LULU by John Linton Roberson (c) 2012.
I Didn't Write That!
16 February 2003
  GIVE ME SMUT & NOTHING BUT

Cartoonist Turns Filthmonger; His Rationalizations And Excuses Presented For Your Edification

"To understand great art you have to understand great trash."--Roger Ebert.

I know what you're thinking. No, really, I think I can guess. In any case, allow me to protest too much.

As some might know, thanks to your friendly neighborhood editor Michael Dowers, I'm to be published by Eros/Fantagraphics, starting in June with my twenty-four page silent story October Surprise, taking up the entirety of the anthology Menage A Trois #3. There will also be short stories in Eros anthologies around the same time and following as regularly as I can draw them, including Vladrushka the Siberian Porn Star in Blowjob #7, and two in the works at the moment.

I'm suddenly going from a serialized, acclaimed graphic novel to...wellllll, pornography. And not out of desperation but out of choice and whim. Now, does this make me less serious an artist?

I don't know; I don't recall being that serious to begin with. Committed, yes. Obsessive, yes. Anxiety-written, you betcha. But I'll try my hand at drawing anything and actually, I'm proud of this work. And make no mistake; it's filthy. Gloriously and gleefully so and I'm having a lot of fun letting my characters enjoy themselves for a change, as opposed to cruelly destroying what there is of their lives for comedic value. That I'll be getting back to in good time. But it's not as funny unless they have a chance to become unprepared for it again...

But how does a moderately-known alternative comics editor and practitioner end up doing pornography in the first place? And can there be art to it? Let me babble.

In my case it was in fact something I never in a zillion years thought would be likely to be published(certainly not by myself) and wasn't drawn with that in mind. It was basically a way to blow off steam from Vitriol, which has been five years of drawing characters I'm now, at last, about 10 pages from finishing with. The graphic novel, even a comedic one, is very work-intensive, time-consuming, and let us not forget was written 10 FRIGGING YEARS AGO. So it's long since lost a lot of interest to me, as any artwork can do to the one who sits so long making it. But dammit I will finish the bugger, so I keep saying. But you get tired at times. You don't want to irrationally rip up the artwork thinking in your weary delirium you're exorcising the cursed demon from your home. You change gears for a bit, do something else. As long as you're still creating something.

What did I feel like doing? I wanted to draw something loose, sketchy, spontaneous and fast, and chose a memory as my subject. Other cartoonists do autobio about masturbation, so hey, I think a memory of actual sex with other people is certainly allowable, and one would think preferable to that self-loathing subgenre; actually it's the first remotely cheerful thing I ever drew. The reason it was that sort of memory was because I chose sex as the theme to keep me interested in the exercise, so, honestly, that it would be fun. And besides, I also wanted it to be silent so not even the premeditation of writing was involved, and that worked best for that mode. Did it in pencil, at least 2 pages a night, while watching movies; part of the exercise was also not doing it at the board.

So it was all drawn quickly & loosely with blue pencil underdrawing, tight but quick mechanical pencil and Ebony on top, and completely irregular panel borders scratched in one swath on the paper without a ruler--basically, the opposite at every bit of the more careful way I usually work. (When I did it I didn't intend to publish it, so I basically went fuck it, let it be a mess) The version to be published is only slightly cleaned up and smoothed out digitally--by me, with Photoshop and a Pablo Graphics Tablet--but what you'll see is not much more than what I drew.

So this was, for me, experimental work. But toward the purpose of creating something light, breezy, spontaneous and pleasurable. I do everything backward, as anyone will tell you.

There are obvious hurdles in this genre. Sex is a bitch to depict graphically without, from the scattered examples I've seen(what porn I own is largely literary or vintage, like Taschen's stuff), being either loathsome or ludicrous. I don't think I necessarily cracked that nut(no even tangential pun intended), but "October Surprise"(its title) is, I think, pretty good genre work, though I might agree erotica, or pornography--I have no problem with either term--is certainly not a major genre. And most of my stuff isn't usually genre-based anyway, unless black comedy is really a genre rather than, say, a tone.

I have no problem calling it smut, though; there can be such a thing as good smut. It's kind of like many other highly-specific genres, like horror or musicals or James Bond films, in that the subject matter is predetermined; in a piece of smut you are going to have people fucking, that's a given, otherwise it wouldn't be smut. That's what it's being bought for and it should at least constitute 90% of it or you're cheating.

To me this is actually what makes it interesting: it's an exercise, from the creative end, in operating within very severe genre limits. Porn is probably the most rigidly defined genre there is. A musical can have as much dialogue as songs. A western, if Preacher is, as Ennis says, really a western, can lack horses. (well, it had two appearances by them but very far apart) But porn has to have people having graphic sex, in the main, or it's ineffective. The only innovation the artist can bring is situational and technical. In other words, how you place and orchestrate the sex in a context that makes it seem fresh(and hopefully, humorous, or at least that's how I prefer to present it), and how it's described in the options open to comics. It takes a kind of discipline and that's interesting to follow, within reason. I can therefore try out techniques I'd be less likely to throw in untried into my normal work.

So the artist's contribution will rarely if ever be innovative in content except insofar as "pushing the envelope" by degrees within those parameters. So the artist's innovation, if any, will lie in the technical end of things. Like Anais Nin's or Pauline Reage's obsessively sumptuous styles of description, Guido Crepax's graceful and ever-more-minimal brushlines, etc. Analogizing: In, say, horror, I'd use Halloween as an example; thinnest & least original of plotlines but it's Carpenter's style alone that makes one jump, especially apparent when one sees any of the film's billion ripoffs from the 80s.

Actually it ended up a challenge to a few other things too--my ability at anatomy, for instance. As I originally found when I drew the Vitriolchapter in Plastic no. 7, in which the two main characters--because they've just woken up the morning after sex, are not dressed yet and so are naked the whole story's length, drawing naked people may seem fun till you have to do it in comics. It's hard enough to draw nude bodies just sitting and talking for panel after panel and keep them on-model. Drawing them doing THAT, at least if they change positions, is a technical bitch, especially if you're using no reference but your own mind, which I'm proud to say I did. It's not realistic exactly(at least no more so than I ever am) but it's plausible.

And also it taught me a few things about pacing too, just from forcing myself to have no words in it and having nothing but the visual to carry things forward. There IS a plot, it's just entirely expressed while the sex goes on. I improved afterward--all my pieces in Working For The Man, with Alverson, Harvey, and Blackmon, were done right after that and benefited, I think. Hell, it's my blog, I'll be as egotistical as I like. They looked great for the exercise in between.

It was created entirely as a technical exercise for fun. Not really terribly different psychologically from doing a still life or something, though. It's just that it was something resting in my brain rather than on a table in front of me. And if it HAD been on the table in front of me I might've been too distracted anyway...But afterward my wife Kelly saw it and demanded I send it off to someone. Which I never actually bother to do normally. And wouldn't you know the one I, technically, put the least work into got published. Then again if I'd tried before...but who knows. (Incidentally, the following stories after October Surprise are all inked and closer to my normal style)

Now I guess what I'm wondering is: the fact that it's entirely a depiction of sex, does that make it without worth or merely limited in scope? I would tend to think the latter myself, considering how popular and frequent depictions of murder are. Including in my work, naturally. Though in my work one generally sees more sex and violence is more implied even though it's central and the sex isn't exactly. But if death, violence and gore are OK, why not one of the things that makes LIFE worthwhile? And I rather like the diceyness of the fact it wasn't made up--you can see the interesting dilemma: if it IS made up it's unrealistic and silly and even sexist, yadda yadda yadda; if it's true it's considered something you shouldn't be depicting, and yet why is that?

I guess you can see I consider it entirely valid in theory, even though I also consider it mainly an entertainment genre--but that could only be the limitation of my own imagination, not the actual potential. When it's done as hackwork, sure, I can see the point, but hackwork is depressing no matter WHAT genre it's in. As is braggadocio. October Surprise, incidentally, is not at all either--though, like I said, it ain't one of those self-loathing autobio things either, which have the hypocrisy of allowing the creator to depict their masturbatory fantasies while making it "OK" because they're miserable--a strange mode of thinking to me.

But it's weird--it's all silent and looking at it now it's, frighteningly, one of the prettiest-looking things I think I've done. I want to do more silent work too.

I think one thing I've learned is I need to perhaps try to do more stuff where I make it up as I go along and drop scripts altogether. But in any event, this is what I'll be drawing for a while, but new Big Huge Projects are in the works behind the scenes. You may begin waiting with bated breath.

I know I'm thrilled to be working with Eros; besides that they're part of Fantagraphics Books, who in my opinion are the best comics publishers in America(for Acme Novelty Library and Eightball alone, but so much more), this is a first for me. I've published myself for six years, and have been published in print in Legal Action Comics and online at Spark-Online.com (not now, but a couple of years ago, a strip called Slash & Burn, examples of which you can see on my site). I've been "officially" published before, and even profiled in Wizard.

But this is the first time I'm being paid. So excuse me but--YIPPEE!

God, am I a geek.

Anyway: if you're over 18, do check out these comics this summer. They'll be truly great trash, I promise.


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