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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Graphic sex

Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney does kinky right

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

From violent, fetishistic orgies to pitiless scrutinizing of their own bodies and ids, the underground cartoonists of old were notorious for filling their comic books with weird sex. But for something really weird it's hard to beat a one-off comic from 1974 called Sex and Affection, by Jim Himes. Apparently meant as a sort of countercultural sex-ed manual for budding young Gen-Xers, Sex and Affection features several short tales starring enlightened, Aquarian-age adults "rapping" with kids about various birds-'n'-bees issues — masturbation, homosexuality, menstruation and the like. It attempts to be progressive, nonjudgmental and nonthreatening. It even tries to inject a little humor into the proceedings.

Nice concept. It's a shame, really, that the result is such a creepy train wreck of a comic. The dialogue is stilted and didactic. The humor is lame. The characters' anatomies look like something a freshman art student would scratch into a bathroom wall, and their heads are Muppet Show rejects with freakish expressions and toothy, gaping maws. It feels as if half the book consists of naked children and naked adults hanging out together, having awkward Q&A sessions and pointing at each other's privates. At one point, a nursing mother offers her unoccupied breast to what looks like a 5-year-old (hard to say, the kid changes size three times in five panels) because he's curious about the taste. Far from being comforting and educational, the whole thing feels icky and vaguely illegal.

Too bad they couldn't have hired cartoonist Ellen Forney to work on that project. She was too young for the gig at the time, as the title of her nostalgic comic strip series "I Was Seven in '75" indicates. Today, though, she could no doubt create an entirely more appealing comic. Forney's sympathetic sense of humor and sensuous brush lines make her work resonate with a bold, friendly energy. That energy animates her recent anthology of comics, I Love Led Zeppelin, even when the subject is severed fingers or drug crime, and it saturates her latest book, Lust, a collection of her illustrated versions of kinky online personals ads from Seattle's weekly paper, The Stranger.

Forney has a golden knack for making even the fringiest, most squick-inducing sexual practices look fun, funny, sexy and human (if not exactly "normal"), without robbing them of their edge. In Lust, rather than poke fun at the advertisers, which would be easy, or exaggerate their kinkiness, which would be hard, she takes a wholly individual approach that celebrates the kinksters without slavishly illustrating the ad copy.

Forney's bag of tricks includes everything from silly puns to celebrity appearances (Chewbacca, Smokey the Bear and Oscar the Grouch show up, among others) to just plain lovely figure drawing, and she often comes at her subjects from unexpected angles. An ad posted by a "bondage hippie" features a head bound up in lines of loopy psychedelic text. Another ad seeking an "early riser" (yuk yuk!) shows a robin tugging suggestively on a worm. Someone calling herself a "Sacred Whore" is represented by a Venus of Willendorf festooned with needles and clothespins. Now this is a sexual education, and one that can't help but bring a smile to the face of all but the most uptight readers.

Sean Bieri is Metro Times' design director. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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