Contact Us

Guido Crepax’s ‘Valentina’: The High Water Mark of Pornographic Comics

There’s a fundamental problem underlying all erotic work done in the comics medium, one even more difficult to get past than the lack of audible sound and visible motion bedeviling the action-oriented material that dominates the form’s American market. How does one create art that reproduces a physical sensation created by bodily contact without being able to reach out and touch one’s audience? It’s the same problem that faces makers of pornography in any medium, but in comics it’s especially difficult.

The best comics, though, defy the commonly accepted but overly simple construction of the medium as “pictures that move.” In truly transcendent sequential art, a reader is moved seamlessly through the information each panel’s drawing contains but also forced to confront the constituent parts of that information, the lines and shapes and colors and the work being done by the tools that produce them.

Truly great comics beg for deconstruction, constantly reminding readers that they are interacting with the work of human hands. It’s easy to blame the low visibility of erotic comics on an unadventurous audience and a censorious industry, but the reality is that to make good comics that work as porn takes an incredible amount of skill — the artistic ability to create marks on paper that are themselves as erotic as whatever story those marks construct. In a medium whose baseline physical sensation is the unremarkable feeling of fingertips on paper, the truly sensual is quite a dragon to chase. And this is why Guido Crepax’s Valentina is so important.Crepax is perhaps the most talented cartoonist whose work is so largely unavailable to the American market. Aside from a few hard-to-find volumes of literary adaptations, he has nothing in print, and tracking down Valentina, his hardcore masterwork, in English, is nearly impossible. Two thin volumes translated decades ago by NBM fetch collector’s prices, and a few shorts in vintage issues of Heavy Metal magazine give only tantalizing hints toward the true greatness of the master, who worked for his entire four-decade career in Italian.

Though it’s a shame such potentially life-changing work remains so unavailable, it’s hardly surprising. As with any number of the 20th century’s most important artists — James Joyce comes to mind, as do Pablo Picasso and the comics medium’s own George Herriman — Crepax’s best work is also his least accessible, ranging from black-lacquered BDSM stories to completely non-narrative art showcases. It’s the pages on which his obsessions overtake him utterly, where he seems more interested in entering a dialogue with himself and his own characters than with his audience, that Crepax’s real genius is to be found.

This, of course, is why his porn comics succeed where countless others fail: Rather than attempting to manipulate the erotic sensibilities of an unseen crowd of onlookers, Crepax focused on isolating those of the people in his panels, and specifically on building up his gorgeous young fashion photographer Valentina Roselli into a woman so real that to read the comics is to believe that the pleasure her ink body derives from being stroked by ink fingers or massaged by ink tongues is as real as the pleasure one’s own body has been given by real-life sexual experiences. From even the most cursory look at Valentina, it’s obvious that its artist wanted to do more than just draw sex. At his best, Crepax uses the comics medium itself as a sexual organ, wracking limbs and exploring orifices with nothing more than sequenced drawings. To do this, though, he had to create someone real enough to do it to. Hence, Valentina.

Crepax’s almond-eyed, soft-lipped, bob-haircutted nubile was born into a milieu similar to what most comics characters answering to her physical description inhabit: the teasingly sexy super-spy strip Neutron (1965), which Jim Steranko would rip off wholesale a few years later in creating his classic run on Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, which still stands as the quintessential psychedelic superhero comic. The former advertising artist Crepax’s first work in comics, Neutron is the highly readable (if hardly transcendent) chronicle of Phil Rembrandt, a dangerously chic New York sophisticate who happens to be gifted with the ability to freeze anything as still as a statue with a single gaze. Rembrandt’s globe-hopping, highly stylized travails as a crimefighter make for a brisk read, but the real draw of his adventures is Crepax’s art. Mixing an elegant pen line with absolutely brutal brushwork the likes of which American comics wouldn’t see until the ascendance of Gary Panter, the book is full of truly thrilling drawings, ones whose strokes and trails carry more interest than their content, even in the scenes of cop killing and Formula 500 racing.

The only indications that Neutron is more than the work of another talented draftsman chained to the slave ship of superhero comics come in the scenes featuring Neutron’s lovely Italian girlfriend, Miss Roselli. Time literally stops for Valentina when she enters one of Crepax’s scenes: The panels break free of their grids and cluster into discontinuous clouds, each individual frame painstakingly describing a small detail of this angel’s perfection. Eyes melt into lips and folds of drapery against skin, and suddenly the reader is held as still as if they were themselves caught in Neutron’s immobilizing gaze. As readers, we must pay our respects to Valentina before we can continue with the story, drinking her in with our eyes as entirely as possible. After two Neutron stories, the second of which found the hero off-panel for most of its conclusion as Valentina evaded a group of killers during a swinging costume party, Crepax acknowledged where his real interest lay, and Neutron was jettisoned (though Phil Rembrandt remained a nominal presence, eventually taking up the role of Valentina’s estranged husband).

In an order so short that it would be surprising if it didn’t feel so right, the rechristened Valentina became a hardcore porno comic, then an even more uncompromising exploration of one of sexuality’s many final frontiers, sadomasochism. In Baba Yaga (1971), the first Valentina story to truly delve into submission and domination (as well as, rather shockingly, the only one to be adapted into a feature film), the “action” in “action comics” becomes a conceptual presence at best: though the human figure’s interaction with other figures and complex machinery is as present as in any blockbuster superhero opus, there are no battles to be won, no triumphs of good over evil, no grand declarations of purpose or ideology. There is only the heroine’s body, standing against alternating torrents of pleasure and pain, now languid in a lover’s embrace, now creased into contortionist angles by the ropes binding it to one of an increasingly intricate array of bondage machines.

Though displays of beautiful female bodies undergoing torture had been a worryingly misogynistic motif in comics for decades, Crepax reversed the equation, turning Valentina’s willingness to participate in such scenarios into an instrument of her liberation. As the book wears on it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish Valentina’s erotic fantasies from reality, and the further the depths of fetish and kink are plumbed, the more the woman who leads us through them becomes comfortable with this part of who she is: a person who enjoys being sexually dominated, but never a victim. The formal elements underpinning Crepax’s astonishingly tasteful handling of such delicate subject matter are essential: the overwhelmingly masculine punch of his Neutron-era brushwork gives way to a wholehearted embrace of the quill pen and a flowing, delicate spiderweb of line, outlining each curve of flesh and angle of wood and metal with a touch that seems more an attempt to truly understand the subject being drawn than to depict it.

Crepax’s blocking is equally remarkable. Eschewing the “male gaze” of typical porn entirely, it aims straight for a replication of the female sexual experience. Long strings of panels chronicle every detail of Valentina’s disrobing, diagrammatic technical shots explore the bondage apparatuses she offers up her body to, and the scenes of pleasure zero in on their heroine’s lips or hands or genitals with a laser-beam clarity, more intent on catching every plucked nerve’s effect on her body than showing the audience what that effect looks like in total. Though it’s full of torture and sexual humiliation, though a palpable current of menace runs through it, we are never allowed to lose track of the fact that this world is being controlled by the person at the center of these experiences, and that they are what get her off.

This element of control remains a key point as the series progresses: Valentina never does anything she doesn’t want to do, and that is what makes every scenario she submits to so powerful. There is a great deal of respect given here, an acknowledgement that the eroticism on display is something private and personal, and that while we may watch, we can never fully understand. It’s a level of concern for characters that is almost never seen in any comics, but is especially notable in hardcore pornography, where it stands out all the more as being truly beautiful.

From here, Crepax would only go deeper. After using his drawings to get as far inside Valentina’s sexuality as he could in Baba Yaga, Crepax opens his heroine’s entire life story up for readers to view in Ciao Valentina! (1972), his next book. Beginning at the moment of its heroine’s birth, it chronicles her psychosexual development in virtuosic and affecting detail, tracking her sexual propensities back to their root points, corresponding images flying back and forth across the years, building a up a web of connections that spreads throughout the book. Crepax replaces the helpless female leads in the problematic torture scenes of newspaper-comics greats Alex Raymond and Lee Falk with his own, fully capable preteen heroine, who twists the misogynistic narratives of the previous generation’s comics to suit her own newly discovered desires.

It’s a beautifully stated rebuttal to one of comics’ most unsettling facets, and yet it’s only a minor part of the narrative. We watch Valentina struggle through a teenage bout with anorexia, willingly give her virginity to a much older man, and, in the best scene Crepax ever drew, burst into tears at her first glimpse of Louise Brooks on the silver screen before going home and shaping her own haircut into Brooks’s signature bob. Never before had a comics character been examined in such rigorous depth, let alone the lead of a hardline S&M comic, or in the almost entirely silent, image-first manner that Crepax uses to perform his analysis. The book ends with Valentina setting out to her first meeting with Phil Rembrandt — her first appearance, closing the narrative circle begun seven years previously in Neutron.

At the end of Ciao Valentina! we understand the character as well as she understands herself, which is essential to the deeply empathetic approach Crepax took to all subsequent stories featuring the character. After this point, Valentina’s eyes are the eyes we see the comic’s every panel through, and Valentina’s feelings are those that every sex scene summons up in her readers’ imagination. Crepax is the only cartoonist to have stripped the male gaze from pornographic comics entirely, to have denied access to the beautiful woman he draws as a sex object and forced readers both male and female to take her viewpoint during every sexual encounter she experiences. It’s a watershed moment for the medium.

From here, there was little for Crepax to do narratively but lay out the path Valentina’s life would take after the material in Baba Yaga, which he did masterfully. Valentina has a son by Rembrandt and allows a strong element of concern for him to temper her pursuits of sexual ecstasy; an undercurrent of worry runs through the increasingly far-flung scenes of fantasy, providing some narrative tension to what otherwise becomes a vehicle for Crepax’s increasingly formalist explorations of the comics form and the abstract idea of eroticism. Perhaps because Crepax knew his audience, Valentina’s daydreams often utilized the tropes of genre comics (though the heroine’s readings of Raymond and Falk in Ciao Valentina! provide a clear, logical precedent for this).

These genre-based explorations were less exercises in manipulating those tropes than excuses for Crepax to add them to the psychoerotic equation he had created for his character, however, which might explain the limited success Heavy Metal’s translations of the spacefaring Riflesso di Valentina (1979) and the high-adventure oriented Valentina Pirata (1980) met with in introducing the artist to an English-speaking audience. (Crepax’s art only grew more devastatingly beautiful with each new book, however, and the genre-based work, though minor in terms of story, is more than worth tracking down for its addition of profoundly gorgeous color to Valentina’s pages.)

To truly understand how special what Crepax created is, one has to start at the beginning and read straight through, which necessitates confronting some of the most aggressively uncompromising sex comics in existence. Because of this, Crepax will probably never be accepted as canon, but for readers willing to follow his instincts toward the hardcore and the abstract to their end points, there is the completely wordless Lanterna Magica (1979), “translated” into an English-language edition as Magic Lantern. If Ciao Valentina! is Crepax the storyteller working at the furthest reaches of what the comics medium offered him, Lanterna Magica is a corresponding workout for Crepax the formalist. Its 100 pages do little more in the way of narrative than provide Valentina as a main character and one of her masturbation fantasies as the context; the meat here is in seeing a master cartoonist play with form as only he can. Settings switch abruptly, human figures flicker in and out of existence, sexual combinations flow wildly into one another, characters grow and shed both male and female genitalia as easily as they do their clothing.

In its own way, this book is as much of a triumph for Valentina the character as Ciao is; where that story dug as deeply as possible into her conscious recall of the past, this one gives us the present as it occurs in her subconscious, flashing brightly through sheets of physical ecstasy. Valentina herself is the only anchor that pulls readers through the raging torrent of imagery, a body whose pleasure we cling to for comprehension as much as its owner does for sensation. For the comic to work in any way, the reader is forced into accepting Valentina’s pleasure as their own. It’s as close to a transcendent, out-of-body experience as the comics form provides.

Throughout the book, Crepax’s manipulation of sequenced imagery is absolutely astounding. His tight grids and frequent superimposition of pictures over one another easily accommodate more than ten panels to a page; though there’s enough visual information in Lanterna Magica to fill three books, the overriding impression is one of vast, open space, the erotic imagination put forth as a true frontier, free of boundaries and borders. Each panel isolates its subject with a crystal clarity, stripping away all excess information before bringing the content to life with Crepax’s inimitable pen lines, by now often clustering together in thick strands to describe contours or areas of shadow, as if a single line simply isn’t enough to convey how available these things are to be felt. The intricacies of fetish clothing or bondage equipment give way to the simplicity of the nude human form without warning before the two are juxtaposed against and then melted into one another. Eyes without faces take in stretching, detailed landscapes that go on endlessly. Bodies strike increasingly complex poses against blank white walls. Lanterna Magica is the comics form conceptualized as nothing more or less than “a book of drawings,” and it is more than adequate to convince readers that nothing else is needed. It is the furthest edge of the unexplored territory Crepax used as Valentina’s home environment.

Such is the breadth of Crepax’s work on Valentina that it’s a bit difficult to imagine how an English-language publishing program is even possible; to understand the full importance of what the comic achieved, it’s absolutely necessary to see the complete work, whose page count runs well into four figures. And yet the renaissance in European comics translations the American market is experiencing will remain woefully incomplete until Crepax’s bob-tressed heroine makes it to these shores, as will the current boom in aesthetically valuable erotic comics work. In exploring what pornography had to offer comics, Crepax conquered as much new ground for the form as anyone else has.

Nothing else has taken the medium to the places Valentina did, and from here it’s difficult to imagine anything will ever do so as well as its artist was able to. It’s one of those comics, something that takes our known perceptions of the medium and runs with them, expanding them further than we thought was possible without ever finding a breaking point, any goal it doesn’t achieve. Valentina belongs with the high-water marks of the medium as much as it does with the Euro-smut it shared publishers and shelf space with — alongside Little Nemo and Krazy Kat and Jimbo and Acme Novelty. No list of comics that demonstrate the highest possibilities of the art form is complete without an acknowledgement of Crepax’s masterwork.

Best of the Web

More From Around the Web

Leave a Comment

It appears that you already have an account created within our VIP network of sites on . To keep your points and personal information safe, we need to verify that it's really you. To activate your account, please confirm your password. When you have confirmed your password, you will be able to log in through Facebook on both sites.

Forgot your password?

It appears that you already have an account on this site associated with . To connect your existing account with your Facebook account, just click on the account activation button below. You will maintain your existing profile and VIP program points. After you do this, you will be able to always log in to http://comicsalliance.com using your Facebook account.

Please fill out the information below to help us provide you a better experience.

Register on Comics Alliance quickly by logging in with your Facebook account. It's just as secure, and no password to remember!

Not a Member? Sign Up Here.

Register on Comics Alliance quickly by logging in with your Facebook account. It's just as secure, and no password to remember!