Praxis

Pornographic space-time and the potential of fantasy in comics and fan art

Lyndsay Brown

University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—By putting pornographic comics and fan art into conversation, this article contends that works intended to depict and fuel sexual fantasy structure time and space differently with the goal of directly engaging the reader and extending the duration of her pleasure. Further, the comics and pieces of fan art examined herein are produced by, for, and about women and suggest an alternative vision of female desire that challenges contemporary understandings of pornography's utility and functioning as it intersects with fantasy in the private sexual economy.

[0.2] Keywords—Desire; Narrative; Structure

Brown, Lyndsay. 2013. "Pornographic Space-time and the Potential of Fantasy in Comics and Fan Art." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0465.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Recent work in the field of porn studies has examined the ways in which film, video, and online technologies have reshaped our engagement with erotic and pornographic content, but less attention has been paid to still mimetic visual art, that is to say, comics. Comics by, for, and about women, whether published by the comics industry or produced by fans online, have received even less consideration. While lesbian erotic comics offer a variety of scenarios using a nonnarrative sequential structure, pornographic fan art explores the erotic potential of a single panel that relies on a common canonical source as well as a collective archive of other works. Pornographic comics and fan art can be drawn into conversation to determine how graphic media depict and fuel fantasy, as well as whether texts that evoke female desire more fully figure an alternative reading of not just pornography's nature and effects on the consumer, but of desire itself. Additionally, the works considered herein challenge fundamental beliefs about the nature and utility of fantasy, particularly in its relationship to masturbation and the private sexual economy.

[1.2] When drawing a rough distinction between categories of sequential and/or multipanel fan art and nonsequential/single-image works, an interesting division appears: the vast majority of the former is nonpornographic, while the opposite is true of the latter. Sequential fan art may depict commentary on a source or offer its own narrative, but explicit sex, unlike romance, is rarely a central theme. Likewise, single-image works are most commonly devoted either to a sexual scene or to a figure or figures in the style of pinup art, as in the case of wallpapers or title images for fan fiction, making single image fan art a more productive form of fan work to consider alongside pornographic comics. As a result of generic influences and constraints provided by the content, pornographic comics and fan art express a context- and content-specific understanding of space and time, embracing scenario over narrative and surface experience over deep identification without necessarily requiring narrative resolution in a climactic end (pun intended). Further, pornographic comics and fan art produce a more involved and complex relationship between consumer and text by directly addressing and engaging the consumer; the result is a multivalent and polymorphous experience of identification, objectification, and destabilization of subjectivity. The visual pleasures offered by pornographic comics and fan art are inextricable from their formal and material conditions, and an encounter with those pleasures signals not an isolated or solipsistic descent into escapism, but a window into a different manner of perceiving the self in the world.

2. Space and time in comics

[2.1] In their books detailing the nature of the comics form, Will Eisner (1985) and Scott McCloud (1993) describe how time and space function in a manner unlike either written narrative or film, largely as a result of the difficulty of representing three-dimensional events in two dimensions. Eisner (1985) observes that "paneling or boxing the action not only defines its perimeters but establishes the position of the reader in relation to the scene and indicates the duration of the event. Indeed, it 'tells' time," as the image within the panel becomes a frozen segment of "what is in reality an uninterrupted flow of action," now broken up into representative images (28). Similarly, for McCloud (1993), "comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments" (67). Both Eisner and McCloud assert that the reader is an active contributor to an experience of the medium, unlike that of film or literature, as she participates in the creation of time and motion via—as McCloud notes—the experience of closure, which "allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality" (67). By suturing separate panels together, the reader perceives a fluid and consistent progression made necessary because time and space are the same thing in comics: the lack of sound and motion within drawn panels extends their duration and blurs the perception of time, and McCloud (1993) observes that no clear "conversion chart," such as one panel equaling one minute of time, exists as a metric (100). The solution is closure, the method by which the reader "assemble[s] a single moment using scattered fragments" and thereby perceives the panel as a single action or event and the text itself as a narrative whole (79).

[2.2] Yet, as McCloud (1993) observes, time works in much more complicated ways in comics, and although closure is essential in the depiction of certain types of action or narrative, single panels can extend the reader's experience of time within them. While Eisner (1985) and McCloud (1993) use primarily mainstream American action and/or superhero comics as their examples of the form—Eisner his own work, which is based in a tradition of newspaper comics devoted to action-based narratives, and McCloud panels from a variety of sources, but overwhelmingly samples of 1950s and 1960s superhero comics from such artists as Jack Kirby—and thereby depict a period and type of American comics that emphasizes action/reaction panel transitions, along with specific moments of action that propel the reader onward, neither author supports a singular form of narrative progression. Instead, McCloud articulates how panel and page layouts in comics serve as temporal cheats, imperfect analogues of the real world in which "a silent panel…could indeed be said to depict a single moment" (98). That same single moment "can actually be held" through a caption or an alteration of the panel's size and shape, or it can "produce a sense of timelessness" and invite the reader to linger rather than moving on to the next image (102). Both context and content influence the reader's perception of time and space: a fight scene has distinct beats that lend themselves well to what McCloud identifies as "moment-to-moment" and "action-to-action" transitions, yet a sex scene, while similarly intimate and narrowly focused, is less linear and less narrative (74). As the works examined in this essay demonstrate, comics with pornographic content involve a contemplative and elaborative presentation of the image and a lack of direct, narratively propulsive transitions.

[2.3] Deborah Shamoon (2004) cites Natsume Fusanosuke's (1996) analysis of narrative in Japanese comics to demonstrate that both shojo manga (comics targeted at girls 10–18) and their successor, josei or ladies' comics (targeted at adult women), are concerned less with depicting action than with "illustrat[ing] the emotions of the characters; for this reason," according to Fusanosuke, "montage is preferable to an orderly progression of panels" (quoted in Shamoon 2004, 83). McCloud observes that the generalized and iconic qualities of the face draw the reader in, and Shamoon surveys various design innovations found in both shojo and ladies' comics that "draw the reader's attention to the image of the female protagonist for the purpose of sympathizing and identifying with her," producing numerous panels of her face and body so as to allow the reader to vicariously experience her emotions as opposed to her actions (84). While action does occur in ladies' comics, the genre is more concerned with exploring the character's subjectivity than with her struggles against a supervillain, for example.

[2.4] Narrative comics (or more precisely, superhero comics) are understood to progress to a point of closure from panel to panel and from left to right, developing identification through a deep engagement with characters and a satisfaction through linear progression via a traditional novelistic structure. This understanding of comics demonstrates a privileging of teleological concerns: fundamentally, so the argument goes, the form works as it does to produce a satisfactory end for the reader as she progresses from panel to panel to reach a conclusion. Yet this element of comics is not constant or even wholly consistent across genres, cultural traditions, or international forms. While an extended formal survey is beyond the scope of this article, the work of Chris Ware demonstrates the type of formal, structural, and narrative experimentation present in American indie comics, and McCloud (1993) discusses Osamu Tezuka as an example of Japanese mainstream comics. Additionally, given the influence of content on form, the purpose of pornographic comics—to arouse the reader—suggests that such works must mobilize numerous formal elements to heighten and sustain pleasure for as long as possible, and engage the reader in a manner distinct from, though informed by, filmed pornography.

3. The problem with pornographic fantasy

[3.1] Modern-day comics and fan art rely on some filmic conventions, such as presenting the body in ways that are more pleasing to the viewer than pleasurable or even possible for the characters involved, as well as overdetermining signifiers of pleasure (the sounds of orgasm, the money shot) to amplify their affective power over the consumer. Both McCloud (1993) and Eisner (1985) describe comics' use of space and time through reference to the moving image and its realistic representation of moving bodies, suggesting first that film serves as a useful model for audiences more familiar with film than comics, and second, that both forms aspire to an ideal of visual authenticity. In the comics and fan art discussed below, however, the ideal instead appears to be one of authenticity of feeling, conveying characters' emotions and experiences in an authentic manner without relying on a simulation of realistic time and space. Linda Williams (1999) defines pornography as "the visual (and sometimes aural) representation of living, moving bodies engaged in explicit, usually unfaked, sexual acts with a primary intent of arousing viewers," which privileges an objective ideal of physical "truth" (30). Thus, unlike fiction, still photography, or comics, film has a privileged position to offer truth claims about bodies and their responses, as male arousal and ejaculation in filmed pornography are clearly real.

[3.2] Yet if, as Williams (1999) contends, the goal of hard core pornography is "making visible the involuntary confession of bodily pleasure," a quest similar enough to the documentary genre that narrative or characterization are set aside in favor of discrete scenarios, a problem arises when it comes to representing the female body's confession (50). Williams argues that the invisibility of the female orgasm, given its location inside the body, means that any actress may be giving a voluntary performance or otherwise faking it. Thus, these films continually attempt and fail to depict the "visible 'truth' of sexual pleasure itself" via the female body and instead must turn to the male body's obvious signs (50). Williams acknowledges that her study only examines heterosexual films made by and presumably largely for men, and that this issue may be absent or differently figured in lesbian pornography, for example, but concludes that the male-centered economy of hard core's "obsessive focus on the female body proves to be a narcissistic evasion of the feminine 'other' deflected back to the masculine self" (267). The result is a failure to figure female desire from a female perspective.

[3.3] One other significant element of Williams's (1999) definition is that pornography is produced with the intent of arousing its consumers, which guides how bodies and actions are depicted, but which also raises various issues of exploitation of and violence towards women. As Williams observes, antipornography feminists criticize the genre primarily with the claim that its consumption, presumably meant to satisfy male sexual fantasies, inevitably leads to various harmful effects on real women (note 1). This underlying belief, that consuming fiction perceived to be harmful leads to enacting in the real world the ideas and fantasies inspired by the fiction, has spurred widespread controversy, censorship, and social policy in a repetitive cycle with each new form of that fiction, from novels and film to television, comics, and video games (note 2). There is something suspect and dangerous about fantasy, and about art that allows us to access and express what Williams (1999) calls a "desire for self-abandon" in an unreal world filled with unreal objects (273). Since pornography exists to facilitate masturbation, examining arguments against it and the fictional vehicles that fuel it will shed light on what is so dangerous about desire and its spur to fantasy.

[3.4] In Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Thomas W. Laqueur (2003) charts how a constellation of anxieties, both medical and moral, came to center on masturbation as a discreet kind of sexual act in the early 18th century. Writers such as Wittgenstein, Kant, and Rousseau were not concerned with Catholic ideas about the sinfulness of the flesh but still remained convinced that masturbation was an act that should—and did—cause shame, guilt, and a host of other physical, psychological, and ethical issues. Masturbation was found to be essentially unnatural for three reasons: first, it is "motivated…by a phantasm" rather than by the real world; second, it is an act of private rather than social sexuality; and third, "it could be neither sated nor moderated" because it is inspired by "the mind's creations" alone (210). While desire for a person or act is checked and ended either by satiation or rejection, desire created by the mind for no real object was potentially without end, without limit, and without a way for the masturbator to reenter the sexual economy of the world. While Laqueur frames his inquiry within the context of the Enlightenment—in which industry, a public/private divide, the advent of rational rather than religious ideology, and print culture combined to generate precisely the autonomous, imaginative, and self-controlled subjects that were so easily seduced by the excesses produced by the rise of modernity—many of these ideas remain in contemporary fears about the fundamental excessiveness of desire.

[3.5] What appears to be at stake in the three-century outcry over masturbation is not just the danger of forsaking the real for the illusory, but that the self requires protection from imagined threats even more than from real ones. As Laqueur observes, medical scholars in the Enlightenment considered "nerves and nervous fluids" at the center of human development—consider the empiricist vision of the child's mind as a blank slate—and believed that experiences penetrated through the senses to affect the body directly via those elements (2003, 204). Traces of this idea that "we are creatures open to endless stimulation, material and psychological" are apparent in Williams and other scholars of film and video pornography, along with the belief that "wrong or inappropriately modulated…stimuli" can lead to mental and physical deformation, in the view of 18th-century doctors, or to rape and sexual violence, in the view of antipornography advocates (Laqueur 2003, 204–5).

[3.6] Masturbation with the aid of a text was not considered any less harmful; like Williams (1999), Laqueur observes that pornography—written or filmed—has the most concentrated power to affect the body of the consumer, and both authors document a fear of "hordes of autonomous but somehow complicit individuals who do not cooperate because they know they do not need each other" for sexual or any other satisfaction (2003, 357). What, then, makes fantasy, specifically sexual fantasy, so threatening? Claims that fantasies are produced by the mind alone ignore the influence of culture, particularly how desires are shaped by experiences with other people as well as with fiction. And when the self does turn inward to contemplate idiosyncratic scenarios for the purpose of achieving orgasm, what is to prevent it from returning to the external world? Desire writ large may be inexhaustible, but the body and mind certainly are not. If the belief articulated in the Enlightenment that fantasy is inherently solipsistic, inferior to reality, and generates nothing is set aside, the discourse of pornography gives way to alternatives, including a renewed interest in what happens when the consumer engages with her dirty book, film, or comic. For Laqueur's self-obsessed and isolated reader, solitary sex not only offered a safer and perhaps easier option, but also a different type of pleasure:

[3.7] the pleasures of the novel—"nobody's story"—were the pleasures of fictionality itself: the frisson of absorption in a reality that was known to be artifice…If "fictionalizing" in general is a way of being present to ourselves, a way of self-grasping and a way of escaping, of overstepping and of creating boundaries, then the stakes in reading a particular form of fictionalizing—the novel—are great: reading novels could create new ways of being morally present to oneself for good or ill. (Laqueur 2003, 320)

[3.8] Laqueur's (2003) observations about the potential value of artifice are suggestive, as they reveal a fluid and unstable subjectivity constantly negotiating the utility of what is taken in along with the possibilities for being present to oneself in the world. While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine the coincidence or noncoincidence of fantasy and action, much less the exact influence of the former on the latter, Laqueur's description of fantasy as both useful and generative may be specifically relevant to pornographic comics and fan art by, for, and about women, particularly given the role women usually play in mainstream pornography.

[3.9] As Williams (1999) observes, the answer that hard core provides to the question of what women want is the penis, preferably that of the watching male. Yet Shamoon (2004) suggests that pornographic comics by and for women express a desire to abandon the self to pleasure. In comparing the female audience for pornographic comics and for comics as a whole in Japan and the United States, Shamoon identifies access as a primary issue. In the United States, the comics audience as a whole is small, with few comics targeting women, much less produced by them; technical, financial, and time constraints inhibit the potential for audience growth (77–79). Japan's tradition of producing specific genres for women and girls stretches back to the mid-1960s, and Shamoon surveys the genre of ladies' comics, which are drawn by women and take a relatively realistic view of contemporary women and their desires, to determine what vision of "female spectatorship and visual pleasure" they offer (80).

[3.10] Similar to traditional pornography, ladies' comics rely on displaying the nude and aroused female body more often and more consistently than the male body but for a very different reason. According to Shamoon (2004), this display serves not only to affect identification, as noted in section 2, but also to "arouse[] the sexual desire of the female reader through the endless play of difference and similarity between her and the characters" (83). Pleasure arises not from possessing the image but from engaging with the text's protagonist as both self and other, as ladies' comics display female pleasure in order to arouse it via "an exploration, not of the other…but of the self, or what may potentially become the self" (95). Male bodies are barely present during sex acts in Shamoon's examples, cut entirely or represented via action lines so that the panel can better frame the woman experiencing a transformative pleasure that can temporarily dissolve the character's subjectivity, and through identification generate a similar dissolution in the reader. The ultimate fantasy that Shamoon documents in ladies' comics is not to understand the desire of the other, to be wanted by the other, or even to experience a real moment of intimacy that removes the separation between self and other, but rather to achieve a satisfaction that is nearly sublime in its resulting loss of coherence and awareness of the self as self. While this radical dissolution is less on display in the comics discussed below, similar breakdowns in narrative, formal conventions, and structured experience offer another potential window into the intersection of female fantasy and desire.

4. Erotic structures of space-time in comics

[4.1] The protagonists of Molly Kiely's graphic novels That Kind of Girl (1999) and Tecopa Jane (2000), and Colleen Coover's two-volume Small Favors (2002–3), seem to exist in a sexual space detached from the outside world, unaware of political, social, or even ethical concerns. Similarly, while fan art can offer critique or commentary on canon and/or a variety of sociopolitical topics, pornographic fan art is largely unconcerned with such topics at the level of content (note 3). In terms of production, reception, and circulation, of course, a variety of political, social, and ethical issues arise, including kink (that is, raising awareness of correct practices and promoting interest in them), consent, and representation. Media fandom and female underground/alternative comics artists also share a history of negotiating issues of identity, including resisting the male gaze and articulating women's right to their own pleasure and to control how that pleasure is depicted. Kiely's and Coover's texts, however, imagine a world without such narrative struggles; instead they are formed according to a structure of desire, with its concomitant peaks and valleys. Linearity of panel-to-panel reading aside, a narrative drive is largely absent in these texts in favor of a determinedly unrealistic space-time of imaginative play. Some panels and pages unfold like snapshots, gesturing at a larger whole that is unrepresented and perhaps unrepresentable. Others call attention to the constructed nature of the form through reader addresses or playing with the image's simultaneous representative and physical presence.

Figure 1. Speech balloons containing sex noises come alive and transform into tentacles/restraints in Small Favors (2002–3). [View larger image.]

[4.2] Rather than producing a linear movement as in narrative comics or filmed pornography, pornographic comics, as a result of the nature of the form, allow the eye to linger and the reader to remain in an extended state of pleasure far longer than realistically possible—bodies tire, orgasms end. Instead, the representation of action in comics panels or fan art's single images produces a simultaneous distillation and elaboration of time and space within a sexual encounter, both in the work and the audience.

[4.3] What occurs in Kiely's (1999) That Kind of Girl is primarily sex, but that description trivializes how intertwined intimacy, art, travel, fantasy, and experience are in this loosely structured work. That Kind of Girl follows frustrated writer Dez Diva as she travels across the desert for a yearly meeting with a long-distance boyfriend—whose existence doesn't at all inhibit taking pleasure in other "beautiful boys." A flat tire leads to a brief erotic encounter with a man in need of jumper cables, and then Diva meets a trick rider named Ruby Justice, whose erotic calls to action inspire Diva to begin writing again. Yet the two women part just as this comic begins to feel like a romance, and Diva is suddenly back home in New York, hooking up with another beautiful boy after a pretentious art party. Clearly, neither monogamy nor the threat of disease exist in Kiely's universe (note 4), and without the constraints of such interpersonal complications, Kiely is free to depict sex outside of a narrative context. Instead, sex is an occurrence, a momentary pleasure that affects an individual's life without either defining that life or being subsumed into a larger framework of romance.

Figure 2. One of numerous momentary sexual encounters with a "beautiful boy" in Kiely's That Kind of Girl (1999). [View larger image.]

[4.4] The motivating theme of travel in That Kind of Girl reflects the content, resulting in a nomadic movement from scene to scene rather than a forward progression, and Kiely (1999) resists even the regular structure of a pornographic narrative, moving fluidly from landscape shots to individual sex scenes along the cross-country trip. Tecopa Jane (2000) has a similarly loose structure and contemplative pace, though the plot is a bit more complex: the protagonist, Jane, is heartbroken over her ex, Dixie, while Jane's roommate, Violet, Dixie's fraternal twin who transitioned to male beginning at age 9, longs for Jane from afar as she goes from one girl to another. Eventually Jane meets a girl named Jubilee, and the two begin a relationship, while Violet leaves town to join the rodeo. Not only does Tecopa Jane play with chronology, but it also breaks up narrative progression via flashbacks, voice-over, and breaking the fourth wall—one page features a future Jane narrating present events, who claims that "Other people may talk at you, too…But…I'm the real narrator. My name is the title." Unlike That Kind of Girl, Tecopa Jane presents a protagonist with multiple selves and perspectives, and grants significant time to Violet's longing, which culminates in a frustrated masturbation session interspersed with pieces of fantasy, making her a secondary protagonist.

Figure 3. Kiely breaks the fourth wall to have Jane address the reader in Tecopa Jane (2000). [View larger image.]

[4.5] Both texts reveal the influence of Kiely's work in photography and pinup art, as each grant as much focus to poses and brief but expansive images of silence as it does to moments of climax. Having eschewed a plot-based framework, Kiely's comics linger on oddly angled panels of bodies writhing together, accidental encounters, and other ephemeral moments chained together by an almost filmic focus on experiencing the image in depth, privileging visual over textual engagement. There's a remarkable lack of extraneous words in Kiely's work, which helps to shape her protagonists as icons or figures rather than characters with complex internal lives. Readers have some ideas as to what Diva wants, even her profession as an artist, but little idea of who she is—and other characters possess even more symbolic status. This emphasis on scenario over story, encounter rather than romance, and figure rather than character forms a kind of pornographic quest structure, and each part is given equal weight, whether a fuck or a dream. Diva's world is suggestive of what Williams (1999, 269) terms a pornotopia, "in which sexual utopia is divorced from the real world of its narrative," at least as relates to sex: Diva is never not in the mood, never experiences rejection, never regrets a sexual encounter, and ultimately seems to find sex, sexuality, and desire itself wholly unproblematic. This is even more the case for Colleen Coover, whose work depicts an ultimate sexual utopia without even the concerns of profession or nonsexual interests.

Figure 4. Kiely depicts a scene of activity in representative snapshots almost without text in That Kind of Girl (1999). [View larger image.]

[4.6] Coover calls Small Favors (2002–3) "girly porno," and this subtitle accurately describes her playful approach to representing pleasure. Small Favors' protagonist, Annie, is a girl so highly sexual that she's taken to an alternate world in order to be judged and punished by the queen of her conscience, who condemns Annie for using up her entire lifetime allotment of masturbation by age 21. The punishment is an eternal sexual monitor in the form of 4-inch-tall Nibbil, who herself is quickly seduced by the photographic proof of Annie's debauchery, and their first interaction is a play on the titty fuck. Interestingly, the event that begins Coover's series reflects the Enlightenment anxiety about how to monitor, regulate, and control the private sin of masturbation (Laqueur 2003), which is of course Annie's crime, and her punishment is not only a monitor but another person—making solitary sex unnecessary, as upon their first meeting, Annie and Nibbil recognize in each other what Eklund (2007, 15) calls a mutual "want to": a shared belief that the only requirement for sex is mutual consent. Though the two do express a specific, pair-bonded form of love for each other in these two volumes, that fact doesn't enforce a trajectory of romance.

Figure 5. Coover's protagonists in Small Favors (2002–3) have a "meet-fuck" rather than a "meet-cute." [View larger image.]

[4.7] Small Favors details the sexual adventures of Annie and Nibbil as they move from one scenario to another; rather than engaging issues of identity or politics, everyone in this universe is not just sex-positive, but wholly concerned with having as much sex as possible. The outside world of jobs, families, and obligations simply does not exist, and in that sense Coover's work is far more traditionally pornographic. The two girls exist to have sex, and sex that is pornographically perfect: without awkwardness, pain, or lack of desire. Shamoon (2004) observes that a common element of ladies' comics is the overdetermination of signifiers of female sexuality, and in that case wetness serves as both "proof of the woman's arousal and a demand for satisfaction" (91). Coover and Kiely both depict wetness as a similar proof, but less often and less overwhelmingly than a sheer desire for more, whether more numerous and varied partners in Kiely, or more sex in as many ways as possible in Coover. Each artist produces a pornotopia designed to engage readers' fantasies, in which anything unrelated to satisfying sex ceases to exist and female desire is voracious and always satisfied.

[4.8] Coover relies heavily on the discrete scenario, bracketing off and titling each segment according to its content, revealing the two volumes' origin as several single issues. As in the case of filmed porn, this allows the reader to select scenes for their erotic effectiveness, which grants the pornographic form, as Williams (1999) has noted, a surprising capacity for catering to individual desires, no matter how rare or specific. Small Favors encourages that type of reading, making it convenient to use the comics as stroke books that can be put down and picked up at will. For, if the only thing inhibiting sex is rejection from other people, since it is both a constant desire and constantly satisfying, all boundaries disappear: thus, Annie and Nibbil engage in numerous kinks, including BDSM, gender play, exhibitionism, and insertion, which is what happens when Nibbil masturbates herself from inside Annie's vagina, penetrating Annie as Annie masturbates. The rule in Coover's work appears to be that of function: everything, even the conventions of the form itself, is sexual.

Figure 6. Spaghetti and a wooden spoon are only two objects Coover repurposes as sex toys in Small Favors (2002–3). [View larger image.]

[4.9] Small Favors may be said to out-porn porn by the simple rule that if it exists in the world of the comic, it exists to be used as a means to achieve sexual satisfaction. This highly creative use of the natural environment also provides Coover's work with a level of variation necessary to pornography, as satiation usually leads to boredom. Given that Annie and Nibbil aren't real people, they can never get bored with sex. Each scene merely inspires further scenes, and the fluidity of their desire allows for endless new scenarios. If written porn offers fantasies from inside the protagonists but without visual stimulation, and if filmed porn offers verisimilitude with the caveat that the images may not accurately represent the reader's desires, then Coover's work demonstrates that comics can provide an excellent compromise. Kiely engages variation by extending the moment, eroticizing everything so as to sustain pleasure, while Coover eroticizes everything to literally fuck with it.

[4.10] Additionally, both artists' work directly engages the reader, in part to make the explicit content more accessible and acceptable, especially given the dearth of explicit lesbian American comics. Tecopa Jane acknowledges how readers are commonly engaged by pornography and by foregrounding its fictionality, grants the reader permission to appreciate what she might otherwise find demeaning or silly. In Small Favors, the playful and utopian mood of wholly uncomplicated pleasure is only enhanced by inviting the reader to play along with the genre's conventions, so that she may enjoy the series without self-consciousness or discomfort.

Figure 7. Thoughts become sex aids in Small Favors (2002–3). [View larger image.]

[4.11] Coover often uses the rule of function to break the fourth wall, as Nibbil turns the idea, in the traditional shorthand of a light bulb, into a dildo: here, thoughts literally get you off. As porn necessarily addresses the reader/viewer in order to implicate her in the fantasy, and that implication arises because of the genre's pragmatic goal of getting her off, these works' lack of narrative makes it easier for the reader to engage in and experience a surface intimacy, rather than one concerned with internal workings. Porn is utilitarian, which makes it, to a certain extent, disposable: without the complex though predictable structure of romance, the aim is to show us just enough (or perhaps just too much) to get us off. The vision of female desire and fantasy present in these works is one of limitless play, extended sensation, and shifting subjectivity. Readers are invited to identify with Diva's free spirit and greed for experience, Jane and Violet's struggles to find a deeper connection in the midst of enjoyable but insufficient sex, and Annie and Nibbil's boundless joy in a world full of sex, but none offers the kind of deep identification described by Shamoon (2004). Instead, this is a fantasy of a world in which such easily and consistently pleased women (and such pleasures) are possible.

5. Addressing the reader in comics and fan art

[5.1] The reader is implicated in the surface intimacy of given representations whether she is directly addressed or not and thus also in how the form is constructed. The comic must be opened up, spread flat, and made accessible, so that the reader can see the events occur. But direct addresses, as in Nibbil's acknowledgment of herself as a character on a page, break a traditional structural element of fiction that is presumed to allow for the suspension of disbelief. Awareness of the audience is innate to pornography, however, even if only in paratextual or contextual ways. Fan art contains within its ethos a similar drive, for while it may seem obvious that both the artist and viewer desire the creation of such work, the lack of distance between producer and consumer in fandom's gift economy reveals a shared emotional identification that sharply diverges from that of comics.

[5.2] Further, the audience for such fan art is likely to be largely female, given the demographics of American media fandom, and is thus free of the access problems that women commonly encounter with comics. The pieces considered in this article display the female body in order to heighten identification and engagement, but what they share with Kiely's and Coover's comics is a distinctly lesbian gaze, unlike Shamoon's (2004) ladies' comics; for this reason, the play of difference and similarity is more akin to desiring to have and to be both parties in a scenario, doubling the dual engagement that Shamoon describes. What is distinct about this femslash art is that its lesbian gaze may not be anchored to a discrete and lived sexuality on the part of the artist or the viewer, as fandom's "particular online spaces, cultures, and practices can queer women (and other gendered subjects) in ways not accounted for by most identity narratives," regardless of whether, as is the case in individual fantasies, those fantasies are directly related to one's lived experience (Lothian, Busse, and Reid 2007, 103).

[5.3] Shamoon (2004) is oddly dismissive of other Japanese comics genres targeted at women, particularly yaoi or boys' love (which she conflates with shotacon), largely for its unrealistic elements. While she briefly acknowledges that identification with the male protagonists may offer a temporary experience of empowerment due to feeling free of gender constraints, Shamoon rejects the "escapist fantasy" of boys' love and slash fiction for its "self indulgence" when compared to ladies' comics' more realistic genre conventions, as the latter can increase the reader's sexual freedom and autonomy (86). More complicated structures of identification, such as with a male body, or engagement, such as with a comic that, like traditional (men's) pornography, lacks character development and a complex narrative in favor of endless sexual acts, are apparently innately inferior because they lack the clear tie between artifice and the real that Laqueur (2003) describes. In applying traditional feminist theory to ladies' comics, Shamoon favors fantasies whose consumption may improve female readers' lives and thereby outright dismisses the possibility that alternative understandings of pleasure, sex, sexuality, gender, and even identity may be generated by escapist fantasies. As Williams (1999) observes:

[5.4] As long as sexual pleasure is viewed as having a proper function and an end…it tends to reside within the relatively parsimonious masculine economy of production. But when sexual pleasure begins to cultivate (already inherent) qualities of perversion; when it dispenses with strictly biological and social functions and becomes an end in itself;…when a desiring subject can take up one object and then another without investing absolute value in that object; and finally, when this subject sees its object more as an exchange value in an endless play of substitution than as use value for possession—then we are in the realm of what must now be described as a more feminine economy of consumption. (273)

[5.5] Fan art serves as an excellent example of such a "feminine economy of consumption," as the viewer contemplates the image and lingers in pleasure for its own sake before moving on to the next one of many potential objects for satisfaction.

Figure 8. Lizardspots's "Bit of Skirt" (2005). [View larger image.]

[5.6] Consider Lizardspots's (2005)"Bit of Skirt," a piece of Harry Potter pornographic fan art featuring the characters Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley. The piece depicts a frozen moment of action: each girl caressing the other with eyes closed and mouths open in midkiss. Whether by accident or design, Lizardspots cropped and framed the sketch—initially penciled on paper and then colored using Open Canvas—into a narrow vertical panel that cuts off the ends of Hermione's hair. This fact, along with the messy cross-hatching and roughly defined fingers, suggests urgency and illicit passion, a moment captured by accident. The two figures are posed against a blank backdrop, and this lack of location reveals the work's emphasis on a moment devoid of narrative progression. While pornography in general may largely be motivated by the desire to see what cannot commonly be seen, two components intensify this factor in fan art: first, the reliance on a preexisting canon that offers built-in emotional identification with the figures depicted; and second, the awareness that the fan will likely never see her beloved characters performing the desired acts. Depicting two characters overwhelmed with passion, frozen in time and thus unaware of the viewer's gaze, grants "Bit of Skirt" an illicit power, as the eye is drawn to subtle details rather than quickly progressing to the next image.

[5.7] Pornographic fan art can also take as its subject other fan works, just as art can inspire fan fiction, be produced to accompany a story (often for a larger challenge or fandom-wide event), or be commissioned as part of a festival. Twilightsorcery's (2008) "Just Us" was requested as part of the InsaneJournal community hp_summersmut's 2008 fan fiction and fan art exchange: participants filled out a survey listing characters they were willing to write or draw along with requests of their own, were matched according to the survey, and then posted their products anonymously. Unlike the freestanding comics, fan art is either anchored to its canonical frameworks, possibilities, and established scenarios, doubly anchored to both canonical and "fanonical" impressions, or further, is anchored yet again to an interpersonal context. Twilightsorcery acknowledges in the comments of the post that her depiction of Gabrielle was influenced by how Sweetcarolanne, for whom the work was produced, sees the character, demonstrating how this additional layer of interpretive context affects what the artist produces. This direct influence, in which the desire motivating the art isn't simply the artist's but also the recipient's, illustrates what Lothian, Busse, and Reid (2007) call a queer economy of exchange, in which "shared sexual fantasies bring people together from a wide array of identities and locations" (103).

Figure 9. Twilightsorcery's "Just Us" 2008. [View larger image.]

[5.8] As in the previous piece, the figures here are drawn in midaction, entirely focused on the experience of pleasure: though their positioning in the frame is clearly for the viewer's benefit, none of the characters is looking out from the image. While a nude Luna Lovegood is drawn in profile, bending down to caress Gabrielle Delacour's cheek, Gabrielle is posed facing the viewer, kneeling and dressed only in a white corset, hands behind her back. The two women's bodies are colored in, while the surrounding room is penciled and thus vague; this lack of specific environment leaves room for the audience's imagination. The piece presents canonical elements—Luna's radish earrings in particular, though the watching portrait serves both as a nod to the Harry Potter universe and as a doubling effect, as the viewer is in a similar voyeuristic position—and thus anchors the image in a specific context, despite the lack of source material devoted to the two characters. Further, the specificity of characterization present in Luna's mischievous expression and in Gabrielle's almost haughty response to being dominated reveals how "Just Us" evokes a desire in the viewer based more on characterization and emotional investment than on the flat, nearly anonymous fantasy of Coover's comics. Neither of these two pieces overdetermines signifiers of female sexual pleasure or focuses primarily on genital sex acts—"Bit of Skirt" doesn't even feature nudity—and while this is not universal in pornographic fan art, much of it disperses the locus of pornography's visible truth in the genitals (Williams 1999) for multiple sites of pleasure, suggesting that this female structure of desire is polymorphous; the viewer takes as much pleasure from shading or facial expressions as from the particular act on display.

[5.9] While "Just Us" may provoke fantasies of the events that led to this moment or those following, the artist does not provide definite answers. Further, the lack of direct acknowledgment of the viewer—unlike pinup art and its contemporary equivalent, the desktop background or wallpaper—offers a touch of realism, as the fan can credibly imagine that the events depicted either really occurred or could occur, rather than merely existing for her pleasure. The narrow focus of nonsequential pornographic fan art invites the viewer to linger in an unending moment and therefore to achieve the satisfaction of seeing a fantasy realized. Thus do such works convey in a single panel the effect of entire pornographic comics, relying on preexisting narratives and emotional investment to heighten the viewer's pleasure further, such that a single moment can evoke an entire scenario. Additionally, just as Coover's works offer numerous scenarios so as to engage multiple desires, the larger community of fan art generates a similar proliferation of options: all potential scenarios are on offer via collective production and circulation, thereby producing a decentered, diverse, and ever-evolving erotic archive that caters to all. Just as these comics depict undeveloped figures to offer the reader easy access to pleasure, these pieces of fan art refuse to interrupt the viewer's gaze with any particular narrative or characterization that could rupture the surface flatness of the open image.

[5.10] Along with her own definition, Williams (1999) also cites Beverly Brown's definition of pornography, which emphasizes how fan art's depictions of individual fantasy are entangled with extant cultural discourses and, moreover, a community of like-minded subjects. If pornography can be understood as "a coincidence of sexual phantasy, genre, and culture in an erotic organization of visibility" (Brown 1981, quoted in Williams 1999, 269), it is clear to see how fan art calls on the viewer's situation within a fandom full of other, similarly pornographic responses to canon, all connected in a web of networked desires. Fan art does not need to address the viewer in the same blatant manner as do comics because the form itself is an address more intimately and directly tied to the potential audience than commercial works. Just as a consumer may purchase pornography because it contains familiar and presumed elements, from an actress to a kink, the fan consumer engages a piece already primed not only by attachment to canon and fanon depictions of characters, but also by an expectation that some element will be left out. Unlike the visual and sequential fullness of Coover's or Kiely's work, fan art offers a blank or unoccupied space because of the lack of information that can be conveyed in a single panel for the viewer to fill in. While the masturbatory aid offers both a spark and potential limit by providing an encounter with an external object, fan art further engages the viewer as part of a collective, connecting her desires to a larger whole and figuring fantasy itself as inextricable from her chosen community and thus to a lesser degree from the world itself. Rather than springing fully formed from a solipsistic mind, fan art envisions fantasy and the desire that engenders it as simultaneously individual and shared, internal and external, artificial and real.

[5.11] Because pornography is fundamentally invested in affecting its consumer's body, Franklin Melendez (2004) claims its address to viewers is necessarily an invitation to engage rather than passively look. As has been suggested earlier, the reader's interaction with pornography is "a negotiation between different pleasures and different modes of viewing not necessarily locked into a static subject/object relationship," but instead offering simultaneous pleasures of possessing the image and being moved by it, both having and experiencing (413). By framing what happens when people consume pornography as "an encounter with the voluptuousness of the image" (404), Melendez suggests that instead of placid self-absorption or an imperialistic devouring, the reader experiences both active and passive pleasures, alternating between consuming and becoming an object moved by the pornographic image, [resulting in] a visual experience neither constant nor unilateral, but fractured and polymorphous" (414). The result is a kind of sublime experience, a specific and particularized moment of encounter in which the instability of the viewer's position produces pleasure, to which can be added the fractured progression from image to image and the flat, multiplied spatial arrangement specific to comics.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Climax in these comics does not necessarily evoke closure, and the acts leading to climax form no consistent progression from beginning to end as the next scenario interrupts, or starts anew from the same setup of "before sex," applying a playful attitude to format and structure at the very basis of representation. Fan art most often offers a single moment, suggesting both the transience and fecundity of fantasy. Both forms represent time as a fragmented experience of lingering in a moment or moving between discrete though not necessarily chronological moments, with the reader encountering an instantaneous charge that can never be exactly repeated despite the ability to return to it again and again, thus making a suggestive claim about how desire itself works. If pleasure in filmed and written pornography derives from its movement from scenario to finish, the pleasure of these works lingers across bodies in various states of being, frozen in time, taking a hedonistic joy not just in depicting the intimate, but also in expanding that category past any limits imposed by the panel. Such a situating of the readerly experience asserts a rethinking of how desire is structured, and these works' evocation of a specifically lesbian gaze offers an alternative vision of desire itself. Rather than moving through a linear trajectory toward a desired end, interrogating the other's pleasure in order to possess it, these works both depict and transmit a desire that circulates and oscillates between subject positions as well as between pleasure and pain, never entirely exhausted or satisfied, and thus continually a site of generative possibility.

7. Notes

1. The effects on men have been less of a concern; see Jensen (2007) for more on that issue.

2. See Beaty (2005) and Nyberg (1998) for depictions of the midcentury controversy over comics and comparisons to similar situations involving television and film.

3. For example, see vito_excalibur's "Alter's 6: Supernatural" for a Latino version of the Winchesters that challenges perceptions of the series.

4. Though the title does imply a woman who, as the back cover blurb makes clear, is "thoroughly a creature of her own desires," and thus Kiely's (1999) book offers the reader—whose world punishes that kind of girl—a fantasy of freedom to "tak[e] whatever and whomever she wants as it cums—to the speed limit and beyond!"

8. Works cited

Beaty, Bart. 2005. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Coover, Colleen. 2002–3. Small Favors. 2 vols. Seattle: Eros Comix.

Eisner, Will. 1985. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practice of the World's Most Popular Art Form. Paramus, NJ: Poorhouse Press.

Eklund, Chris. 2007. "ImageSexT: A Roundtable on Lost Girls: A Magical Realism of the Fuck." ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 3 (3).

Jensen, Robert. 2007. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Kiely, Molly. 1999. That Kind of Girl. Seattle: Eros Comix.

Kiely, Molly. 2000. Tecopa Jane. Seattle: Eros Comix.

Laqueur, Thomas W. 2003. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Lizardspots. 2005. "Bit of Skirt." LiveJournal.com, November 30.

Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, and Robin Anne Reid. 2007. "'Yearning Void and Infinite Potential': Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space." English Language Notes 45 (2): 103–11.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial.

Melendez, Franklin. 2004. "Video Pornography, Visual Pleasure, and the Return of the Sublime." In Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams, 401–27. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. 1998. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Shamoon, Deborah. 2004. "Office Sluts and Rebel Flowers: The Pleasures of Japanese Pornographic Comics for Women." In Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams, 77–103. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Twilightsorcery. 2008. "Just Us." InsaneJournal.com, August 23.

vito_excalibur. 2008. "Alter's 6: Supernatural." DeviantART, November 3.

Williams, Linda. 1999. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: University of California Press.



License URL: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. TWC is a member of DOAJ. Contact the Editor with questions.