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Comics Feature

The Trouble With Girls

Playboy Cartoons Sell, Don’t Shock

Comics Issue 2004

Out of Sequence The Third Annual City Paper Comics Contest--Plus . . .

The Trouble With Girls Playboy Cartoons Sell, Don’t Shock | By Tim Kreider

Comics 101 | By Tom Chalkley

Found in Translation Lillian Olsen Has Discovered a Way to Make a Living From Comics Thanks to the Japanese Invasion | By J. Bowers

By Tim Kreider | Posted 9/29/2004

There is this notion in American culture that sex is hilarious. The universally accepted signal for people having sex off-screen on television is crazed giggling. Anyone who has overheard people having sex in real life will know that this is not what you usually hear. Look around at the faces in a strip club sometime: They do not, in general, appear to be having what you’d call “fun.” They are more like faces around a blackjack table or waiting for their turn to do a line of coke, tense and starving, eyes intent as predators’ on some life-and-death business. Pretty much the funniest thing about sex is how seriously we take it. What I’m trying to understand here is why all the cartoons about sex in these three newly released treasuries—The Glamour Girls of Bill Ward, The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole (both from Fantagraphics), and Playboy: 50 Years—The Cartoons (Chronicle Books)—fill me with such melancholy.

The drawings and watercolors lovingly reproduced in the two Fantagraphics books were originally published in digests—cheap pulp magazines with titles like Laugh and Mirth that were full of cheesecake shots, bad jokes, and cartoons. The punch lines are reducible, in almost all instances, to either: “She’s a gold digger,” or, more often, “Boy, lookit them titties.” (Most of Jack Cole’s girls have C cups—Bill Ward’s are all Ds and up.) Ward’s captions occasionally touch upon genuine wit (“I move only in the best triangles”), and Cole, the creator of Plastic Man, was especially adept at elegant visual gags, as in the two gentlemen in a crowded elevator squeezing aside to create a negative space exactly the shape of the pretty girl approaching, or the secretary drawing a bar graph whose abrupt wild spike pinpoints the moment she was goosed. But in most cases the gags are utterly interchangeable, just excuses for gawking at these fantastic erotic figments.

We should be grateful that Ward’s brilliant conté crayon and Cole’s delicate ink washes have been preserved, and yet there is something sad about seeing such exquisite craftsmanship squandered on content so dumb; the gorgeously molded sheen on a silk stocking or the intricately crinkled highlight running up an elbow-length glove is enough to break your heart. Each sumptuously rendered surface and texture, from leather to lace to taffeta to fur, is just an incidental detail in the service of another boob gag.

“I used to wonder if anybody appreciated my work or whether they considered it with all the other drawings,” Bill Ward said in an old interview excerpted in Glamour Girls. “I used to look in the magazines and to me, my stuff looked better, but nobody ever verified it.” It turned out his publisher was withholding his fan mail because he didn’t want to lose his artists to better-paying publications. Jack Cole, unlike Ward, escaped the digests to the relative cushiness and glamour of Playboy, but committed suicide at the age of 43, leaving Hugh Hefner a note that left his motives obscure. These books both bring to mind of the poignant conceit in Dylan Horrocks' graphic novel Hicksville, of a secret library containing all the great comics that were never drawn because their creators were kept too busy doing dumb hackwork.

Cole wasn’t the only cartoonist to find a prestigious and lucrative market in Playboy. For decades it’s been one of the only remaining slick magazines in the United States to provide a venue for cartoons. In an introduction to The Cartoons, Hugh Hefner writes: “The humorists in Playboy were hip subversives, sly revolutionaries who poked fun at the prevailing hypocrisies of the time.” Well, I guess. But it’s significant that the freshest and funniest cartoons in the book are all (in the idiom of massage ads) strictly nonsexual. The connoisseur will be gratified to find so many of Gahan Wilson’s macabre drolleries, Jules Feiffer’s neurotic, nebbishy introspection about relationships, a fanciful menagerie drawn by Shel Silverstein, some lovably squalid Jack Davises, and a few choice absurdist non sequiturs by the funniest cartoonist of all time, B. Kliban. Also included are an episode of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, an adventure of the Ambiguously Gay Duo, and even a visit by Hank Hill and friends to the Playboy Mansion. But by far the majority of the cartoons in this collection (supposedly selected by the wizened libertine Hefner himself) are about sex, and they mostly seem to be the same old leering haw-haw gags. What Hefner describes as “humor of a more sophisticated nature” mostly just means topless.

Humor ages even faster and more embarrassingly than we do, and too many of these gags rely on what must have been the heady novelty of seeing things like nudists, lesbians, or transsexuals joked about in print: “That’s my son, Donald, before he decided to become my daughter, Denise.” Shock value, which often provokes nervous laughter in itself, has been pretty well leached out of these subjects now that 12-year-olds have high-speed access to fantasies more depraved than Caligula’s. Many of these cartoons are now better appreciated as historical documents than as humor. The exhilarating defiance Hefner claims his cartoonists first expressed is hard to recapture in the age of low riders and dental dams, hookups and date-rape drugs, domestic partners and friends-with-benefits.

Playboy’s only real innovation over the crude humor of the pulp digests is that now the females are enthusiastic accomplices in adultery instead of getting chased around the boss’ desk or being in it for the minks and jewelry. But, tellingly, most of them are still drawn as luscious objects to be ogled rather than as distinctive characters of their own. In particular, Doug Sneyd and Erich Sokol’s girls creep me out, their faces as bright and empty as dolls’—snub-nosed, glassy-eyed, grinning at nothing. They look, literally, like trophies—taxidermized.

Look, I’m not pretending to be Mr. Sensitive here: I am as shameless an ogler and lecher as the next guy, and there are some very hot drawings of girls in this book. I think what bothers me about them isn’t so much what they imply about women as what they assume about me and what I want. Most readers probably spent way more time looking at the girls than at their male companions, but because the guys are meant as neutral figures on which to project ourselves they are inadvertently revealing.

Interestingly, the drawings of men date much more badly than those of girls. (Partly, this may be because the girls are all naked, and less easily betrayed by fickle fashion.) The ostensible heroes of these one-panel narratives—blow-dried, sideburned, mustachioed, in tweed or plaid, accessorized with suspenders and cigars—now tend to look not stylish but ridiculous and sleazy, like the groomsmen in old wedding photos. Playboy is, needless to say, a magazine marketed toward young urban men, and it is to their fragile, uncertain self-image, their evanescent definition of Cool, that it panders.

There’s a similar theme underlying all these cartoons, as self-congratulatory and reassuring as the subtext in New Yorker cartoons that the trendiness, superficiality, and materialism of Manhattanites are adorable. Only prudes of the very sort Playboy mocked would call these cartoons pornographic—it’s hard to imagine successfully masturbating to any of them—but they share the same false premise as most porn: that everybody is ready and waiting to Do It at the first chance, that it’s all fun and games without hurt feelings or consequences, and anyone who objects is a hopeless fuddy-duddy. There are satyrs and sultans in these pages, ski bunnies and damsels, but the unspoken premise of almost every punch line is the same: Oh, tee-hee, what a jolly romp it all is.

We’re supposed to join in laughing at poor old pops—that icon of stern, repressed, judgmental 1950s morality—standing in the doorway puffed up and sputtering with outrage at these promiscuous kids2. But, like most revolutions, the Sexual Revolution did not exactly usher in the glorious new utopia of abundance and freedom it had promised, and also produced an unexpected number of casualties. It’s a perversely reactionary relief to open up the Eldon Dedini splash page showing a Playboy Club full of bunnies and businessmen with an avenging vision out of Prohibition standing in the doorway, an ax-wielding Temperance lady glowering in anticipation of the righteous mayhem she’s about to wreak, saying: “Hi.” Even though her getup is vintage Carrie Nation, in retrospect she looks a lot like the ‘80s, announcing that the party’s over.

One of the only truly shocking or offensive cartoons in this collection shows a naked model crouching in a TV studio with a dog collar around her neck and a can of dog food between her feet: “Chuck, baby, this ad is going to sell us a helluva lot of dog food!” chuckles one of the sponsors. (Wince in revulsion here.) A Kliban cartoon takes on the same theme with rather more taste: A titanic, leering plastic figure of a woman, nude except for a cowboy hat and boots, straddles a cheeseburger stand in the desert: “All I sell is cheeseburgers,” winks the owner, “but I sell a lot of cheeseburgers.” Less obvious than the lurid roadside statue is the American still life of garbage and crud strewn in its shadow.

Not included in this collection are the 80 million ads for liquor, pipes, jackets, cologne, sports cars, and stereo equipment that crammed the pages between naked ladies. Playboy was less a pioneer for sexual liberation than a part of turning sex into the same thing as the other two members of the holy trinity, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: just more crap to sell you. Maybe the reason that so many of these cartoons have always failed to crack me up is that I felt like the joke, in the end, was on me.

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Comics Feature archives

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8th Annual City Paper Comics Contest (9/9/2009)

First Place: Just Ask Larnell (9/9/2009)

Second Place: St. Sebastian Materializes In The Present Day (9/9/2009)

More from Tim Kreider

David Foster Wallace: 1962-2008 (9/24/2008)

When Books Could Change Your Life (9/24/2008)
Why What We Pore Over At 12 May Be The Most Important Reading We Ever Do

The Frightener (9/26/2007)
William Sloane's Two Novels Cut Right Through Genre And Burrow Into a Dark, Uncanny Unknown

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