Mar 212011

The promotional website for the book Permanent Obscurity has a brief history of fetish and bondage artist Eric Stanton and his business relationship with Irvine Klaw.

Biographical facts about his life are often contradictory and murky; and sometimes he would contribute to this misinformation personally. There’s even some question of his real name: was he born “Ernest Stanzoni” as claimed in the huge Eric Kroll coffee table book? Or is his birth name “Ernest Stanten,” as claimed by Belier publisher and personal friend and associate, J.B. Rund?

Most of what I know about the sexploitation era and the subgenre of what was then labeled “bizarre,” which today would be assigned fetish culture or kink, I’ve learned through tracking Stanton. He remains, in some strange way, a central figure for me (my own personal Dante) whose life intersected with other curious characters of the day, artists and business people, gangsters and hacks … shadowy and mythologized figures I’ve come to admire and who I never grow tired of hearing about: Irving Klaw, Bettie Page, Gene Bilbrew, Lenny Burtman, Eddie Mishkin, Stanley Malkin…. And then, of course, there’s Steve Ditko, Spider-Man co-creator and Stanton’s friend-as well as his studio mate of 10 years.

(ellipsis in original)

According to this, Stanton would self-publish and self-print his own works with his own photocopier. I’ve always been interesting in the means of production and distribution for works that had such a huge influence on the history of kink, and it seems fitting that so much of it was produced on a shoestring, in a confluence between people who were seeking a market niche and people who were seeking their kink.

PS: I’d be interested to know what Ditko, known for espousing a harsh Objectivist philosophy in his work, would have made of Stanton’s fetish art. Then again, there’s something a bit kinky in Ditko’s Objectivist characters. The Question wore a rubber mask that made him look like he had no facial features at all, just smooth skin. Mr. A, an even harsher character, wore a steel helmet that gave him unmoving, impassive features, as well as steel gloves that locked on. It struck me as fitting that a character so committed to an ideology would go to such extremes in concealing his own humanity and in not having to touch the messy, complicated human world. (Both characters were the inspiration for Rorshach in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.)

Nov 202010

Pleasure Dome, by Megumu Minami, is a collection of 5 yaoi manga stories. There is a lot of non-consent, bondage and “ravishment” in these stories, plus an absinthe enema. There’s also a strong theme of role reversal, switching back and forth between who is on top and who is one the bottom.

Of the five stories in this collection, two use real-world historical conflicts as settings.

“Desire on Fire” is set during the British colonization of India. A British officer attempts conquer an Indian prince, but ends up captured instead. Ultimately, the prince, torn between his duty to his people and his love for the officer, exiles himself and chains himself to a rock, waiting to die, where the officer finds him, out for vengeance.

In the afterward, the author says this is very loosely based on the Buddhist story of Angulimala, a bandit who reformed under the influence of Buddha.

The Japanese are not strict and devout Buddhists, but there is something very dramatic and attractive about various characters that appear in Buddhism. I’m sure Christians feel something similar when they hear about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the Crucifixion, and other biblical stories.

To other people around me, I may have looked like a very devout Buddhist that was touched by the religious significance of the location. However, I must confess. When I closed my eyes, I was thinking more of the bare feet of Angulimala dashing about.

I wonder if I’ll ever be punished for my blasphemy.

The second story, “Hell for a Fallen Angel”, refers to the persecution of Catholics in feudal Japan. The male owner of a brothel is tasked to torment a male Christian and get him to give up his faith.

Christianity has a definite foreign feeling. Some of the words uttered by Japanese Christians back in the day like “Biruzen Santa Maria”, “Rusanchiman” and others end me into a dreamy state.

Of the remaining three stories, one is set in Medieval Europe and loosely adapts “The Song of Roland”, while the other two are set in Europe in some Edwardian or late Victorian period. The settings seem to be mainly there for variation in costume and character design.

So, we have various historical settings and religious myth used as backdrops for male-male erotica. From a Japanese perspective, none of these are set in the here and now, and arguably their settings are fair game for use as background.

I’m not sure an Indian person or a devout Buddhist would be too pleased with “Desire on Fire,” but I think this is an example of using real world settings, even controversial ones, as inspirations for sexual fantasy. It is not only the West using the East for its own imaginative purposes; Japanese may indulge their own “Occidentalism” by reading these stories. The author herself (?) seems only slightly concerned about the shift between the reality of atrocity and the fantasy of sadomasochistic, homoerotic romance.

At a certain remove in time and space, atrocity and injustice become fantasy material.

Jul 092010

Alan Moore’s 25,000 years of Erotic Freedom is a long essay that lays out Moore’s theory that pornography should be integrated into society. It’s only relatively recently that any shame attached to erotic depiction. Before then, there was a beautiful tradition of erotic high art, which Moore says goes back to the Venus of Willendorf.

The problem started with Christianity, or rather the ascetic Christianity of the late Roman empire. It wasn’t decadence that did in the Romans, but becoming a Christian, and therefore an-erotic and xenophobic, society. There were brief flowerings in the Rennaissance and the Englightenment, but thing really went wrong with the Victorians. (This is a pre-Foucault view of the repressive hypothesis.)

Implicitly, it was acceptable to enjoy sexual imagery as long as you accepted also that such acts were sinful and felt suitably ashamed and guilty if you were in any way aroused by their depiction. This established the immediate link between the perusal of pornography and intense self-loathing or embarrassment, which still exists today throughout most of the Western world.

Pg 16

For the purposes of this discussion, there’s the problem of where does BDSM porn, and BDSM in general, fall into Moore’s schema? Is it an expression of the humanizing erotic impulse, or of the corrupting influence of violence and shame?

Even in the golden age of written and graphic pornography, with works like Fanny Hill or Gerda Wegener’s illustrations or Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings or the like, BDSM acts are frequently in there somewhere, especially flagellation, but also a well-turned high-heeled boot or shoe or the like.

In those [Victorian] times, long before the advent of the adult video outlet, city businessmen returning homeward for a wekened with their spouse or partner would call in at some backstreet establishment and pick up a gaslight equivalent: just as theater predates cinema, so too did fully scored dramatic home pornography precede the skin-flick. Pornographic playlets could be purchased, ranging from two-person dramas through to full ensemble pieces if the neighbors were agreeable. These publications came with sheet music, so that if one of the participants were musically inclined then he or she could sit at the piano and provide a vigorous accompaniment to whatever activity was taking place upon the hearth rug or the horsehair sofa. (Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but was told that by Malcolm McLaren, and if you can’t rust Malcolm McLaren then whom can you trust?)

Pg. 18

This isn’t really a historical book or even an essay. It’s more like have a pub conversation with Moore where he’s spinning out some off-the-cuff theories. You don’t bring a bibliography to a pub conversation.

Just to recap, then: Sexually progressive cultures gave us mathematics, literature, philosophy, civilization, and the rest, while sexually restrictive cultures gave us the Dark Ages and the Holocaust. Not that I’m trying to load my argument, of course.

Pg. 39

As a general rule, I think this holds up: the better the status of women in a society, the less restriction there is on sexual expression. But I wouldn’t stake my reputation on that. I’d like to see some kind of study comparing the two factors: an index of pay equity, reproductive rights, etc, versus restrictions on depictions of sexuality, sex work laws, etc. But it would involve so many subjective issues that I don’t think it would be a solid piece of research.

So, what is the relationship between a society’s sexual expressiveness and its progressiveness on a social scale?

I think that this is a much thornier and complex issue than some people would like to make it. Anti-porn feminism wanted to create the equation of “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.” Sex-positive types say there’s no connection at all, that pornography actually functions as a release valve for desires that would otherwise fester into violence.

It’s said that liberal democracies are good for market economies, but market economies aren’t necessarily good for liberal democracies. I see this as analogy to the relationship between sexual expression and progressiveness.

I tend to agree with Moore’s hypothesis, and there’s a bit of a manifesto that I can get behind: that there should be ambition on the part of porn’s creators, and porn should not be consumed in shameful secrecy. These are the ideas that informed Moore’s Lost Girls trilogy, which aimed to be part of an art-porn historical tradition, to be a coffee-table-book display artifact, to invest literary and artistic skill into porn and stimulate discussion.

Still, as I historian I want a more rigorous study of the history of porn, and one that’s more nuanced too.

May 282010

Prism Comics, about LBGT issues in comics, has a great post on the impact of Apple’s content policies on comics in general and specifically LBGT themed comics. Even fairly mild stuff

“My problem with Apple banning [Jesus Hates Zombies] is simply this,” says Lindsay. “They allow the Marvel book Kick-Ass. How in God’s name is my book worse than Kick-Ass when it comes to content? The simple answer, it’s not. But because Kick-Ass is a Marvel book, it gets a pass.”

The experience of smaller publishers producing books with LGBT characters and situations also seems hard to reconcile with Murphey’s assessment of Apple’s guidelines.

Tom Bouden’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected as an iPad app for the App Store, again due to “materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” A handful of sexually suggestive images depicting men, some extremely mild, were specifically flagged as problematic in the 80-page graphic novel.

A few lessons from this situation:

1. Media and standards and platform, and especially who controls them, matter to content. Censorship (public- or private-sector) is often not so much about controlling content but about controlling the medium itself. When new forms of media appear, which put words and images in new places, censorship kicks into high gear. Walled-garden content systems like the iPhone/iPod/iPad or the Amazon Kindle are a reaction to the wide-open Internet, reassuring big media companies that they will retain control.

2. If you’re a big, established company, like Playboy or Sports Illustrated or Mavel comics, the standards for judging your content is different if you’re somebody publishing an indie comic off your laptop. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition will net more revenue to Apple than some little swimsuit company’s illustrated catalog app. Money talks, “community standards” walks.

3. People will find a way. Even if your LBGT indie comic doesn’t get into the iVerse, it can still get into the iPhone via the Amazon Kindle app. The question, however, is how level will the playing field be. Amazon takes a 70% cut, while Apple takes a comparatively mild 30%.

4. It’s still censorship when non-government parties do it, and even worse in a way because there is no system of appeal or open standards. Apple and Amazon, being corporate entities, can do it purely by fiat.

5. That the violence of eroticized-yet-plausibly-deniable violence of Kick-Ass gets a pass and two men making out doesn’t speaks volumes about our culture’s twisted view of sex and violence.

6. Watch out for chilling effects and pre-emptive self-censorship.

I’ve often imagined an alternate history of American comics in which the Comics Code Authority of 1954 never happened, and the medium matured, gaining respect and credibility until it equaled film or television. It surely isn’t coincidence that the most heavily censored medium is also the one that struggled longest for critical respect.

Apr 162010


…the love of violence is really the main emotion that Kick-Ass expresses. Both inflicting violence, and receiving it. When Big Daddy points out that Kick-Ass’ superpower is getting his ass kicked, you can’t help accepting that it’s true. But the movie winks at us, through an eye that’s already swollen almost shut, and says, you know, that’s not a bad superpower at all. The broken, battered young body of Dave Lizewski is the most pornographic thing in the movie, and his contusions are badges of honor.

Superheroes don’t give us much in the way of lessons about morality, or science, or whatever — they give us a context in which violence makes sense. Much like gangsters, who are the other type of non-regular people we meet in this film. You could just as easily beat people up without wearing a funny costume or being a gangster, but then it would just be senseless assault. The superhero genre legitimizes our love of brutality. And our masochism, as I may have mentioned.

You can’t really love superheroes without being a painslut, Kick-Ass says. You can’t embrace all of the illogic and pointlessness and nastiness of men and women and children thwacking each other in shiny outfits, unless you’re addicted to hurt.

I think BDSM, like superhero stories, does depend on stepping into a sort of “magic circle”, a realm in which normal rules of society don’t apply, and the action is driven by less rational impulses. The problems come when the boundaries of the magic circle gets blurry.

Kick-Ass, incidentally, does have a power of a sort. Nerve damage from previous injuries reduces his ability to feel pain. This sets up an interesting question: wouldn’t a masochist NOT want to reduce the ability to feel pain? Or is just an excuse/reason to seek out even more extreme experiences?

Mar 062010

According to Slate, NBM’s Eurotica line just re-released Guido Crepax’s graphic novel adaptation of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O.

The article gives a quick overview of the books semi-mythological history, and looks at it from a feminist point of view, as an expression of woman’s need for passion and transcendance; in effect, vindicating masochism as a spiritual or mystical experience.

In describing the place where violence and tenderness, pleasure and pain, love and brutality all meet, she’s not describing an eccentric fetish culture, but a universal desire.

I’m slightly annoyed that in praising O, the author is taking it away from the people who loved it first and best. I believe that kinky people are not just an “eccentric fetish culture”, but a distilled form of some of the strongest themes and traditions in Western civilization.

The article insists that “…there’s something more than pornography going on here…” I say that is a false dichotomy. The Story of O is Art and Porn, and proof that those categories are not mutually exclusive.

Jul 192009

EMPOWERED 5 duct tapery japery by *AdamWarren on deviantART

Comics artist and writer Adam Warren on “Empowered“, his “sexy, superhero comedy” (except when it isn’t). Empowered is a chronically unlucky rookie superheroine who loses all her powers whenever her skin-tight, black suit is ripped even slightly. Because of the “unwritten rules” nearly all superheroes and villains subscribe to, she won’t be killed or seriously hurt, but she does end up tied up, or strapped down, or gagged, or chloroformed, or glued to something, etc. Often a little spanking too.

Continue reading »

Jul 192009

EMPOWERED 5 duct tapery japery by *AdamWarren on deviantART

Comics artist and writer Adam Warren on “Empowered“, his “sexy, superhero comedy”, (except when it isn’t). Empowered is a chronically unlucky rookie superheroine who loses all her powers whenever her skin-tight, black suit is ripped even slightly. Because of the “unwritten rules” nearly all superheroes and villains subscribe to, she won’t be killed or seriously hurt, but she does end up tied up, or strapped down, or gagged, or chloroformed, or glued to something, etc. Often a little spanking too.
Continue reading »

Jul 122009

One of my two favorite comics writers, Grant Morrison on the idea of making DC Comics’ Wonder Woman as big a deal as she ought to be. From

So, Wonder Woman is a character where you imagine this very strange mélange of girl power, bondage, and a slightly disturbed sexuality. There is this bondage element; these extremely weird dark elements of Wonder Woman haven’t been adequately dealt with. Wonder Woman remains a really bizarre, untouchable character. She should represent women in the same way Superman represents men.

To make it work, to give [Wonder Woman] a sexuality that isn’t exploitive, because that’s too easy; but also to give her a [narrative] power.

William Moulton Marston, the character’s creator, was an odd combination of utopian feminist idealism and fetishistic sexuality. It’s important to remember that the character was never purely anything. From the beginning Wonder Woman was (always, already) schizoid, multi-valent: one part patriotic symbol, one part feminist ideal, one part lesbian icon, one part dominatrix, one part sex toy, and probably a few other parts beyond that. It’s hard to make a character with so many diverse elements work, though when it does it can be very satisfying. (Xena: Warrior Princess had a similar mosaic of progressive messages, comedy, kung fu, sword and sorcery, cheesecake/beefcake and lesbian subtext.)

From a writer’s perspective, there’s an additional problem in introducing the character to a larger audience. The other well-known superheroes start out as people in a world that resembles our own. Superman was a mid-western farm kid, Batman was a East Coast old money scion, Spider-man was a working-class nerd. When writing the character, you can start with a person who has grown up in an environment the viewer can relate to, and then add the fantastic elements. Wonder Woman, however, comes from a fantastic island of Amazon women, and in some versions of her origin she was made out of clay and given life. She doesn’t come to our world until she is an adult.

I think it could be done. “Hellboy” for example, features a hero who can’t pass for human, and his challenge is to retain his loyalty to humanity. The story introduces him to the view through the eyes of a more relatable human character.