexual liberation for Indian women. Following the banning of their website, the ‘Indian Porn Empire’ re-released the comic under a subscription model on a new site and produced a short animated film set in 2070 in which two young Indian men enlist the help of Savita to defend freedom of speech in India. Drawing on close readings of Savita Bhabhi, interviews conducted with one of its anonymous creators and analysis of media responses to the comic and associated controversy, I will consider the ways in which this comic can be seen as transgressing some boundaries of gender, sexualities, class and national identity whilst reinforcing others.

My guiding research question here is ‘how did a comic come to be considered a threat to the nation?’ My findings so far suggest that it’s a lot more logical than it sounds, inevitable even, given the development of obscenity legislation in India. I’m hoping to interview one of the creators of Savita Bhabhi, although it may not be possible as they are extremely (perhaps not unreasonably) concerned with ensuring their anonymity. Even if I don’t manage to though, there have been some extremely interesting quotes from them in some of the media reporting. So more on this later.


In the meantime, rather than leaving the blog to wait though, I thought I’d post up some links to things related to porn, comics and censorship that have caught my eye over the last few weeks:

First up is a fascinating talk from Dr Carol Tilley recorded at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Carol is researching the only recently publicly available papers and documents of Frederick Wertham – author of the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent which prompted the moral panic leading to the institution of the Comics Code – and has found enormous quantities of evidence that Wertham’s research findings were falsified.

The New York Times write-up of the Con is also worth a look simply for their astonishment that no-one at the SDCC turned out to be an axe murderer. If you thought we were past all that, you were sadly mistaken.

This New Statesman review of three recent books about censorship covers a lot of the problems with media effects research, beginning with a quote from Frank Kermode that gets right to the heart of the matter: “I think you must distinguish between a passage which says that homosexuals are sometimes happy and a passage which says: come and be a homosexual”. It is, of course, always the already marginalised who are further marginalised by censorship.

Interestingly, according to this article from the BBC, it seems that in the UK the government’s attempts at establishing default-on internet filtering (touted most loudly as a ‘porn filter’, but actually set to include all manner of things) have been quietly rejected by the general populace.

This, it seems, does not serve to prevent some rather extraordinary interpretations of the law in the UK though, as seen in this analysis of a teenager being given a caution for sending her boyfriend a semi-clothed picture of herself.


Recent developments in porn studies include:

The Kinsey Institute debunking many of the myths associated with (or more frequently projected onto) those who perform in live-action pornography;

Ongoing debates and discussions about the rise of feminist porn;

And, of course, the Fifty Shades of Grey movie trailer, thoughtfully taken apart here by Zoe Margolis and the recirculation of this comic from Tatsuya Ishida:

One Shade of Grey


On the porn (in) graphics side of things:

There is an extract from the book for Comics Unmasked in which Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning discuss some of the history of sex in comics;

an article in Vice, from Cara Ellison on ‘The Gloriously Stupid History of Sex in Video Games’ – the NYT would, no doubt, be apoplectic;

and these extremely cute Yaio-themed desserts from Mai (who explains that her ‘life is full of gay confections’). I’m still in two minds about whether I’m counting Yaio/BL in as porn (what I’ve seen so far seems more like romance), but these are some really sweet looking cakes.

No doubt I’d be better informed if I spent some time reading the recommendations in Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto’s article on BL-manga research in Japanese.

Drawing the Line: value, taste and context

I spent the weekend at the 5th International Graphic Novels and Comics Conference hosted at the British Library. The sheer variety of work being done on (and in) comics is really exciting, but one of the themes that particularly jumped out at me is the changing positions and re-evaluations of comics over time. The very last session of the conference – a roundtable discussion on the current state of comics studies – concluded that more research on everything to do with comics is needed. This is hardly a surprise as it’s a pretty new field of study, but its newness is really precisely the point. Only in recent years has the study of comics come to be recognised as a legitimate academic activity (and even this recognition is contested). There are reasons to be cheerful though: this was the 5th International conference and there are others, there are now two peer reviewed journals in the field, Bart Beaty at University of Calgary in Canada has funding for a two-year postdoc in comics studies and, of course, all this activity was taking place in the British Library to compliment an exhibition that would have been unthinkable even until very recently.

Beyond the enormous excitement of talking (and plotting) with other people working in comics, there were a couple of papers that particularly spoke to my research interests in porn, comics and censorship:

Pavel Kořínek gave a great paper about the censorship of comics in Czech that emphasised the productive role of censorship. It’s easy to see censorship as simply a limitation, but in much the same way that the restrictions of poetic form can inspire people to produce something really interesting, the censorship of comics in Czech seems to have resulted in some dramatic changes to the production and comics industry more generally, most notably the movement of text from speech bubbles to caption boxes outside the images. The peculiar combination of words and images that is often the marker of comics seems to have been identified as too dangerous, too transgressive and significantly, too foreign to be allowed to remain.

Pascal Lefèvre‘s keynote on the gatekeeping and decision-making processes of two comics publishers in Belgium in the 1980s was a fascinating insight into the ways in which different types of material is more or less likely to see publication. Much like my analysis of the Saga saga, Pascal wasn’t claiming that this was intentional, explicit censorship, but rather that the ways in which decisions are made and the structures within which creators are operating often have a far more significant impact on what we see than we realise. I was also delighted to see that as part of his analysis Pascal had drawn a diagram of the network system of publication that was extremely similar to mine.

Copyright – Pascal Lefevre

Some things just work better visually.

Pen Mendonça’s paper about her practice-based PhD project was interesting in its own right, but I was most struck by things she said afterwards about some of the challenges she has encountered in her project. Pen’s PhD is about women having babies on their own – she is interviewing a wide range of women about their experiences and turning their stories into a fictionalized graphic novel. The presentation Pen gave showed some of the process she is using to work from the interview material toward the graphic novel. Chatting with her later on she mentioned that while it was very easy to find women who had opted to have a baby on their own intentionally, most often through IVF and donor-sperm, she had found it much harder to recruit women for her study who had got pregnant through having sex. There’s a possibility there I think that the social stigma attached to women having babies on their own is actually not about being a single mother at all, but rather a kind of slut-shaming of women who had sex with someone and are not spending the rest of their lives with that person. One of the panels Pen has created is a parody of images from Chester Brown’s Paying For It and we had a long and really useful conversation about the use of perspective in porn comics – who gets seen and who doesn’t and why.

Nina Mickwitz gave a paper about the value of friction between categories of taste that included two fantastic images purporting to explain ‘Everyone’s Tastes From High Brow To Low Brow’. The first from Life Magazine in 1949, which situates comics as the lowest form of reading culture.

Copyright - Life Magazine

Copyright – Life Magazine

And the second from Dabbler: the Culture Blog in 2011, which has replaced comics with Nuts Magazine – a change I find particularly interesting, having done research on both.

Copyright - Dabbler

Copyright – Dabbler

Then there was an entire panel devoted to Boys Love (also known as Yaoi) manga – a category of porn(ish) comic about which I currently know very little, but I was pleased to be able to rectify that a bit. The general academic discussion of BL seems primarily to be focused on the fact that BL comics are almost entirely written and read by women and almost entirely about and featuring men. There have been several studies of the readers and writers of BL manga and Chi-Shiou Lin’s paper followed in this tradition to compare women who read BL to women who read romance. The close reading of Blue Morning by Tien-yi Chao and Anna Madill’s paper giving a psychoanalytic overview of the genre complimented each other particularly well and both saw me heading off to order a bunch of things when I got home. Anna and I have also had long conversations about the cataloguing and coding of porn comics – and are currently running a petition for an archive of English language porn comics: ErotiCAA – so it was good to see her work in action.

Most directly relevant to my work was Tony Venezia’s paper on the transvaluation of the Tijuana Bibles. The Tijuana Bibles are little 8-page (with one panel per page) pornographic comics from the 30s and 40s in the US. They usually took characters or people who were well-known and easily recognizable and placed them in pornographic scenarios – think an early form of slash fan fiction. At the time they were being produced they were illegal and were of extremely low cultural standing. Produced and distributed by unknown creators across the US, the name ‘Tijuana Bibles’ appears to have been part of the strategy employed to misdirect the authorities’ attention – many also declared themselves published in London or Paris, which seems to be equally untrue – to avoid the significant legal consequences that would come from being caught not only producing and distributing pornography, but also infringing copyright.

Screen shot 2014-07-22 at 13.49.04 Screen shot 2014-07-22 at 13.49.38

Tony’s work isn’t really about porn, but the Tijuana Bibles provide a really good example of a cultural product that had previously been considered trash gaining tremendous cultural capital over time. His own handout on the topic is really clear and explains it all tremendously well, so I won’t repeat his argument, but it did get me thinking about the extraordinary similarities between the re-evaluation of comics and the re-evaluation of porn. This process of re-evaluation, or transvaluation to use Tony’s term, seems most likely to occur where a cultural product has been deemed offensive, but given the shift in social and cultural mores has since ceased to be so.

20140413_tom_of_finland_450This made me think about conversations I’d had with some Finnish friends recently about the imminent issuing of Tom of Finland stamps by the Finnish Post Office. There has been a sudden upsurge in public debate about gay rights in Finland – consistent with changes to marriage rights being made in several places around the world – and it seems that these stamps are part of that discussion. Touko Laaksonen, who published his work as Tom of Finland is an interesting figure in these debates. My friends tell me that as a war veteran his social standing in Finland is significant (although he himself died in 1991). His explicit representations of homosexual sex – some of the best known in the world – make no pretense at being anything other than porn and had a substantial impact on gay cultural imagery, particularly in the US in the 70s and 80s. For the Finnish Post Office to release these stamps in the midst of the debates taking place in Finland is an interesting development – the Post Office claims no political or campaigning role influences their decision of what to include in their special issue stamps and yet…

tumblr_mqaifgvMwK1s9ml20o1_400Beyond comics, I was also reminded of a photograph I was linked to from a tumblr dedicated to Victorian pornography. The person who sent it to me commented ‘could you imagine anything like this being made now?’ – I don’t know if I could, although there is an entire genre of porn given over to producing pornographic parodies of other cultural products which might lend itself to this kind of juxtaposition. The novelty factor seems high here and rareness is certainly one of the criteria Tony identified for the likelihood of something being revalued in this way.

Ultimately judgments of value or taste are clearly informed by wider social, cultural and political discourses and whether something will gain or lose in cultural value over time is a hard thing to predict. The current ascendency of both porn studies and comics studies says important things about shifts in the wider socio-cultural landscape at the moment. As a scholar of both, I can only echo the panel from this weekend’s conference in calling for more research on everything, but I’m aware that in doing that I am not only making a plea for the validity of my own area of interest, but for the legitimation of the study of both porn and comics and that this too is part of the revaluation of both.

Illustration on the Top Shelf

So last Thursday was pretty awesome – I got to spend the morning with Adrian Edwards, the British Library‘s Lead Curator of Printed Historical Sources (under whose purview comics curiously fall) and then in the evening I went to one of the special events linked to the Comics Unmasked exhibition: this one on sex/porn comics. I learnt a lot about the British Library’s acquisition and cataloguing of both porn and comics from Adrian, including hearing the mundane truth and extraordinary myths surrounding the Private Case. I’ll likely write a post about all that later though as my intention here is just to post up the notes I took from the two wonderful interviews at the Illustration on the Top Shelf event.

The evening started with an introduction from Adrian, in which he explained that part of the aim of the ‘Let’s Talk about Sex’ section of Comics Unmasked was to show how erotic comics began to appear in the UK in the post-war period. He then went on to talk briefly about the interesting concurrency of the founding of the British Library in the 1970s and an extraordinary expansion of erotic comics in the UK. His own blog on the subject is well worth a look. Before introducing the interviewers, he concluded by arguing that focusing on sex in comics is an important endeavour because the portrayal of sex is an integral part of storytelling for many contemporary creators. I, of course, agree entirely.

So, the interviews: the evening was roughly split into two, with each interview lasting around 45 minutes – a great period of time because it enabled some substantial depth while still giving an overview for those unfamiliar with the interviewees’ work. I’m not going to give any real analysis of these interviews here, but a number of things struck me about the contrast between the two perspectives on creating porn comics, including what they’re for, what they’re about, how straight and gay perspectives on sex and porn may differ, what sex is for and about, what good or bad sex is, how gender relates to sex and how it relates to porn. So all the good stuff.🙂 The interviewees have also both been subject to prosecution for obscenity and listening to their experiences entirely confirms my research so far.

© Melinda Gebbie

© Melinda Gebbie

Interview 1: Melinda Gebbie interviewed by Rachel Cooke (Observer/NS)

[Background image – cover of Fresca Zizis 1977]

RC: MG was important part of UK underground scene, she came to the UK in the 70s and was involved in obscenity trial almost immediately. A significant theme in MG’s work is mother-daughter relationships.

MG: One of the benefits of having a really terrifying mother is being able to draw monsters – I don’t think there are enough female monsters. My mother was the engine driving my will: you’re not gonna do this to me.

On comics as art: Art isn’t like writing because if you’re a clever writer people will realize that immediately. Art isn’t like that; it takes a long time to develop a vocabulary because you’re the only one speaking it. Learnt by copying things, did lots of faces.

On the San Francisco underground scene: I got invited to join in when they were having a show at the Hall of Flowers – [Robert] Crumb was still selling things out of baby buggies – there was this little enclave of women – I didn’t, well none of us had any qualifications for telling stories, well maybe Lee Mars because she was funny – they said do whatever you want and we’ll publish all of it – it was very, very ferocious stuff, very sexual – I wanted to prove a point that women could draw men, they could draw cars, just as sexual, just as nightmarish as any man – One of my best moments was when someone came in and demanded to know who was this terrible man who drew this? And it was me!

On Fifty Shades of Grey: When I first saw it I was quite upset, I thought this woman’s going to be a millionaire and she just wrote stuff online and then I realized there was a massive hole in the market.

On Fresca Zizis: I was working in a news station, 5 men and me, all drawing news graphics because it was a 24 hour station and they only had one photographer, and one story was about Italian baker who made jelly breasts and fondant penises and put them in his window on a Sunday with the sign Fresca Zizis: Fresca Zizis is still banned in the UK. Think the castration scene upset a lot of men comics artists.

RC: Why did you come to the UK in 80s? What was it like to be launched straight into an obscenity trial?

MG: I’d never been to court before, drunk women tried to beat me up and then took me to court, came to the UK with my English boyfriend, then he went back to SF because he had a job, I got work on When the Wind Blows – anti-nuclear things – I read the Raymond Briggs book and overheard news of a film, meanwhile my husband changed his life back in SF, so I stayed here.

RC: Your obscenity trial was because Knockabout was raided.

MG: I was invited to come along to the trial to observe, but once we arrived I was asked to explain myself for my book, I wasn’t prepared at all. The judge was Richard Branson’s father and Frescas Zizis had been on sale in his son’s store for a few weeks. I was asked to justify it, but it was really rough, it wasn’t fun, it was amazing to write about, but it wasn’t meant to titillate anybody – it was ‘girls don’t do what I did’ – it’s still illegal: just one of those things that’s fallen under the floorboards. I am hoping to put together a book/catalogue of the things I’ve done over the years.

RC: Did the fact that you’d been though this trial have any impact on you and Alan [Moore] being so explicit claim about Lost Girls being porn?

MG: Alan had been following my work, he’d been a fan before I heard of him, and before we started we spent several weekends just talking about sexual politics, about why we thought magazines didn’t work for women, we’d both looked at a lot of pornography of that time, now it’s a different species, we both wanted to make a pornography that’s top quality, that you can see that these people worked really hard, but it’s very, very hard to write good pornography, that’s orchestrated like a piece of music. I especially loved high art, surrealism, cultural movements and wanted to bring that in – it was very organic, we talked about it being about women, I said three, blonde, brunette, redhead, then he brought out peter pan, then the other fairy-stories, then he wrote the plot, but it had very dense language, so I asked him to do thumbnails.

RC: Did you intentionally make the three women different ages? To show the different stages of a woman’s life?

MG: We’re very affected by relationships with our parents and shadows of all the things that happen to us. The brilliant thing about making it about these three is that anyone who reads English knows them, it’s a responsibility too, there’s been quite revolting work done, particularly around Alice.

RC: Are the references to other artists in Lost Girls more to do with you than with Alan?

MG: Alan highlights his artists’ best qualities and he knew I love to do that.

RC: Did you consciously set out to make the frames change to reflect the characters?

MG: Oh yes. Dorothy’s American, long flat Kansas, watery features and mirrors of course for Alice and reflections, woodsy things for Wendy, each of them has their own colour and form vocabularies.

RC: Are there things you thought about that you intentionally left out?

MG: We did have reservations, we talked about things we didn’t want to do, severe sado-masochism, because it’s about power and this is the opposite, it’s about mutual exploration, we wanted to explore difficult issues from a sympathetic point of view, also we didn’t do religion, although initially we did have a naked nun in a pope’s mitre.

RC: Did you always know you would finish? Were you bracing yourselves for a fuss?

MG: We didn’t always know we’d finish it. If anything some people have said it’s too cultured to be down and dirty, but we weren’t trying to be, it isn’t just a pornography. It’s very clever of Alan to call it porn – if we’d called it erotica people would have said it was porn – porn goes back to pornos and houses of joy, but they weren’t really, we can’t go back to ancient times, although I don’t think sex workers have ever been treated very well, porn is a moveable feast in vocabulary terms if there’s something you think has gone too far then it’s pornography, if it’s pleasing then it’s erotica. Although that also implies flowery, floating between lotuses, done by women.

RC: Do you think it’s harder to criticize Lost Girls because you’re a woman?

MG: A man couldn’t draw Lost Girls, it’s not in a man’s nature to do things with soft pastels… I know ‘Monet’, but I was looking at the [Comics Unmasked] show today and some of those old big books, men don’t usually do pretty, once of the reason’s Lost Girls has a fake neutrality is because it’s sweet, it’s pretty, the stories may not be, but the artwork is, are there any men who do that?

Audience: Henry DargerJarrett Williams?

RC: Was there anything you redrew after showing Alan? If he didn’t like it?

MG: We discussed everything beforehand, Alan’s never asked me to redraw anything, I do something different every time, it’s not that I’ve been predictable, but I want it to be able to be sold in a proper bookstore, as long as it’s sealed, it looks like a children’s anthology.

On what she’s doing now: working on paintings, transcribing diaries from SF underground, Alan thinks it’s important that I publish them, they’re quite detailed, I used to run home and write everything down, one of the people mentioned is now an exec at Sony…

On the ending of LG: It was important that war come into the end of it because all creatures do war, all creatures do sex, it’s meant to make people cherish life, sex isn’t just something we do, it’s part of everyone of our nervous systems, and it deserves tenderness

On responses internationally: In Poland the response was interesting – I don’t think it was quite legal, but people seemed to like it. Some countries were interesting because it wasn’t quite legal. In Portugal women still get abortions on a boat out in the harbour, but they have a very relaxed attitude to sex, although some of the more catholic countries… In the US my publisher had been throwing money into CBLDF because the laws on porn change all the time, I really thought that housewives were going to hit me with handbags full of rocks, but it wasn’t like that at all. Actually it had only come out the day before, so no-one had seen it, so I kept going up to these women and saying, have you seen this??

RC: Have you had different responses from men and women?

MG: Alan is very conscious of his mental processes, so we had really thought about it. A guy likes to get on a really great horse and have a really sweaty ride and jump of when he’s finished, a woman likes to ride on a sedan chair with helpers and most importantly she must be made to feel beautiful, we like to be treated like beautiful little goddesses – we wanted every woman to look at the book to see herself as a goddess.

Audience: How do you feel about being called a woman artist, rather than just an artist? Is there still a need for that?

MG: Well DC’s book of heroine figures were all drawn by men expect for two, by me and Jill Thompson which were both printed really small, all the rest were big pictures done by guys, there isn’t any room for us in superheroine stuff, there isn’t any room for us unless we make it, it’s not about quality, it’s about guys loving hat guys do, or we’re not coming forward enough, woman are taught not to be selfish, we have to be selfish, you get more enjoyment out of becoming who you are meant to be than out of recognition for doing for other people, call me a girl artist I don’t care, I used to have competitions with DC artists, men and they’d never done the things I’ve done.


© Oliver Frey

© Oliver Frey

Interview 2: Oliver Frey (aka Zack) – Rupert Smith (aka James Lear) 

[Background image: Rogue]

RS: On the gay scene when I was growing up Oli’s work was everywhere, Oli was the artist of that whole time, the 70-80s gay movement in London, a real crucible of the gay movement now, gay magazines were a mixed blessing, good, but sometimes unprofessional. Oli’s work stood out because it was good and extremely erotic, and he signed his own name to his work at a time when it wasn’t common. For the gay scene the mags provided a lifeline, but unusually Oli also had a concurrent career in the mainstream.

RS: Can you tell us about growing up, learning to draw, coming to London – were you on the gay scene in London much?

OF: I’m Swiss by birth and lived in Switzerland till 69 when I came to London to go to film school. I don’t know what the Swiss attitude to homosexuality was in the 60s, I just didn’t get involved in that sort of thing at all. I confessed to something in church and the priest said if you carry on you can’t come to church, so I stopped going. I took an American correspondence course, but otherwise I’m self-taught. I wanted to be a film director, bond or epics, none of your arty stuff – I imagined sitting on top of a crane with an army beneath me, but it was much cheaper to do it in drawings. I met Roger [Kean, his partner] in January 1969 and we’re still together now. It was two years after decriminalization [of homosexuality], so you couldn’t flaunt it anywhere, you definitely kept your hands to yourself and tried not to show too much affection. I wasn’t on the gay scene till quite a bit later: 78-79.

RS: How/Why did you move from being an aspiring film director to a graphic artist?

OF: I started at film school because I needed extra money, I sent some drawings to War Picture Library and they said here’s a story, do some illustrations. It was small, smaller than a5 size with a colour cover, but black and white inside. I’d get a script, like the ones Alan Moore does for his comics.

RS: Even in your mainstream work were you deliberately making the men look sexy?

OF: When I could I did – why not?

RS: Your artwork was accomplished though, even in War Picture Library

OF: I worked for WPL for ten years and carried on doing covers till 81 or so.

RS: So unusually, you had a completely concurrent career, did you ever mix them up, do one when you meant to do the other?

OF: Well, no.

[Image: Battle Picture Weekly, IPC 1975 sold in UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia, (Malta?)]

RS: Did your [mainstream comics] agent know about your gay work?

OF: Not really, it was easy to keep it separate, gay magazines were quite niche

On ‘The Hitchiker’ – OF’s first gay comic: I saw a poster for HIM International pasted to the wall near Charing Cross, and after about a week or so got up the nerve to buy it secretly, I went to a shop away from home, where I didn’t normally go, and there was a comic in there and it was awfully drawn, and I thought this is really annoying, why do gay magazines have to look so shoddy, I thought I can do better, so I did this [The Hitchiker], and sent it to the publisher, rather than took it in, then they went bust, so it appeared in Mr magazine, which was a mixed media magazine – I wasn’t really involved, just sent them the comics, I wasn’t involved in the production.

It wasn’t hardcore, you couldn’t do hardcore.

RS: How professional was the gay press in London at this time?

OF: I woudn’t have called it underground, budgets were never big, or the sales, I didn’t get paid very much, but most people wanted to do a professional job – Alan Pernell who ran HIM magazine bought most of my material.

RS: Were you ever worried about your name being out there? Why not use a pseudonym?

OF: It was a conscious effort, it was the only protest I could make about not being treated as I thought I should, it didn’t occur to me to worry that much, but because all my other work was aimed at children I didn’t think they’d cross over much, I suppose it was political, but not like Gay News going on about rights, it wasn’t like that, I just did something that I wanted to do for myself and I thought why shouldn’t other gay people be able to do that too?

RS: Did you always do things like this, [gesturing to image – no idea what!]

OF: Alan Purnell wanted a one page pin-up for each issue.

RS: Did you know of any other artists doing the same things you were?

OF: Well I knew Tom of Finland, of course, although I thought his style completely OTT, despite some exaggeration I wanted my drawings to be as realistic as possible

RS: Did you get a lot of response from readers?

OF: Some yes, Purnell was pushing me, there wasn’t really anything else

RS: How much gay stuff were you working on by 80-81?

OF: Well Roger and I loaned Alan some money, and ended up owning HIM and 3-4 other magazines, I was doing layout and some degree of writing, other work was still there but not as much.

[Image: Look and Learn] –OF: it was a wholesome children’s comic, initially I had to ape Don Lawrence’s style, and then I was able to make it more my style, I got this in 76, only did it for two years, but at the same time Rogue was really taking off.

RS: Did you think about danger as a gay artist at the time?

OF: A bit at the time, police attitudes seemed to vary a lot over the years, 80-81 they were adamant they were really gonna come down hard on porn, so you could sense it, but you carried on, we were doing it for money.

RS: Did you feel you had to be careful about what you could show?

OF: Well we were competing with other magazines, so we had to keep up, and the readers wanted more.

RS: What was obscenity law like at the time?

OF: You couldn’t show erections, or anything that was approaching an erection, but you could cheat by putting it upside down so it didn’t look like it, but then when you turned it round, you couldn’t show any penetration or any sexual activity.

RS: But none of this was enshrined in law?

OF: You seemed to be alright writing about sex if it was the written word, but when it came to pictures – [Frey’s partner, Roger, sitting in the front row, interjects: the argument was that the police couldn’t really read, just look at pictures!]

RS: now Rogue, published in HIM, then Mr magazine

OF: It was Alan Purnell’s idea, not the name, but he wanted him to be a big butch character, and then Roger wrote this page-long biography and people believed it, even years later people would ask me where I met this man.

RS: There was always lots of comedy in your stories, like this one [gestures to image from Rogue on screen] where Rogue overcomes this cute boy he finds in an arcade, but then later he says he’s not an arcade bum at all, he’s a bank clerk from Finchley. But the sex was very upfront, quite rough – did that reflect your personal desires? Are you Rogue?

OF: No! I think it’s my Catholic guilt coming through, if you’re sort of helpless and someone turns you on, it’s not your fault, he’s forcing you even if you’re enjoying it – I’m not Rogue, I’m the victim and I do say victim – I always had trouble drawing characters who just merrily get it together.

RS: You need a power imbalance otherwise it’s boring?

OF: Yes, but in the end all the boys like Rogue.

RS: This was a very specific time, post-liberation, but pre-AIDS crisis – were you reflecting the gay scene at the time?

OF: It was mainly out of my fantasy world, I’m quite a shy person, so my sex life, a lot of it, happened in my drawings – there were figures like that, Brian Derbyshire, for example, although he wasn’t really Rogue.

RS: So your work got more and more explicit, and then you got a knock on the door?

OF: The police could raid at any time, all our stock was in the office, the vice squad came in, 5 officers, including a woman, and just started taking the magazines away, the inspector started looking through and joked about how far it was – then we were taken to court under the obscene publications act. We were hearing they were angling to send people to prison, being Swiss I thought they’d deport me. Roger and I had to go to court, we were told to admit guilt, it was a magistrates, everyone was taken aback we just admitted to being guilty. But at the same time we were doing a book on castles for Oxford University Press, and they wrote a long letter, and the judge said we’d been very bad, but only gave us a fine. And then Gay News came down on us for pleading guilty – what about the cause? – well it was alright for them! Pretty much put us out of business, we sold everything to another publisher who gave us a good price, even though they knew they didn’t have to, because they wanted to relaunch HIM as more of a lifestyle magazine and they employed us both anyway.

RS: You did The Street for the new HIM?

OF: It based on coronation street, and tried to tell a much more realistic story about what being a gay man was like, the main character meets Rogue early on, but then he bows out, it had love stories, club stories, drug stories – it wasn’t supposed to be fanciful, I aimed to do something worthwhile – Russell T Davies emailed me years later to say it was an influence on Queer as Folk.

RS: You did lots of art for adverts too and theatrical production?

OF: People asked Alan to run a party night at Heaven and Roger and I got quite heavily involved, we built a temple on a stage – Roman games – all rigged so it could be pulled down by Sampson, what Sampson was doing there I couldn’t tell you, and there was a cage so people could do fighting

RS: This was Heaven’s heyday, and you did book covers for the HIM gay library?

OF: I did two titles a quarter and we got up to 12 before the raid.

RS: You got out of gay publishing entirely after the raid?

OF: Yes, we did computer games by mail-order, we produced a catalogue with pictures by me, reviews by Roger and people wrote asking for it to be a proper magazine, WHSmiths asked us to do more.

RS: Then back into gay porn in the 90s?

OF: Yes, I went hardcore, used pseudonym of Zack because I didn’t want any trouble for the other business – I published Bike Boy in Meatmen, and coloured Rogue on computer and republished them.

RS: What do you think your proudest achievement is as a gay comics artist?

OF: It’s more readily accepted that one just buys magazines, it’s nice to be able to entertain people, and having sex is ok and why shouldn’t people be able to see it if they want to? If they don’t like it they don’t have to buy it – when we started people didn’t get to see anything else, if they were in the provinces, we had quite a few letters from people who said we’d changed their lives.

Audience: Have you changed your methods of working?

OF: I’m colouring by computer now, but still drawing, inking by hand, otherwise it looks mechanical – supposed to be quicker to colour by computer, but it isn’t because I do more detail.

Audience: Did you make a serious attempt to keep your Zack and OF identities separate?

OF: Once the internet was there it didn’t really work, fans could recognize it was me anyway. Actually I used to be accused of not having a style, but these people proved I did.

Erotic Comics Anglophone Archive Petition

One of the biggest problems facing anyone researching porn or comics, and therefore doubly so for anyone looking at porn comics, is finding and gaining access to primary materials. So after some discussion, Dr Anna Madill of University of Leeds and I have decided to have a go at establishing an archive in the UK to collect and catalogue English-language porn and erotic comics. We intend to approach a number of libraries and research institutions to host and/or fund the archive. Persuading them to support us will be a lot easier if we an show that there is a need for this archive, so to help with that we’ve started a petition: Erotic Comics Anglophone Archive Petition


We’ve already got this kick-ass logo designed for us by Alison Lucy Stone and meetings set up with a couple of big libraries. Help us out by signing the petition? And if you’d like to be more involved, please get in touch by email or tweet Anna @UKFujoshi or me @tangendentalism – we’d love to hear from you!

On Bondage Fairies and Complexity

It’s been an extremely (excitingly) busy few weeks with lots of plans just starting up and some fabulous collaborative projects on the horizons, so time for actual research has been a bit difficult to find. So I thought instead of delving into something as complicated as last blog’s network analysis of the Saga censorship saga, I’d take a close look at a couple of panels that have been causing me some trouble. They’re from a book called The Original Bondage Fairies: Book 2.

Bondage Fairies (in its various iterations) is by a Japanese creator called Teruo Kakuta, better known as ‘Kondom’. There are a variety of explanations for this name, apparently it’s an abbreviation of his original pseudonym of Konwarabe-chu or Kon Doumushi, but aside from the obvious English language connotation, I’ve also seen it claimed that ‘kondom’ can be translated as insect (neither my language skills or google translate are at that level, but I’d be interested to hear from someone who knows if that’s true). While it is not my intention to look at Japanese porn comics – if there were world enough and time – Bondage Fairies comes into my research as one of the first Japanese eromanga to hit the Anglophone market in translation. Initially published in Japan in 1990 as Insect Hunter, the first book was translated into English and put out on the US market in 1994. This was later followed by several series under the Bondage Fairies heading, including The New Bondage Fairies (96-98), The New Bondage Fairies: Fairie Fetish (98), Bondage Fairies Extreme (99-03) and The Original Bondage Fairies (98-99) – the second volume of which contains the images that I’ll go on to discuss in a minute.

One of the many interesting things about Bondage Fairies is the extremely conflicted responses it has provoked in readers. Kondom’s artwork and aesthetic is extremely cute. The fairies who are the main focus of the comic are beautifully drawn and exhibit a kind of cheeky flirtatiousness that reminds me of Colleen Coover’s Annie and Nibbil – in fact, it is no surprise to me to see that Coover is a fan of Bondage Fairies. Much like Coover’s Small Favors actually, the cute aesthetic of Kondom’s Bondage Fairies utterly belies the actual content. The comic predominantly features tiny slim young women with wings and antennae (the fairies) engaging in sex with each other and with insects. Think a Hentai A Bug’s Life. There is a wide range of sexual/sex-related acts depicted, including bondage (with ropes, vines, chains and purpose specific leather-wear – ‘gates of hell‘) , whipping and beating with different objects, cunnilingus, penetration (of vaginas, mouths and anuses with penises, limbs, insect antennae and various objects), kissing, dominance and submission, masturbation, and exhibitionism and voyeurism, many of which occur both consensually and non-consensually at different points through the books and some of which take place while the participants are acting under the influence of a drug that gives them an irresistible craving for sexual stimulation which has been non-consensually administered.

In the panels preceding those I’m interested in here, Marsha, the villain of the piece has been chained to a wall to prevent her from causing any more harm – she was the one who dosed Pfil, one of the heroines of Bondage Fairies, with the sex craving drug and has been non-consensually keeping and torturing a sex slave along with several insects, some of whom she has killed. After killing her sex slave by cleaving his head in two with an axe, Marsha sets about freeing herself from the chains, but having realised that the chains had originally been constructed by her sister and therefore will be practically unbreakable, cuts off her own hand in order to escape. In the following panels – including the ones I’m looking at here – she seeks out Pfil and her lover Pamela and engages in a physical and verbal fight with Pfil. During the fight she is losing a lot of blood from her wrist-stump and appears to lose her sense of where she is and what she is doing. So much so that at one point she fantasises that she is with her older sister (the one who made the chains) and eventually loses herself to masturbating so much that she fails to notice that a fox has found the fighting fairies and while Pfil and Pamela escape Marsha is carried off in the fox’s mouth, presumably to her death.

So, the panels: they’re pretty explicit and include physical mutilation (or rather the immediate results thereof), so I’ll link to them, rather than putting them straight here, but the next part of this post will involve discussing them in some detail – if you’d rather not encounter that sort of thing, this is probably the point you want to exit.

Still here? Ok, so there are 4 panels I’m going to link to, in the order they come in the book. There are some other panels interspersing these which continue the plot and taking them out of context is, of course, going to do some violence to the overall effect. If you’re interested in them, I absolutely recommend taking a look at the whole thing.

Panel 1: Having found Pfil and Pamela, Marsha declares that she will fight them both and that she can ‘send [them] to hell as a matched pair’. She is wearing thigh-high boots with studs on them, an underbust corset, long gloves and a studded collar. This is entirely in keeping with the general aesthetic of the comic – the fairies all wear very little throughout and most of what they do wear is fetish gear. She is standing with one leg raised on a tree stump, holding a long chain in one hand (the one remaining hand she has) with her other arm bent at the elbow so that the bloody wound of her wrist is clearly visible with the blood both spurting directly from it and dripping down more generally behind her thigh.

Panel 2: After fighting with Pfil for a while, Marsha is losing and is beginning to hallucinate from the loss of blood from her wrist. She sees her sister (the overall framing of this panel establishes that this is a hallucination and that she’s not really there) who tells her that ‘my Marsha never loses to anyone, does she?’ and encourages her masturbation. As is typical for eromanga (erotic manga), Marsha’s masturbation produces a significant quantity of wetness. The bloody stump of her lower arm is placed in the very centre of this image directly above her other masturbating hand and is very detailed in its rendering. Although this time there is no blood, the placement is such that the wetness flowing from her vagina could also be coming from her wounded arm.

Panel 3 and Panel 4 both show Marsha absorbed in her masturbation. In both panels her injured arm is in the centre of the panel, but in panel 3 her eyes are closed and she is surrounded by jagged sound bubbles containing the word/sound ‘hahh’ with lines exclaiming from it at the top and bottom. In this panel she is stretched upside down in a pose that is fairly typical of a softcore pin-up, her mouth is open and again her hand covers her pubis both giving the indication that she is masturbating and obscuring her vagina from view. In panel 4 this view is reversed so that she is upright and looking directly out of the image at the reader. Her masturbating hand is placed so that one finger appears to be partially inserted into her vagina and the wetness flows out underneath. As with panel 2 her stump arm is placed directly above, but there are clear signs of blood on the arm. This panel is also interrupted by the fox’s tongue as it suddenly appears on the scene. Marsha’s tear-stained face looking out at the reader shows no sign of alarm at the encroaching fox, but rather a soft, gaze accompanied by a slight smile.

Beyond the complexities of Bondage Fairies more generally, I have been struggling to produce a reading of these panels that I’m satisfied with. The ways in which Marsha is posed are consistent with a pornographic aesthetic – it seems clear both from the context and from Marsha’s wetness that these images are framed as sexually arousing. In particular, panel 4, in which she looks out at the reader fits absolutely within a soft-core pin-up framework.

But that stump… There are, of course, pornographies that specifically cater for amputation fetishes and this series of panels can be understood within this context. The centering of her wound and particularly its’ placement directly above her other hand masturbating and producing a vaginal wetness that echoes the blood flowing from her arm clearly relates the one to the other. Her bleeding stump is connected to her wet vagina and together they encourage a reading that attaches a sexual response to the arm as much as to the vagina.

But she is also in distress – she is crying throughout and the hallucination of her sister acts not only as a means of introducing a brief indication of incest to the narrative, but also to show that Marsha is losing her coherence: she doesn’t know what is happening to her. And she likely dies at the end of this sequence of panels. You could argue that her sexual desire is what causes her death, but there is also, of course, the substantial loss of blood she has suffered. The role her sister plays here isn’t clear either. Is her sister ultimately to blame for Marsha’s behaviour up to this point? It was her, after all, who made the chain that was so unbreakable that Marsha cut off her hand in the first place. In Marsha’s hallucination, her whispered exhortation to Marsha that she ‘never loses to anyone’ could be read as a phrase that she repeated to Marsha frequently prior to this and therefore may be related to the path Marsha has taken in life more generally. If Marsha has spent her whole life being told she must win no matter what, then she may well have come to act in ways that are unacceptable in order not to lose. The possessiveness of ‘my Marsha’ also encourages a reading of Marsha’s sister as in a position of power over Marsha as does the fact that she is identified as an older sister.

It’s also not clear to me if this is all changed somehow by her overall role in the comic. Until this series of panels she has been in the dominant role. She tortures Masopik, her slave and eventually kills him, she tortures Pfil, puts her into contact with a drug that makes her unable to control her sexual desire and forces Masopik to engage in various sex acts with her until they both lose control of themselves and have sex, even though neither of them would ordinarily choose to do so, she tortures and kills several insects for purposes that are related to her non-consensually sadistic sexual activities and is, generally speaking, pretty nasty throughout. To what extent does this change the way we understand and respond to what is happening to her in these panels? Is this a revenge fantasy?

Having spent some time working on these panels, I’m still not really sure what I think, or how I feel about them. The reasons for the fiercely split responses to Bondage Fairies seem to me to be crystallized by these panels though – the aesthetic and the content are sharply juxtaposed and it would be easy to treat the one as over-ridding the other, but neither the cuteness of the fairies in fetishwear nor the explicit hardcore sex and violence in this comic produce this level of complexity on their own.

So it turns out this blog is just as much about complexity as the last one. One of the real draws to studying porn comics for me actually is precisely that micro or macro, individual panels or marketplace network systems, it’s all complex.

On Censorship (and SAGA)

Following on from the question of what we mean by porn, there is also quite a range of ideas about what we mean by censorship. Legal censorship is a fairly easy place to start, I guess, as if the law bans it, that means it’s censored right? But what if the law doesn’t explicitly state what it is that it’s banning? Or what if it does, but then it isn’t applied in those ways?

Once we move outside the law it gets even murkier. Does a publisher refusing to publish something count as censorship?

What about if they have published other things that are similar?

Does a publisher refusing to publish anything constitute censorship? It seems hardly likely that that will hold – some things are just not very good, after all… But who decides? And on what basis?

What about if the publisher says they won’t publish it because they think it’s offensive? What about if they think it breaks the law?

What if the publisher is happy to publish something, but their printer refuses to print it? Or the distributor refuses to carry it?

Monopolies are interesting from a censorship perspective. If a given publisher, printer or distributor is one of many, then anything refused may still find an outlet somewhere else. But when a particular venue is the only one, the power (and responsibility) to decide what gets put out is concentrated.

In hard copy comics distribution, Diamond Comics Distribution has been the last word for a significant amount of time. Diamond produces catalogues of the comics they distribute to specialist comics stores each month which makes their decisions regarding what they will and won’t distribute pretty easy to track. In the case of porn comics this is even easier to see as they also produce a specialist ‘Adult’ comics supplement.* What is most interesting, of course, is the distinctions that get made regarding what goes in which catalogue. This also has practical consequences for comics stores owners and customers, particularly in relation to comics being shipped outside the US.

In online distribution, comiXology is by far the most successful platform. There are, of course, plenty of publishers who make digital comics available directly from their own sites and a range of other attempts have been made at providing digital comics. It gives a good sense of the signficance of comiXology though to say that even Diamond’s online distribution can’t compete.

Last year, #12 of Brian K Vaughan’s and Fiona Staple’s SAGA was the subject of an intense dispute regarding the censorship of digital comics. SAGA is a boundary-pushing science-fantasy comic that frequently features explicit sex and violence. As was catalogued by various comics bloggers at the time, SAGA #1-#11 featured a wide range of sexually explicit content. It’s not a porn comic per se, but it’s definitely intended for an audience that isn’t offended by the explicit depiction of sex and sexual activities.

The dispute was over the decision that #12, unlike the previous issues, wouldn’t be made available through the comiXology app in the Apple App Store. A lot of things were said by lots of people regarding this dispute, but the basic narrative appears to have gone like this:

  1. comiXology received #12 from Image – the publishers of SAGA – and reviewed it
  2. Based on an unspecified concern about how this issue would be received by Apple, comiXology decided not to release the issue through their app
  3. They informed Image, who then informed Vaughan and Staples, of this decision, in language that was oblique enough that it was possible for it to be misconstrued that the decision had been made by Apple, rather than by comiXology
  4. Vaughan concluded that this was due to ‘two postage-stamp sized images of gay sex’ that made up part of the art for #12 and released a statement to that effect – given Apple’s history and explicit antiporn stance, this was not an unreasonable conclusion to come to
  5. In the following 24 hours, lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of people expressed outrage at Apple’s censoriousness and apparent homophobia
  6. comiXology released a statement saying that Apple had not, in fact, refused to host #12, but rather comiXology had decided not to submit it to them based on concerns that it would be rejected
  7. A selection of people argued that comiXology had taken rather longer than was necessary to make this statement and suggested that this might be because they gained financially from the misconception of events
  8. Others argued that this dispute was really the responsibility of Apple’s arcane and curious guidelines for App developers

What’s interesting to me about these events is that they really make clear how complex a process understanding censorship (if that’s what it was) really is.

Vaughan and Staples, along with Image, their publisher, believed, not unreasonably, that given the acceptance of #1-#11, that #12 would be within the guideline parameters for both comiXology and Apple’s App Store. It’s not clear what precisely comiXology thought might be objected to by Apple, but their claim that their decision was in anticipation of Apple objecting to #12 can either be interpreted as a ruse, designed to cover up that fact that comiXology themselves actually objected (seemingly unlikely given other content), or, much more likely, as stemming (as suggested by several others) from Apple’s previous responses to other material. If comiXology had gone ahead and included #12 and Apple had objected, it’s likely that Apple would have pulled the comiXology app in its entirety until #12 was removed. This could all have taken place quite quickly, but it’s understandable that comiXology wouldn’t have wanted their app unavailable even for half an hour. In being, to whatever extent, dependent on Apple for their business to function, comiXology are in the position of having to care what Apple’s likely responses to things are.

So it creates a chain whereby the people on the left have to care about the views of those on the right:

Vaughan and Staples  Image  comiXology  Apple  The Law?

= is subject to the distribution decisions of

Each party, of course, also has their own parameters for offense that may be more or less narrow than the party preceding them. Even without Apple’s censorious reputation and avowed anti-porn stance, the likelihood that the range of things objected to will increase with their inclusion is substantial simply because they add another step in the process. This chain also happens in reverse with consumers, of course:

Consumer  ISP  comiXology  Apple  The Law

The law, of course, can also interject at any other point in either chain. And it’s not clear to me which way round Apple and comiXology ought to be for this part of the chain… The reality is that it’s not actual a chain at all, but rather a network in which each actor is influenced, more or less, by the (some? all?) other actors.

Saga network map

The idea of law, in general, but often particularly emphasised in obscenity law is that it reflects the values of the community it serves. So it ought to be a complete circuit – don’t worry, I’m not going to try and draw it – whereby the consumer and producer of a comic (in this case anyway) are both also involved in the establishment of the law by which they are then judged. So why doesn’t it (seem to) work like that?

One of the reasons is that law has been being made for a long time, a lot longer than any of us have been around. We didn’t get to contribute to the making of laws that preceded us, and given that a lot of law is based on precedent and reiterations of previous laws, the vast majority of the laws by which we are judged are not ones into which we have had any opportunity for input. But even with laws that are made in our lifetimes it can be difficult to affect the process. Not all of us are equally able to speak. Not all voices are equally heard when they do speak.

Which brings us back to the question of what actually constitutes censorship.

If the work of a comics creator is judged offensive (or potentially offensive to others) based on a law in which no-one in the chain/network/circuit has had input, not only is it difficult to see how the offensiveness (or lack thereof) of the comic is established, but it’s also practically impossible to know how to unpick the threads that lead to any decision being made regarding changes to censorship legislation.

At every point in the process the potential for someone else (other than or in addition to the person currently considering the issue) to consider the comic offensive is given greater significance than the views of the person who is currently making the decision. They have to be because each link in the chain is absolutely dependent on the others for their ability to be heard in general. It makes everyone very risk averse because their ability to be heard in general is contingent on the next party’s agreement with their assessment.

Finally, and I’m not going to go into it now, but it seems foolish to ignore this, the reality of the chain/network/circuit involved in distribution is that the law often holds a far less significant place than the brand or market position of a company in any decisions being made. In both cases, however, ‘the public’ is a significant rhetorical device, but the level of involvement they (we) actually have in the process seems pretty minimal.

At a conference on censorship recently, representatives from the BBFC – the organisation that classifies (and censors) all mass distribution film in the UK – claimed that they censor ‘for the public’. Who the public is, both in the work of the BBFC and in the SAGA affaire, is extremely unclear. I can’t help but be reminded of Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ – the real public, the one who must be protected from offense, is never actually in the room. The public is everywhere and nowhere in the distribution chain/network/loop. How all this relates to censorship is something I lost sight of about 800 words ago, but it does strike me that talking about censorship as something exclusively enacted by governments against individuals by means of the law misses almost all of the complexities of the process.


*As a good (albeit somewhat reformed) Derridean, the word ‘supplement’ immediately prompts a series of thoughts for me regarding the dual usage of the word: The ‘Adult’ supplement both supplies that which is missing from the standard Previews catalogue – namely the graphics and detailed descriptions of ‘Products of a sexual nature intended for an adult audience’ – but also can be supplemented for the standard Previews catalogue, in that if what you are looking for is ‘Products of a sexual nature intended for an adult audience’, then you actually don’t need the standard catalogue at all. Neither of these, incidentally, is available to the public, so it’s not really clear why Diamond feel the need to produce a separate supplement for ‘Adult’ comics – how many children run comic book stores?

Are we having porn now or what?

One of the things that’s becoming increasingly clear during this research project into pornographic comics is that I don’t really have a robust definition of porn (or of comics, but that’s for another post). There are many reasons not to want a definition – by their nature definitions tend to be restrictive and exclusionary and invariably wrong at one point or another – but for the purposes of defining the parameters of a research project it’s proving quite difficult to be without one. How do I determine what material should be included?

This question was brought to the forefront of my mind at the weekend when a friend suggested a comic for my project, and then immediately questioned his suggestion saying that he didn’t know why he identifies it as porn when it has no sex or nudity in it.

This question is also extremely pertinent to issues of censorship. Some brief examples:

As noted by Kate Leth this week, LGBT comics (and representations more generally) are considerably more likely to be identified as sexual in nature, even when they contain no actual sexual content at all.

As discussed before, representations of women’s sexual desires are also more likely to be classified as porn (and therefore obscene).

Certain styles and forms are also more likely to be identified as porn (and censored on that basis). In recent years in the UK and North America this has particularly affected Manga. Possession of The 48 Positions: Moe Style saw Ryan Matheson arrested on the Canadian border in 2010 for possession of child pornography. Leaving aside the numerous questions about whether drawings can be considered in the same way as media that requires actual human subjects (it can’t), whether pornography is the correct term for sexually exploitative images of children (it’s not) and whether the characters in the image actually resemble children (not really), it’s still not clear to me that the image constitutes pornography. It all really very much depends on what you (and in this case the Canadian border patrol) define as pornography.

The problem is, of course, that rather than there being an absence of definitions of pornography, they are instead hundreds. Thinking about this recently I was reminded of a great article by Greta Christina about defining sex: Are we having sex now or what? Christina runs through a variety of definitions of sex (moving roughly from the societally sanctioned norm of penis in vagina and expanding out toward the more inclusive, but still somehow lacking) and relates each to a personal experience that troubles the definition. As I’m investigating what’s out there in terms of porn comics I’m finding much the same problem. How do I know if it’s porn or not?

To be porn does it have to:

Represent people having sex? (see above for some problems caused by this)

Only represent people having sex?

Have people being sexy in it? (see above)

Only have people being sexy in it?

Have naked people in it? (mostly? completely? is the visibility of some body parts more relevant than others?)

Only have naked people in it?

Have people wearing sexually revealing/provocative clothing in it? (defined as…? and there are some quite unpleasant consequences to the idea of provocative clothing.)

Only have people wearing sexually revealing/provocative clothing in it?

Have attractive people in it? (attractive to whom?)

Only have attractive people in it?

Have people in it at all?

Be intended to sexually arouse the reader/audience? (see, there’s this thing called the intentional fallacy…)

Be intended only to sexually arouse the reader/audience and not to result in any other response?

Be explicitly identified as porn by the author/creator/publisher/reader/audience? (what if they don’t all agree? who gets priority?)

Actually sexually arouse the reader/audience? (every reader/audience? all the time?)

Actually only sexually arouse the reader/audience and not result in any other response?

And all this is before we even get to the (extremely) tenuous distinctions between porn and erotica or the complexities of definitions which include violence against or the subjugation of women. Neither of which are particularly useful for the purposes of finding material, but both of which are interesting to track in attempts to censor porn in which they are absolutely the most common definitions.

Some contemporary limit cases – is it porn? (Are these links NSFW? Surely that depends on your job…)

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky – the characters have sex a lot and its integral to the plot (they stop time when they orgasm), but they also rob a bank, campaign to save a library and discuss mental health

My American, My Bukkake by Susannah Breslin – beautiful noir (apparently) autobio about a woman’s relationship to bukkake and her father’s death

Oh Joy, Sex Toy by Erika Moen – sex ed/review comic all about sex toys

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – not primarily focused on sex, but with plenty in each issue, issue 12 (the only issue so far to depict homosexual sex) was recently censored by ComiXology in anticipation that it would violate Apple’s ToS (it was later restored)

Sex and Violence by Jimmy-Broxton, Amanda Conner, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Juan Santacruz – two stories, one Frank Millar-esque pulp featuring extended sex scenes, the other a ‘lesbian’ Rear Window

I haven’t included any manga here as I don’t know enough about it at the moment, but it’s probably safe to say that in the Anglophone market pretty much all manga might be considered porn.

Do I need a definition? If I could do this project without one I certainly would, but it simply can’t be enough to say I know it when I see it. Can it?

Girly porno comic books?

One of the things that got me interested in porn comics was reading women comics creators talking about their attempts to produce comics porn for women that represented women’s sexual desires and experiences accurately. Throughout the history of comics, much like every other medium, women’s sexualities have been much more heavily censored than that of men (or rather that of particular kinds of sexualities attributed to particular kinds of men) and there have been several attempts by women comics writers and artists to address this.


Copyright – Trina Robbins

One of the most illuminating events in the representation of women’s desire in comics porn is the publication of Wet Satin, edited by comics creator and historian Trina Robbins. Published by Kitchen Sink, who published a range of comics porn (founder of Kitchen Sink, Denis Kitchen went on to be a significant force in the founding of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), this collection included stories by Melinda Gebbie and Lee Marrs. On completion the manuscript was sent to Kitchen Sink’s usual printer, who refused to print it on the basis that it was obscene. The same printer had cheerfully printed stories by Robert Crumb and the ongoing serial Bizarre Sex – including the first issue featuring ‘The Giant Penis that Invaded New York’ on the cover. Kitchen Sink managed to find another printer for the first issue of Wet Satin and passed the second issue over to rival publisher Last Gasp, but the question of the relative obscenity of women’s fantasies remains an issue.

Smut Peddler Cover

Copyright – Emily Carroll

More recently the Smut Peddler collection – volume two has just been funded through Kickstarter – has done much to bring women’s comics porn into the fore. There’s a great variety of sex shown in this collection. My current favourite story is ‘Easy’ by Erika Moen and Leia Weathington, which takes a word often uncomfortably used to police women’s sexuality and transforms it into a bid for joyful bisexual hookups. However, even within such a diverse collection there is still a sense that some sex is more acceptable than others as part of the collection’s editorial policy is that nothing included can appear to be non-consensual. The concept of what ‘counts’ as non-consensual within the context of a drawing is complicated of course and many of the stories included also show their characters engaging in safer sex practices. Modelling good practice can be great, of course, but… well, it’s hard to be sure what it means to have a drawing wear a condom. Ultimately these restrictions may well have more to do with the editors’ hopes of securing a printer though which in light of the Wet Satin affair is entirely understandable.

Chester Cover

Copyright – Jess Fink

Two of the most interesting contemporary creators of porn comics are Jess Fink and Colleen Coover, both of whom have stated quite clearly that they are concerned to produce comics porn for women. Fink says that her webcomic Chester 5000 XYV (now also available in a hardback collected edition) was inspired by the Tijuana Bibles – 8-page underground pornographic comic books from the 30s and 40s – but that she was disappointed that ‘the women were always sort of cluelessly wandering into sexual situations saying, “Oops!” or being seduced. [She] wanted to make something old-fashioned but with a woman who knew very well what she wanted.’ Similarly, Coover says that when she wrote Small Favors she ‘was looking around, and … was really frustrated by the lack of female-friendly erotic comics.’

Copyright - Colleen Coover

Copyright – Colleen Coover

One of the things that makes their work so interesting to look at comparatively is that they have very different senses of what that might mean. Coover’s comic, subtitled ‘a girly porno comic collection’ emphasizes cuteness inside and out. She says: ‘I wanted a comic that had a title that you could say out loud in a store without having to go, “I’d like some Cum Suck Cheerleaders, please.” I wanted covers you could display on the shelves in a women’s sex shop without people being scandalized.’ In contrast, Fink is concerned about the idea of women’s pornography as being ‘really flowery and bad. Like romance novels or something… girly, nondescriptive… I like really graphic stuff. If it’s porn, I want it to be porn… I don’t want to talk down to women, like ‘I know you don’t like sex so I’ll make this easy on you.’ [Quoted in Tim Pilcher’s gorgeous coffee-table book Erotic Comics: Volume 2. pp.180-181]

The question of what women’s comics porn ought to look like is really a broader question of what comics porn ought to look like of course, but in both cases the answers are frustratingly general or uselessly personal. Looking at the question from a slightly different angle though, it is interesting to see what isn’t there, what doesn’t get shown, whose desires and what kinds of desires don’t get featured in comics porn, or what doesn’t get published (which isn’t the same question) or what does get published but subsequently gets refused by the printers or banned by the digital platform. One of the important consequences of the growth of the internet is that if your kind of porn isn’t available out there, you can publish it in an easily accessible location without having to rely on the whims (and prejudices) of a printer or publisher. But as internet filtering and blocking, blacklisting, the censorship of digital comics and the risks of arrest for breaching morality codes clearly show, we’re still a long way from Rule 34 meaning really really anything.