"It makes me laugh to imagine anyone finding my comic work erotic," states Aline Kominsky Crumb, "and in general I can say the same thing about most Underground comic art." She's got a point. Other people's erotic fantasies and obsessions are ridiculous, unless they happen to turn you on, too.
If Sturgeon's Law is true, then ninety per cent of all the erotic comics drawn, then and now, are crap. Tim Pilcher's brief but informative history of the remaining ten per cent revels in the allure of that minority of comics, those drawn with a powerful personal style. What's weirdly consistent about powerful personal styles (and this is an observation Pilcher never quite manages to articulate, though he comes close) is that going public with one's sexual fantasies means going public with one's fascination with the grotesque as well. It's as if artists can't choose which boundaries not to cross in their work, not if they're being honest with themselves as well as dedicated to cartooning as a professional pursuit. That dedication, and society's expectations of us, however hypocritical, may explain why the history of erotic comics (at least up to this volume's cutoff date of the early 'seventies) is a history of artists getting screwed -- by their publishers, usually, but also by the police and the courts.
This is a picture book, and Pilcher's selection of images is very good indeed. The first of five chapters covers the prehistory of underground comics, from the bounty of the 18th century (Hogarth, Rowlandson, Japanese shunga prints, and illustrations for the Kama Sutra), through saucy postcards, Tijuana Bibles, pin-up paintings, and risque comic strips for servicemen. Chapter 2 covers the rise of Playboy magazine and its low rent competitors, but it's too bad Pilcher couldn't get the rights to reproduce any of Kurtzman and Elder's delicious "Little Annie Fanny" panels.
Chapter 3 focuses on bondage comics, while the fourth chapter is devoted to the underground comix of the 'sixties, dominated by the Picasso of the counterculture, R. Crumb. The final chapter is a brief survey of the rise of the French and Italian erotic comics industries, with their daunting standards of draftsmanship, as well as a glimpse of the Mexican sensacionale, which sells twenty million copies a month while satisfying what seems to be a national taste for erotica that's both gratuitous and moralistic -- rather like American sitcoms, now that I think of it.