Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Lust

This article was orginally published in 2007.
Ellen Forney has a clear understanding of sex as an act that, when examined closely, has a strong undercurrent of ridiculousness to it. Not just in the act itself, but in the things that people will do and say to get it. Anyone familiar with personal ads in the back of local weekly independent newspapers, especially those that have "variations" or sex-only ads, will understand that this is doubly true for fetish ads. Yet these ads, however absurd they are on many levels, reveal something important about human desire and human happiness. Once a week, Forney has been adapting one ad from Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger for print in that publication. This is from their "Lustlab" section: people looking for a very specific kind of sexual fulfillment. Forney pointedly avoids stereotypical, frattish "man seeks two women for fantasy" scenarios, instead focusing on kinks that are a bit more unusual.

The key to the success of her cartoon adaptations is that she understands the line between humor and mockery in her ads. She fully embraces the often ridiculous nature of the desires expressed while still respecting those needs. The result is a series of cartoons that can best be described as "playful". The cover image itself is a hilarious triumph of design--we see a star covering up the woman's breast, which is understandable, but it takes a second to figure out why the second star is so big until the reader notices the strap on the woman's thigh. Forney's playfulness and openness regarding sex and sexuality put her in just the right position to "solve" the problem of adapting these ads in a clever manner. Be it depicting these desires as ads, turning text into illustration or just using an amusing cartoon image, her cartoons are both clever triumphs of composition and strangely endearing translations of desire.

It's no accident that The Stranger's sex-advice columnist Dan Savage wrote the introduction, because the potential readership for this book is less a comics-buying audience than one that would purchase a collection of Savage's columns. As such, that would explain the book opening up with forty pages of interviews with Forney and a selection of people who placed kinky ads--"satisfied customers", if you will. I thought it was a mistake to place these at the front of the book, because the real attraction here is Forney's cartooning, not the detailed fantasies of furry-MUCKers or sadists. It certainly wasn't very illuminating of Forney's process, especially since there were no cartoons accompanying them in those sections. If they had to be included, it would have made more sense to make them part of an appendix. On the other hand, the handful of selections where a few lines from the actual text of the ads she drew from placed next to her cartoon shed a lot of light on her process.

It's interesting to contrast this book to some of the recent pin-up collections that Fantagraphics has recently published. Those books are designed to create stylized images that evoke lust and desire in their target audiences, to titillate. The reader projects their fantasy onto the image, which has no inner life of its own. On the other hand, the images in Lust are far from erotic, even when many of them are much more sexually explicit than a standard pin-up girl. There is some degree of voyeuristic or people-watching titillation, but this is still a very different experience than from a pin-up book that is divorced from reality. While Forney playfully finds the humor in the kinks of her subjects, at heart these ads are the honest projection of someone else's desires. Forney cheerfully confronts the reader with the desires of everyday people, setting up an interaction between reader and image that is in direct opposition to that of a pin-up book. While we may chuckle at the impishness of some the kinks described here, what Forney really does is get us to think about our own kinks and fantasies--and encourage us to both embrace them and see them for how frivolous they can be.

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