Monday, 30 January 2012

Comicgate Interview about Erotic Comics

Last March I was interviewed by the very charming Daniel Wüllner for Germany’s Comicgate Magazin (an excellent publication). The interview appeared in issue 6 (you can read a very nice review of the German edition of Erotic Comics they did online here). But they very kindly gave me permission to reprint the English version of the interview, so here it is!
Comicgate: Tim, we contacted you today, because Comicgate is doing a special feature issue exclusively on sex. That's why we wanted to talk to a specialist in the field. Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? When did you start out reading comics?

Tim Pilcher: I've always read comics ever since I was a kid, like most people in Britain. I grew up Beano, Dandy, Krazy, Whizzer & Chips, and similar titles. In Britain you could buy comics for toddlers and as they grew older there was another comic to buy, which would be aimed at the slightly older group. You would move on naturally to magazines like Battle, Starlord, and 2000 AD, which is still going today. In the Eighties, I discovered magazines like Warrior magazine – which included the original V for Vendetta – and Epic Illustrated, a marvel magazine edited by Archie Goodwin. Afterwards, I discovered Heavy Metal magazine. I've always read comics and I've always loved them and in a professional sense—I always wanted to work in comics.

CG: That sounds like an organic progress?

TP: Exactly, a very nicely tiered structure. Sadly this is all gone now, because the British comic industry collapsed. Today, there is a big gap between kid's stuff and adult stuff. Nowadays, most people in Britain read up to a certain level of 2000 AD and than jump over to American comics.

CG: When did you actually decide to earn money with comics?

TP: Probably, when I was from about 16 or 17. I started to realize that there are people making this stuff. I never thought I was good enough to be an artist, but maybe I could have a crack at writing or editing.

CG: You stuck to editing. Did you ever write a comic book?

TP: I never did a full-length comic book, but I have written a few strips for The Young Telegraph, which were biographical strips about famous people throughout history. I also put together a package for DeAgostini UK, which was a whole load of Marvel superhero strips. So, although I have officially written some Iron Man and Spider-Man stories, those projects never took off! So I have written comics, but I am primarily an editor.

CG: How did you become an editor?

TP: When I started working, it was very clear from the beginning: It’s not what you know, but who you know. I thought about how to get to know everybody. With some luck I got a job at Comic Showcase back in 1988. My basic work included sitting in the back and bagging comics. Very boring, but I meet a lot of professionals there. Regulars in the shop were people like Kevin O'Neil, Dave Gibbons, Brendan McCarthy, and Neil Gaiman.

CG: That is quite an impressive line-up. Is it a famous store?

TP: It was pretty well known, although it is no longer in existence, sadly. It shut down a few years ago. It was well regarded, like Gosh Comics, they were kissing cousins. We used to hang out together a lot. But Showcase had more space and so we could sell original art that was on display. Naturally the artists dropped by more often. And we were certainly NOT Forbidden Planet, we had friendly staff!

CG: How did you change from comic clerk to comic editor?

TP: A friend of mine, Paul Johnson, who was a comic artist at the time, introduced me to Art Young. At the time, Young had left DC Comics in order to build his own line at Disney’s Touchmark comics. He was halfway through—looking for British creators—when the whole project fell down. Right then, DC was setting up Vertigo. So they said, bring all your projects to Vertigo and we will give you your job back. He asked for a London office, because a lot of the creators like Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison were from the UK. It just made more sense. He was looking for an assistant, but he didn’t want the person he was looking to be trained up by Marvel UK, DC, or a similar British company. He wanted somebody with no experience, so he could train him the way he wanted. He did a few interviews and I was just lucky enough to get the job. I was always a DC fan. It was fantastic. It got a lot of experience there. I learned all of my editorial skills in that time.

CG: How long did you work there?

TP: Unfortunately, it lasted only 18 months, but it was a very intense. When you work with people like Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly on a regular basis, you learn a lot. Then the office shut down due to economic hardship. It was kind of an experiment that did not work out. The next five years I moved on to book publishing and did a whole range of different things: From Penguin Children’s Books to Dorling Kindersely.

CG: ... and then you decided to become an author?

TP: Writing was something I always wanted to do, but when you work with people like Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis—one of my best friends—it is quite intimidating to do fiction. ‘Cause you know your peers are the top of their game. And you ask yourself, “How can I compete with them?” So I steered clear of that and went into non-fiction. I was writing about comics rather than actually writing comics per se. Just because I felt more comfortable doing that. My first book was called The Complete Cartooning Course (co-written with Brad Brooks) and was published in 2001. We explained the basic rules of cartooning like expressive figure-work, setting up mid-grounds and backgrounds, and showed how pacing works. We also included a lot of digital material, reproducing on the web, before it became as prelevant as it is now. It did very well in Germany, actually.

CG: Tim, while almost every teenager has his hidden stack of Playboys somewhere under his bed, did you have many erotic comics on your desk? How did you decide on erotic comics as a research project?

TP: It was always in the background, but not in a conscious kind of way. Comics like Heavy Metal or Epic Illustrated had an adult sensibility with their bare-breasted women. In my time at Comic Showcase we had Richard Corben's Den coming in. It was like "Conan on Viagra". That’s slightly disingenuous, but hopefully you know what I mean. I was aware that erotic comics were always around. Then I came across Maurice Horn's book Sex in the Comics. Suddenly, I realized that nobody else examined erotica as a comic book genre, since Horn. His book was published in 1988, when the big erotic comic explosion was just about to happen. Fantagraphics started their Eros line (1990) and Jim Lee did his first X-Men (1991). Horn's book was also quite coy.

CG: You finally found your own niche as an author?

TP: I just thought that it was a subject that was interesting enough and I was curious as why people hadn't examined it. The starting point was the historic research and I found a huge amount of "normal" comic artists, who have all been touched by erotic comics. Jack Kirby, for example, did these barely erotic two-page-things, but in the end he was obviously not comfortable with it. It was a more obvious fit for people like Howard Chaykin and Gilbert Hernandez. Although you would never think that Hernandez with his pro-feminist stuff, would do a hardcore erotic comic like Birdland.

CG: In your first chapter of Erotic Comics Vol.1, entitled "foreplay", you use a different approach and show tijuana bibles, pin-ups and Shunga-woodprints. On your blog I found pictures of Indian statues with explicit erotic content. Are these examples similar to the sequential art of a comic? Or let me phrase it differently, are erotic comics comparable to any other erotic art form?

TP: I think they are, purely on the basis of the content, they are all forms of erotica. Just a slightly different delivery format. A Shunga-woodprint and a erotic statue or carving have a connection as both deal with, or express, human sexuality. Yes, comics are an art form. Yes, they are dealing with erotica. The very reason I put in these other art forms is because I wanted people to realize that nothing exists in a vacuum. It shows a natural progression of this genre. The Tijuana Bibles did not materialize out of nothing in the 1930s. You can't look at erotic comics in isolation.

CG: The sequential form in itself is important to the portrayal of erotica. The sequence of images gives you the option to show everything there is, or to hide the act in the gutter. In a comic you don't have to actually show someone caught in the act.

TP: Your remark touches upon the difference between the two volumes. In the first volume the material was much more implicit. But as time went on a vast cultural changes had begun that didn't restrict themselves to just comics. The second volume portrays a different time frame and shows a culture that developed towards more explicit forms of expression. I am personally not a big fan of that. I would much rather have a little bit more imagination left, or a little bit more subtlety. But obviously I am in the minority!

CG: ... but you have chosen the topic, so it is your duty to look at everything there is. Do you think that society has developed an interest in the extreme, even in the display of sexuality?

TP: It depends on what sort of time scale you put this on. If you go way back you can see that the social morals have always evolved, altered and adapted – depending on the culture. You can see quite explicit Indian carvings in full public view, yet you wouldn't expect to see a similar hardcore sex act as a giant billboard today anywhere (but I suspect that it’s only a matter of time). You can say that our ancestors had a very liberated sense of sexuality back then. I think we go through cycles. There were, are, and will be, periods throughout history when it is okay to talk openly and frankly about sex. In other periods, such as the Victorian Age, it is deeply repressed.

CG: Let us talk about the thin red line you are drawing between pornography and erotica in both volumes . Is there any difference between the two terms?

TP: I actually think there is no real difference. Alan Moore makes that quite clear in the foreword of the second volume. He only uses the term pornography, because it creates an immediate reaction. The two words are certainly both loaded, but with different meanings: If you say the word pornography, it has an implication that something is dirty, wrong, seedy, not very nice, dangerous, and possibly even illegal. If you put the word erotica on it has the inverse meaning: slightly romantic, sexy, also dangerous, but in a good way, and with a little bit more class.

CG: Isn't gender also an issue in this debate? When you think of pornography, you have a male readership in mind, whereas erotica denotes the female in a more positive way, especially in the act of gazing or participating?

TP: I think you are absolutely right, that's a very good analogy: a split between the two terms, and respectively the two genders. There is a difference in act of viewing these images. When you use the word erotica it describes the upper class look at the subject and it would be more implicit, that's why women tend to favor erotica. Whereas, the lower the class, and the more “masculine” the reader is, the more explicit the material subsequently is. The reason for that comes from a two-fold thing—but these are just my generalizations: Women are mostly motivated by suggestion, mind, and words. Men on the other hand are more aroused by visual stimuli. The readership of erotic comics is primarily a male readership. There are still women out there who read erotic comics and I know there are women who create erotic comics, but the female artists are seldom that explicit in their portrayal of erotica or they place a stronger emphasis on character and story rather than focusing primarily on the sex act itself. It is the same with the porn-film-industry. Women make erotic films for other women. Those films are completely different from the sort of standard material that is created by male producers in L.A. There are two different aesthetic approaches and you could easily split those in "erotica" and "pornography". But ultimately they are the same thing: They are stories and images designed to create arousal within the reader.

CG: In your books you address gay and lesbian comics, too. Heterosexual female writers seem to be in the minority. How would you explain that?

TP: The movement is growing. The excellent Jess Fink’s erotic graphic novel, Chester 5000, has just been published by Top Shelf and there is a post-feminist erotic comics movement happening right now in Sweden. I came across some titles, when I visited Stockholm last year, which were really interesting. They were doing erotic comics with a strong female slant: The female characters are pretty much in control of the situations and they are using the men for their own gratification, throwing them aside afterwards. It’s a very deliberate inversion of porn tropes. These comics are very clever and very good. There is for example a good graphic novel called Drift by Liv Strömquist and Jan Bileckli. It has sexual scenes in it, but is primarily character-driven.

CG: Sounds quite similar to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home?

TP: Yeah, exactly. When you look in Dykes to Watch Out For you find sex scenes and sexual descriptions. But ultimately, it’s about characters and shows the connection between two human beings, rather than just people having sex. Women are much more interested in an emotional attachment, and rightly so.

CG: In the second volume, the word censorship is printed in capital letters. Obviously, a quite important issue to you, and to Alan Moore. Do you think there are still comics that definitely cross the line of good taste?

TP: I think there definitely are such comics. I would not necessary want to read them.

CG: Are some of them included in your books?

TP: No, if they were that bad, my editors wouldn't have allowed me to put them in. I have read some Japanese stuff, which has made me feel very uncomfortable—rape-fantasies and the like. I know perfectly well that there are some people out there with such fantasies and it is all perfectly fine in a controlled adult environment. I am not criticizing people reading these comics, but when it is put into a certain context, it might be damaging if that is the only information the reader gets. I would certainly not be happy to put these in my books. I think Voltaire apocryphally once said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is very much my attitude towards censorship. I don't want to look at it and I don't want to read it, but I won't prevent somebody from drawing it. There is definitely an argument for keeping certain material from getting into certain people's hands. Kids and others who would be disturbed by those images should not be able to get that stuff. But if you are an adult in a sound state of mind, then you are just looking at “lines on paper” (as Robert Crumb constantly reminds us) it should be your choice to do so, and not the state's decision. We have some quarrels in the UK quite recently about the Coroners and Justice Act in 2009. They passed an insane law, which we are trying to get appealed, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. It basically states: It is prohibited to depict a comic character that looks under 18 – the emphasis is on the physical appearance – in a scene where two adults are having sex. A good example for that would be the flashback-sequence from Watchmen, when Rorschach stumbles across his mum having sex. So, technically, it is illegal to own a copy of Watchmen in Britain today.

CG: How would the prosecution look like?

TP: We haven't had our test case yet. There’s a strong likelihood that such a case could come along in the near future. The Comic Book Alliance is already collecting money for such cases. We are basically the British version of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The sentence could be anything from a fine to at least three months in prison, or more. It would really depend on the Judge's opinion. We are quite set up on the legal side, but I hope we can avoid such cases.

CG: In your second book there are articles on Japanese censorship, on the German debate about Ralf König's comics, and on the British censorship regarding the homophobic Clause 28. Are erotic comics books a good parameter in order to compare different cultures with each other?

TP: Yes, I think they are. It certainly gives you a good idea of country's morale and social standpoints. If you look at the Latin-based language countries like France, Spain, and Italy, they are much more relaxed and open about this sort of material than puritanical UK and USA. The latter is still trying to suppress it or ignore it. If you look in the book for the material from Spain, you will see that there’s a huge amount of erotic comics appeared shortly after Franco died in the ’70s. They were incredibly explicit. You won't get that stuff in American, even nowadays.

CG: In an interview I talked to Max and he mentioned that he was so fed up with the Franco regime and his catholic upbringing. He used comics as a way to express his anger.

TP: That’s exactly what I was trying to say! When such cultural repressions cease to exist, people are finally free to express themselves, in a way quite similar to the 1960s underground comix in the US. There was that sudden sense of liberation. The technical abilities of the artists were not that great, almost like the Tijuana Bibles. The simple concept of a penis and a vagina coming together was almost enough. Nobody was interested in the aesthetics or how well it was drawn. But erotic comic draftsmanship has certainly improved drastically over the last 25 or 30 years. The quality of the storytelling and artwork is generally far higher nowadays.

CG: I would like to come back to something you said earlier about prudish comic book nations. Could you give us an example?

TP: In India, there are interesting online web-comics, which they call "Kirtu", which is Indian for erotic comics. Present day India—moralistically and socially—is very much like Victorian England. They’ve kept the strict English principles, which we have thrown out of the window and mixed that with a strong Hindu/Muslim moralistic ethos. To actually produce erotic comics in print form would be unthinkable in India. More than anything, pornography is technically illegal, although it is widely available: A lot of softcore, but very little hardcore. There is a healthy comics industry, but it’s primary target audience is a young readership, but country is on the tip of a cultural comics revolution, where they are starting to produce publications for an older readership.. There’s an online webcomic called Savita Bhabhi, about an archetypal frustrated housewife, who has these worldly sexcapades with various men. Because she is unhappily married, this is incredibly scandalous. That is a very revolutionary concept for a prudish country like India. A country where no woman would wear a bikini on the beach. Men and women swim fully clothed. It is quite bizarre, when you see it. And they stare at Westerners stripped down to their bikinis and swim-shorts. So Savita Bhabhi has caused huge scandal, and along with that, obviously, a huge readership. They got around sixteen million visitors a month. In 2009, the website was shut down by the Indian government, but they reopened another, shortly afterwards. It was originally started by a British Indian businessman—so it was actually produced in the UK, but aimed at the Indian market. That guy knew exactly what he was doing. Culturally, he wouldn’t have been able to do that if he was an Indian businessman in India. The shame would be too great.

CG: Let us jump over the ocean to another quite prudish comic country, America. In an interview, Milo Manara explained how he coped with the American prudishness and how he was still able to draw the X-Women in his own fashion. He just sketched the women naked and painted on the costumes afterwards, skintight. Is America a country that is hiding its sexuality out in the open with their spandex-costumed superheroes?

TP: Absolutely, when you start to look at it, every single aspect of superheroes is about sex. The idea to pretend it isn't, is just ridiculous. The whole concept of superheroes is adolescent power fantasies. What do adolescents think about 95% of the time if is not football or comics? It's sex. When you see how female superheroes are portrayed in American comics it is in this super-porn manner: Huge tits, bums, and long legs. They are all bending over, showing their cleavage. These are quite provocative sexual positions. And it is done primarily for a young male readership. I think it’s got worse in the last ten to twenty years. From the 1990s onwards, when Jim Lee's early X-Men came out. That was when the real cheesecake was taking off. As Manara says, they were all just painting on costumes. In fact, at this year’s Rio carnival there were a whole lot of women who were "dressed" as superheroes. There was a Wonder Woman in costume, but it was all just body paint! Look at characters like DC's Powergirl. She is fetishised because of the fact that she has enormous tits and that’s almost treated as her character trait! It’s the only thing anyone ever talks about!

The male superhero on the other hand has become this male idealised god. But they are not drawn as being sexualized. Imagine, if they were drawn by Tom of Finland: They would all be bending over all the time, showing their cute bubble butts, and huge bulges in the front of their costumes! But you never get that in superhero comics. When you look at all the things that William Moulton Marston had Wonder Woman do. It is just pure S&M bondage. People were just very naive and innocent back then and didn't get what he was doing. When you look back with a bit of hindsight now it is all about sexual control and tying people up. For example, we have Wonder Woman tying up a villainess saying "On Paradise Island, where we play many binding games, this is considered the safest method of tying a girl's arms." That’s something you’d expect to see in a fetish club! It’s an instructional guide to bondage in a superhero comic.

But sex and superheroes have always been intertwined. There’s Marshall Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill and The Boys Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Particularly The BoysHerogasm spin-off miniseries, where you have all these superheroes going off and having sex and mass orgies on a tropical island. It’s just the sort of thing you would suspect somebody with that much power would do. They can, and they do. Superheroes nowadays are less likely to play gods and are more likely to become part of the Babylonian Hollywood system, acting like self-indulgent celebrities of the Charlie-Sheen-cocaine-sniffing ilk. That's how superheroes are being portrayed these days. I would definitely say that Americans hide their sex out in the open. It seems to be okay, if you do a lot of cheesecake and soft porn as long as they are not having sex. But even that is changing now as well. In the Dark Knight Returns 2 Frank Miller had Superman and Wonder Woman actually rock the earth with their sexual antics, with the diabolically corny line, “Why Mr. Kent, you could populate a planet.” So even DC Comics have moved into the superhero sex area.

CG: I had a final question wrapping it up. You have been looking at a lot of erotic comics for your research. But what would you say is your favorite erotic comic?

TP: Probably my favorite artist is Giovanna Cassotto. Because a) she is a woman, so she has a much more intelligent approach to things b) she has a great sense of humor and c) she draws incredibly sexy women. That seems to cover all the bases. Because it’s no good just having a sexy picture of a woman unless there is a good storyline to it. I mean sex is quite a ridiculous thing in a lot of ways. It’s very important to retain a sense of humor about it all! And of course, Manara—I have been a fan of his work for years—along with Jess Fink (another female creator) and Franco Saudelli. Rather than one particular publication, I’d say these four artists cover what interests me the most in erotic comics.

CG: Thank you very much for your time, Tim.

TP: Thanks.

As a quick footnote. Since the ARTE documentary aired I noticed that Volume One of Erotic Comics shot to #721 in the charts (It has since dropped to #969) so thank you to Les Bon Clients for the sales boost, and all my German readers for picking up the book! Now go buy Volume 2 (which is languishing at #1,518)!

1 comment:

Arion said...

Tim, I love the interview. It's rare to see someone tackling on Erotic comics intelligently.

By the way, the other day I saw vols. 1 and 2 of Erotic Comics in a Peruvian book shop, not far from my house. That was quite bizarre since I had just visited your blog. Sadly, the books were quite overpriced.