Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thirty Days of CCS #24: Queerotica

Queerotica is the aptly-titled anthology containing "queer erotica". What I found interesting about it is that the editorial team of Allie Kleber, Joyana McDiarmid, Laurel Lynn Leake and Sasha Steinberg specifically asked each contributor to come up with their own definitions of both "queer" and "erotica". That bit of editorial direction proved crucial in forcing each artist to think deeply about their choices in coming up with pieces (stories or illustrations) that fully expressed their own understanding of the term. Reclaiming pornography/erotica is something that every generation of cartoonists seems to do every few years, from the earliest underground comics (both gay and straight) to anthologies like Smut Peddler, True Porn, Dirty Stories and Thickness. Each one of those books had a strong editorial hand that both selected and directed their contributors to think about identity and sex in particular ways, and Queerotica's finely-honed editorial edict led to a surprisingly coherent and fluid read.

The anthology itself is beautifully designed. Leake's front cover is sensitive and evocative, with hands belonging to various genders and identities interlocking with each other, evincing both desire and tenderness. The back cover's parade of different shoes amusingly both recapitulates the front cover's theme of diversity and gives it a slightly dirtier take, suggesting what happens when shoes come off. The book's purple ink was an interesting choice, working well for the large variety of storytelling choices and line weights in the book. The pin-ups all contained striking images, some sillier than others. One person's erotic image is of course completely ridiculous to another person, so the pinup by "A.B. Fiddlestyx" featuring a furry reflection in a mirror just made me laugh. Laura Terry's monster orgy was deliberately funny but also had a strange erotic charge. Rio Aubry Taylor's beautiful drawing of two figures in an intimate embrace was the perfect complement to Terry's over-the-top image, once again recapitulating the kinds of pieces a reader would find throughout the anthology. That was repeated with Miz Moody's feather tickling illustration and Rachel Dukes' frank but tender image of a woman in front of her partner wearing a strap-on dildo.

The opening piece, Alexis Cornell's "Arbiter and the Bird", features two women in bed, as one is nervous about having sex. It's a funny, sensitive piece that explores the very idea of sex as a key component of relationships and how this can be difficult for many people. Cornell nails the characters' body language and relationship to each other in space, which is absolutely crucial for a story about this level of intimacy. Morgan Boecher's "To Share" is about how difficult it can be to find a sexual partner, someone to share his body with, after he made the transition from female to male. Boecher makes the most of his somewhat crude line to tell a story that's in turns sad, funny and hopeful. "Headspace", by Ivy Weine and Kleber, is a mild BD/SM tale, the sort that uses it as a healing force. Parts of it felt pretty rote and cliched, and at ten pages the story started to verge into self-indulgence. Kleber's illustrations for it were quite good, especially the weird, freckled character design for one of the protagonists.

Kimball Anderson and Leake's piece, "Are You Sure" is not unlike Cornell's piece, but this time it features two (physically gendered) men. Leake's choice to use a fuzzy, distorted line and a thin line weight was interesting and appropriate, given the difficult feelings discussed in this story. That fuzziness made the intensity of their actual sexual contact all the more intense as one partner engages the other in his reticence and gender ambiguity (the partner identifies as the non-gender specific "neutrois"), while the other has to confront his partner's differing sex drive. By contrast, Lena Chandhok's line in "Oral Sex" is smooth and even cartoony, as she relates an argument between two women experimenting with talking dirty to each other, the awkwardness and upset that this causes, and their eventual make-up sex. Chandhok's approach here is direct, both in terms of the humor and emotional content and the explicitly detailed manner in which she drew the sex scenes.

Joyana McDiarmid's "Nothing In this World" explores polyamory and one woman's struggle with the concept, as well as her (soon to be ex-) boyfriend's being OK with her having sex with women but not men. For this character, she views any sexual encounter outside of their relationship as cheating and is distressed to find out that he doesn't. This leads her to an encounter with a woman who talks about polyamory and her relationships with other women, bringing her into a moment concentrating totally on the present and what they bring to each other. McDiarmid certainly doesn't skimp on the sex scenes either, but they're completely integrated with the story's emotional content, down to the very end. Her rendering style, with angular faces that have a minimal level of detail combined with her fleshy way of drawing bodies, makes this one of the most effective stories in the book.

Fydor Pavlov's "Gentleman's Gentleman" is more traditional gay porn drawn in a thin, delicate line; there's not much more to the story than just the sex scene. Lawrence Gullo's "The Fisherman" and Laura Hughes' "The Outlaw" are two example of using fantasy tropes to explore sex and identity. Gullo's story about an alienated fisherman neatly ties in issues related to otherness as the title character winds up having a silent sexual relationship with a gender-ambiguous mermaid/man. Hughes' story doesn't escape its fantasy tropes, mostly goes for laughs and winds up as the only juvenile story in the anthology. The book ends on a strong note with Melanie Gillman's "Wrappers" is a different kind of fantasy story, one in which both gender and genitalia are totally different constructs. Her character design here is especially excellent, as she quickly deflects reader expectations while still being able to relate both the embarrassment and powerful sense of discovery when two people explore each other's bodies. The way Gillman also subtly explores concepts like gender pronouns is also quite clever. Steinberg's "Somnata" is a beautiful and later hilarious way to celebrate this anthology, as it starts with three figures dancing an erotic and delicate ballet (Steinberg's line is beautiful and thin here) and ends with Steinberg himself crashing the party. All told, Queerotica has a high batting average of quality stories for the initial volume of such an anthology, and its impeccable design and careful sequencing by its editors make it a feast for the eyes.

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