Thursday, December 11, 2008
What Is This Thing Called Sex edited by Roz Warren
“Do you think cake is better than sex?”
“What kind of cake?”
This painful joke screams from the internal organ-pink cover of What Is this Thing Called Sex: Cartoons by Women, an anthology from 1993, and yes, I bought it anyway. Because despite the unfortunate cover, this book is filled with great work from the ladies of the eighties/nineties, an obsession of mine. I was hoping that the visual horror of the book would cause a steep drop in the cover price, but those Strand folks are too clever. Collections like this one are a great way to find work by artists who didn’t quite make it through to today’s comics boom. In WITTCS’s case, though Nicole Hollander’s work graces many a limp Shoebox card these days, seeing Kris Kovick’s wickedly smart work (RIP. I only found out about her after her death, thanks to WITTCS contributor Alison Bechdel.) and Shari Flennigan’s bizarre take on old-timey comics was totally worth the cringe-inducing wait in the check out line.
Much of the work isn’t all that pretty—no sleek lines here. But, as In Andrea Natalie’s hilarious one-pagers, there is a raw sensibility at work that keeps these old cartoons feeling fresh and vibrant, even if some of them feature Ronald Reagan.
Beyond offering a few chuckles, WITTCS offers a window into the complicated lives of 80s/90s women, especially lesbians, and when examining lesbian life, the book leaves behind much of the kinda boring stereotypes about sexually unfulfilling men that bog down a few of the cartoons. (“Sex: A Dyke’s Dilemma” by Wendy Eastwood pretty much sums it up). S&M is a large concern, as is PCness and AIDS. Post-feminisism is warily acknowledged. It seems like many of these women found themselves in an On Our Backs world after fighting for an Off Our Backs life. A theme not entirely absent from the less-fraught aughts.
I liked this book. It made me think about sex and power. Potent!