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Purchased originally due to Junko Mizuno front cover. It does, in fact, have a short Junko Mizuno excerpt, but it turns out to be from Pure Trance, which we already had. If you're not familiar with Junko Mizuno, she's an underground Japanese comics artist who originally became famous for the ongoing serials she drew in the CD booklets of a number of obscure indie bands. Her style is incredibly cute and super-deformed and gothy, and her work is a deliberate series of clashes between style and content. Pure Trance is absolutely the cutest most adorable dystopian matriarchal underground society controlled by thought-police beast-women dressed as nurses who pacify the population with designer drugs ever. In recent years Mizuno has traumatized me by drawing some things for the gone-but-not-forgotten American Shojo Beat, writing the most unnerving official version of Spider-Man ever created*, and designing a My Little Pony, which we own. Every time she does something vaguely family-friendly it becomes even more terrifying. Something of hers in a book called Best Erotic Comics 2009 had the chance of helping recalibrate the universe to more comprehensible proportions, so it was a disappointment when we took the book home, took off the shrinkwrap, and discovered we already had the thing. Therefore the book has sat around for a couple of years, and has now worked its way sufficiently up the backlog that I took a look at the bits of it that aren't Junko Mizuno.

And hey, this is not a terrible comics collection.

Well, with one caveat. It's trying very hard to be inclusive of all flavors of sexual orientation, degree of kink, and what have you, which means that some of the stuff in here is pretty cool and some of it makes me sit there facepalming and wondering why I ever, ever try to read professionally published porn that does not have the word FEMINIST in very large friendly letters somewhere on the dust jacket. (Oh wait. I usually don't.) Seriously there is and I am not making this up a comic in here that is trying to say that everything went to hell in the early 1970s because women started claiming sexual autonomy and so hippie types suddenly got laid less. Given the editorial discussion of which publication dates qualified material for inclusion, I... I think this must have come out in like 2007 at the earliest. GAH.

Fortunately, there are maybe two pieces in the book that give me this reaction, and their total page count compared to the rest of it is very low. But still. Skip the one with the guy who just wants to write summaries of the disgustingly shocking porn movies he watches for some reason-- not witty, not funny, will in fact mentally scar you.

The rest of it: there's some Alison Bechdel, which is excerpted from Dykes to Watch Out For, meaning I also owned it already. There's some adorable Erika Moen from her autobiographical webcomic, which is nice to have in print format, and a beautifully inked and conceptually odd lesbian piece from Colleen Coover (whose Banana Sunday is one of the standards for children's comics, making the revelation that she also draws porn pleasant but not expected). I would not precisely call the excerpt from Jim Goad and Jim Blanchard's Trucker Fags In Denial erotica, but I would call it hilarious. I mean, see title.

However, the best thing in the book is totally and unquestionably Toshio Saeki's incredible series of shunga prints, which I can best describe as what would happen if one of those seventeenth-century sex manuals collided head-on with a-- huh. Okay, for the first time in my life I don't know the English word for something which I can phrase perfectly well in a different language. One of that genre of ukiyo-e print which is a night procession of demons and goblin-types carrying lanterns, only the sort which is more whimsical than horrific, and which has multiple associated prints detailing the individual youkai and showing them doing characteristic things. I had not realized that this was a genre mashup that desperately needed to happen, but it was. I really hope he's done more that weren't in the book, because there wasn't a bake-neko or a kurakasa. Though there was a kappa. Well, several kappas. And the art style is perfect fake-Hokusai. The internet tells me he usually concentrates more on ero-guro, but the stuff here isn't that.

So, although this is even more of a mixed bag than many anthologies, it is as I said not terrible, and it's got a nice selection of comics artists from many different countries, racial groups, and ethnicities. It reads better as comics than as porn, but honestly I prefer that to the other way around. I wouldn't go out of your way to find this, necessarily, but I don't regret taking the time.


* When this image was first released to the public, along with the announcement that this comic was actually happening, Thrud stared at it, blinked, and said in tones of ultimate certainty 'Spider-Man should not eat the Jello'. This is such an inarguable statement that it has been used several times in our household to prevent people from doing extremely stupid things.
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Antonio Beccadelli's Hermaphrodite (1425-6) is pretty much the most scandalous book of the Italian Renaissance. Bernardino da Siena held book burnings, and so did a lot of other people; several popes threatened to excommunicate people found reading it.

It's a collection of Latin epigrammatic poetry, based on the idea that the ancient authors, such as Catullus, Martial, Pliny, etc. often wrote bawdy or scurrilous poetry, even those among them who were famous for having virtuous personal lives, and that therefore writing extremely well-done filthy verse is a way of righteously following the ancient examples. Beccadelli was a young man when he wrote it, not thirty yet, but it became his most famous and controversial book for two reasons:

1) it's really, really filthy. Latin, as a language, has several registers of obscenity that English doesn't. Beccadelli, who had access to all of the rich and varied vocabulary of Catullus, Juvenal, and Lucan, coined his own obscene neologisms because the older ones weren't precise and nasty enough. There is something to offend everybody in here. Everybody. I don't care who you are. That said, he's generally pleasant and rollicking, equally kind and unkind to both sexes and devoted to everyone having a good time-- it's just, this is a level of graphic that is really amazingly condensed. His poems are epigrams, and therefore manage to pack what in English would be entire paragraphs of technically descriptive language into single words and short sentences. I don't think I can write a sentence in English with the sheer connotative bawdiness of one of his. I am not sure it is linguistically possible. The only author I have seen with a similar degree of obscenity is Martial; Beccadelli has comprehensively outdone Catullus in this particular direction.

2) it's really, really good. He has a couple of issues based on the fact that Italian Latin at this point had no codified rules for how to use the reflexive, but Virgil would be happy about his word order, and his meter and assonances are just ludicrously brilliant. He's actually as good as he thinks he is, and he thinks he's immortal. He mostly only uses one form, the epigram, but I defy you to find better ones on a sheerly technical level. They are certainly and obviously head and shoulders above the standard of Latin epigrammatical composition at the time.

The combination of these two traits made his contemporaries, and in fact most readers since, completely unable to cope. He was too good to be banned, too filthy to be admired, too over-the-top to be imitated, too brilliant not to be an inspiration. In a late edition of the Hermaphrodite, Beccadelli included between the book's halves a letter from Poggio Bracciolini (a renowned manuscript-finder and academic), which can be summarized very neatly as follows: OH GOD IT'S GENIUS WON'T YOU PLEASE STOP IT. Beccadelli's response to Poggio, at the end of the book, was that everyone was confusing his life with his art (probably true) and that his poems should not be taken to reflect anything other than a deep love of the same authors everyone around him also loved; that if Plato could write about sex, so could he, and that people should stop treating him like a moral degenerate because after all Homer never invaded Troy. This helped nothing. His later career would include a long and distinguished stint as poet laureate to the Emperor Sigismund, an academic slapfight with Lorenzo Valla that included copious lawsuits and accusations on both sides of poisoning and sodomy, and the founding of the Academia Neapolitana, which is still there today. His most famous book would always be his first, the book which in my edition a prefatory quote from a reputable historian claims helped cause the French Revolution, or, worse, the Reformation. This is probably overestimation, but you see how critics are still failing to deal.

Unsurprisingly, most editions of the Hermaphrodite have been relentlessly expurgated. The new edition from Harvard's I Tatti series of Italian Renaissance literature definitely isn't, and includes not only a biographical essay and copious notes but a series of relevant letters, poems, epigraphs, and legal papers by Beccadelli and others surrounding the controversy. It gives a good portrait of why the book was important, how people reacted to it at the time, and what its legacy was, although I would have liked a deeper look at the book's history between the fifteenth century and this one.

But I cannot recommend it if you don't read Latin. I'm sorry. It's a literal translation and it will do you no good whatsoever in realizing how good a poet Beccadelli was. It gets (some of) the obscenity and none of the elegance. It gets the matter but not the means. A fine English poet was required to get this work across and that did not happen here. If you are using the translation as a crib to read the actual text, it is totally usable for that, and this is a book you should go out and read immediately because it is interesting and worthy. If not, let us hope an English poet decides to do it in the not-too-distant future-- one could totally use this edition as a scholarly apparatus for it.

I may attempt it myself someday, if I ever have the hubris to think I could live up to it, and if I can get over the fact that he consistently and with malice aforethought makes me blush at his sheer filthiness, which, seriously, not many things can do that to me.

Some quotations, for those of you who are interested and read Latin. )
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Most pornographers are not in print five hundred years later.

Of course, Aretino has a good claim at inventing the form, or at any rate the literary kind of erotica, the sort that has philosophy and clever wordplay and political satire and enough other material to convince the people who see you with it that you only read it for the articles. Aretino has some aura of literature about him: he had the nickname 'scourge of princes' after the faked last will and testament he wrote for Pope Leo X's pet elephant in 1516. He was painted by Titian, he was painted by Michelangelo. He was never respectable, being both illegitimate and pointedly vicious, but he was read. The Secret Life of Wives is the second of his Ragionamenti, a mock-epic mock-Platonic set of dialogues which also includes The Secret Life of Nuns and The Secret Life of Courtesans. It is, one suspects, the portion he would know the least about-- he never married, he was a friend of Michelangelo's and considered the fact that he occasionally slept with women a mild psychological aberration on his part, as befit that set; more often he preferred men.

This is therefore less a satire on married life, though it is that, then a vicious swipe at the clergy. It's basically a series of shaggy-dog stories, related between a courtesan (who has been both nun and wife, possibly simultaneously) and her maid; the tone is somewhere between something like Petronius, who mostly wants to get a reaction, and de Sade, who wants you to read a pamphlet about republicanism (I have always appreciated that he included tear-out perforations for those persons who did not feel the pamphlet to be the point exactly). Aretino wants to be entertaining, always that, and rather more comedic than erotic necessarily, but he would rather like you to Notice A Theme. The theme, of course, is that chastity is bunk and clerical chastity is mythical as per the following seventy-three examples.

There are two things about this dialogue that make it more pleasant than much erotica, classical or modern. Firstly, although it feels quite male-gazey (Aretino's women are decidedly women conjectured by a man and at one point he very clearly demonstrates Nice Guy Syndrome*, which apparently existed back then, and it is ludicrous) his women have sexual agency. They control their fertility, they decide what they want, they go about getting it intelligently and with determination, they always get it, and they usually aren't punished for it in any way, socially or otherwise. It's clearly part of the never-never of pornography in some ways, but it also rings pleasantly of the Wife of Bath. Secondly, Aretino finds people hilarious, but fondly hilarious; this is not a cruel satire. His attitude can be summarized as: why not? "A spouse is pleasant," says his courtesan, "but I do so enjoy eating out." There is enjoyment here, there is laughter.

Mind you, there is also a degree of grotesquery that means that I do not think that today this reads as erotic erotica. He is determined to demonstrate that people will not let any rational considerations get in the way of what they want, including things like dirt and disease, and he has a way with a disgusting metaphor. Overall, the point nowadays is the parody of Homeric epic that opens the dialogue, the kind wittiness of the courtesan, the pleasant space of the garden they're sitting in to gossip. As I said before, you can, now, read this for the articles, and find them very solid, although, as Michael Nyman could have told you after the programs were withdrawn from a performance of his 2007 setting of Aretino because of their obscenity, he will never, ever be respectable.

*Nice Guy Syndrome is the belief that women must dislike nice guys and in fact prefer people who mistreat them, because otherwise they would totally be sleeping with the holder of this belief, wouldn't they. In fact, he is such a nice guy that women ought to sleep with him, he's all friendly and cares and doesn't that entitle him to something? It is sadly culturally fairly widespread and I hadn't known it went back quite that far.

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