Tapping Into Cartoons

Joanne Cachapero
For fans of film and fantasy, the International Comic-Con is a convergence of epic proportions. On the show floor, Jedi warriors try out the newest light sabers, Klingons strut in full "Star Trek" regalia and Japanese goth-lolly girls with pink hair and lace panties leaf through the latest fanzines from Tokyo. Held yearly in July in San Diego, Comic-Con is the largest fantasy trade show in the world.

Not surprisingly, among the super-heroes and virtual vixens, a few adult stars turned out to showcase their superhuman talents. Unlike typical erotic fan shows, Comic-Con is an opportunity for adult performers to tap a wider audience that consists mainly of men who spend a lot of time on their computers and enjoy looking at images of sexy women.

Adult star Inari Vachs drew plenty of attention from aliens and humanoids alike as she promoted her venture with Hippy Comix, a biographical comic book and the latest offering from its Adult Star Stories line. The book will feature actual photos as well as cartoon scenarios.

"I really enjoy these conventions because you surprise people," Vachs said. "You have your fans that don't let you know that they're into the adult stuff, but you're more apt to find them at these types of conventions. It's fun."

Sharing a booth with Vachs and Hippy Comix, starlet Aurora Snow promoted her new comic book, produced and distributed in association with Carnal Comics and its adult celebrity line.

"It's really awesome," Snow said. "We put it together, literally, weeks ago, and for that amount of time, this is fantastic. I'm very happy to be associated with Carnal Comix."

Pin-up artist Dave Nestler also was at Comic-Con promoting his book "The Art of Dave Nestler: Wicked Intentions," a collection of sensuous cheesecake portraits.

"Vivid Video just put out an adult-oriented comic," he said, citing his work with top adult models. "I did the first flagship cover with Jenna [Jameson] and six other stars." Titled "Vivid Girls GN Vol. 1," the book features Jameson, Brianna Banks, Savanna Samson and several other Vivid contract performers, with art work from celebrity comic inkers Juan Jose Ryp ("Robocop") and Italian erotic sensation Marco Turini.

While the majority of Nestler's paintings are softcore, the association with Vivid Comix adds another dimension to his portfolio. "A lot of guys that come to comic conventions are big fans of porn," Nestler said. "So if Vivid can have a presence at these conventions in a comic book form utilizing somebody like myself, that's smart on a lot of levels."

Comics For Grown Ups?
Beyond the porn star universe, erotic and explicit cartoons fill a unique niche in the American comic book industry. The popularity of graphic content, like the sexy, ultra-violent "Sin City" series created by writer/artist Frank Miller (also well known for his "Ronin" and "Daredevil" comics), clearly indicates a grown-up interest in a market once considered to be kid stuff.

Fantagraphics Books, including its Eros Comics line, is the largest distributor of adult comics, with a catalog of more than 125 adult titles in print.

Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics director of publicity, named a few featured works that include "Ironwood" by Bill Willingham, who won an Eisner award last night for his Vertigo book, "Fables"; a gay comic series called "Sticky" by Steve MacIssac; a playful adult book called "Small Favors" by Colleen Coover; and numerous Japanese manga comics, the most famous of which is "New Bondage Fairies."

"They run the gamut of straight/gay/lesbian and bisexual," Reynolds said. "We've got a lot of really serious erotica and a lot more playful, satirical stuff. We kind of have a little bit of everything. We've been doing it for about 15 years, so we've built up a pretty good backlist."

When asked what the attraction is in looking at explicit illustrations, as opposed to the real thing, Reynolds replied, "I think a lot of it has to do with the fantasy and escapist kind of element. Like 'New Bondage Fairies' is about a bunch of fairies — little, teensy-tiny fairies — that have sex with bugs and all kinds of crazy stuff. You're indulging someone's sexual imagination in ways that you can't really do in a straight porn film or a magazine."

Restricted to selling to 18-and-older consumers, adult cartoonists draw a smaller audience compared to mainstream illustrators. Though most start their careers drawing conventional cartoon strips, erotic and explicit cartoonists trade limited market appeal for the freedom to push the boundaries of imagination. In the pencil-and-ink world of cartoon artwork, anything is possible in terms of content, from Japanese tentacle fetish content to transgender and even interspecies sex. Topics considered taboo in conventional pornography are often explored with artistic abandon.

Michael Manning, creator of the successful "Spider's Garden" series, finds his influences in the classic artwork of Mad magazine's Don Martin or Walt Kelly and his legendary "Pogo" cartoon strip.

Manning also gets inspiration from Japanese manga illustrators and sometimes uses transgendered themes in his work. "My books are very sexual," he explained. "What I'm usually trying to do is to create things that I don't see in other work. I'm creating things that turn me on that I hope will turn other people on or that they can relate to."

Joe Denny, a self-published cartoonist, came to Comic-Con seeking wider distribution for his "Americanjism" franchise. With two volumes published, he will complete a third next year with plans to market the series as a trilogy.

Denny's work is not typically pornographic. Instead, he uses explicit sex to illustrate his radical philosophical bent on politics, inter-family relations and mass-consumerism. "There's no holding back. I'm exploring the boundaries of my reality," said Denny.

"To me, just getting the book done, getting it to some distributors, selling it here and there, getting into a few shops makes me happy with what I've accomplished."