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‘King City’ and ‘Perverts of the Unknown’ Creator Brandon Graham on Porn, Sex and Honesty

Now that February is over — and with it, our two weeks of spotlights on sex in comics — we wind things down today in an interview with creator Brandon Graham, whose superlative series King City comes out in trade paperback next week. Graham also scripted the recent relaunch of Prophet at Image Comics, and has been known to make the occasional porno comic like Pillow Fight and Perverts of the Unknown.

ComicsAlliance talked with Graham about the importance of honesty, context, and diversity when it comes to sex in comics, why the sexiest comics are the ones that deal with women as people, and why good porn is so hard to make. (No pun intended. OK, maybe a little.)

ComicsAlliance: You’re someone who has both made porn and been critical about how women are drawn in superhero comics, something you tweeted about recently after someone on Twitter attacked you as hypocritical, because they couldn’t understand how the two things could be compatible.

Brandon Graham: Yeah, I think there’s a disconnect there. I think a lot of that was backlash for me being mean about how the new Catwoman is being written… and [people] seeing female sexuality as an either/or thing, rather than considering how the female characters or readers might actually feel. And also you know, I’m cool with drawing porn or whatever power fantasies you have, but at least do it well. And what gets under my skin is when something that is just porn or power fantasy is sold as something else.CA: When you say female sexuality as either/or, what do you mean?

BG: I mean either it being sexy ladies made to jerk off to or some sexless work that you could pass out in a preschool.

CA: So, seeing these comics as either something only for men that treats women only as objects, or having no sexuality at all?

BG: Yeah, yeah.

CA: Rather than something that could take a wide range of sexual and artistic forms, or even just deal with women in more fully human ways.

BG: That’s kind of at the core of my annoyance with a lot of this. It almost becomes a craft thing, like, is that how you think women act? … [It's] even how connected to reality your ideas of sex are. Truth is what I want to see more… [art] that relates to actual life on earth, even if you’re doing some crazy out-there story. I think it gets back to why would anyone be making art in the first place, if not to deal with being a person and express how they feel about it.

CA: It’s interesting, because I think that people get that idea more generally in superhero comics. We suspend our disbelief that Superman can fly, because it is a fantasy, but we still need to identify with him as a person or we don’t care about the story. He needs to be believable on a human level.

BG: Yeah, realism in superhero comics is a slippery word. It can mean stuff that looks like photos, which I think can sometimes make it all even less believable.

CA: So what makes sexiness believable in comics, even in a fantasy context?

BG: I think one thing worth talking about is that it can be a lot of different things to different people. Something that always bugs me is this dude idea that there’s one type of attractive, not really allowing for more variation than the same pin-up lady — except maybe she has glasses on now. The stuff I’m into is pretty close to a lot of that, but I think it needs be talked about that that’s not the only thing. Like how would superhero sexuality read if you were mostly into fat guys?

CA: I remember reading something you wrote in an issue of King City about what it was like to ink some other dude’s porn, what got someone else off.

BG: Oh yeah, that was no fun… but I do like reading stuff that is far from my scene. It’s always really interesting to me how women show sex as opposed to men or gay or transsexual cartoonists.

CA: That quote always reminded me of a lot of superhero art, because that’s how it often seems to me: like reading someone else’s sexual fantasy instead of reading an accessible adventure story. Which wouldn’t even bother me if it were one comic, or even a lot of the superhero comics, instead of almost all the superhero comics.

BG: Yeah I think that’s the big problem. It’s like, ok dudes, we’ve tended to your boners since the dawn of time. Can someone else have a turn?

CA: Another question I’ve had come up a lot is the issue of objectification, and in erotic material it seems to me that there is always a certain amount of dealing with someone’s body separately from just their sparkling personality. What’s the difference between something that is objectifying and dehumanizing, to you?

BG: It’s like you were saying about superheroes: You want them to fly but you still need a connection. Like it makes sense that people would want to draw what they’re attracted to but it’d be like dating a person that you didn’t have any interest in past their t*ts or whatever.

CA: Making erotica in general does seem like it’d be difficult, since eroticism can be so hard to define when you move outside the realm of easy T&A and cliches. One criticism I heard leveled at Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, for example, was that while it was an ambitious and technically interesting comic, it wasn’t really hot. How do you approach eroticism in comics, and how is it different from conveying non-sexy situations?

BG: Yeah porn is difficult. That’s definitely one of the appeals of it to me to try and do. And I think I’ve failed a lot, (maybe always) in the ideal of what I was going for. But yeah, Lost Girls is bad at being porn. At least I think so. But it might succeed on a lot of other levels. Back when I was doing porn full-time, I was specifically not into just making something for dudes to jerk off to. I mean, whatever whatever — but I wanted it to be more of a joke book with sex in it. I tried to put in stuff like an old [Charles] Bukowski-looking guy ejaculating a fish, not to be sexy, but because I thought it was funny.

CA: I would imagine that in order to create erotic art, you have to think really critically and clinically about what you personally find sexy, and I wonder if that isn’t a little like deconstructing a joke to figure out how it’s funny?

BG: Yeah, totally. And also I think it could be a little scary to really put your libido out there like that. What [artists are] into really comes out in their art, but I was always a little guarded.

CA: Yeah, because you can be like “it’s art, it’s not about me,” but like most art, it kind of always is on some level.

BG: Well yeah, I mean it should be. Ideally.

CA: Porn, or art generally?

BG: I was just thinking art in general. Porn too.

CA: I think if someone is writing a graphic novel about Abraham Lincoln or something, they might not be able to totally divorce themselves from their perspective and influences, but they can make it not primarily about themselves or their pet issues. Whereas with erotica, I think the more you depersonalize it, the less it will probably work?

BG: Yeah, but personally I’d be more interested in someone’s pet issues than a clear Lincoln story.

CA: I’ve always been kind of curious about the mindset that goes into a lot of superhero art that I see, and maybe you have insight. When artists draw something cheesecakey like this, how deliberate is it? Are they genuinely thinking that it’s the best way to portray an action scene, or have they just absorbed the aesthetics of superhero comics so deeply that they don’t even realize it?

BG: I bet it’s a mix. Chicken and egg and all. Yeah, I bet that was done with pure motivations or just wanting to show sexy lady and action. I remember seeing that on the stand and picking it up for the cover, but it’s definitely someone drawing with their boner, taping a pen to the end of it. And I bet a book like that could be done well, if it was aware of what it was doing. It gets me if [in] the making of that no one thinks it’s not meant to just be t*ts and fishnets.

CA: Would you see a lot of the sexualization in superhero comics differently if it were happening in a porn/fetish/erotic context?

BG: Yeah, I definitely think so. I mean, I still wouldn’t think a lot of it was well done but it wouldn’t be so embarrassing. I mean I think the Catwoman comic is really well-drawn. and it’d be fine if it was that but smarter… Just some diversity would be nice.

CA: What do you think the best way is to change the mindset of artists? Does criticism help? Getting more women involved in the genre?

BG: Yes and yes. I think talking about it is really good and definitely on all levels it helps out the artform so much to just let a wider variety of creators in. Like I see DC say that they hire the best, but it’s like the best of the tiny fraction that they’re willing to look at, that even feel welcome to submit to them. And I would even argue that it’s not always the best of that (but that’s just me being mean).

CA: Well, comics has become this economically delicate machine built to create a very specific thing for a very specific audience. And there’s this belief that you can’t change too much of how it works without potentially “breaking” it and alienating the core audience.

BG: I dunno, I don’t think the existing audience is so delicate. And I think if the quality was better they’d stick around along with all the new readers that would love comics if they could just find ones they liked.

CA: Well, there are occasional experiments with stuff like Wednesday Comics or Strange Tales.

BG: They’re just experiment ghettos.

CA: But I think a lot of people, especially publishers, look at those experiment ghettos, see them do not-so-great, say the market isn’t there, and just end up back with mega-crossovers. I’ve heard a lot of people suggest that you can’t ask publishers to do things that will lose them money even if they are more positive and inclusive, and I get that argument. What’s the solution?

BG: I tend to look at comics from my own interest. I think for the most part they aren’t trying to blow peoples minds. I mean, maybe, but it’s sad if they are. Like I’ll look at Marvel books with ads on every other page — is that exciting to anyone as a reader? I live across the street from a comic store and I’m over there every week with money to buy things, and most days I end up looking at back issues because so much of the new stuff just isn’t worth $3 to me.

CA: What makes comics exciting to you? What’s the last (newish) comic you read that provoked a strong reaction?

BG: I just got this great Emma Rios [Amazing] Spider-Man, and read it and loved it. And then went back and noticed that out of thirteen pages of ads, two of them weren’t for Marvel products. They’re just f*cking up their own sh*t for free… Rios’s work is really impressive. I was really into what she was doing with Spider-Man and Daredevil jumping off a building and she drew it without horizontal panel borders and had the panels overlapping a bit to show speed. It was just a new way to show something to me.

CA: You’ve also been doing a lot of work for Image lately, a publisher that initially launched around the idea of creator empowerment, and allowing artists to do their own thing. The Extreme Studios stuff has been really interesting, because they’re properties that had previously been very… ’90s.

BG: Wicked ’90s, bra.

CA: Then these reboots came out of the gate with all of these great creators innovating and doing much more mature things with them. That contrast — that sense of evolution was really fantastic, and the sort of thing I’d love to see in more superhero books.

BR: I was really happy to be able to do something new with Prophet, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have such faith in Image letting me do what I thought would be the best stuff me and the other dudes on Prophet could do… I don’t think a lot of the guys at DC or Marvel are allowed to just f*ck around like I do. [There are] editors and collaborators. When I do my own stuff, I’m not submitting a script; I’m just doing it.

CA: Well, whatever the aesthetic is that makes money, that’s what people learn to do. That’s what people are drawing in their sketchbooks and bringing to conventions for portfolio reviews.

BG: Yeah, and I think on some level pandering to something like that’s a mistake, at least in the long run. I think if someone wants to stick around and really do well in comics when they’re old it makes more sense to me to do your own aesthetic, but also I’m coming from a different place than someone who wants to draw Batman.

CA: Do you think the real innovation and the comics with the potential to reach out to a mainstream audience — are they going to come from indie comics? Is that the only place where you think it’s possible for that kind of work to flourish?

BG: I think it’s really about editorial in the end. I see creators at mainstream companies that I think could really be pushing things. And I don’t want to make a huge line between indie and mainstream because I identify as little with Dan Clowes as I do with Mark Millar… Editors basically choose who and what gets on shelves and we just don’t have an Archie Goodwin or Lou Stathis that I’m aware of in comics right now. And if we do, they aren’t being given much freedom. Also with the extreme stuff, I think guys like Joe [Keatinge] and Ross [Campbell] on Glory and Tim [Seeley] on his book [Bloodstrike], they really grew up on and liked the old [Rob] Liefeld books in a way that I’m not coming from.

CA: Well, isn’t that something that the superhero world needs more of too: people outside the insular feedback loop? People who didn’t grow up just reading superhero comics, people with other influences?

BG: Yeah, other influences are really important, but also it does get scary when you hear about someone who doesn’t even read comics having control over decisions in comics… But there’s so many diverse creators making comics, I don’t think it would be all that hard to let more types of creators in.

CA: So you see it as an access issue.

BG: Yeah, I think you really see the creators let in who are the kind of people the editors would get along with.

CA: It’s funny, I often spend so much time dealing with the enormous output from the major publishers that it can be difficult to find the cool, amazing comics under the surface, the sort of stuff I’ve seen you find at cons and post about on your blog. So you can end up feeling really disheartened like this stuff isn’t out there, even though I think you’re right, it really is; it’s just not in a system that delivers it to me through publishing channels.

BG: I might miss a lot of the good stuff the mainstream does too, but the majority of creators who I’m really excited about are making comics that dont make it to comic shops… I pulled out some real early less porny [Milo] Manara to read tonight… his Bergman books. Have you read those?

CA: Nope.

BG: Still a little sexy lady, but I think he was really trying to do something new with the stories. I feel like him and [Masamune] Shirow had these amazing aspirations and work when they first came out, and then they kind of degenerated into smut. I fear my own future. It’s that fine line.

CA: Don’t you think you’d get bored with just smut, though?

BG: I don’t think I’ve ever beat porn, if that makes any sense… It’s really hard to do well and I always fall a little short of what I want. There’s a pun in there. The other funny thing is that when I do porn now — like [for] the Thickness its pretty much for free, where in the past it was all I could squeeze money out of.

CA: There are some things I don’t think you’re ever supposed to be done with. Like, you don’t really ever “win” sex and call it a day.

BG: Heh, yeah. But some stuff I can say I think I outdid what I planned. Like I think without being too insanely cocky that King City came out better than I hoped. Whereas a lot of the porn I’ve done was less so. I mean I like a lot of it still, and I dont want to just sh*t on my own work, but it’s hard to pull off. But yeah, that’ll get me back to [porn] at some point I bet.

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