The Jack Kirby Of Porn: Celebrating The Happy Hunks Of Tom Of Finland
The Finnish postal service launched its most successful limited edition stamps of all time last week — featuring a pair of pertly muscular buttocks and a naked man being straddled by a biker. Advance orders for the stamp came in from 178 countries worldwide, and people lined up on launch day like the stamps had an Apple logo on them.
The reason for the stamps’ appeal — beyond the objective appeal of buttocks — was the artist responsible, one of the nation’s most successful comic book creators: the legendary homoerotic artist Tom of Finland. As part of very important series of articles about men as comic book pin-ups, ComicsAlliance explores the work and legacy of Tom.
Tom of Finland was the Jack Kirby of gay porn. Working in a section of the comics industry that most fans perhaps spend little time exploring, Tom was a masterful artist, a pioneer, and an inspiration. His work helped establish a gay aesthetic and made him a celebrated figure on the New York art scene of the 1970s. His art, once sold from under counters in brown paper bags, has been exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious galleries, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He’s surely one of the 20th century’s most pirated artists — and one of comics’ great cultural icons.
Tom’s real name was Touko Laaksonen. He was born in Finland in 1920, a time when the country was recovering from civil war and coping with the tension of a belligerent new neighbour, Soviet Russia. This was a period of rapid militarization for Finland, and national service had recently become compulsory for all able-bodied young man.
As Laaksonen later told an interviewer in a documentary about his work, Daddy And The Muscle Academy, his ideal of male eroticism was shaped by this world he grew up in. Almost all the young men he saw through his adolescence were healthy soldiers in finely-tailored uniforms, and many of them were infused with a glow of patriotic zeal that Laaksonen was drawn to.
Finland took the side of Nazi Germany against the Soviets during the Second World War (though it was never technically an Axis power), and Laaksonen later recalled that his earliest sexual encounters were with Nazi soldiers serving in Finland. He also took inspiration from the Nazi posters that celebrated an Aryan ideal of masculinity. Laaksonen expressly condemned Nazi politics as hateful, but recalled, “they had the sexiest uniforms.”
Laaksonen worked as a graphic artist for an advertising agency after the war, but he drew his fantasies for his own amusement, heavily inspired by the soldiers he had encountered and the working men he’d fantasized about in his youth. In the mid-1950s he submitted drawings of Finnish log rollers to an American beefcake magazine, Physique Pictorial, under the pen name ‘Tom’. Because his submissions came from Finland, he was credited as “Tom of Finland”.
Beefcake magazines existed to serve the interests of gay men at a time when they were heavily persecuted by the law. Ashcans full of images of muscular guys in g-strings were sold as “physique” magazines about exercise and self-improvement, and the American bodybuilder aesthetic was very much in sync with Tom’s tastes, making him a popular artist among readers.
The hallmarks of Tom’s men were strength, athleticism, square jaws, heavy brows, and big smiles — plus the broad shouldered, narrow-waisted V-frame that’s as quintessential to beefcake art as the hourglass figure is to cheesecake. In much of Tom’s work the men are sailors, soldiers and cops, always in exceptionally tightly tailored uniforms. Tom also favored the leather gear of biker gangs, and translated elements of his beloved military uniforms to his leather men’s caps, jackets, belts, and calf-length boots. Tom never tired in his affection for leather boots.
With the liberalization of U.S. pornography laws in the 1960s, beefcake magazines faded in popularity, replaced with actual pornography. This simultaneously allowed Tom’s work to became more explicit, but also forced him to compete with the increased availability of erotic photography. His work became more fantastical, both in its scenarios and in its anatomy.
Tom’s comics are remarkable for several reasons. First, every panel was a full page — all the better to see the action. Second, the stories were almost entirely wordless, to make them easy to sell around the world. But what really set Tom’s comics apart was their joyful and hyper-masculine presentation of gay sex.
It’s important to remember what it meant to be a gay man through much of the 20th cenutury. It meant being isolated, being ashamed, and being told by the dominant culture that you are less than other men.
The men in Tom’s comics were none of these things. They were blue collar workers, authority figures — the farthest thing from the archetypal ‘sissy’. Far from feeling isolated, they lived into an orgiastic gay utopia where they could stumble into sexual partners at every opportunity, whether it was a TV repair man, a palace guard, a highway patrolman, or a pop star fleeing his adoring fans. Rather than hiding in the shadows, these men had most of their sexual encounters out in the open air — in woodlands and fields, on roadsides and docklands. Tom presented gay sex as liberation. And most importantly, what Tom’s characters did together was fun.
Tom said it was important to him that his men were always friendly, not frightening, and he felt it was vital to show his men making eye contact with each other. Because the comics were wordless, and because the fantasy scenarios often muddled the boundaries between assault and consent, eye contact was how his men communed with each other. Eye contact created the electricity between his characters. The lack of spoken words also made Tom a master of communication through body language, which further enhanced the sensuality of his stories.
Tom’s most famous creation is Kake (pronounced “kah-kay”), a leather biker with a hairy chest, long sideburns and a black mustache. Tom envisioned Kake as a Finnish sexual superman, “a guy who is open to anything.” The character rejected the closet and its attendant inhibitions and wandered the world enjoying a series of preposterous sexual adventures. If Kake had a superpower, it was his ability to tap into the hidden hunger of alpha males — sailors, soldiers, cowboys, cops, lumberjacks, and truckers — and encourage them to sublimate their masculine power to their need for pleasure.
As gay identity emerged from the shadows, Tom’s men were one of the most popular visual presentations of gay men created by a gay man for an audience of gay men. These comics not only presented gay readers with a world outside the dark demimonde they were expected to exist in, but also established an erotic ideal that helped shape the gay aesthetic of the 1960s and 70s.
Tom’s men were a prototype for the gay scene; boots, belts, leather caps, uniforms, sideburns, mustaches, muscles. In the 1970s, after the Stonewall riots propelled gay liberation into the spotlight, Tom quit his day job and traveled to New York, where he was celebrated by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Tom formed his own publishing company in 1979, then an erotic art preservation foundation in the 1980s, and a clothing line in the 1990s. When Tom died in 1991 at the age of 71, the pen name he’d been given for his first published work had become a brand.
Tom of Finland’s legacy is not without problems. The creation of a gay ideal was both a liberation and a straitjacket. Tom’s art helped forge gay culture, but also inevitably marginalized other identities within that culture, including the demonized “sissy.” The fascist overtones of Tom’s fantasies are inevitably discomfiting for many consumers, and as with many sexual fantasies, the behavior of Tom’s men should never be regarded as models for real world approaches to consent. Tom’s reduction of men to their bodies also had an especially dehumanizing effect in some of his fetishistic depictions of black men.
Yet Tom is a crucial figure in 20th century art. He’s one of a handful of artists — alongside George Quaintance, Etienne, Mapplethorpe, and James Bidgood — who established the doubly subversive idea of the sexualization of the male body for the male gaze — normalizing both homoerotic desire and the presentation of the male body as a sexual object.
Tom’s art perhaps presents us a glimpse of what superhero anatomy might look like if the industry were dominated by gay men rather than straight men. Gay erotica and superheroes share some common influences, such as the strongman archetype that inspired Superman and the Aryan idealism that informed Captain America. One might even see an attempt to claim back the male body from gay culture-inspired gym craze of the ’80s in the increasingly veiny and brawny superhero bodies of the time — a sort of buff arms race.
But there’s something missing from those pumped-up superhero bodies that’s very present in Tom’s work. Tom’s pencils are sensual and covetous. He finds the right curves and lines to enhance the pleasures of male bodies. He finds the smoulder in his men’s eyes and the ripeness in their lips. Tom didn’t draw supermen. He drew sex.
More than twenty years after Tom of Finland’s death, Tom is recognized as the master of his field, and his work is sufficiently mainstream to sell stamps, which is an extraordinary level of recognition for a dedicated pornographer. It remains to be seen to what extent Tom’s treatment of male bodies will ever be accepted into a mainstream aesthetic.