Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!
– Macbeth Act 1, Scene 5, lines 40-3
In our only-increasingly image-conscious and image-driven society, it is no longer sufficient to be aware of what it is said; we must be critically conscious of what is shown. It is neither acceptable to “ignore” sexual texts and subtexts, images and subimages, nor is it sufficient to sort out the “good” images from the “bad,” as second wave feminist anti-pornography crusaders sought to do. Our basic assumptions in preparing for the ImageSexT conference were that images are complex and contextual, and that no meaningful generalizations can be made about sex, gender and sexuality in visual media. Further, we chose the theme to emphasize the intersectionality of these issues in the production and reception of comics, particularly when considering representation in its most literal sense: how the image on the page provides moments of identification, pleasure, and possibility.
This special issue is the direct result of the ImageSexT conference, and reflects our desire to see these subjects considered critically through close textual and visual “readings” of comics, by use of a variety of critical approaches, and with attention paid to the subtleties and paradoxes of visual representation and narration of bodies, desires, and identities. This issue is necessarily incomplete: some of the most interesting and productive moments in the conference occurred in discussions sparked by these papers during Q&A, at lunch, or over coffee between panels. There is no record of these conversations, but we hope that the essays presented here will provoke further debate and discussion.
It has become an academic cliché to note that comics are still often thought of as a preserve or cultural ghetto for straight, white, socially-awkward, “boys” (meaning males of various ages who are not recognized as “men”), a group stereotyped as misogynist, homophobic, and marked by the stigma of male virginity. Rather than repeating the equally cliché mantra that comics have “grown up,” we acknowledge that there is a measure of truth in this stereotype, but it is a boring, reductive and judgmental truth.
Full consideration of human sexuality as it is represented in comics requires an awareness of the “tacky,” “tasteless,” and “low,” but also of the potentials of the medium as they appear in works with cultural cachet along with those of “low” artistic value. Comics have been and continue to be a medium for sexual expression, pleasure, gender and group identification and definition, as well as, perhaps most importantly, a narrative medium for the telling of stories about specific bodies and their physical and social intercourse, in all its convoluted, gratuitous, messy glory.
Manga, graphic novels and superhero comics are all represented here, and methods ranging from analysis of the adaptation of historical texts to Thierry Groensteen’s arthrological analysis. The latter is central in “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Arthrological Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” wherein Adrielle Mitchell uses Groensteen to investigate the visual structure of Bechtel’s auto/biography in terms of how Bechtel’s memories of her father’s closeted homosexuality reflect on Bechtel’s lesbian identity. Jordana Greenblatt’s “I for Integrity: (Inter)Subjectivities and Sidekicks in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” performs an different kind of analysis, of subjectivity and subjugation, in considering how Moore and Miller each deal with the power relationships between powerful and knowing male “superheroes” and their comparatively naive and vulnerable female sidekicks.
Gender as play is the topic of Tania Darlington’s “The Queering of Haruhi Fujioka: Cross-Dressing, Camp and Commoner Culture in Ouran High School Host Club.” Darlington uses the very popular Ouran to investigate the surprising degree to which genderqueer themes are acceptable in Japanese shojo (“girl’s”) manga, as well as the history and limits of this acceptance. It is the lack of any such place for or acceptance of queer identity that James Newlin dwells on “‘Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That’: Confused Sexualities and Genres in Cooper and Mayerson’s Horror Hospital Unplugged.” He draws the chaos of Keith Mayerson’s art, Dennis Cooper’s disconcerting style of gay fiction, and character Trevor Machine’s failures at self-definition into a three-sided relationship based on discomfort.
The need for critical reading of images is made clear in “Our Minds in the Gutters: Sexuality, History, and Reader Responsibility in George O’Connor’s Graphic Novel Journey into Mohawk Country,” wherein Melissa Mellon demonstrates O’Connor’s desire for critical and educational acceptance and the problems with how the textually-faithful graphic novel depicts sex and other gendered and racialized relationships between white “explorers” and Native Americans. A different flavor of critical reading is Daniel Yezbick’s project in “The Joy of Plex: Erotic Arthrology, Tromplographic Intercourse, and ‘Interspecies Romances’ in Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!” Yezbick analyzes Chaykin’s singular visual style for details that increase the ambivalence between flagrant objectification and camp critique in American Flagg! and Chaykin’s other erotically-charged work.
Star Hoffman’s review of Jim Ottoviani and Dylan Meconis’ Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love rounds out the issue. It is our hope that these sexed images, images of sex and the analyses thereof will intrigue, provoke and, if not always please our readership, at least stand in opposition to the dire cruelty of the unsexed image.