Menu Close

Bound and Dreaming: Female Empowerment through Sado-Masochistic Fantasy in Guido Crepax’s Valentina

By Cara Takakjian

Many critics have cited Guido Crepax’s Valentina as representative of the liberated woman of the late ’60s. She is the protagonist of her own comic strip, is self-employed, seems to be sexually free and open, and dresses in high Milanese style. Crepax himself stressed this interpretation of his female protagonist:

The fact that she was a girl who worked was extremely important for me. All of the preceding comics were very chauvinistic. The female figures were important in the fact that they were the protagonist’s women, lovers, girlfriends. … Valentina has a real life, she’s an emancipated woman, politically active, that lives with a man–always the same one–notwithstanding a few flings (ValentinaLa Forma del Tempo 21).1

It is important to acknowledge the revolutionary position of the character of Valentina within 1960s Italian cultural production as a progressive indicator of changing values, particularly with regards to sex and sexuality. That being said, her status as a symbol of liberation is complicated by her constant bondage within the narrative, as well as her enslavement on the page, which perpetuates a hierarchical power relationship between active viewer and passive object-to-be-viewed.

This essay will examine how Valentina, though she may be read both diegetically and extra-diegetically as a “living doll,”2 forced to passively fill her creator’s male fantasies, may ultimately be seen as transgressing historical representations of women in comics in Italy at the time. The reader’s access to her character’s interiority allows us to understand much of the masochistic storyline as emanating from her erotic unconscious, a revolutionary and progressive approach to female representation for the time. Furthermore, the stimulation of the reader’s erotic fantasies creates both an intimate and imaginatively liberal relationship between reader and text that reflected the experimental and free nature of 1968.

The comics world is a stereotypically male world. Characters, themes and storylines, as well as readers, historically tend to be adolescent and young adult males.3 In Italy, just as in the rest of the world, the history of comics reads as rather male-centric, though with slight variation. Superhero adventure comics dominated the American comics scene in the 1930s and 40s, relegating most female characters to the role of helpless victim or scantily clad, and ridiculously proportioned, superheroes. In Italy, under the Fascist regime, women were not only denied the starring role in comics, but were assigned the role of the obedient wife-mother who waited at home for her man to return from the front so that they could produce an army of little balilla to support the nationalist agenda.4 The censorship of the regime, which also prevented American comics from entering the country, and the pervasive modesty of the church ensured that female characters were well-covered and de-sexualized.

In 1948, the first modern female character was introduced in Italian comics: Pantera Bionda. A female version of Tarzan, Pantera was a voluptuous blonde who roamed the jungle, battling various creatures in a revealing, leopard-patterned outfit. Her skimpy clothing and self-affirmative use of sexuality invoked the ire of many readers and led to editorial persecution and censorship, most evidently in the extended length of the character’s skirt. Even though the post-war Italian comic reading public was not ready for such a progressive female character, Pantera Bionda might be considered an ante-litteram feminist. She eschewed the traditional female role, and embraced her sexuality as a positive source of empowerment, connecting her to many future female comics characters, including Valentina.

In the 1950s, the sisters Giussani partnered the lovely Eva Kant with the elegant, and slightly effeminate, anti-hero, Diabolik. Until this moment, there had been very few female comics creators or contributors, particularly in Italy. The Giussani sisters forged the way for a new genre, the nero, which was a variation on the popular giallo narrative. Their female character, Eva, was a typical female of the giallo and nero genres—beautiful, intelligent, but still just the protagonist’s lady friend/accomplice. Diabolik, on the other hand, is a particularly effeminate male character, whose long-lashed eyes are consistently shown in close-up. This subtle gender-bending indicates how these female authors were at the forefront of a more flexible concept of sex and sexuality, something that is crucial in the discussion of the construction of female identity in Italian comics.

In the early 1960s in France, Jean Claude Forest introduced Barbarella as the eponymous star of one of the first adult comics. The blonde bombshell travelled to far away planets, befriended drooling, googly-eyed aliens, and found endless excuses to remove her clothing in public. The major difference between Barbarella and preceding female comics characters, besides total nudity, was the innovation that the French protagonist had her stories collected in a single volume. This was the beginning of adult erotic comics, and Barbarella was soon followed by Jodelle, Pravda, Blanche Epiphanie, Paulettte, Vampirella, and Phoebe Zeit-Geist, to name a few.

In Italy, Guido Crepax, a young architect and graphic designer, was inspired by Forest’s work. In 1965, the character of Valentina, modeled after silent movie star Louise Brooks and Crepax’s wife,5 appeared as the female sidekick to Philip Rembrandt/Neutron, art critic/superhero in a strip called Neutron, published in the comics magazine Linus. Less than two years later, due to overwhelming fascination with her character, she was granted her own storyline and graphic novel. For the purpose of this essay, we will focus on the first two works that feature Valentina as the main character of her own series, namely Valentina (1968) and Valentina Speciale (1969).6

Like Pantera Bionda and Barbarella before her, Valentina can be considered progressive with regards to publication history and earlier representations of female characters. In other parts of the world, the United States and France in particular, pin-up girls and erotic comics had been around since before the First World War. The direct ancestors of Valentina—images featuring women in bondage, ranging from photos of Bettie Page to the comics Sally the Sleuth or Phoebe Zeit-Geist—went through a few rounds of censorship and criticism before Valentina even came into existence.7 In Italy, after the Second World War, traditional national values and pervading Catholic morals prescribed a relatively conservative, de-sexualized presentation of the female figure. The erotic presentation of Valentina, then, her nudity and fetishistic outfits, as well as the seductive positioning of her body, were revolutionary. In sync with the rejection of established practices and values inherent in the movement of 1968, Crepax’s female character broke bonds with history and proposed a new threshold of acceptability for sexual representation. Though much of Italian pop culture would experience a similar transformation over the next few years, most notoriously with the Jesus Jeans ads of 1971, Crepax supplied the pioneering example for transcendence of the norms of sexual representation.

In some ways, Valentina is certainly a “living doll,” falling into a “tradition of representation of women, from myth to fairytale to high art to pornography, where they are stripped of will and autonomy” (Kuhn 14). In part, this is inevitable: Valentina is a literary character on the page, whose every move is controlled by her master-author. She has no autonomy apart from her creator’s will, something that the characters remark among themselves every once in a while, creating a meta-narrative confusion between character and author. In one panel, Valentina and Phil discuss their vulnerability to the author, with Phil exclaiming “You’re amazing! Hm. … We could even get married, no? …” to which she replies, “Well … we’d need to ask Crepax!” (see Fig. 1)

Figure 1

Our perception of these two in profile places us an outside observer of the conversation, mirroring what Crepax’s own position would be as the artist drawing the scene before him. The characters’ apparent consciousness of the existence of their creator, as well as recognition of their submission to him, gives us pause and asks us to reconsider questions of autonomy and agency both within and outside of the narrative. It also draws attention to the gender ambiguity inherent in Valentina’s character, as a strong female living out her male creator’s fantasies, which we will explore further below.

Within the narrative, the character of Valentina often appears as a passive, submissive object in relation to the other characters. She is constantly losing her clothes, most often at the hands of other characters or invisible forces that do not pertain to her. Her “high fashion” outfits, then, are only fleeting references to contemporary style, and are quickly replaced, most typically by other characters and through force, by fetishistic “lingerie” and/or nudity. In these moments, Valentina lacks agency, and is the antithesis of a liberated, powerful female who undresses when she wants, for whomever she wants. Her character is the sort of “female captive” that anti-pornography theorists, such as Gloria Steinham or Andrea Dworkin, despise. Indeed, if we were to stop at the surface of Valentina’s forced nudity, she might be representative of “the degrading and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female … as a mere sexual object to be exploited and manipulated sexually” (Longino 35).

But, Valentina evades this categorization on a number of levels. First, Crepax’s comics do not comply with the “aesthetics of maximum visibility”—at least, the literal, physical visibility pertaining to the body and sex—that Linda Williams cites as necessary for the genre of pornography (Hard Core 48). If anything, the “maximum visibility” that Crepax utilizes is a metaphysical one, revealing Valentina’s private thoughts and sexual appetite to the reader. It is precisely this insight into the character’s interior world that distinguishes Crepax’s works from other erotic comics or pin-up girls, such as those of Milo Manara. While Manara’s women are untouchably glamorous, Crepax’s Valentina is more realistic and therefore more accessible to us, even if only slightly. Her lines are sharper, less fuzzy and dream-like, removing the aura of unattainability that characterizes Manara’s women. We are privy to her fears and desires, rendering her more human and, therefore, more like us.

It is certainly a sign of the times that we, as readers, are privileged to see Valentina’s dreams and imaginings. She does not simply represent the contemporary woman, in this sense, but reflects one of the principal tenets of 1968: the personal is political. Her subconscious, her neuroses and sadomasochistic fantasies are reflective of the revolutionary social changes, particularly with regard to sexuality, that were taking place at the time. This access to Valentina’s interiority, her emotions, thoughts and sexual fantasies, is the truly progressive aspect of Crepax’s comics. It is easy enough to show us her body, to force her to disrobe and pose for us, but it is much more challenging for a male author to show us a female character’s internal landscape. While this bold move may not quite place the author in the position of “moral pornographer,”8 he is calling into question the established world of sexual and gender relations, something that was only possible at this moment of increased freedom of expression and critique of social mores in Italy.

In a way, this exploration of female interiority is reminiscent of comics designed specifically for women, such as redezu komikku, or Japanese “ladies’ comics,” hard-core porn comics of the late 1980s, aimed at an audience of young women. While these comics “do not present … a feminist utopia, nor are they radically subversive,” they do “represent real (or at least realistic) women actively pursuing their own sexual pleasure, taking the initiative in sexual experimentation and otherwise negotiating heterosexual relationships in a world of gender inequalities” (Shamoon 79-80). Crepax’s representation of Valentina’s interiority is even more progressive and intriguing if we remember that these comics were not intended solely for women. The resulting intimacy between the (probably male) reader and the character of Valentina was not just physical, but mental and emotional. It may be too much to suggest that Crepax was intentionally trying to present a more well-rounded depiction of a woman in an attempt at reestablishing equality within heterosexual relationships; but the focus on Valentina’s fantasies, desires, and fears bring her and her interior world into the forefront, a place typically reserved for mere body parts in erotic or pornographic art.

Indeed, things are complicated even more by further investigating the gendered relationship of power between Valentina and her creator. After her takeover of the Neutron storyline and comic, mentioned above, it is true that “Valentina is who counts, the world revolves around her” (“chi conta è Valentina, il mondo ruota intorno a lei” [Del Buono 11]). Valentina’s pain-pleasure was the primary focus of the both the visual and textual narrative, clearly establishing her as the central figure. In fact, we may argue that the masochistic fantasies that we see really are Valentina’s. Many of the images we see are from her dreams and daydreams, not necessarily giving her active authority, but at least attributing their genesis to her subconscious. The fantasies are presented as hers: the dreams, nightmares and hallucinations come from within her, granting her a sense of authorial or, at least, imaginative, agency.

If our insight into her thoughts and dreams feels intrusive, it is even more unsettling to remember that her creator and presenter (dare I say, her authorial pimp) is a middle-aged man. Crepax is known to have provocatively exclaimed “Valentina is me!” (“Valentina sono io!,” La Forma del Tempo 10), therefore making it clear that these fantasies are not Valentina’s, but those of her male creator. This makes us wonder if we are privy to Valentina’s (read: a contemporary woman’s) imaginings, or those of her male creator. Perhaps, in the end, it doesn’t matter, as long as we don’t interpret Valentina’s homoerotic, sadomasochistic fantasies as a symbol of emancipated female sexuality, but rather as a sign of the liberated times that allowed Crepax to portray his erotic dreams in such an impactful medium. Ultimately, the masculinity afforded to Valentina through her author’s identification with her pushes the boundaries of gender and sexuality. This dissolution of typical gender dichotomies, the blurring between male fantasies of a woman’s imagination and a woman’s desire conceived by the male mind, is yet another symptom of the liberated times in which the comic was created.

The masochistic qualities of Valentina’s fantasies are critical to understanding the progressive nature of her identity, as well as the complicated relationship between her and her creator. If we see masochism as more than just a simple power dichotomy, but rather, as Kaja Silverman puts it, “simultaneously a capitulation and a revolt” (32), Valentina’s submission takes on a proactive, even liberated, quality. This may be hard to understand at first, especially since, diegetically, the character of Valentina is most often helpless, relying on other characters to save her from both real and imagined predicaments. These characters may be men or women, but they noticeably act in situations where Valentina is rendered inept. Valentina’s body language suggests that she is constantly struggling, is never a free agent or acting on her own free will. She is not a typical “femme fatale, aware and lucid in her evil” (“femme fatale, consapevole e lucida nella sua malizia” [Seveso 155]), but is always fighting, both in dreams and in reality, and usually losing her clothes in a forced, violent fashion.

Instead, it is through the act of fantasizing that Valentina asserts her power, even if she plays the role of the victim and not the dominatrix within those fantasies. It is the conscious and subconscious creation of these “domains of resistance”9 that allow her character to explore sexual taboos and play with traditional power relations. Her dreams and daydreams offer her a space of freedom, mirroring the sexual freedom of 1968, in which she may be considered an inquisitive manipulator of grey space, pre-established boundaries and societal norms.10 As a masochistic woman (which, she is, as these are ostensibly her fantasies), she is seeking her own pleasure, first and foremost.11 Even in her imagined role as the victim within the masochistic relationship, the character and imaginings of Valentina are subverting the dominant discourse of female identity and traditional gender relations.

At the beginning of Valentina Speciale, we find Valentina bound and gagged, whipped and ridden like a horse by an unknown female character, and then forced to have sexual relations with an unknown man against her will. Eventually, we discover that this extended scene of forced sex and brutality is a dream—is Valentina’s dream—placing it within the realm of rape fantasy. This is one of the more masochistic moments of the story, and therefore one of the most complex. Valentina, as mentioned above, is the fantasizer of these images, arguably revealing either deep-seated fears or desires that once again create an intimacy between reader and character. This intimacy is further accentuated by the close-up views of Valentina’s face, which displays an ambiguous expression that doesn’t quite seem to complement her verbal/textual pleas. These close-ups, and the various angles they provide the viewer, remind us of the theatricality of masochism, the importance of “enacting the erotic scene” rather than the actual experience (De Beauvoir 31).

For most of the scene, Valentina is speechless, rendering her both physically and vocally oppressed in her own nightmare. Toward the end Valentina protests, “One minute … I can’t … I can’t do it! There are emotional reasons that prohibit me …” (“Un momento … io non posso … non posso farlo! Ci sono delle ragioni affettive che lo impediscono …” Crepax, 30-31) (see Fig. 2). Once again, Crepax focuses on the emotional element of the scene, referencing Valentina’s sense of guilt for cheating, albeit against her will, on her true love, Phil. This attention to emotion is almost absurd in a scene of S&M, and is further disrupted by the panels that follow, showing Valentina asleep on her bed, writhing in pain/delight during her dream/nightmare.

Figure 2

As she is dreaming, she exclaims, “No … enough … I can’t … you’re suffocating me …” (“No … basta … non posso … mi suffocate …”) (see Fig. 3). It is critical to note Valentina’s facial expressions in these panels, as well as the sounds she is emitting, which certainly seem to signal “erotic bliss.”12 We can also note the careful positioning of the character’s pussycat, or chat, which, in both French and English may colloquially refer to a woman’s vagina. The “unbearable weight” (“Che peso! Che peso insopportabile!”) that she is groaning about, then, is her own sexuality, which seems to cause her simultaneous pleasure and pain, especially in her dream-state.

Figure 3

In the two comics, there is only one other moment—a fantasy—in which Valentina asserts some amount of control within the narrative. Toward the end of Valentina, after numerous moments of desperation and calls to be saved, Valentina suddenly resents the two male characters who have thus far been her protectors and saviors. She is angered by the fact that they treat her “like a crazy cry-baby … thinking they must always protect me!” In response, she imagines herself an evil Russian Czarina, called “Valenka la Terribile!” and fantasizes forcing the two men to fight for her love, eventually forcing them to “pull the carriage of sexual slavery.” While this brief moment is momentarily empowering, it is also clearly a delusion, evidenced by its placement between two moments of a powerless, victimized Valentina. This juxtaposition of power is evident in the character’s physicality as well. As Tim Pilcher notes, “Crepax drew slender, delicate, almost fragile girls, who had a will of iron” (136). Again, the coexistence of strength and weakness within one character subverts typical dichotomies, revealing how the qualities are not mutually exclusive but may work together toward a common identity.

Beyond the agency afforded to her through fantasy, Valentina is most in control when she has a camera in her hand. She is a professional photographer, and the fact that her subjects are always women, often nude and erotically positioned, creates an intriguing ambiguity between the roles of male/female and viewer/object within the story. The photographic process—the gaze of the camera, which is also Valentina’s gaze—captures the image of women in seductive poses to be consumed by her, by us and by readers of the magazine in which the photographs will be published. Valentina, with the help of the camera lens, freezes the image of the female as sexual object, deconstructing and dismembering the body in a process of disintegration that does not allow for a complete representation. She orders the models to pose in certain ways, manipulating them with her words so that she can hold them in the positions she wants. As photographer, then, she becomes author and “animator,”13 visually and verbally manipulating the characters before her to bend to her desire, mirroring her own relationship with Crepax.

Valentina’s photos are an example of the process of fragmentation of the female body that refuses women a whole, unbroken identity. The camera breaks the female form into pieces, dismantling and objectifying the body as close-up pieces to be visually devoured (see Fig. 4). While Seveso sees this fragmentation as a reflection of the failure of communication intrinsic to the modern era,14 it is also indicative of the objectification and dissection of the female body in erotic comics. This breaking down renders the form more digestible, allowing more time for focused scrutiny of individual parts. Because of this, it refuses to acknowledge the wholeness of the female body, effectively denying her the completeness of form and representation that a truly emancipated vision would embrace.

Figure 4

This denial of totality via the camera may represent the masculine, or Crepaxian, side of Valentina. Her camera, which effectively freezes and dismembers her women subjects, is a tool that unravels female integrity, or wholeness, rendering them less-than, incomplete, and objectified. Crepax seeks to reconstitute this broken image through representations of women’s interior spaces. The visual fragmentation of the photos and comic panels, however, is difficult to reconstruct. The final representation of the female, even if it appears to be intact, resembles a re-assemblage of a photograph that has been cut into various pieces only to be taped back together. The lines of division are still visible even once the image is reconstructed.

The role of the reader is crucial in a discussion of gender construction and identity in Crepax’s comics. There is an intimacy created between the character and the reader through an exploration, not just of Valentina’s naked body, but of her sexual desires and deepest fears. Perhaps even more explicitly compelling is the theatricality of Valentina’s perpetual striptease. As previously mentioned, much of the character’s nudity is a result of someone else’s, or some external force’s, doing, and often times takes place with no other characters in the scene, begging the question for whom is she undressing?

Strangely enough, the characters within the story, especially the male characters, do not seem to be that interested in watching Valentina. Phil, for example, the recurring male character, often has his nose in a book or newspaper, and rarely looks at his beautiful, often naked, lady friend. He only seems interested in looking at women other than Valentina, both in actuality and in his fantasies. His lack of attention to the blatantly exhibitionist presence of the female protagonist underscores the importance of the extra-diegetic gaze as Crepax’s, and Valentina’s, primary focus.

An amusing example of this can be found in a panel in which Valentina, after announcing that she is going upstairs to change into something a little more comfortable, is offended that neither of the two men in her company accepts her not-so-subtle invitation to see her naked (see Fig. 5). In response, it is almost as if she turns to us, the extra-diegetic viewer, and says, “But … is no one coming with me?” If she can’t pique the interest of the male characters in the comic, at least she can lure us upstairs to satisfy our voyeuristic cravings. At the same time, she is seeking to fulfil her own role in the performance, embracing the part of an object to be looked at and desired by her diegetic and extra-diegetic audiences.

Figure 5

Here, it is important to recall that “masochism is traditionally a staged, enacted, performed identity” (Tobin 49-50). Valentina is playing a role: that of a submissive woman, an object to be desired and oppressed by the male and female characters within the story, as well as by the readers. Again, this calls into question the veracity of the character’s “weakness,” and her inability to act in certain (most) situations. If we remember Crepax’s proclaimed identification with his female character, we might consider that she, and her comic, are his enactment of a masochistic fantasy. Her manipulated, delicate figure is the embodiment of his dreams on two distinct levels: she is the image of submission and weakness with which he identifies in his male masochistic fantasies; as the diegetic creator of the fantasies on the page, she is him, the master-author in control of the story. The confusion between male/female and creator/actor disrupts typical gender power relations and complicates expected narrative norms, once again reflecting the contemporary moment of social upheaval and progressive inquiry.

The reader is perhaps the most liberated player in Crepax’s work. In comics, much more so than in film, the reader controls the pace and direction of the reading. In works like Valentina, the repeated use of close-ups of women’s body parts from a number of angles allow the reader-viewer to linger for as long he or she would like, on a preferred image, for whatever purpose he or she likes.15 The panel layout and visual perspectives within the panels both support our role as reader-voyeurs who hope to fully consume Valentina’s body from every angle. As discussed earlier, Crepax uses small panels of close-ups on specific body parts, similar to freeze-frame photographs, as a means of dissecting and immobilizing the body for scrutiny (see Fig. 4). He utilizes another innovative fragmentation device that shows a whole image divided among a number of panels. In one case, a single scene is shown broken into six panels; the three on the left are an imaginary perspective of the reality depicted in the three on the right, which we understand by the distinguishable panel borders (sharp-edged borders indicate reality, round-edged borders indicate fantasy or dream state, dotted borders indicate a memory/history, etc.). This gives us insight both into the reality of Valentina’s situation and her own subjective emotional state. At the same time, even though the two columns give us expanded insight into the character’s situation, the panel breakdown constructs an obvious border between us and the narrative. We are reminded that we are viewing the story through a paned-filter, and the spaces between the panels create an anxiety of incomplete knowledge—or, more specifically, vision—that only whets our appetite to know/see more.

Crepax brilliantly quenches this desire with his use of multiple perspectives in showing the same scene, which almost always stars a semi-nude or nude Valentina. One of the most compelling examples of this technique is found in Valentina Speciale, and involves Valentina strapped to a torture device, that it seems will result in her inevitable, gory destruction. In three pages, Valentina’s position—her immobile figure harnessed and muzzled into the device—is shown from six distinct angles, giving the viewer every possible perspective (see Figs. 6-8). With this technique, the author simultaneously fuels and satisfies our voyeuristic desire to see more. We pause longer at these panels, taking the time to examine their intricacy, seeking to understand how the contraption works and reveling in our chance to see this suspense-filled moment over an extended time, a key element of the masochistic experience.16

Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8

Our voracious, and encompassing, viewing of Valentina might be considered an even greater imbalance of power if we consider the tactile element of sight. Rudolf Arnheim wrote that “the world of images does not simply imprint itself upon a faithfully sensitive organ. Rather, in looking at an object, we reach out for it. With an invisible finger we move through the space around us … catch them, touch them, explore their texture” (43). We, then, are not just satisfying our visual curiosities, but are physically engaging with the images before us, molesting Valentina with our eyes and our “invisible fingers.” Again, Valentina is not just a glamorous, unattainable woman before our eyes; she is bound and gagged, frozen on the page before us, so that we may approach her as closely, as often, and in whatever way we would like.

The erotic images on the page, in combination with the creative realms of dream and fantasy within the narrative, access the reader’s own imagination, encouraging us to dream further. Andrew Ross discusses this same process in relation to pornography:

Pornography, for the most part, provides a stimulus, base, or foundation for individual fantasies to be built upon and elaborated. It merely provides the conditions – stock, generic, eroticizable components such as poses, clothing, and sounds – under which the pleasure of fantasizing, a pleasure unto itself, can be pursued. It cannot, of course, determine the precise nature or shape of the viewer’s fantasies, it is aimed in the direction of his or her fantasmatic pleasure (196-7).

The masochistic elements of Valentina’s stories add yet another level of fantastical freedom to the reading, as it provides intriguing visual fodder to stimulate the viewer’s individual imaginings. Deleuze writes that “there is no specifically masochistic phantasy, but rather a masochistic art of phantasy,” emphasizing the subjective nature of masochism, just as sexuality or any form of self-expression is inherently individual (64).17

While Crepax’s comics utilize various techniques that perpetuate the voyeuristic male gaze of comics, such as fragmentation of the female form, the author goes beyond stereotypical erotic representations. Crepax’s comics, like other fetish comics, sought to break the bounds of acceptable representation, following in the rebellious atmosphere of 1968. As the American Satellite Publishing Co., specializing in fetish comics in the 1960s, explained in its mission statement: “… We shall break through the dull curtain of convention and travel into the realm of fancy and self-expression wherein so many men and women find refuge from drab conventionalism” (Pilcher 129). Crepax’s Valentina went far beyond this superficial transgression, however, exploring the most intimate realms of female psychology and emotion and graphically portraying women’s sexual fantasies for all to see. The comics effectively dissolved barriers between public and private, body and mind, interior and external spaces. As we have seen, the gender ambiguity presented by Crepax’s self-identification in the character of Valentina further pushes definitions of gender and sexuality, and complicates notions of authorship and power. Ultimately, as explorations of Valentina’s/Crepax’s fantasies, these comics stimulate the reader’s own sexual imagination, inspiring a creative, liberated space for exploration of private desires. The permissive, unbound atmosphere was an optimal arena for the progressive questioning and experimentation inherent in the 1968 movement in Italy.


[1] All translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own. “Il fatto che fosse una ragazza che lavorava era per me estremamente importante. Tutti i fumetti precedenti erano molto maschilisti. Le figure femminili erano importanti in quanto donne del protagonista, amanti, fidanzate. … Valentina ha una vita reale, è una donna emancipata, impegnata politicamente, che convive con un uomo–sempre lo stesso–nonstante alcune scappatelle.”

[2] This is Annette Kuhn’s term (14).

[3] Trina Robbins explains that, in the mid-1940s and early 1950s in America, there were more female comics readers than male (12). This was specifically tied to the comic, Archie, and romance titles of the ’50s. I have not found evidence of similar trends in Italy.

[4] As Rossella Laterza and Marisa Vinella note, “yet another grotesque aspect derives from the proper tone of the dialogues, in which the characters always love each using the ‘voi’, being very conscious not to forget the linguistic rules [of the regime] even in the most intimate moments” (“una punta di grottesco in più, deriva dal tono aulico dei dialoghi, in cui i protagonisti si amano sempre col ‘voi’, stando ben attenti a non dimenticare neanche nei momenti più intimi tali regole linguistiche.” 133).

[5] “Valentina was born from the contamination between the physical figure of Guido (Crepax’s) wife and the mythic figure of Louise Brooks.” (“Valentina nasce dalla contaminazione tra la figura fisica della moglie di Guido, Luisa, e quella mitica di Louise Brooks.” La Forma del Tempo, 12).

[6] It is important to note that Valentina underwent many transformations from 1965 to 2003. In order to focus on the relationship between the historical events of Italy in 1968-9 and the comic medium, I have chosen to analyze only the works that were born during this precise period.

[7] For more on this, see Tim Pilcher’s two volumes on Erotic Comics. The first volume in particular succinctly outlines the history of erotic images and comics.

[8] This term is borrowed from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography.

[9] This is Jonathan Crary’s term (77).

[10] In a way, Valentina may also be seen as an “animator” of the dreams and daydreams we are reading. As Scott Bukatman points out, “Animation as an idea speaks to life, autonomy, movement, freedom” (108).

[11] For more on this relationship between masochism and the construction of female identity, see Tobin (38).

[12] Pilchner writes, with regards to Crepax, “his comics … often include pages without dialogue that simply feature a series of close-ups of body parts, and more importantly facial expressions, all engaged in erotic bliss” (136).

[13] Again, see Bukatman.

[14] “In this sense, the comic is truly very contemporary, in that it seems to underline the lack of communication in today’s world, the lack of communication between people, but also between the different instances that each person carries within him/herself” (“In questo senso il fumetto è veramente molto contemporaneo, poiché sembra sottolineare l’incomunicabilità del mondo attuale, incomunicabilità fra persone, ma anche fra le differenti istanze che ciascun essere porta dentro di sé” [158].)

[15] Thanks to Scott Bukatman for pointing this out.

[16] Deleuze writes, “waiting and suspense are key elements in the masochistic experience” (62).

[17] Barbara Mennel also emphasizes that “fantasy is integral to masochism” (18).

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. New version, expanded and rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone de. Must we Burn De Sade? London: P. Nevill, 1953. Print.

Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. University of California Press, 2012. Print.

Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Print.

Crepax, Guido, et al. Guido Crepax: Valentina, La Forma del Tempo. Siena, Italy: C. Cambi, 2008. Print.

Del Buono, Oreste. Introduction. Valentina. By Guido Crepax. 4th ed. Milan, Italy: Milano Libri, 1988. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation [English]. Ed. London; New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.

Kuhn, Annette. The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. Print.

Laterza, Rossella e Marisa Vinella. Le Donne di Carta: Personaggi Femminili nella Storia del Fumetto. 4 Vol. Bari: Dedalo libri, 1980. Print.

Longino, Helen “Pornography, Oppression and Freedom: A Closer Look.” The Problem of Pornography. Ed. Susan Dwyer. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1995. Print.

Pilcher, Tim. Erotic Comics: A Graphic History. Volume 1. From Birth to the 1970s. Cambridge, England: Ilex Press, 2008. Print.

Robbins, Trina. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Venus, Symbole for Female Comics from Teens to Zines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999. Print.

Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Seveso, Gabriella. Fumette: Valentina, Eva Kant, Lara Croft e Le Altre. 1st ed. 2 Vo.. Milano: UNICOPLI, 2000. Print.

Shamoon, Deborah. “Office Sluts and Rebel Flowers: The Pleasures of Japanese Pornographic Comics for Women.” Porn Studies. Ed. Linda Williams. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Tobin, Robert. “Masochism and Identity.” One Hundred Years of Masochism: Literary Texts, Social and Cultural Contexts. Ed. Michael C. Finke and Carl Niekerk. 10 Vol. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. Print.

Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1989. Print.

Related Articles