Editor's Note: This interview contains descriptions and images of sexually explicit content.
No matter what is or has ever been going on in the world of comics, there will be a certain segment of the population that believes the medium is just for kids. An exhibition on now at New York's Museum of Sex presents a compelling counter-argument to this perception, with works by Robert Crumb, Joe Shuster, Wally Wood, Dean Yeagle, Colleen Coover, Howard Cruse and more comprising "Comics Stripped." The exhibition, co-curated by the museum's Sarah Forbes and comics historian Craig Yoe, is available for viewing through August. CBR News caught up with Yoe for his perspective on the exhibition, the history and appeal of erotic comics and illustrations and what viewers should take away from their visit to the museum.
CBR asked Yoe, author of "Secret Identities: The Fetish Art of Superman Co-Creator Joe Shuster" from Abrams ComicArts and who served as a major lender to the exhibition, what initially led to his interest in dirty comics. His answer was simple: "Blood flows through my veins."
"I often think about sex. I'm always interested in sex, thinking about sex. They say men think about sex once every seven seconds; the other six seconds I'm thinking about comics and cartoons," Yoe said. "Sometimes I combine the two and think about comics and sex! Hence the exhibit."
Yoe said the origin of "Comics Stripped" stems from his work on the "Secret Identities" book, during which time he was in contact with Museum of Sex representatives. "We talked about touching base later. About three months ago we hooked up, did a whirlwind of research and borrowing and calling on people from around the world to lend artwork and artifacts," he said. "We pulled it together rather quickly, but I think the museum did a sensational job. It came out beautifully. I'm very, very excited about the exhibit."
The exhibition includes many works from Yoe's own collection, including Joe Shuster's rare "Nights of Horror" comics and original artwork by "Archie" artist Dan DeCarlo and "Plastic Man" creator Jack Cole. "We called on collectors like Eric Sack to lend us original Robert Crumbs, and the great pinup artist Dean Yeagle, who sent us three strikingly beautiful pictures of his sexy pinup character Mandy," Yoe added. "Playboy lent some great material for this show. We have originals of Little Annie Fanny by Harvey Kurtzman, they lent some of their color cartoons by Eldon Dedini and Jack Cole. That material is really striking and we're pleased to have Playboy cooperate in this show.
"And then the museum has quite a wonderful collection of all things related to sex, [including] printed matter, cartoon books and Tijuana bibles -- all things related to their signature subject. So I was able to go through that collection and choose some wonderful items. Great artists like Jess Fink and Danny Hellman lent from their collections.
"One really, really special section is one on Eric Stanton, the most popular fetish cartoonist-illustrator who worked in the '50s -- his daughter Amber, who herself is a very talented painter, lent us some rare things from her father's works," Yoe continued. "Things came from all different places, and then we blew up the famous drawing Wally Wood did, called the 'Disney Memorial Orgy,' he did for the '60s radical publication called 'The Realist.' We blew that up over a whole wall! It's quite striking to see Disney characters frolicking around doing nasty things, to the enjoyment of all, by the master Wally Wood."
Describing the appeal of erotic comics as opposed to, say, that of photography, Yoe said the key is in what becomes possible with the medium. "To me, comics and cartoons are so great because cartoonists' stock in trade is to exaggerate as they're drawing, so they can exaggerate anatomy in ways that photography naturally wouldn't do. A cartoonist does it without thinking," Yoe said. "And subject matter, there's nothing a good cartoonist -- and we have the greatest cartoonists there are in this exhibit -- but there's nothing a good cartoonist can't draw. So you can have, like -- there's an orgy scene that Crumb drew that's in the show that could not easily be duplicated in real life, though it sure would be fun to try! Cartoonists can draw an incredibly shapely girl having sex with an alien, which would need a big Hollywood budget to pull it off, and they may not want to.
"A cartoonist can sit down at a drawing board and draw out their fantasies. And often the things the cartoonists put together are personal fantasies. It's always fascinating to look at people's personal fantasies, especially cartoonists you admire. We have such great cartoonists in the exhibit, Robert Crumb, Eric Stanton, Dan DeCarlo, Jack Cole, and Jess Fink, Danny Hellman, Milo Manara -- all these great cartoonists and we get to kind of peek into their minds."
Yoe told CBR that the "Comics Stripped" exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with Tijuana bibles of the 1930s. "Some of them are still being passed around, schoolyards and behind barns, whatever, as they originally were," Yoe said. "It's fascinating to see the rudimentary beginnings of sex comics. And they were rudimentary, they were for the most part very crudely drawn, except for one artist I really enjoy, Wesley Morse, who did Bazooka Joe comics later on for Topps chewing gum, as I did myself later on -- Yoe Studio eventually did Bazooka Joe comics. I'm proud to have followed Wesley Morse's footsteps in that way.
"And now I'm doing this sex exhibit, so I feel like I'm following in his footsteps again, because he had these wonderful Tijuana bibles that were just little 8-page booklets, often badly drawn and badly printed, but very explicit, very hard-core action, with popular cartoon characters of the day. I see Dick Tracy or Blondie or even Mickey Mouse, years before Wally Wood did his version of it, you see these popular cartoon characters having coitus. So that's an interesting cultural artifact, you see a lot of the history."
Yoe noted a few other notable characteristics of the Tijuana bibles, including their unusual method of distribution and the role they sometimes played in young people's lives. "Distribution was very underground, it was the mob printing and distributing these booklets through their normal channels. Like if I buy heroin, I get a bible at the same time!" Yoe said, laughing. "But the Tijuana bibles served a purpose: they educated a whole generation on how to have sex and what sex looked like, because this was way before the internet or even printed magazines that were explicit. It was the sex education of the day. I think they should still use Tijuana bibles in sex ed classes, I'm a proponent of that."
Walking through the exhibition, Yoe said, "You just see the different ways, the different takes on sex" that have prevailed throughout the years. "Some of the contemporary cartoons are doing very hardcore stuff, but now it's not just second-rate artists but first-class artists are doing sexual scenes. I don't think enough artists are tackling the subject, but there are some terrific artists drawing their sexual fantasies. But in between the beginning and the contemporary, there's all kinds of different approaches. Some eras, like the Dan DeCarlo era, are just pinup cartoons and jokey men's magazine cartoons and that was the main expression of sex in cartoons at that time. Our culture's attitude toward sex is very much reflected in the ways these things were distributed, the content that the cartoonists put into them, what was acceptable and what was not acceptable, and what was of interest at the time. So you do get a whole cultural history, besides just having a lot of fun.
"Which I think is the main purpose of sex and comics is to have fun. I'm all for education and cultural analysis, but I'm more about entertainment and fun. I think that's the takeaway from this exhibit, is people just tell me how fun it is, how much they enjoyed themselves, looking at the work," Yoe continued. "The museum did a world-class job, the exhibit's beautiful. It's great to see these great cartoonists with their left-of-mainstream subjects possibly really get their due in a world-class museum."