Last week I promised that today’s post would touch on the topic of sexuality in comics and culture. The jumping-off point for that discussion is Arak, Son of Thunder issue #11, which I mislaid and still have not located. So, in lieu of a detailed plot synopsis of that issue (still forthcoming, as soon as I figure out where it absconded to), I will instead delve right into the broader memories that this comic brings back, demonstrating how different my preadolescent experience was in the 1980s from the media culture of youth today.
I can remember opening the pages of Arak, Son of Thunder issue #11 — the first issue of Arak I ever bought — and being shocked (and thrilled) by the scene in which Valda, the Iron Maiden sheds her armor. She has been moved by the pipes of the satyr to embrace her femininity, her freedom, and to dance. Somehow, though, she realizes what the satyr is up to; the spell is broken, and her carefree visage turns to rage. Then she’s standing there, fists clenched, looking like she’s about to rip a certain satyr’s horns off, but still naked. This was a comic approved by the “Comic Code Authority,” so she’s mostly bathed in shadow. Still, standing there in silhouette, she was naked!
When I saw that comic again, thirty years later, I couldn’t help but smile at the innocence and naiveté of that ten-year-old boy, straining his eyes to see if he could make out anything more through that shadow of black ink. I mean, Ernie Colon draws Valda beautifully, but for all the impression it made on me then, there’s not much on the actual page to titillate — far more is concealed than revealed.
No doubt it is nearly universal that when one’s age reaches the double digits, a new curiosity begins to dawn about the opposite sex, about the physical differences, and what those physical differences signify (you know, just what do adults do when they get alone together and take their clothes off? To put it bluntly). What varies greatly is how youth of different cultures and different generations manage to satisfy that inquisitive curiosity. And, of course, what might be titillating or even scandalous for one generation might not even warrant the batting of an eye for the next.
I want to steer clear of ranging too far on that last point: one could write a whole book about changing mores and stimuli, spanning from a Victorian era when a woman’s exposed ankle could cause heart palpitations, to contemporary times when a woman can turn up at nearly any beach in nothing but a G-string bikini without fear of getting arrested for indecent exposure. Indeed, whole books have been written on that subject. Instead, I’m going to narrow in on one preadolescent boy in the early ‘80s, and talk about how the culture was right then, in that little snapshot of pop-culture history.
Like many in “geek-dom,” I have always been highly inquisitive about topics that piqued my interest, be it the legend of Bigfoot or the legendary career of Bob Dylan. I mean, that’s a defining trait of being a geek, right? You’re the guy that didn’t just enjoy Star Wars but has read every novel tie-in ever and has memorized the specs to the Millennium Falcon. You’re the girl who isn’t just a fan of Star Trek in all its incarnations; you speak Klingon and can give a breakdown of the hierarchy of member races of the Federation. If you’ve ever seriously played a table-top roleplaying game, in my opinion you meet the minimum qualifications for geek-card carrying status: you’ve read hundreds of pages of rules so that you could pretend to be an elf.
Of course, this obsession about something that interests you isn’t the sole qualification; avid sports fanatics who can cite all their favorite players’ statistics, Pink Floyd groupies who have every bootleg ever, and Civil War buffs who have sat through the Ken Burns documentary ten times all share a similar passion and drive for their chosen interest, but they have not typically been labeled “geeks.” Yet the impetus is the same.
My point being that when I hit the fifth grade and curiosity about sex popped up on my radar, it entered that same category of Things I Spend A Good Deal of Time Thinking About and Pursuing More Knowledge Of. Purely theoretical knowledge, it should be noted. Then — and for many years after — I no more pursued firsthand knowledge than an armchair military-aviation buff tries to get out and fly a B-52 bomber to Normandy.
At first this rational curiosity was perhaps not much different from how one might suddenly develop an interest in mineralogy or butterfly collecting. Obviously, though, it was soon exacerbated by the powerful, primal urge that drives our species to propagate itself. Quite a one-two punch, that: the innocent curiosity of wondering what a woman looks like au naturel because one has never seen that before, coupled with the forces of evolutionary biology that make bare flesh a strong stimulant.
In this, of course, I was not alone. This was a passion that cut across cliques and cultural lines: this was a curiosity equally shared by jocks, stoners, and geeks.
I should mention that even prior to the fifth grade I was a bit of a romantic. I can recall being moved, even at the tender age of six or seven, by the endings of some of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy films, when the hero clasps the heroine in his arms and their lips lock. That closeness, that companionship — and, hey, the kissing even looks fun. But it was not until the fifth grade that I really started to wonder what came after the kiss; what’s going on behind those rolling credits after the camera fades out?
Now, before I go any further, I’ll bet some of you are wondering, What did he do, exactly, to satisfy his curiosity? Alas, I have no lurid, shocking details to report. When this desire to know about the taboo, forbidden, adult subject began inexorably to pull at me, what I did was this: I looked up “sex” in the dictionary. Then I began looking up “sex” and any related words in all the encyclopedias to which I had access. Actual print books, heavy tomes of paper and ink. Remember, there was no such thing as an Internet.
And this is just one little example of the darkness-and-day split between the not-too-long-ago and the revolution of the Information Age. I still chuckle recalling one dictionary entry I read back then, which described sexual intercourse as an act a couple engages in when they are lying side by side. Even then, I think I knew that this was probably not the most typical body configuration.
When the same natural curiosity hits a kid today, a quick hop to Wikipedia and there are pages of detailed information complete with pictures. No more mystery, that’s for sure. And look up the relevant organs on Wikipedia (not if you’re at work). When I was a kid, you might find a black-and-white line drawing. Now: full-color photographs, nothing left to the imagination. (And need I say, that’s just on a semi-legitimate site like Wikipedia; you know as well as I what else kids can find with the most basic Google search). I don’t know how this immediate ability to sate one’s curiosity about a long-taboo topic affects kids today when they reach that stage (and I’m not about to ask any; I’d probably get arrested). But it’s certainly a different world, a different paradigm they’re seeking their answers in.
And it’s an evolving one. I think my mom once told me that she never even saw a naked man until she was eighteen. She grew up in the sixties, but the sixties in a rural town in Kansas was a far cry from the sixties in San Francisco. (And if you’re wondering in what context one’s mother would share such information, she was probably railing against the lax morals she saw in the culture of the ‘80s).
For my adolescent friends and me, seeing nudity was a clandestine and often futile project. We’d put in the VHS tape of Porky’s at a slumber party after the parents were in bed. We’d sneak an older sibling’s Playboy out from under its mattress hiding spot. We’d bring a Heavy Metal to the counter of the local newsstand, hoping the salesperson wouldn’t notice the age requirement. Occasionally, one of us would come across a magazine someone had tossed out in the alley, and we’d all gather ‘round this detritus from the mysterious, forbidden adult world, full of secret wonder. And, ewww, really gross. Could you imagine touching someone’s thrown-away sleaze magazine? No, of course you can’t, unless you grew up in the days before the Internet.
Now a kid can see that sort of thing any time he or she wants, parental locks notwithstanding. For Millennials, it’s probably just no big deal.
A grade-school friend of mine made this observation in the school cafeteria one day about our budding obsession with certain parts of the female anatomy: “It’s only because they’re covered up, hidden, that we care about it. If women walked around wearing pants on their heads, we’d get all excited about seeing their ears.” Maybe so.
I’m curious what the generation who grew up with the Internet will have to say on this, now that they are reaching their twenties and can have an adult conversation with us about it.