Comics Stripped: Learning Sex From Cartoons

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Craig Yoe, a child of the '60s and now a grandfather of two, as well as the father of a 4-month-old, said he learned it all from comic books.

Sex, that is.

Yoe, a comic book aficionado, is co-curator of "Comics Stripped," an exhibit that opened this week at New York City's Museum of Sex and traces the titillating history of erotica in comic books.

The exhibit will feature 150 artifacts from the Great Depression to the present, including original drawings, illustrated books, comic books, magazines and videos.

"Sex comics were entertaining and erotically stimulating, but also educational for younger people in the past," said Yoe. "The Internet serves the same function now as a way to find out what the birds and bees and flowers and trees and Mom and Dad did."

One of the featured artists is hippie-era illustrator Robert Crumb, who drew such comics as "Fritz the Cat" and "Keep on Truckin'," where Yoe said he "learned the mechanics of copulation and the joy of free love."

Comics entered the mainstream in 1938 with the advent of Joe Shuster's "Superman." But during the Depression, many other artists began "dirty drawings" of busty women, fetishes and even homosexuality.

Over the course of the 20th century and beyond, these comics have not only depicted sexual fantasy but have loosened taboos and lampooned popular culture.

And for boys like Yoe, who grew up in the uptight 1950s and early 1960s, naughty comics even had an "educational factor."

"I can personally attest to that," said Yoe, 59. "You found your Dad's "Playboy" under the socks in the dresser drawer. You talked about sex, but you didn't quite yet know how you did it."

"When you came across the sex-oriented comics, they were diagrammed well beyond Playboy and the health classes," he said. "You got to see how the physical act was performed and it was quite revelatory."

Yoe's interest in erotica seems a far cry from his day job, developing toys like Cabbage Patch kids and My Little Pony. He was personally recruited by Jim Henson to be creative director of the Muppets and later went on to be vice-president manager. He also worked for family-friendly Disney, the parent company of ABC News.

"It's all a part of the whole," he said. "I am a creative type and in touch with my inner kid. But I have an adult side, too, and an interest in sex. And I love comics."

Today, he runs Yoe Books, which produces books about comic history in his upstate New York home.

"When we think of comic strips and comic books, we think of kids, but historically more adults of read them," he said. "They appealed to kids who lay on the floor to read the Sunday funnies. But there was a rabid adult following."

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Adults Turned From Romance to Sexy Comics

During the 1940s a big part of the audience was soldiers reading superhero action comics, but an "underbelly" of publishing had already begun producing something more risque.

Sexually-oriented comics began in the 1930s with "Tijuana Bibles," a pocket-sized comic book, printed by the mob, according to Yoe.

They featured popular characters like Mickey Mouse, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and Blondie in "hard-core sexual situations."

"They were quite crude with no deep message," said Yoe. "They were totally titillating...they had a good buzz factor."

Later, artists put beloved characters like Popeye's Olive Oyl and even Disney's Snow White in highly compromising erotic situations.

In 1954, during the McCarthy era, the Comics Code of Authority was created, giving birth to underground publications from artists like Crumb that featured characters like Mr. Natural and Devil Girl.

Later, as sexual mores loosened, erotic drawings became an integral part of magazines like Playboy, with artists such as Jack Cole, whose cartoons became the gold standard for the men's magazine.

The exhibit features original art by Harvey Kurtzman of Playboy's "Little Annie Fannie," and the magazine's iconic cover of Marge Simpson.

Comics as an art form have a "tradition of exaggerating things in words and pictures," according to Yoe. "This is the stock and trade of the cartoonist. It gives more latitude. Cartoons and comics were groundbreakers."

As for Yoe's favorite artist, that would be Crumb, who created the scandalous Fritz the Cat for his underground Comix. The character was launched in 1965 and was the first cartoon film to receive an X rating.

Fritz, according to his creator, is "a sophisticated up-to-the minute young feline college student who lives in a modern 'supercity' of millions of animals -- yes, not unlike people in their manners and morals."

The New York City exhibit opens with an erotic self-portrait by Crumb, Philadelphia born, but who now lives in France, and other original pieces.

Other historic displays include 18 original pulp instruction books from Wesley Morse's "Tijuana Bibles" and MAD magazine cartoonist Wally Wood's sexually satirical drawing of Disney's characters.

Joe Shuster's "Nights of Horror" depicts doppelgangers of Superman and Lois Lane in fetish scenarios. Eric Stanton's "Blunder Broad" mimicked Wonder Woman.

Playboy Enterprises, Inc. has loaned many of the magazines images for the exhibit, which also features original gay fetish comics from Tom Finland and racy art from Brazil and Japan.

"Sex comics straddle borders and realms of possibility," said Yoe.

Erotic comics have been "taboo-breaking and opened up doors and changed culture," according to Yoe. "Plastic surgeons can't even come close to accomplishing what we can with a pencil."

"They reflect the culture and attitudes toward sex and male and female roles, placing humor and fantasy in sex," he said. "From the cultural and anthropological, it's fascinating. And once you get beyond the entertainment and the titillation, which is the best part of it, you get a cultural history."