Plato thought it was best to banish poetry from the ideal society. The ability of poetry to appeal to the passions and potentially therefore corrupt the young was what caused such action. Today, in UK statutory law, we still retain this fear of corruption. The Obscene Publications Act (1959) describes an “obscene” item as one with the effect of tending to deprave and corrupt persons likely to consume it.
Melinda Gebbie is supposedly one of these corrupting artists. Soon after arriving in England in 1984 she was defending her comic book Fresca Zizis in an obscenity trial. Imports of the comic book were destroyed and it is still illegal to possess it to this day in the UK.
Plato also would allow poetry to return if she could make some defence in her own poetic form. Poetry’s defenders would be allowed to speak in prose on her behalf, to show her pleasantness but also her usefulness. To reveal her aesthetics as well as her ethics. The Obscene Publications Act also states that no confiscation will go forward if the work is proved to be in the interests of science, literature, art, or other reasons of public concern, including ethical merits.
Gebbie had published in various underground comix anthologies in the 1970s and produced her own independent comic book Fresca Zizis in 1977. The work is a series of separate comics and filled with alien women, oversized discoloured cocks, murderous doll-babies, castrated hairy bikers, talking vulvas and multi-penial monsters.
The danger of the label “comics”, when it comes to Fresca Zizis, is that it conjures up an image of the infantile. Gebbie’s context is that of the American underground comix movement. This alternate movement, marked by an alternative spelling (comic to comix), was concerned with a mature audience providing countercultural and politically dissident content.
The cover image of Fresca Zizis presents three vivid female performers dressed in wonderful furs and ornaments. They all ride an enlarged, discoloured phallus. The cover is a celebratory gallery of the paraphernalia of female erotic dancing, in all its ornamental and artistic glory. The sole female dancer on the back cover (left on the image) seems the central manifestation of all this: throwing off her stitched-mouth mask, she holds her enlarged-vagina-shield up to us. A superheroine of the underground comix movement.
A drunken, scruffy man stands behind her, leering at this superheroine as the ejaculate from the phallus the trio of dancers ride splatters on his head. It is a fantastic visual metaphor of degradation, of him being tripped up by his own enlarged lust, heightening the heroism of the lady-dancer-superheroine.
This message of homage is juxtaposed with the symbol of masks. The alien-faced woman riding the central phallus holds one up. Perhaps this operates as a metaphor of gendered performance even when the internal reality is alienation. Moreover, the sexual-superheroine on the back also has a mask, but this one has been torn off and at her feet in a seemingly heroic act of liberation.
Fresca Zizis thus opens in conflict. The performers are simultaneously celebrated and victimised, both the heroes and victims of their gender.
We open the collection with a frontispiece titled Portrait of a Rapist which functions as a significant framing device for the rest of the text. With it we are looking through Gebbie’s eyes, the dual lens of art and trauma. This will become significant again in the context of the obscenity trail.
The genius of Fresca Zizis lies in satire. The first comic of the collection is In Debasement. It satirises a mainstream pornography culture of violence, domination, and control. The satire operates by a parodic reversal of the usual gender power dynamic in this pornography.
We enter a world of ‘female rage’ in the near future. Men are the ones in sexual and political bondage, a metaphor working both ways: the erotic is the political, and the political is the erotic. Gebbie dexterously crafts a satire both rooted in the caricaturing, comedic sense of the “comic”, and the politically antagonistic style of the “comix”.
A group of women have captured a trio of male hostages using them ruthlessly according to their own sexual will and erotic fancy. The title seems an ingenious literary pun on the location of where these male hostages are kept, the (colloquially ‘de’) basement and the verbal sense “to debase”: the humiliating lowering of the men both sexually and politically as the submissive class.
Two androgynous men frantically whisper about the gang-rape of a friend by school-girls: a witty role reversal of a typical porn plot. We later see the basement where a trio of men (two macho bikers and an androgyne) are kept captive. Through a series of short panels, they are tortured with animals, drugged, played with, and ripped apart. This culminates in the ultimate castration of one of the captives.
The story ends in prolepsis on a macabre note with the captors eating a meal which is “…all homemade… my meat bills are non-existent.” The male victims are thus not just victims of sexual fantasy but are also financially optimal.
In Debasement also works as a pastiche of Réage’s Historie d’ O, which is concerned with the submission of O into sexual slavery. O’s name is a reduction to her sexual core, both visually and aurally, the letter being a symbol of a sexual orifice and the sound of pleasure produced by the stimulation of it. In Debasement is a comic clearly in discourse with the erotica genre.
Gebbie utilises the relationship between humiliation, eroticism, and subjugation present in the artistic, pornographic and psychological spheres. Yet In Debasement reverses the typical gender power dynamic to macabre, satiric effect. It is men that are humiliated and debased. It is women who derive erotic pleasure from this, and through this dialectic it is the men who are in sexual and political subjugation.
Vulva-Time is a shorter but just as witty sexual dystopia in the collection of Fresca Zizis. ‘Betty Ann Twatson’ opens the story. She presents for ‘Vagina world magazine’, and quite fittingly – and quite disturbingly – has vulvas for eyes. B. A. Twatson is totally permanented by her own sex in name, vision, dialogue, and purpose.
What follows is a gallery of various personified vaginas, apparently ‘this year’s most prominent women’. The vulva has out-grown the woman bearing it.
To say this is a satire on contemporary hyper-sexualisation would be an understatement. The satire of Vulva-Time is almost devoured in its own projected dystopian world, crafted skilfully by Gebbie within the boundaries of two pages. Across these pages Gebbie crafts a claustrophobic atmosphere, with no escape from the close-up, isolated images of each judged vulva.
A vibrating dildo-tool lurks in the background of the opening panel and the lewd purpose of the show is revealed: the vulvas on show are to be judged by this tool. Through this concept Gebbie also satirises the shows potential audience. The impotent masses exerting pleasure through a faux-phallus. Vulva-Time becomes a nightmarish vision of a mechanisation of mass-produced, mass-consumed voyeurism.
Both In Debasement and Vulva-Time achieve a blend of the humorous and the disturbing. Gebbie achieves this uncanny effect by a fusing a satiric authorial distance with a reality that is disturbingly direct and close.
Yet Vulva-Time seems more prophetic and for this the more perturbing. This is the era of shows such as “Naked Attraction”, where human sexuality is body over soul, with people willingly standing in their most vulnerable physical and psychological state in a viewing box seemingly from a Victorian freak-show. Gebbie’s nightmarish projection of a commercialised, mass-produced voyeuristic gallery of sexual anatomy seems to have become the reality.
To return to the frontispiece, Portrait of a Rapist, the portrait is almost a breaking-in of life, of reality against the satiric art that follows. The irony is that Gebbie’s art is what is labelled as obscene, not the world she records. The parody rather than the reality is what is attacked, burned, and censored.
The Trial and Public Enemy
Gebbie dramatized the court proceedings over the obscenity ruling in a later comic, Public Enemy, turning the trial into a defence for her art: “If truth is pornographic when depicted in the arts don’t blame the artist – blame her world… She’s just observing facts.” Gebbie flips the obscenity ruling on its head following Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic principle: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
Gebbie is self-stylised in geisha attire in the trial depiction. The geisha figure is a core trope across Gebbie’s work alluding to the idea of being trapped in a verisimilitude or fiction of authority. The geisha becomes the aestheticization of subjugation, a pretence of artistic and sexual autonomy. Gebbie’s art is concerned with breaking out of this prescriptive role and fiction. She states:
Gebbie refuses to be an entertainer and refuses to pander to the sexual status quo. The status quo being the morally accepted, aesthetically appreciated and legalised erotica of the mainstream, which only pampers held beliefs. The geisha-artist perpetuates the obscenity in the world which subjugates them. The rebel, Gebbie, antagonistically reflects the obscenity in the world through her satirical art.
Wilde believed that art mirrored the spectator and with this lies arts ethical purpose. Yet in terms of Gebbie’s art, the state cannot accept this reflection as it would damage the status quo on which it stands. Thus the obscenity which is reflected becomes hidden. Consequently, Gebbie’s aesthetic, the satire, cannot operate as what is parodied, in the state’s view, is not there. Therefore, Gebbie’s ethical purpose, in reflecting through her art, is also made redundant. Now Gebbie’s aesthetic becomes not a satire, but its own obscene world which will corrupt and deprave those that read it. Accordingly it must be censored. For breaking out the geisha-shell and revealing the obscene, rather than pandering to it, this is Gebbie’s fate.
Gebbie’s later collaboration with her husband Alan Moore on Lost Girls reveals a development in thought on pornography and politics.
Lost Girls re-reads and re-fictionalises the narratives of child storybook characters – Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy – in a realm of mature sexuality and in the graphic novel form. Both Moore and Gebbie have described it as a reclamation of pornography, attempting to craft it as both artistic and ‘intelligent’.
Intelligent pornography is Alan Moore’s concept of a pornography which is sexually gratifying, but also morally educative and spiritually healing. The sexual autobiographies of Alice, Dorothy and Wendy put this theory into practice. The Lost Girls share tales of sexual awakenings, experimentation, confusion, identity, and trauma as they meet in the Austrian Himmlegarten hotel on the eve of World War One.
The tales provide erotic content (a metalepsis of the sexual-gratification function of pornographic texts) which both the girls and we as the reader enjoy, created by the sequential and rhetorically constructed images that blend side-by-side. The autobiographies also provide a spiritually purifying role too providing a re-visiting and re-understanding of past sexual encounters of both pleasure and pain.
Through their shared, mutually gifted stories the girls become found. Unlike the Lost Boys of Neverland, they mature by confrontation. The intelligence of Gebbie and Moore’s pornography works two-fold. The girls heal their sexual identities, and we also heal our own. Lost Girls, in putting this concept into practice, is thus both an aesthetical and ethical triumph of the erotica genre and the graphic novel form.
In each of the rooms of the Himmlegatren hotel you will find a copy of the ‘White Book’, a curated selection of past erotic works by the hotel-manager Mr Rouguer. This text-within-a-text provides a point of conversation with the history of the erotic genre both in terms of intertextuality and imagery. Its name is a play on The Yellow Book quarterly of the late-Victorian era, inspired in turn by reference in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The White Book emulates the Beardsleyesque style and fin-de-siecle content of the The Yellow Book. The shift to the white colour works as a microcosmic metaphor for the clashing of sexual innocence and experience of the text – the pure childhood heroes in our collective memory and their re-fictionalised muddied sexual histories.
In a vivid cosmic orgy image of Book III, the curator of the White Book, Mr Rouguer, gives a defence of pornography:
Pornography is raised to a transcendental status, higher than both politics (given significance in the impending historical cultural trauma of WW1) and art itself. The expressive pleasure of erotica is outside the text and image and this idea is metaphorized in the final image of ejaculate surrounding the White Book left on the floor in the surrounding sexual ecstasy.
Oscar Wilde also makes a return in the White Book with a pastiche of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde has been mentioned previously in terms of parallels to his art and trial. A scene is reimagined with Dorian and Lord Henry in a London gentlemen’s club engaging in erotic activity.
Significantly Dorian Gray is a self-censored work. Already a work of inexplicit explicitness, numerous passages were cut by Wilde’s editor for their homoerotic allusions. Only 120 years later after its condemnation was an uncensored edition published. That is the curse of an artist who attempted to mirror the spectator. Dorian Gray as a text was in fact used against Wilde as evidence in trial and ultimately Wilde would be imprisoned for ‘acts of gross indecency’ by the law.
The textual style is a perfect emulation. Lord Henry’s seductive rhetoric and hedonistic philosophy is there. Dorian’s part-conscious, half-passive sexual style is there. The bourgeois social hypocrisy is there. Yet what is also in Lost Girls, as a graphic novel, are images. The text in Lost Girls is only an emulation of the subtle insinuations of the original text. But the visual language, unique to Gebbie and Moore’s art, makes the past inexplicitness explicit. Lost Girls then is conscious of its genre history and the boundaries and the straining of this genre in what is sayable. It is aware of its genre framed by a potential of exile, both of art and its artist, in the ‘rage of Caliban’ seeing or not ‘seeing his own face in a glass’. The monster seeing too much or too little of itself in the art that reflects it.
Lost Girls is not only a reclamation of pornography, but as Gebbie affirms “the panacea for the rift between art and pornography…” It is a re-assertion of the power of pornography and erotica as intelligent, moral, spiritual, expressive, and healing. Pornography is an artistic and ethical tool in Gebbie and Moore’s hands to combat trauma, both of the personal and the collective in this final images of brutal mechanized warfare, side-by-side with the sexual trauma of Alice, Dorothy and Wendy. The graphic novel, with its unique multimodal power of text and image, proves the perfect artistic medium for this.
Comics since their creation have been connected to radical politics. It is a democratic medium of a textual but also visual language which is accessible to all. Gebbie states:
Gebbie’s art shares this historic radicalism of the comics medium. It also shares its history of censorship. Gebbie’s art proves we must rethink our approach to erotica in sequential art, critically, legally, and most importantly generally. For breaking out the geisha shell, Gebbie’s arts ethical purpose has been intentionally disengaged with. She, the artist, castrated.
Written by Thomas Gilhooly
Illustrated by Sanni Pyhänniska
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