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February 10, 2011

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The Sexy Side of Strips: Comics Stripped at the Museum of Sex in NYC

Posted by on Feb 10, 2011

Last week I went to check out the exhibit at the Museum of Sex in New York called “Comics Stripped.” I’d heard good things, so I was excited. Upon first entering the exhibit, I found the stereotypical comic tropes of “Wham! Blam!” painted in large letters on the wall. “Oh, great,” I thought, “another superficial treatment of comics.” But then I turned and saw on the opposite wall, similarly painted, “Boing!” and “Ohohoh!” I realized that it was actually a commentary on how sex and comics are both treated superficially, and both are far more subtle and nuanced than the general public assumes. My excitement restored, I explored the rest of the exhibit.

Hit the jump for highlights, and my take on the exhibit.

It starts at the beginning, so to speak – the Tijuana Bibles. These traditionally 8-page pamphlets, which were basically comic books, depicted sexually explicit acts and positions, often including famous celebrities or cartoon characters. The examples on display showed Donald Duck, Wimpy, and Snow White on the cover – without the permission of the character’s owners, of course. Interestingly, one of the most famous Tijuana Bibles, “She Saw the World’s Fair, And How!” was created by Wesley Morse, the original creator of Bazooka Joe comics. Some of the TJ Bibles by Morse were on display.

The theme of famous comics creators who also explored sexual themes in their work was a recurring one. Dan DeCarlo, the man largely credited with creating the continued style of Archie comics, and also the creator of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats, used his distinctive style of drawing to create pin-up girls very much reminiscent of Veronica for the cartoon pin-up magazine Humorama. The resemblance is clear in the work displayed.  Other artists, like Dean Yiggle, created works for major “wholesome” companies like Disney while simultaneously producing comics for Playboy.

The exhibit wasn’t just comics, however. Many displays showed early animated cartoon characters, and how they were fairly sexual in nature. A display on Betty Boop emphasized how the cartoon’s popularity actually waned and ultimately ended when the studios forced the animators to draw her with more clothes.

The majority of the art on display is by American creators, and given that the subject matter is comics, this isn’t entirely surprising, though it is a bit misrepresentative. The section on Japanese hentai and manga explicitly comments upon the origin of Japanese erotic prints as far back as the 16th century Edo period, and yet there are only 7 or 8 examples of Japanese work. Similarly, European artists creating sexually suggestive art were given much more support and achieved far more polished results as far back as the 1940s, compared to their American counterparts, and yet there is only a small “International” section of the exhibit.  But if you can accept that this exhibit is really treating sexuality in specifically American comics, then the issue doesn’t detract too much from the overall quality of the exhibit.

Alan Moore's Lost Girls is a great example of mainstream writers working in adult comics

Possibly one of the greatest highlights for me was the display on Joe Shuster, famed co-creator of Superman. The exhibit had a full-profile original sketch of Superman by Shuster on display – for me, it was a little like standing in front of the Holy Grail. But the main point of the display was how, when Shuster was left almost broke due to the lack of compensation for his work on Superman and other comics, he turned to producing sexually charged cartoons for illegal mob-run magazines. He produced illustrations for the low-quality magazine Night of Horrors, and most of these illustrations had S&M-related subject matter. While Shuster’s own sexual preferences very well may have been expressed through these illustrations, the way that he was forced to work for such low-grade productions run by the mob is a sad, sad reminder of the treatment most of the giants of the comics industry received from the publishers.

There were plenty of other displays, some for comics with stories focused solely on lesbian and homosexual fantasy stories. Robert Crumb’s work was prominently displayed, and the classic “Crumb girl” was given as an example of how sexuality was integrated directly into Crumb’s work. Tom of Finland’s statement of artistic principle, “If I don’t have an erection when I’m doing a drawing, I know it’s no good,” was painted in enormous letters across an entire wall of the exhibit.  But even considering these prime examples of artists with entirely sexual bodies of work, the main lesson I took from the exhibit is that the distinction between sexual and non-sexual artists was nowhere near as hard-lined as you might think. The simple fact that so many of the artists on display had both sexual and non-sexual comics in their repertoire suggested to me that these artists didn’t see themselves as being dedicated to one type of work or the other, merely that they sometimes drew comics for the purpose of arousing the audience, and sometimes they didn’t.

The exhibit opened on January 13, 2011. Tickets to the Museum of Sex are $16.75 + tax and can be purchased at the museum, located at 233 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (As a heads-up, the Museum has additional events on Valentine’s Day Weekend, but as a result, tickets cost more. If you’re just going for the Comics exhibit, you may want to skip that weekend.)