Recently, I've been looking at a lot of pornography.
I was asked to appear on a podcast to discuss the re-release of a 1980s pornographic manga, Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend; it's an adjacently notorious work, the inspiration for a similarly explicit anime which, through the caprice of cultural moment and accessibility, became emblematic for a time of anime as a whole. I know you've heard of "tentacle sex." Legend of the Overfiend is the anime that seared the idea onto the minds of westerners, eager to draw exotic conclusions about deliciously inscrutable and dangerous foreigners.
The thing is, the "tentacle sex" idea was only one manifestation of a very specific, pragmatic idea: that you could both circumvent the censorious regulations on image-making in Japan and add a great deal of visual novelty via phallic substitution. Penises, engorged and unobscured, are obscene; tentacles, arguably less so. I found a great resource in an unusual 2016 publication: The Hentai Manga Scene: Pirate Edition, a 90-page zine by one Kimi Rito (translated by Makoto Schroeder), consisting of interviews with various ero manga personalities, Legend of the Overfiend creator Toshio Maeda among them. There is even a sidebar on the history of 'tentacle' sex in comics, from the suggestive '70s works of smut pioneer Hideo Azuma to variant manifestations of living wires and metal tendrils, concluding with the recent 'monster girl' trend in nerd-focused media.
But that's important: tentacles are not a mainstream taste. They were never even a dominant favorite, and the fortunes of the fetish declined as its moment passed in the Japanese '90s, only resurfacing periodically in specialist venues. You still hear jokes about it in the west, though. Some promotional efforts are just too effective, and what starts as a titillating joke becomes an undulating live illusion. It's not too far removed from how the early days of manga in English nurtured this idea that 'manga' was something not totally removed from the dense, detailed work in favor among comic book aficionados. The salad days of Masamune Shirow, creator of the endlessly adaptive likes of Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, and, more recently, a terrific amount of porn.
If you decide to click that link -- and, in recognition of the fact that some people probably want to read about upcoming comics without having hardcore porn shoved in their collective face, I will be securing all of this week's images behind optional links -- you will notice a few unusual traits of Shirow's latter-day work. First and most obviously, the humanoid female character looks like she's been sent careening down a slip 'n slide coated with baby oil, a tendency of Shirow's color work so evident that the artist and his publisher gleefully promote it: the work I am excerpting is from a series known as "Galgrease", specifically from the W・Tails Cat line of books in the "Galhound" subgroup of SF-themed works. God, this is already convoluted; just know that while much of Shirow's erotic works fall under the penumbra of pin-ups or illustration, the W・Tails Cat books blur the line between illustration collections a la Shirow's Intron Depot and 'full' SF comics such as Ghost in the Shell.
What's evident from the W・Tails Cat line is that Shirow is pursuing a type of collage, albeit of a very different sort than your Jess Collins or Julie Doucet. Where in Intron Depot Shirow might display all of the color variations he made for a particular drawing of a tank, in W・Tails Cat he offers bodies in differing states of dress, limbs manipulated, cut and pasted and pasted and pasted to create a mass of gleaming flesh, often in outright defiance of narrative eye-guiding; this is not a march, it is a wallow in glistening, taut goo. An artist of my acquaintance once referred to this stuff as the visual equivalent of a urinary tract infection, and indeed while these images give the signal of indulgence in luscious blossom, there is something almost viscerally unhygienic about them, like a thick bacterial heat rising and tickling your face.
You might ask yourself "why?" Then, you might stop yourself, because the foremost answer with erotica is always "because the author finds it sexy." Yet as I read further into The Hentai Manga Scene, I was startled to find an interview with "K-iwa" and "O-gawa", editors at the publisher GOTcorporation, and purportedly the very people who introduced Masamune Shirow to pornographic illustration. Their objective was to find a well-known artist who was unfamiliar to readers of ero manga as a 'hook' for launching a new magazine, Comic Canopri; Shirow had already done some sexy pin-up works in mainline venues at Kodansha, so they were able to pique his interest. GOT remains the publisher of books in the W・Tails Cat series today, along with porn manga periodicals like Comic Anthurium, and digital magazines such as Comic Grape, a portmanteau of "Good rape," as K-iwa cheerily informs us: these are comics about rape, intended for sexual gratification. Indeed, much of the 'sexual' content in Legend of the Overfiend is really sexualized depictions of rape, as is, we might guess, a great many works of the tentacle 'sex' type.
The GOT editors laugh freely throughout their interview; I think their attitudes are not atypical. Throughout The Hentai Manga Scene -- which also features a long interview with a younger ero artist, "Yamatogawa", and a very brief comic by "Kamitani", the only woman included among the artists -- the predominant impression is one of craftsmen plying their trade. Perhaps you went into porn manga because the bar for entry is lower, and you can make money faster. Perhaps you started drawing long tongues and tangly tails and tentacles because it allowed you to depict women suspended in mid-air, giving your work a needed novelty. Perhaps you set Masamune Shirow down the shiny path because you were tasked with launching a new magazine. Fantasy is fantasy: entertainment, product, consumption.
When you've read a few of these books, you quickly pick up on the fact that the women always have a much lighter complexion than the men; further, while the women are of Shirow's usual ostensibly international type, their facial features and body shapes hew to the 'classic' style of Shirow's manner of drawing cute girls. The men, meanwhile, have wildly differing body types and facial features, often with readily apparent ethnic characteristics. I wonder if Shirow thinks about the racial dimension of these works. I wonder, because I think what actually interests him is the play of color and texture. Oh lord the textures. The surface - the play of light on water and oil. In his mainline SF works, Shirow often suggests that bodies can be augmented or totally replaced, that bodies are but vehicles for the self. In his porn SF, the vehicles are washed and waxed, and arranged across the showroom floor.
It reminds me a little of death. In 1971, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage assembled one of his greatest masterpieces, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes - for half an hour, we are witness to soundless footage of forensic pathologists at work in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania morgue, with special emphasis given to the state of cadavers. In the absence of consciousness, this is what all of us are: meat and bone. What Brackhage does is not totally unlike what Shirow does: he considers the play of illumination of skin. He delves into textures: ashy burns, the rubbery quality of entrails, the ripple of blood in wounds. It is of no bother to the dead; now, their bodies are only materials, silently contemplated as if hovering just above, painless and newly free. Brackhage depicts the surface of corporeality; the viewer assumes the depth of sentience. It is a supremely calm film.
What is different about Masamune Shirow's work is that his curation of surfaces is meant to excite. Look again at the links above. Look closely. If you squint, you'll notice that in every one of the pages I've shown from W・Tails Cat, some of the bodies are accompanied by date stamps. Shirow is not an arbitrary collagist; some figures may date from 2003 on one side of the page, while others originate in 2008. Turn to the back of these books, and you find out that some of the images have been snipped from other Shirow publications. The dating scheme is identical to that used in Shirow's recent Intron Depot art books, where the notional purpose is to catalog variant forms of images on their way to completion; in W・Tails Cat, different variants are jammed together to form the illusion of life at its most flush.
Because the illusion is often too transparent, what we get is the eros of accrual. To be an otaku is to be obsessed with specialized information; with these works, Shirow imbues the organization of his own product with an unusual passion, as if the pleasure of knowing the erotic potential of all these collected digital files is a necessary patch to the bluntness of mere sexual release. Gaudy and awash in promises, these surroundings revel in horded treasure, a livid hell of luxury spit.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting. You could always just buy nothing.
Zonzo: VIABLE OFFENSE IN 2017 #1 - the bleak and violet comedy of Spanish artist Joan Cornellà, in which grinning characters suffer and enact hateful ironies in a universe devoid of compassion. No words, all color, the 56-page second in a line of hardcover Fantagraphics releases; $14.99.
Officer Downe: VIABLE OFFENSE IN 2017 #2 - buoyant, boyish ultraviolence with a wink and a grin, courtesy of writer Joe Casey and artist Chris Burnham. Originally from 2010, this supernatural lawman one-shot is now a feature film from director and Slipknot co-founder Shawn Crahan, which makes Image's new 192-page edition a veritable celebration of itself - the comic is paired with Casey's complete screenplay for the movie, along with "hundreds" of production photos; $19.99.
Last Sons of America (&) Wires and Nerve: Two bookshelf-ready releases about which I know absolutely nothing, though they may be interesting to flip through. Last Sons of America was a 2015-16 series from writer Philip Kennedy Johnson and artist Matthew Dow Smith (colored by Doug Garbark), a speculative thriller about adoption agents sweating through a world where Americans have been made infertile and business is cutthroat. BOOM! publishes the collected edition. Wires and Nerve is the comics debut of YA fantasy writer Marissa Meyer, working with artist Doug Holgate on a 240-page piece about a lady android battling wolf-people in space, a scenario apparently in conjunction with Meyer's prose works. Macmillan publishes; $19.99 (Sons), $21.99 (Wires).
Dorohedoro Vol. 20: Your manga pick of the week is an increasingly common sight - a long series nearly caught up with the Japanese editions. Specifically, this popular Q Hayashida grimy fantasy opus releases collected editions on a more-or-less annual basis in Japan, with its 21st number arriving last September. So, try and savor it while VIZ has it here; $12.99.
The Complete Scarlet Traces Vol. 1: Interesting history behind this longstanding collaboration between writer Ian Edginton and artist Matt "D'Israeli" Brooker - an original sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the Scarlet Traces serial began as a feature on the short-lived UK web entertainment portal Cool Beans World, eventually finishing its first series in Judge Dredd Megazine in 2002. A creator-owned work, the pair then brought the project to Dark Horse, which published (among other things) a formal adaptation of the Wells novel, again first as a webcomic, then in a print edition. Later, Rebellion purchased the rights to the property from the creators, who just last year created new stories for 2000 AD. This 144 page Rebellion paperback should collect the earliest (2002) work, along with the Dark Horse Welles adaptation, but *not* the other Dark Horse material or the more recent 2000 AD stuff, presumably saved for later volumes. D'Israeli puts together some nice-looking comics; $19.99.
The Kamandi Challenge Special: Due to begin later this month, DC's Kamandi Challenge is an exquisite corpse-type experiment where various creative teams will create a serial featuring Jack Kirby's post-apocalyptic cult favorite, each team supplying a cliffhanger the subsequent team must somehow resolve. This comic, however, is a 64-page reprint of 1975's Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth! #32, written and drawn by Kirby, with inks by D. Bruce Berry, with some other vintage materials relating to the upcoming project. It'll probably be fun to pick up a big, fat Kirby Kamandi comic book; $7.99.
The Complete Chester Gould Dick Tracy Vol. 21: 1962-1964: Finally -- and no, there's not a lot that caught my eye this week, thank heavens for porn -- please enjoy the uneasy advance of Chester Gould's hard-nosed detective into the era of new freedoms, by which I mean he totally visits the Moon and meets the Moon Maid, a lady from the Moon. Still against crime, tho. As always, an 11" x 8.5" landscape hardcover from IDW, 272 pages; $44.99.
The front page image this week is from the hand-scratched title cards to Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, the perfect accompaniment to any existential crisis or uncomfortable gathering that warrants dispersal.