Interview: Tim Pilcher Talks Erotica, Part 1
Tim Pilcher has made a fine career for himself writing and editing in the pop culture world. His most recent project is the second volume in his heavily-illustrated survey of Erotic Comics, coming to the UK in January and America in March. We decided to find out how one covers the subject without getting arrested or losing interest in sex. Speaking of which, given the subject matter, we advise you that the art does the subject justice.
ComicMix: Hey Tim, nice to speak with you again. A So tell me, what qualifies you to write about sex?
Tim Pilcher: Well I’m not a virgin! I can prove it, I’ve got kids!
CMix: Seriously, what prompted the two volume critical look at the subject?
TP: It was a series of disparate events over many years. I remember Melinda Gebbie showing me the original artwork for the first few pages of Lost Girls, when I worked in a comic shop (Comic Showcase in London), back around 1990, and being impressed. Then some friends bought me a copy of L’Enfer des Bulles by Jacques Sadoul, which basically highlighted “saucy moments” in regular and erotic comics. I also read Maurice Horn’s Sex in The Comics, which came out in 1985 and it suddenly dawned on me that no one had done a critical, comprehensive, English language, study on the history of erotic comics for over 20 years! I thought that was bizarre, particularly as Eros Comix, and the erotic comic explosion of the late 80s/early 90s happened just after Horn’s book came out, so there was a huge amount of material that hadn’t been explored, such as Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss. I think the final part of the jigsaw was reading an article by Alan Moore in Arthur magazine about the history of pornography ("Bog Venus Versus Nazi Cock-Ring: Some Thoughts Concerning Pornography", Vol 1, No 25, November 2006) and that got me thinking about how sex had been portrayed in comics. So Alan and Melinda were the real catalyst for the whole project, and that made getting Alan to write the foreword for volume 2 a really significant honor for me.
CMix: How was volume one received?
TP: The initial reaction has been great. There were a few dissenting voices complaining that I hadn’t covered the obvious people like Milo Manara and Japanese hentai, but the whole project was always conceived as two volumes so I wasn’t worried about that, as I knew they would appear in book 2. To be honest I was a little nervous that I was going to be labeled as some sort of lone freaky pervert, but actually it’s been really interesting to see how many professionals and fans have been supportive, and said that they’ve really enjoyed the book. Volume 1 has already reprinted in the UK — after a few weeks — and it is about to be published in French by Tabou Editions, which for me is a great accolade, as they publish one of my favorite erotic comic artists, Franco Saudelli.
CMix: What do you think about Australia having a fit over volume one?
TP: I was really surprised, actually. I had always thought that Australia was very liberal and progressive, but it turns out I was completely wrong! Apparently From Hell was also banned from entering the country. If I’d know that before, I would have know that Erotic Comics didn’t stand a chance! I was talking to Hayley Campbell (Eddie’s daughter) and she told me that Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is still banned in the state where she worked in a bookshop. She had to secretly sell it under the counter! So, with hindsight it’s perhaps less surprising and more depressing, as this becomes increasingly the norm. “Nanny states” telling their populations what they can, and can’t read or create. Actually that’s a central theme of Volume 2 — the censorship of erotic comics — which, by the way, will definitely get stopped by customs. If it doesn’t, I haven’t done my job properly!
CMix: The underground movement certainly changed the field here and in England. Did that have an effect on mainstream comics?
TP: I think overall it was a chance for creators to throw off the shackles of the Comics Code Authority and to truly express themselves. A lot of the underground creators grew up reading edgy EC and pre-code comics and they were turned off by the neutered “mainstream” superhero fare of the 60s and 70s. By no longer needing the CCA approval they were free to do what they want. I think their counter reaction was to prove the specific point about shaking up the status quo, and that’s why much of the stuff is so extreme. The key effect on the mainstream was to show the industry that society had actually outgrown the social morals of the CCA, which belonged very much in the staid fifties, not the “progressive” seventies.
CMix: As the Comics Code loosened its restrictions around 1971, sexuality increased in DC and Marvel titles but it never really got erotic, did it?
TP: No, not then. Stan Lee tried to have a go at publishing underground commix, by hiring Denis Kitchen in 1974 to set up the magazine, Comix Book, but it didn’t really work and Marvel and DC never really “embraced” erotica until around 1993 when Karen [Berger] launched Vertigo. She knew what she was doing; aiming comics at a “Mature Readers” – that term has always made me laugh! Two of the first books I worked on back then (as an assistant editor at Vertigo), Enigma and The Extremist, both dealt with issues of sexuality, but never in a gratuitous way. Interestingly both were written by one of the most underrated comic writers in the biz, Peter Milligan. Both projects were creator-owned and I doubt we’ll be seeing anything as graphic or erotic from DCU! Marvel followed suit with the MAX series, but they just tried to throw in extra sex and violence (mostly the latter) with their existing characters. Nick Fury was seen as a misogynistic and prodigious cock-smith, but it was very much lowest common denominator stuff. Locker room humor.
CMix: The same with the Warren magazines. Jim would let the artists show bare butts but never over frontal nudity, right?
TP: Yeah, I don’t really cover those in-depth, purely for lack of space and that they weren’t that relevant. Obviously Frazetta was doing some “nudie cutie” stuff and pin-ups, but I think it was more the Heavy Metal period that helped the explosion of erotic fantasy art in the US. That started reprinting the racier European material and the great Richard Corben, who was in Warren, but didn’t cut lose as much as he did in the undergrounds and in Heavy Metal.
CMix: Star*Reach, their self-proclaimed ground level titles seemed to bridge the gap between the sex in Underground comix and the T&A at DC and Marvel. Was it an important evolutionary step?
TP: I’ll have to confess I don’t cover Mike Friedrich at all in the book, again, simply out of space! While Star*Reach is definitely an important title in the history of underground and independent publishing, it’s primary focus was fantasy and sci-fi rather than erotica.
CMix: So, tell us about researching erotic comics, I gather you had some interesting experiences.
TP: The greatest thing was how enthusiastic and helpful everyone has been, from artists, publishers and creators, it really has been extraordinary. The best moment was visiting J.B. Rund in New York. Rund has published loads of John Willie and Eric Stanton art — the kings of Fifties Bondage art — and now has the largest collection of John Willie original art. I spent a sweltering July afternoon pouring over these exquisite pages of Sweet Gwendoline, which was a honor and a privilege. Willie was and expert draughtsman and to see his brush strokes up close only increased my admiration for his art. J.B. knew Eric Stanton personally and had loads of wonderful anecdotes (many of which we didn’t have space to fit in).
It’s also been a pleasure to get in touch with Fredric Mullally, the creator and writer of the legendary Oh, Wicked Wanda strip that was drawn by Ron Embleton and appeared in Penthouse. Mullally’s now 83 and as feisty as ever! Personally I think Wicked Wanda is equally, if not more, important as Kurtzman and Elder’s Little Annie Fanny. Certainly Ron’s art was of the highest caliber.
I also met the gentlemanly Doug Sneyd, the Playboy cartoonist, at San Diego in 2007, along with the gorgeous Olivia de Berardinis and many other great artists.
Of course there have been some sad moments as well, with Will Elder and Dave Stevens — who both appear in the books — dying while the books were being put together. What’s tragic is that many of the great erotic artists are really only getting the respect and recognition they deserve after their death. Guys like Bill Ward, Jack Cole, and the like, are well known to comic readers, but the greater public is now really starting to take notice to these fantastic talents.
CMix: What surprised you the most?
TP: That how many artists have drawn professional erotic comics. In fact, when I started I was worried I’d have enough material for one book, let alone two. But as it turns out I had too much material and had to cut out some great artists, which is unfortunate. When you look at all the big mainstream artists who’d drawn for Penthouse Comix like Adam Hughes, Kevin Nowlan, Mark Texeira and Garry Leach (who drew the cover for Erotic Comics Vol. 1) it’s more common than not. Even guys like Joe Shuster have drawn S&M comics in the past! Superman’s co-creator drawing erotica! No one is untainted! ;-)
Tomorrow: Tim talks about the state of the field and gives us some recommended reading.