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I once interviewed a cartoonist who, at one point, went off on a short rant about DC's business practices. Afterwards he asked me to cut the more impolitic comments so that DC would continue to hire him, but it was a shame, because he got in some good zingers. One was along the lines of, "They've got all the Cartoon Network licenses and they can't figure out how to make them sell. They've got Bugs Bunny! If you're a publisher and you can't get people to buy Bugs Bunny, you might as well quit."
The comics industry is counterintuitive. Bugs Bunny is far from the only thing that ought to sell but doesn't. Case in point: what happened to porn comics? And yes, I am asking this because I want some porn. Small-press erotic comics publishers are all but dead save for a few well-organized niches; porn comics for gay men, for instance, struggle gamely along, but they're far from the burgeoning genre they used to be. Fantagraphics' Eros Comix line is no longer publishing either new original material or fresh translations of smutty manga, although you can pick up cheap back issues of Bondage Fairies
on the website.
Porn webcomics are surprisingly rare and generally unpopular, save for furry porn, which keeps to its own large but insular community. The pruderies of bookstores and libraries have made the big manga publishers skittish about licensing manga with graphic sexual content (and the largest of them all, Viz, has a longstanding no-porn policy). About the only porn that gets published anymore is yaoi, which is currently able to pass for respectable in bookstores because the covers look so sweet and romantic. And girls read it, so how smutty can it be? Ha ha ha.
We're a long way from the days when Omaha the Cat Dancer
, history's greatest furry sex comic after that Japanese print of the octopus molesting the lady, was considered one of the comics medium's premier artistic achievements. Reading old Comics Journal
s from the mid-1980s, one gets the impression that nothing interesting was happening in the entire industry besides Cerebus
and Omaha the Cat Dancer
. (In fairness to TCJ, this was pretty close to the truth.) And we're a long way from the early '90s, when Eros pushed artsy porn like Gilbert Hernandez's amazing Birdland
. Back then, everyone thought manga was Japanese for "tentacle rape comics," because that was what got translated. What was the last major erotic comic in America? Colleen Coover's brilliant Small Favors
, probably. Coover now draws Marvel comics and graphic novels for kids. Pays better. You see? Counterintuitive.
I thought about this over Wondercon weekend, which I spent working at Phil Foglio's booth. Many times, Phil shared with me his secret to making a living in comics: draw so much, for so many different audiences and venues, that you develop a large and diverse back catalog. About twenty years in, if you're lucky, you'll start seeing a profit. Phil started in tabletop gaming, drawing the monthly strip "What's New with Phil & Dixie" for Dragon
, the now-defunct official magazine of Dungeons and Dragons
. He illustrated Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures
novels and drew a comic-book adaptation of the first book in the series. He resurrected several of DC's action-comedy titles, including The Angel and the Ape
, Plastic Man
, and Stanley and His Monster
. He and his wife Kaja drew illustrations for Magic: The Gathering cards. He wrote and drew a sci-fi comedy comic called Buck Godot
. Then he and Kaja started Girl Genius
, a sprawling, comic "gaslamp fantasy" that's now one of the biggest and best-beloved of all webcomics. The progression from Best Fan Artist Hugo winner to Best Graphic Story Hugo winner took a mere 32 years.
I know Phil's bibliography inside out because, while working the booth at Wondercon, I fielded questions about every single one of the works in the previous paragraph. (Okay, except for the DC comics. No one except my husband seems to remember the DC comics, probably because DC, unlike Phil Foglio, doesn't keep Phil Foglio's work in print. If you can't get people to buy Plastic Man…) There were people who came to the booth as D&D fans, as Magic fans, as Robert Asprin fans, and, of course, above all else, as Girl Genius
And there was one other category of Phil Foglio fans. I learned to anticipate from the sidelong glances, the self-deprecating grins, what the question would be: "Is he ever going to bring back XXXenophile
?" I could sympathize, because XXXenophile
, Phil Foglio's ten-issue sci-fi and fantasy porn comic, was my introduction to his work too. This was in the early '90s again. Man, but that was a fun time for comics if you ignored absolutely anything produced by any major publisher! XXXenophile
was funny and sexy, and then it ended, and nothing arose to replace it. (That's what she said. With disappointment.) Phil has a standard response to people who inquire about it—"I will consider resurrecting XXXenophile
when I am no longer on my children's PTA board"—and that satisfies most of them.
Today, Phil makes far more money than he ever made from porn with an all-ages feminist steampunk comic cowritten with his wife. Counterintutive! And also kind of wonderful. Except that now where do I get my porn? Oh well. I've got that historical yaoi about Mad King Ludwig. I'll survive this drought.
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010