NOTE: The following article contains adult language and is intended for mature readers.
No parental advisory was needed for Friday night’s Emerald City Comicon panel talking explicitly about sex in comics.
It was the place to be if you wanted to hear some of Image Comics’ smartest, outspoken and filthiest creators talk about sex in their work -- as well as make a lot of dick jokes.
On the panel were creators all working on series that deal with sex in some form: Fiona Staples (“Saga”), Matt Fraction (“Sex Criminals”), Howard Chaykin (“Black Kiss 2”), Joe Casey (“Sex”) and Brandon Graham (“Multiple Warheads”). Image publisher Eric Stephenson led the panel, titled "Putting the 'Graphic' in Graphic Novels." It started with Chaykin talking about the origins of his controversial smut-classic "Black Kiss," and the 2012 sequel that has already been banned in Canada and the UK.
“I love smut. I really do,” said the legendary creator of “American Flagg,” telling the room about how his fascination with it began as a child, rooting around in his father’s underwear drawers for dirty photographs.
Chaykin added that “drug addiction and alcoholism drove me to the kind of hubris to originally do ‘Black Kiss,’” and told the crowd that he had always planned a sequel, but it was Stephen Sondheim, the accomplished songwriter, that ultimately inspired him to revisit his porn masterpiece.
The tone for the panel was set with an uncensored slideshow that began with some extremely graphic pages from “Black Kiss 2,” including a page with one of the best comic sound effects ever – “spinkle tink” – according to Fraction.
Fraction talked about his upcoming collaboration with Chaykin, “Satellite Sam” – set in the golden age of television, a noir story featuring alcoholics and trangressive sex -- as well as his upcoming sex comedy with Chip Zdarsky, “Sex Criminals,” about two lovers who have the power to freeze in time when they get intimate. Some pages were shown of the lead female character having sex, then becoming frozen in time.
“It is incredibly lonely, in a way that sex can be, and divisive and makes her feel separate, and then one night at a party, she hooks up with a guy with the same gift [and they] discover that when the two of them have sex, they experience the world freezing, together,” said Fraction. “And they do what anybody would do, they start robbing banks.”
Brandon Graham, known for spearheading the “Prophet” revival, as well as “King City” and “Multiple Warheads,” talked about his early career in comics, working on porn comics while living in New York City.
“I had this fantastic freedom. I was working for NBM [Publishing] and this website… they would say, do whatever you want as long as there’s sex in it,” said Graham. “And it had to be a certain amount of sex per pages or they would start cutting pages, whether it ruined the story or not.”
Graham showed off one of his old porn comics about a guy with magical testicles who could ejaculate whatever he wanted, from root beer to the Eiffel Tower. “I was really pushing myself to have fun because I was drawing penises all day,” said Graham. “I had to draw penises all day, or I would lose my apartment.”
Casey was up next, whose appearance at Emerald City was tied to his new Image release, “Sex.” Stephenson and Casey both told the crowd they were hoping to sell a lot of sex this weekend. Casey was asked how he approached sex – namely the male nudity – in the his previous Image book, “Butcher Baker.”
“It was very encouraging that people accepted that much cock in the book,” said Casey, who added he was hoping to break the record for saying the word “cock” during a panel.
“It was actually a lot more rewarding to delve into that material, in terms of having no limitations… [the sexual material] served the story, and it served the character,” explained Casey.
“You can have your cock and eat it, too,” he concluded, to some cheers and jeers from fans and some on the panel. “I crossed the line,” he said.
Casey’s “Sex” -- described as “50 Shades of Gray” meets “Batman” -- follows a superhero who hangs up the cape and ends his holy war on crime for good, after his mentor dies and tells him to leave his monk-life existence behind and start living his life.
“Imagine if you were stunted, emotionally, at maybe 12,13,14 but yet you’re 35 years old and you have to walk in this adult world,” said Casey, showing off some graphic pages of the hero visiting a peepshow in the seedy neighborhood he had helped clean up as a superhero.
Staples talked about “Saga,” her and Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera, described as “Star Wars taken to an adult place,” with two lead characters that are new parents. “Sex is often a vital part about becoming a parent,” said Staples to laughs.
The audience was treated to a yet-to-be-seen page from "Saga" #11, featuring leads Alana and Marko very naked, and very much enjoying themselves.
“This is the moment of our narrator Hazel’s conception. It’s a little bit awkward because a grown-up Hazel is actually narrating this scene,” explained Staples. “I feel like no matter what I draw, it never looks dirty. It always looks clean and nice.”
The panel was turned over to audience questions, and Staples was asked about much freedom she was given designing Sextillion, the brothel planet from issue four. Staples said there wasn’t a lot of detail in the script. “[Vaughan] outlined a few major points – like flying lesbians,” but let the artist design what would be on display.
Joe Casey was asked if he uses sex as porn, or as a means to tell the story.
“Just normal superhero comics are their own kind of pornography,” Casey told the crowd. “It’s just that you have fight scenes instead of cum shots, basically. If you read the book, it’s the same formula. Every issue will have in lieu of some punch-out fight scene, it will have some sexual content.”
“I felt that was the formula every comic book fan, mostly, is used to. They’re used to this rise of action into some climactic moment,” he said.
The panel was asked about their own personal depictions of sex in their comics, and if they worry about creating exploitive work. Graham admitted it’s a fine line to walk, but said, “It’s OK to objectify a little, as long as it’s not dehumanizing.”
“Draw whatever you want, just don’t be creepy about it,” he said.
Casey explained that his use of sex is always about the character, even if it looks exploitive on the page. He compared the difference to porn and comics, saying in “straight porn movies there’s not much of a plot, and it’s just an excuse to start fucking.”
“When I was a camp counselor, I was taking 'Katy Keene' comics away from –-“ began Chaykin, as the panel stopped to a screeching halt.
“What?” asked a shocked Fraction. “Hold the fucking phone. You were a camp counselor?”
“For underprivileged kids,” Chaykin explained, dropping the biggest bombshell of the afternoon. Getting back on track, Chaykin explained his own take on his work: “When I’m doing the stuff I’m doing, I’m not doing it to titillate anybody but myself. I’m having a good time.”
The outspoken creator added, “I find superhero comics so rife with both irony and unstable sexuality that it’s almost impossible to approach it as parody. They’re just guys running around in bondage costumes beating the shit out of people they don’t know because they look bad. That’s what it’s about. I mean, Batman had a bad day when he was 8, and we’re paying for it.”
A recent list of most controversial comics at the Huffington Post, written by Max Alan Collins, was discussed, including the surprising inclusion of Dick Tracy.
“You know it’s Cock Tracy,” said Graham, getting laughs from the panel.
When asked how much graphic sex was in “Sex Criminals,” Fraction said it’s used primarily as a setup, and that it’s dirty, but not over-the-top.
“I don’t know if I’ve written a page with the intent to titillate,” said Fraction. “I know I’ve certainly gotten pages back from artists that have added asses [or sexier content] that wasn’t in the script, but I don’t know that I’ve ever deliberately written a sex scene to just be a sex scene.”
Casey chimed in: “Just because we deal with this material, it doesn’t mean we lose our sense as storytellers. It’s like saying we’ve ever written a fight scene just to see two guys beat the shit out of each other and get off on it. There’s always subtext, and there’s always character.”
The creators reflected on the weirdness of their jobs, with Graham mentioning there’s always the potentially terrifying idea of actually arousing a reader. Chaykin told of a recent gathering he was at, where someone told him, “Holy shit, you gave me my first wood.”
“I was verklempt,” added Chaykin dryly.
The conversation turned to Fraction and Zdarsky’s collaboration on “Sex Criminals." Fraction mentioned a recent conversation with Zdarsky about one gag on an upcoming cover that might have gone too far.
“'Is that a condom stuffed with hot dogs?' ‘Yeah.’ You might need to take that off for the cover. That might be fine for the inside, but I don’t think we can have anything even remotely dick-shaped [on the cover]. Like the Christopher Walken mask and Canadian maple leaf studded leather paddle – all that’s fine, but the condom stuffed with hotdogs might cross a line,'” said Fraction to laughs from the audience.
A fan asked if the comic creators feared being pigeon-holed creatively, and dealing with fan expectations of their work.
“I spent 15 years writing shitty TV,” said Chaykin. “When I look at a book and a 20-page breakdown, I know that I have to do a certain amount of obligatory points, keeping characters alive…that’s the only obligation I feel to the material, keeping alive certain characters arcs…”
“But that’s just storytelling,” said Casey. “That’s not pressure from the audience.”
Chaykin agreed, adding he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of his work.
Fraction took the point further, saying he thinks it’s not actually writing when you’re worried about the audience wants or demands. “That’s just digging a hole, you’re collating data,” he said.
Graham added, “Some artists kind of create expectations for their work. Like I was saying, if you picked up a Frank Cho book and it was just dudes in baggy clothes, then people would probably not be very happy.”
“But at least with a Frank Cho book, you know Frank was the first one to beat off to that comic,” added Casey to laughs.