Reviewer Greta Christina has worked in and around the sex industry for over a decade writing about it, editing books about it, and living it. She edited Paying For It, a collection of articles by all kinds of sex workers: dommes, escorts, peep show girls, T-girls. She's got a novella called Bending coming out next month in Susie Bright's book Three Kinds of Asking For It (published by Simon & Schuster). In response to overwhelming member requests for reviews of sex toys, sexy films, and other sex whatnots, Ms. Christina brings her girl-about-sex wisdom twice monthly to Adult FriendFinder. You can check out Ms. Christina on her web site, www.GretaChristina.com. Or write your comments to her here on the site. Her handle is Sextoyreviewer.
Casual Sex Comics
by El Bute
Published by Eros/Fantagraphics
(also available at http://www.lastgasp.com/)
It's a funny thing. While there's been this exuberant Renaissance in both porn and comics, it hasn't really happened in the world of porn comics. With some notable exceptions, adult comics tend to be pretty mediocre -- formulaic, predictable, dimwittedly written, ham-handedly drawn, loaded with adolescent sex puns, often downright amateurish, and occasionally even flat-out ugly. I don't know why it should be this way (although I could probably come up with some half-baked theories if you asked me), and I doubt it'll be this way forever; but at least for the time being, that's how it is.
There are a number of bright spots, however. There are the exquisitely precise, exquisitely perverted fantasy worlds of Michael Manning; the lush, intimate, intensely personal exhibitionism of Giovanna Casotto; the vivid, almost-photographically real stories and art of Quinn; the joyfully giddy playworld of Colleen Coover; the Dale Lazarov/Steve MacIsaac team; Molly Kiely; a few others.
And there's El Bute, and his "Casual Sex" comics.
"Casual Sex" is something special. But its format and cover design don't really set it apart from the generic herd, and it'd be very easy to miss in a crowded newsstand. So I wanted to take some time and tell you about it.
A series of five (as of this writing) comic books, "Casual Sex" is a fine example of that rarest of creatures: erotica that blends explicit, lewd, even nasty sex with real characters and emotionally-charged scenarios. I know that sounds a little odd. After all, as the name suggests, the encounters in "Casual Sex" are... well, casual: one-time trysts between strangers or people who don't know each other very well. But comic artist El Bute has an eye for the casual encounter that means something; the slight acquaintance who winds your balls into a twist; the complete stranger who makes you stop dead in the street. This isn't just a series of "fucking the UPS guy" stories. The sex may be casual, but the intensity of it is anything but.
And "Casual Sex" is a fine example of why real characters and emotions make a difference in porn, how they make it not just more readable, but hotter, more sexually compelling. With deft writing and vivid, expressive, beautifully shaded art, these comics get you inside the characters' libidos, and the emotions driving those libidos. I don't just mean the physical horniness -- I mean the complicated stuff: anxiety, anger, dissatisfaction, insecurity, curiosity, competitiveness, control, all that crazy shit that makes us seek out sex, to drive out the demons or just shut them up for an hour.
Here's an example, from "Casual Sex" #1 (top left picture). (It's a little hard to describe a comic book story in just words, but I'll try.) In the first story, "A Monkey Eating Lemons," two married professors convince a young man they know slightly to have sex with the wife while the husband watches. Now, this could easily have been a totally ho-hum, "fucking the UPS guy" type story. But El Bute invests it with all these twisted psycho-sexual layers. The couple is ostensibly doing this to get the wife pregnant (the husband is sterile); but they're obviously getting off on the depravity of the scene as well, even while they're acting like it's a sacred fertility rite. They're more than a little smug, spouting intellectual pretensions and New Age platitudes; but there's real anxiety under the husband's complacency, and real aggression and hunger under the wife's. And the third man, the outsider, is obviously annoyed with these people, and even a little contemptuous -- but his annoyance isn't getting in the way of his libido. In fact, it's driving it. He clearly loves stripping the wife of her "evolved" erotic pretensions and unleashing the desperate fuck-hungry slut inside her... and he loves doing it in front of her increasingly jealous husband, getting off on macho competitiveness almost as much as he is on ripe tits and wet pussy. There are all these layers of self-deception, of people being driven by emotions and desires they don't even perceive, much less understand. And El Bute does it all so skillfully, without interrupting the pornographic flow, setting up the scenario in just a few panels and weaving the tensions into the rapidly unfolding sex.
The first issue of "Casual Sex" isn't the only good one in the series, although it is one of the standouts. I guess I should spell out here that "Casual Sex" comics aren't really a series in the traditional sense. There's no continuity of story from issue to issue, no plotlines that evolve or characters that develop from one issue to the next. Each issue stands alone, with the cover art unconnected to the stories inside, and the only common theme being El Bute's imaginings of casual sexual encounters. This may be a drawback for serious fans of the comic art form, but it does mean you don't need to read the issues in any particular order (a good thing, since as of this writing, Issue #2 is between
And each story in any given issue stands alone as well. Issue #5 is somewhat different: the entire comic is taken up with one piece, "The Curse of Steven Navarro," a dark, unsettling story of a man whose life is upended by the sexual outrages and deceptions of his wife and daughter. The story and the sex are intense and gripping, full of conflict and ferocity, and while that's mostly a result of the darker content, it's certainly helped by the longer format, which gives the compellingly freaky erotic tension time to develop. But except for this one issue, each "Casual Sex" comic is a collection of unrelated single stories, bound together by style and sexual focus rather than plot or character.
(sample from issue 5)
And here's where my standard "it's good but it's not perfect" disclaimer comes in. I like the "Casual Sex" series a lot, and when it's at its best, I think it's an excellent example of what porn comics can aspire to. But it is very uneven, both within the series and within each individual comic. Issue #4 is a perfect example; it has one of the series' best stories, "Private September," in which a woman who hires male prostitutes turns out to be playing some very strange sexual mind games... and it has some of the weakest pieces in the series as well, including a fairly generic "first lesbian encounter" scene and an equally generic "horny neighbor lady" scene, with surprise endings somewhat awkwardly tacked on ("A Girl Under the Influence" and "After the Sky Falls").
The problems in these comics vary from piece to piece. Some of El Bute's stories aim high but miss, reaching for a twisted tension but not getting much more than awkward creepiness. Take Issue #4's "Saturday Night Fever," for example, in which a man comes across a neighbor woman passed out in the elevator and fucks her while she's unconscious. It's a seriously fucked-up scenario, and while it's certainly possible to make very good, very hot porn out of fucked-up scenarios, this story fails. It doesn't really acknowledge what an emotional and ethical nightmare this is, or explore why an apparently ordinary man would do it. As a result, it takes what could have been an upsetting but compelling piece of dark porn, and succeeds only at making it creepy and gross.
And a few -- although a very few -- of the pieces in "Casual Sex" don't seem to be aiming any higher than "fucking the UPS guy" with a surprise twist ending. The abovementioned "A Girl Under the Influence" and "After the Sky Falls" from Issue #4 come to mind, as does "First Blood" from Issue #2, a "hot college student seduces classmate completely out of the blue" piece straight out of generic video porn. El Bute also relies too heavily on those twist endings he loves so well, at times using them to provide the tension that a story never quite found on its own. Both "Dragon Lady" and "Virgin and Martyr" from Issue #3 illustrate this to perfection, with puzzling stories that don't quite make sense, sexually or narratively, until you reach the end and find out what's really been going on. (To be fair, both of these stories work much better on second reading -- when you do know what's going on, the grotesque relationships of the first story and the devious deception of the second make the sexual tensions fall beautifully into place.) El Bute is almost always good, with many flashes of brilliance, but he's not quite consistently great.
Still. "Almost always good with many flashes of brilliance" is a damn sight better than most adult comics. I think adult comics are a form of smut with huge possibilities, a great potential to combine the limitless possibilities of writing with the visceral immediacy of photos and art. I think that in ten years, with good editors and a demanding public, there'll be a lot more adult comics living up to that potential. And I think if that happens, El Bute will be one of the artists we'll look back on as a pioneer of the form.
P.S. Full disclosure: I work for a company that sells and distributes "Casual Sex" comics. That's how I found out about them.
Greta's novella "Bending" comes out the end of June and you'll hear all about it here. Plus, you can now read more of Greta's musings on her new blog: http://gretachristina.typepad.com
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