Review: ‘Erotic Comics’ by Tim Pilcher
Erotic Comics: A Graphic History from Tijuana Bibles to Underground Comics
By Tim Pilcher with Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Abrams, March 2008, $29.95
We’ve reached an interesting point in modern culture, when even something as disposable and downmarket as sexy comic books can be the subject of a classy art book from a major publisher. Abrams is about as respectable an art-book publisher as you could find; they’re the official book imprint of both the Whitney and Guggenheim museums. And they’re also the publisher of [[[Erotic Comics]]], a well-crafted and thoroughly conventional art book with lots of pictures of comics panels featuring people at least half-naked – if not actively engaged in various lascivious acts.
Erotic Comics is, except for the smutty pictures, an absolutely standard coffee-table book – printed at a large but comfortable size, not too expensive, with several color reproductions on each spread, occasional background images as well, helpful, detailed captions, and a body text that’s thin beer but perfectly acceptable. It makes no sweeping claims for the field of erotic comics, and is content mostly to show some pictures and retell the same old stories about the men who drew them.
It’s divided into five sections:
• Turn of the Century Titillation covers, very briefly and superficially, all erotic art from the ancient Greeks up to WW II America, including a few pages shoehorned in on Tijuana Bibles
• Playboys Hustling in the Penthouse, the longest section, looks at the world of men’s magazines, starting with Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang and running through the pin-up era to a main emphasis on the major magazines hinted at in the title
• Bondage Babes starts with Irving Klaw (whose materials were mostly photographic, not drawn) and works its way – painfully, with much wailing and cracking of whips – forward to the modern day
• Under-the-Counter and Underground runs through the usual suspects (R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Bizarre Sex) in record time
• And Abandonment Abroad, which takes twenty pages to run quickly through sexy comics everywhere else in the world, which here means only Europe. (Japan is ignored entirely, though several major European artists, such as Guido Crepax, were profiled earlier in the bondage section.)
Erotic Comics is inevitably superficial, flitting from subject to subject without a central narrative. Each two- or four-page section is about one particular artist (or magazine, or other topic of interest), and covers it briefly before moving on to the next. That’s pretty common for a coffee-table book, but sex comics are such a rich field, with so many oddball characters and great stories, that Pilcher’s rat-a-tat matter-of-fact presentation becomes disappointing. (Of course, that’s assuming that anyone is actually reading the text, and I wouldn’t bet any large sum of money on that.)
Each section also runs mostly chronologically, but does skip about a bit in time. And the choice of what to put in each section – Why are Tijuana Bibles in “Turn of the Century,” not “Under-the-Counter?” Why are several major European artists in “Bondage” rather than “Abroad?” – appears to be random at times.
Still, Erotic Comics sets itself to cover a very large field – comic strips, illustrations, gag cartoons and comic books from the last century-plus that aimed to titillate – and accomplishes what it set out to do. The coverage of any particular area may be superficial, but that was inevitable in a book like this. (The only glaring lack is the failure to even mention that Japan has a comics industry which has been known to create erotic work on occasion.)
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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