Erotic Art has a Homo History

by D. Michael Taylor

NoiZe Magazine

Friday August 14, 2009

It must be immensely satisfying to be able to bring your deepest fantasies to life via erotic illustration. Feeling lonely? Not in the mood to go out and score? Just sit at your desk and conjure up any vision of male perfection that suits your individual needs. It's hard work, of course, but worth the effort. After all, it only takes one hand to draw something, right? But what drives these artists? What are their secret identities?

The online boom for hero-worshipping artists such as Joe Phillips or noiZe contributor Iceman Blue has made this particular breed of comic artist wildly popular. Iceman Blue has been making a living off of his website since 2006, yet still thinks of his current career as "a hobby that's paying my bills." But don't let his modesty fool you. His erotic illustrations-especially his particular brand of superheroes-have become an online phenomenon, and pay the bills quite nicely. He also escapes the boundaries of the everyday gay world, which is why he translates well into the fantasies of specialized Japanese male erotica, or "yaoi."

Ask any contemporary gay erotic artist where they got their start, and many, if not most, will tell you that it was the mainstream comic book world. Turns out all of those barely-concealed homo subplots in your favorite comics were no accident! Joe Phillips worked for DC Comics and "every comic and comic book company out there" for fifteen years. Iceman got his start as an intern at a comic book company called Top Cow Productions. Even Josman, an artist who focuses almost exclusively on edgy incestual relationships, wanted to work for DC or Marvel as a child and works in the familiar comic-strip style.

Many of your favorite gay comic book artists may never have come out of the closet artistically, so to speak, but they were still out there: filling your young mind with visions of muscle packed into spandex and older rich gentlemen who fought crime by your side. The Comics Code Authority forbade any explicit mention of homosexuality in the comics they controlled until 1989, but that just forced our dashing homo heroes to find more creative ways to reveal themselves.

Most famously, Batman epitomized the sublimated gay comic theme by introducing Robin the Boy Wonder in the '50s as Bruce Wayne's young "ward." Robin not only lived with Bruce, but slept in the same bed with him. Once that image was introduced, almost any crime-fighting words put in their mouths became loaded with sexual innuendo. So much so that the series was attacked by psychologist Fredric Wertham as having an "atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures."

In 1954, that was more commonly seen as a bad thing for kids to obsess over. (The inherent camp in the Batman comics was brought front and center in the '60s TV show.) The industry seemed to learn its lesson; the tricks of the trade got more subtle for a while before actual gay characters were finally introduced in the '90s. Sometimes the writers and illustrators employed irony. Check out the rampant use of changeling storylines in the comic world that made gay sex more of a transsexual phenomenon-something the industry was oddly more comfortable with than outright homosexuality.

Tom of Finland

A notable exception to the "comic book" rule is Tom of Finland. His work remains the most iconic gay art ever produced. He helped transform the idea of the homosexual man for an entire generation. Seen as prancing, catty and foppish historically, gay men were not viewed as objects of overt masculinity. By the 1970s, that image had been replaced by the cruisy porn icon of the "clone" swaggering across the docks with absurdly tight jeans and a handlebar mustache.

Young Touko Laaksonen was born in Kaarina, Finland, in 1920. He spent much of his youth obsessing over the sweaty laborers of his homeland. He was soon conscripted into the army to fight in the Second World War, where encounters with hardened fighters sealed the archetype deep into his psyche. After the war, he worked in the advertising industry as a graphic artist, but the stage was set for his impactful career. Working under the pseudonym "Tom" while submitting erotic work to magazines in the ’50s, by the ’70s he was exhibiting his work as Tom of Finland and quit his day job to focus solely on his now famous illustrations.

Bold with almost absurd dimensions, his men nevertheless don’t venture far into comic strip territory. This was a new breed of anti-hero. Combining sexual fantasy with a kind of hyperrealism that stretched the limits of the possible almost to the breaking point, he resonated deeply with an emerging generation of gay men searching for a new homosexual ideal. His work suited the dark, bacchanalian mood of the era perfectly.

Sexual Politics in Japan

In the (arguably) more sexually repressed society of Japan, gay sex rears its head quite prominently through several genres of man-on-man action. The most interesting is called "yaoi." The word is an acronym that means "no climax, no point, no meaning," which was a dig at a less explicit version of the genre. The surprise with yaoi is that it is especially popular with young Japanese women. They seem drawn to the erotic romantic tales that pair strong dominant men with beautiful male youth, although some have posited that they are more comfortable with sexual situations not involving females. Whatever, the subtleties of Japanese gender dynamics are the subject of a much longer article. Suffice it to say that the genre is wildly popular with girls and boys all over the world. An online search for yaoi yielded nearly 5 million hits.

Superhero Redux

So why now, when things like the Circuit and marriage have made us a little less brooding and dangerous, has the superhero returned? It’s hard to leave a major event without a few hero-themed fliers these days. We here at noiZe have consistently championed the idea of gay men as defenders of freedom and happiness, often including musclemen illustrations in our issues. "These are the characters and fantasies gay men grew up with, so they come to me because I help them express that," notes Iceman Blue. "Not only that, gay men, much like anyone else, love admiring perfect specimens, and I can provide them with my own style of unflawed male beauty."

Iceman thinks of himself as an artist first. He is drawn to the possibilities of illustration. He cites a personal rule his teacher suggested in college: "What can I show that a video can’t?" He lists as role models both mainstream artists like Jim Balent and Alex Ross, as well as erotic masters Patrick Fillion and Michael Manning.

The limitless boundaries of fantasy brought to life in different ways keeps him very busy. Is he turned on by his own work? "That’s how I know it’s good!" he says. "It can be distracting at first. But believe me, after looking at the same picture for hours, the spark dims." Good thing, or his fans might never see any finished work.

Clearly, erotic illustration has taken twists and turns throughout its history. But the quest for perfection and the desire to explore new worlds of fun and pleasure remain consistent.
The cover of this issue was hand-drawn by Iceman Blue exclusively for noIZe. Iceman was previously featured on the cover of Issue #53, and is responsible for the noiZe boy drawings featured in every issue.

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