(maybe pt. only; decent soundtrack)
Thickness #1, by Katie Skelly, Jonny Negron, Zejian Shen, Derek Ballard, & True Chubbo. Self-published, git it here.
There's no particular reason why right now should be the moment when comics' cool kids really tear into doing sex stories. If I had to hazard a guess as to the source of what I'm hoping will turn into a much bigger wave than it is now, I'd go with the fact that there's a new generation of comics talent coalescing as we speak (maybe call it post-Kramers Ergot), and after the last group of wild-eyed youngsters rendered genre comics as a new fuel for the avant garde, what's the chronic youth of today -- kids who didn't grow up with the image of comics as a sex-phobic, self-loathing place -- to do but wick off the clothes? Reasoning aside, however, it should have happened forever ago. Of all storytelling's genres, porn is one of the few that simply isn't available to the mainstream, that falls solely to the underground to deliver. Making erotic art puts you underground: I'm sure Vertigo or Pantheon would have loved to publish Dave McKean's 35 dollar Serious Graphic Novel, but stories about fucking are too hot for anybody but Fantagraphics to handle, apparently.
More than that, it's one of the places of greatest unexplored potential for comics. Fight scenes have powered the medium's most commercially successful sector for a solid eighty years at this point, but how many of the great American cartoonists have put much of anything into investigating the other kind of physical-first, rhetorical-second human interaction? Sex has certainly produced no end of great comics in Europe. And just think of how ridiculously baroque the accumulated decades of action storytelling knowledge have made the best fight scenes we see today! Frank Quitely on We3, anyone? So many years of the best artists comics had to offer drawing fights has expanded the form's capacity for expression, forced cartoonists time and again to find their own idiosyncratic answers to the problems of speed, impact, pain. Which is wonderful -- but all those things are so hard. Where is the comics grammar for softness, transcendence, pleasure, going to come from, if not the investigation that's just now getting underway?
So if you ain't heard yet, check it out: sex comics are the big cool thing on the cutting edge this summer. There's this, there's this, there's this, there's this, there's um, me... and then, finally, there's the comic we have at hand. Thickness (edited by Michael DeForge and Ryan Sands, so it knows what it's doing) is an anthology that bends the hi-fi inclinations of small press art-comix to the lo-fi. Beautifully printed in four separate colors, it pops off the paper it's printed on while leaving plenty of risograph noise behind. An indelible cover image can't quite keep the edges of interior pages from sandwiching out into view. The ink on its pages rubs off onto your fingers as you read, a true physical substance that spreads itself all over you. Purple fingerprints on the white keyboard as I'm typing this. Like the body of an anorexic supermodel, Thickness manages decadence and refinement while just barely hanging together.
It's a remarkably solid anthology, each of its four main stories delivering something completely unique while sharing a certain spirit with the rest of the work, featuring a few obvious highlights but no letdowns. Of all the stories, Katie Skelly and Zejian Shen's look the least similar and share the most in common content-wise. Both sketch out loosely sequenced, surrealistic lesbian encounters on deserted beaches, and both bend their action to incorporate truly bizarre physical irregularities. Skelly's story nods at a porn-manga convention with a bit of tentacle sex, while Shen veers right up to the boundary of the grotesque, focusing her short's action on a pair of sentient clitorises. Neither story is particularly hardcore in what it portrays: the eroticism here comes from the mining of visual art's potential to play fast and loose with the restrictions of human anatomy. Shen's short finds as much to personify in pleasure organs as the human figure, then anthropomorphizes a pair of oysters to put a metaphorical, surprisingly heartwrenching capper on the narrative. The actual sex scene is made up of one long, focused zoom in, a discarding of everything but the direct source of sensation. Not a bad way to portray cresting pleasure with a sequence of panels.
Just as action comics bedeck their human avatars with layer upon layer of imaginary muscle, Skelly gives her lithe, fluidly cartooned women high heel-shaped feet and vestigial bunny ears, creating fantasies that require no assembly and add an extra sheen of simplified grace to her lush, thick-lined panels. There's as much sensuality to Skelly's dense junglescapes and seaweed forests as her figures. The lines of flowers in bloom meet flowing hair, vines twine around legs and waists, and characters fade as environment comes to the fore, every line in every panel demanding attention, communicating something quite lovely no matter what part of what object it's depicting.
Derek Ballard's futuristic freakout "Trap Shadez" discards the natural environment for an artificial, supermodern one. There's a high sense of uncertainty about the strip's pages: Ballard's op-art, post-Steranko sequencing and elliptical plotting are part of it, and so is his distorted, gesture-heavy, near-cubist figure drawing, which shimmers with a strange elegance almost reminiscent of the best idealized superhero comics artwork. Mainly, though, the same eroticism that Skelly allows to define her story's setting is allowed to operate here, albeit in a completely different arena. It's not quite clear whether "Trap Shadez" takes place in a physical environment at all, or whether it's a visualized reading of online interactions: floppy discs are passed from hand to orifice, beams of pure energy project from futuristic machinery, and the dialogue is taken up completely with non-sequitur tech jargon. It feels like the internet landscape reinterpreted as a physical fantasyland, one where altered states of consciousness are a way of life, sequential order is largely replaced by semi-continuous window switching, and sexual encounters end with being penetrated by the horn of a midget unicorn. Ballard's strip is the least explicitly sexual of the bunch, but it displays an uncanny understanding of the intersections between the unknown and the erotic. It'll probably be incredibly arousing for your grandchildren when they see it.
While Ballard points off toward a bold new socio-sexual future Jonny Negron is working a little closer to home, on what certainly looks like a prime candidate for the future of pop comics. Negron's "Grandaddy Purple, Erotic Gameshow" is by far the longest strip in the book, basically a single issue unto itself at 21 pages, and it's the uncontested highlight. Negron's art is an absolute revelation: his author bio bills him as "the lovechild of Yuichi Yokoyama and R. Crumb", and to be sure, there's a heaping helping of big-legged women and dudes with geometric shapes for heads on his pages. But that simple one-plus-one statement of influence leaves out the lessons learned from CF's bold design and willingness to exaggerate forms to their breaking point, the sublimely assured, pyrotechnic Paul Gulacy-by-way-of-Benjamin Marra approach to layout and sequencing, the slick Otomo action scenes, the drawing mannerisms that read like a smooth blend of every pop anime show broadcast on network TV during the 1990s. It's completely unlike anything else out there at the moment, a fusion of component parts so powerful that it's surprising nobody's attempted something similar before, but so advanced and novel that one wonders if a million lesser cartoonists haven't simply made failed attempts.
The other available Negron comic, a rawdog adventure rager called Demon God Goblin Heaven, is full of blindingly bright bits of inspiration obscured beneath a slight haze of newcomer's uncertainty. Here that brilliance is at the fore, blazing away with an astonishing degree of surety. Negron is a stylist -- and what a style it is -- but what's most striking about his work is his mastery over the style, how it never obscures or obstructs of what's going on in the panels. There are chops in this comic that take plenty of artists entire careers to accumulate. As for the content, well, there's nothing I know of that quite compares. "Grandaddy Purple" takes the commonality between sex comics and fighting comics as a given, elevating spills of fluid both sanguinary and seminal to a neon-lit level of majestic sleaze that seems to demand every last grain of risograph grit blanketing it. It's quite simple at the core, a simple tracking of a spidery-skinny, mask-and-Run-DMC-chained ninja type's movements through a packed, stomach-churningly sexy pleasure palace. Exploding into life with an action scene so hot you'll swear you can feel the comic's hands on your lapels, it slinks into a sex scene that carries the rising intensity of the most unhinged noise comics through setpiece after perfectly blocked setpiece of figure interaction. Negron's layouts are especially fierce: Crepax's panel subdivision is alluded to, but packed into solidly rhythmic symmetrical grids, a savage beat pounded into even the most unhinged moments of physical transport.
It's porn in which artistic virtuosity isn't just matched by the level of explicitness, but caused by it: hardcore in every sense of the word, with a ridiculously over the top snap ending that's both earned and elevating. The closest comparison I can make to the meeting of wild transgression and monumental craft in "Grandaddy Purple" is last year's similarly raw Rafael Grampa story "Dear Logan", which brought the sadomasochistic overtones of the Wolverine character into the light; but where that story ended, this one begins, exploring sharp, red, beautiful places nothing but porn really can. Without a doubt, it's the short comic to beat in 2011.
And honestly, Thickness just might be the anthology to beat as well. It's fresh and new and full of fascinating work from a bevy of serious talent -- the Family Sohn contributes a laffer of a one-page gag strip on the back cover just to end things with an exclamation point -- about as much as you can ask from a collection of comics. But what's equally attractive about the debut issue of this series (issue 2 this fall!) is how much it feels like the beginning of something that could spread far beyond this one book into a real movement for art-comix in the 2010s. The 48 pages between these covers stake out so much unfamiliar territory that it's hard to imagine people won't be hungry for more, and it's about time. The work is great, but the best thing about Thickness is just how exciting it can be.
Not like that, you perv.