A Fresh Look at Porn Comix

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Sweating up the back pockets of traveling salesmen during the 1930s, the so-called Tijuana Bibles were the first truly "underground" comix. Pure pornography, these crudely printed eight-page pamphlets put popular comicstrip characters in more "adult" situations, expounding on the likes of Dagwood's obvious oral fixation. Later the comix artists of the 1960s used identical mixes of sex, racial stereotypes and pop culture for artistic and political subversion. But now, having inseminated the medium, porn comix seem spent. With dullness and utilitarianism, they whore themselves out to men who no longer find the Batman and Robin relationship satisfying. Recently, though, the "Dirty Stories" series of books, by putting the intelligence and talent of today's top comix artists toward the pursuit of smut, reinvigorates the tired old stud into something approaching art.

The newly-arrived volume three (Eros/Fantagraphics Books; 112pp.; $16.95) immediately sets itself apart from ordinary porn by dispensing with any sex on the cover. Instead Al Columbia depicts what looks like the aftermath of an orgy, with a well-dressed troll cleaning his plate of what I am sure is chocolate frosting. It's typical of these smart artist's often surprising approach to the main subject. Unencumbered by pretension and unified by a central theme that everyone can relate to, the series has become one of the best anthologies published today. The twenty-odd stories of each volume use sex as a means to an artistic end, rather than an end to itself. This crucial difference distinguishes art from porn.

Mack White, for example, creates a penny-dreadful-style comic of text and illustration that spins an absurd story combining Christian mythology, spiritualism, and Jane Eyre-style melodramatics. "That night, after drinking a special tea laced with laudanum and other substances, Paulina lay down to await the Archangel Michael. ... Soon, Dexter appeared in a hooded robe." Many of the artists see no reason use verisimilitude or even be particularly sexy. Ben Catmull's "Howard," shows a chubby guy who gets embarrassed that his bathtub fantasies keep devolving into strange penile animals. "Splish Splosh" are the only sounds in the cutely-drawn piece. H.G. Feekes tells an apparently true story about not having sex with the emaciated, bruised woman who stays in room "21." Even the most explicit of the pieces, Rick Altergott's "Mile High Club," a wordless four-pager depicting a callisthenic tryst in an airplane bathroom, leaves a scent of comedy behind.

Ben Catumull's "Howard" has dirty thoughts in "Dirty Stories" volume three

One of the best things about the "Dirty Stories" series is that women participate in it. For years I have wondered what became of Carol Swain, an English artist who did amusing, odd-ball stories in a soft pencil style. Suddenly here she is with "Silicon Valley Rest Home," where impotent, elderly ex-porn stars fall asleep in front of TVs that show tapes of their younger selves. Likewise it takes a woman, Ellen Forney, to include a sexy and educational instructional on how to best use your fingers "for her pleasure." The other non-fiction standout, "My, My American Bukkake," by Susannah Breslin, goes behind the scenes of a porn video subgenre where, for starters, eighty or more guys throw their underwear at a porn star and shout "Bonzai!" Using traced photos, Breslin's snapshot style gets at the scenario's serio-comic complications, with one recipient of the bukkake's simultaneous male attention remarking on how all that protein made her hair softer.

Appropriately, "Dirty Stories" volume three ends with some original Tijuana Bible stories. While their appearance brings the modern works into a historical context, it's remarkable how "Abie the Agent," a story about a Jewish jeweler and his two-timing wife, trumps all the other work for outrageousness. Likewise "Hall Room Boys at the Masked Ball," includes the only depiction of gay male sex in the entire book. Apparently some things are still too controversial for even the most "open-minded" creators, editors and readers. Even so, the playful, sexy and exiting filth of "Dirty Stories" will leave most readers satisfied.

"Dirty Stories" can be found in better comicbook stores, probobly in the closed-off section, past the easy-to-purchase wall of completely non-sexual books about costumed men who go on adventures together.